Wisconsin Gazette: Young Democrat shakes up 9th Senate District race with a vigorous grassroots campaign

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By Louis Weisberg, May 17, 2018

At age 25, Kyle Whelton sometimes is mistaken for a teenager. But if you talk with him for a few minutes, his intelligence and confidence quickly belie his youthful appearance.

What he’s currently fired up about is the daunting challenge he’s undertaken — running for state Senate against Republican incumbent Devin LeMahieu in the state’s 9th Senate District. The district  includes large parts of Sheboygan and Manitowoc counties, and a small part of Calumet County.

LeMahieu, 45, has represented the heavily gerrymandered district since 2014, when he defeated Democrat Martha Laning by 20 percent of the votes. Donald Trump won the district by a 17 percent margin.

Still, LeMahieu has some potential weaknesses, among them his support for the state’s infamous gerrymandering. 

After going back and forth about running at the beginning of the year, Whelton “did the calculus” and says he can “absolutely” see a path to victory. If the stars line up right — if there’s a Democratic wave and his grass-roots supporters remain energized — he believes he’ll prevail.

Whelton sees Rebecca Dallet’s performance in the district as evidence that its politics are changing. Democrat-backed state Supreme Court Justice Dallet lost the district by just 556 votes without campaigning there.

Whelton’s off to a strong start. In the seven weeks after launching his campaign March 10, he raised “just shy of $30,000,” he says. 

Moreover, he’s raising money from the grass-roots base. At one event, he raised $4,000 in donations of $20 or under.

Whelton has 256 volunteers helping him canvas door to door, which he’s doing aggressively, he says.

Whelton already has proven his skill at campaigning. He handily won a seat on the Sheboygan Area School District Board of Education last year.

His political activism dates back to the age of 15, when he campaigned for Barack Obama. He interned in Tammy Baldwin’s office and, in 2016, he became a Democratic Party field organizer.

Even before he ran for the school board, Whelton was known locally for his civic service. He was president of Habitat for Humanity Lakeside and a board member of the Wisconsin Recovery Community Organization, which helps people struggling with opioid addiction.

Family story motivates run

Whelton was born in Sheboygan, where he had a hardscrabble childhood. His parents divorced when he was a kid — the youngest of four. His mother worked three jobs to make ends meet, and the family lived with great scarcity.

“You never forget what it’s like when you watch a parent come home and then have to go back out to another job,” he says. “It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair. No parent should ever have to work three jobs to support her kids.”

One of his sisters was born with a very rare form of dwarfism. Her neck was fused when she was 3, and she had her hips reconstructed. Before the Affordable Care Act, she was uninsurable.

Whelton remembers his church and his school raising money for his family. Instead of being embarrassed, he was heartened by the show of support. He says that’s how life should be — neighbors helping neighbors and creating supportive communities.

His youthful struggles had a major impact on Whelton’s world view, he says.

Whelton attended Marquette University, where he pulled off two feats that eluded Scott Walker: He was elected president of the student body — and he graduated. Whelton also was valedictorian of his class.

Whelton’s experience with poverty and government indifference defined his political agenda: family-supporting wages, guaranteed paid family leave, strong public schools and access to affordable health care.

“Wisconsin’s economy has shifted to lower-paying wages,” he says. “Median household income adjusted for inflation is lower than it was under Jim Doyle. A large portion of (my district) is living paycheck to paycheck. Many are working, so they don’t qualify for benefits, but they can’t cover the basic cost of living for their families.”

Those are the major problems that people describe to Whelton when he’s campaigning. In the rural areas of his district, he also hears concerns about concentrated animal feeding operations, which produce tons of manure that seeps into the groundwater. That’s been responsible for contaminating family wells. Under Walker, regulations to safeguard against pollution by CAFOs have been weakened, and existing regulations are seldom enforced.

Whelton understands all of those issues in detail,  and he’s primed to address them.

Another of Whelton’s major goals is to heal the extreme political divides that politicians encourage for the sake of their careers. He says gerrymandering has played a major role in creating the state’s harsh political climate.

“When you draw these districts so safely, you take away one of the baked-in reasons for compromise,” he says. “Elected officials have to have incentive to make decisions that are community-based instead of party-based. (We’ve) created a situation where (officeholders) have to move farther and farther toward their base in order to keep their jobs.

“It’s profoundly affected personal relationships," he says. “Democracy can’t function if we can’t have respectful disagreements.” 

Whelton believes Wisconsinites are disillusioned with the dysfunction in Madison and Washington, and he senses change in the air. He wants to be part of it.

“That watershed moment has finally happened,” he says. “The system is starting to self-correct.”

Then, with a big grin, he adds, “My blood type is B positive.”

Kyle Whelton