by Michael Timm
In an unprecedented, protracted battle for the political future of the Badger State, Sandy Pasch stands at the front lines. You might not sense the warrior within from her appearance. Her slight stature is unimposing and the kindly crinkles that radiate from the corners of bright eyes bear witness to a lifetime of practiced smiles as a nurse,
teacher, and now a politician.
But her words make it clear: Pasch is a fighter – one who’s been pushed past the limit of what she’ll tolerate from the opposition.
In her view, too much harm has already been done by Wisconsin Republicans since they swept to power in the state capitol – especially with cuts to education and health care, areas Pasch saw as fundamentally protected under Governor Jim Doyle.
“I’m very concerned with the state of Wisconsin. To my core, I am frightened of where our state is headed,” Pasch said.
She’s channeling that fear into action.
Elected state representative for Wisconsin’s 22nd Assembly District in 2008 and reelected in 2010, the Democrat from Whitefish Bay has launched herself into what promises to be a bruising contest to unseat the entrenched but vulnerable Republican incumbent, Senator Alberta Darling of River Hills.
At stake is Darling’s Eighth District Senate seat. But the campaign is about more than Darling. If Pasch unseats Darling, and if Democrats capture at least two other seats in five additional recall elections this summer – and manage not to lose three of their own seats contested by Republicans – they would gain control of the state Senate. Pasch acknowledges that even then Democrats can’t set the legislative agenda with a state Assembly dominated by Republicans, nor can they undo legislation that’s already passed, but they hope seizing the Senate will halt the Walker agenda.
“Then you stop it,” she said. “It’s putting on the brakes. That’s why you see they’re rushing through a lot of their efforts now, things that were tucked into the budget in the last minute: weakening child-labor laws, putting in bounty hunters, just strange and bizarre things, the issues on voter suppression that they’re enacting, conceal-carry.”
Pasch explained her candidacy as a moral imperative. “I can’t sit back. I can’t not do this,” she said. “Too much is at stake, both now and into the future.”
She would not contemplate the consequences of failure. “This is about winning,” she said. “This is about taking back our state. This is about defending our values.”
Pasch said the recall elections were not triggered only by Republican support for the budget-repair bill, which stripped most public-employee unions of collective bargaining rights. “It has been a sustained disregard for constituents, a sustained disregard for the values of the state,” Pasch said. “It’s an ongoing message of disregard for public employees, disregard for the children, trying to balance the budget on the backs of children, on people with disabilities, on seniors, on middle-class families.”
Pasch said that a vote for her is a vote against Governor Scott Walker.
“Unfortunately, Alberta Darling, in spite of her powerful position as chair of Joint Finance, has decided to just march behind everything he’s doing and blindly agree with him, with a few deviations, but for the most part just lockstep with him,” Pasch said.
Concern for Health Care
Pasch, 57, is a relatively new legislator. She worked over 30 years as a psychiatric nurse, both practicing and teaching. She holds an undergraduate degree in nursing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and master’s degrees in nursing from the University of Rochester and in bioethics from the Medical College of Wisconsin. She served 15 years as assistant professor of nursing at Columbia College of Nursing.
In 2007, she said she was motivated to run for the seat being vacated by Representative Sheldon Wasserman, who then narrowly lost a challenge to Darling, because of the “catastrophe related to health care.”
That crisis combined with her sense that Madison’s priorities were wrong, for example: the debate on what to call the capitol Christmas tree and the “offensive” constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. In 2008 she defeated Republican Yash Wadhwa, 21,938 to 10,720, to win the seat.
In office, Pasch’s largest accomplishment was passage last session of the Wisconsin Mental Health and Substance Abuse Parity law, which closed part of the insurance coverage parity gap.
Passionate about health care, Pasch is troubled by Republicans giving the governor the authority to appoint an unelected official with the power to cut the Medicaid budget by about $500 million. Instead of just finding efficiencies and cutting administrative costs, she said that person is allowed to determine patient eligibility and deny treatment based on the ability to afford co-pays. “That’s how we’re going to be ‘saving’ money,” she said. “It’s an affront to the health of our state.”
She also criticized the governor on Family Care. “It’s appalling to me that Scott Walker campaigned on what he did for Family Care in Milwaukee County, he becomes the governor and then he puts a cap on Family Care.”
Further problematic, in her view, is the Legislature’s defunding of Planned Parenthood and other clinics “that are the providers of last resort for many people who otherwise would not have access to any health care.”
The Campaign and Message
Pasch expressed confidence that voter outrage will translate to the polls. She said hundreds of volunteers have contacted tens of thousands of households throughout the Eighth Senate District.
“I’m hearing from Republicans who’ve said, ‘I’ve been a lifelong Republican, but I will not vote for Alberta Darling or another Republican again because of what they’ve done to my wife and my children, who are teachers,’” she said.
Pasch decried the divisive polarization of the state and the “demonization” of public-sector employees by Walker and Republicans. “We’re all taxpayers,” she said. “Teachers are taxpayers. Public employees are taxpayers.”
She also rejected the notion that theirs is the only way to grapple with a massive budget deficit. She said what’s needed is for all parties to come to the table in a spirit of shared sacrifice, while protecting education and not denying health care.
If Wisconsin were a family having a hard discussion about finances at the dinner table, Pasch said, “Then this family is saying, ‘Well, kids, we don’t have money so you’re not going to school now; and we’ve also weakened child-labor laws so you can go out and get a job instead of going to school; and oh yeah, we’re not going to take care of Grandma and Grandpa, we don’t have money for that.’ But they somehow found the money to put in a new driveway.”
She accused the Republicans of bending over backwards to appease special-interests that contributed to their campaigns.
“If you are going to cut aids to local school districts, then you don’t expand the voucher program. If there’s no money, then why are you expanding the voucher program?” she said. “If there’s no money, why are we building more roads?”
Born Sandra Kawczynski in Milwaukee, Pasch’s father was a unionized sheet-metal worker. She has expressed frustration with unions herself, but believes they still have an important role to play in strengthening the middle class. “To me, the fact that you don’t agree with someone doesn’t mean that you deny their right to exist.”