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Senate race seen as proxy battle between union, non-union groups

Wisconsin’s Senate District 10 special election was seen by many as a preview of things to come in the 2018 mid-term elections. It also appears to have served as a sort of proxy battle between union and non-union groups in the construction industry.

The Democratic candidate Patty Schachtner’s win over Republican state Rep. Adam Jarchow came as a surprise upset in a usually conservative part of northwest Wisconsin. Only 14 months before, voters in the same district had overwhelmingly thrown their support behind Donald Trump’s ultimately successful bid to become president.

The Senate seat opened up after Sheila Harsdorf, a Republican, resigned in November to become agriculture secretary under Gov. Scott Walker. Harsdorf had held the seat since 2001.

Unions were quick to take interest in the election. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council each gave $2,000 to Schachtner’s campaign, providing the maximum allowed by state law to a campaign that eventually raised $178,046. And the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, which mostly represents non-union companies, provided $2,000 to Jarchow’s war chest, which hit a total of $270,949.

Officials on both sides said they maxed out their giving because the candidates they were supporting had taken policy stances matching their members’ preferences.

Steve Kwaterski, communications director for the Wisconsin Laborers, Kwaterski was quick to point out policies that Walker adopted despite strenuous opposition from construction unions. He listed the state’s repeal of prevailing-wage requirements on both state and local projects and adoption of both a so-called right-to-work laws prohibiting mandatory collections of union dues and fees and a separate law preventing local governments from mandating certain types of project-labor agreements.

Kwaterski argued the results show that voters want a change in the way the state is run.

“It was a very energizing victory for all of Wisconsin workers,” he said. “… At the end of the day, voters are looking for a new direction in this state after the last eight years (of Walker’s time in office).”

Wisconsin’s biggest construction union – Local 139 of the International Union of Operating Engineers – gave Schachtner no direct contributions through its political-action committee. But Terry McGowan, Local 139 president and business manager, said union officials encouraged members to throw their support behind the Democratic candidate.

Like Kwaterski, McGowan said the election results show working-class people are ready for a change from the policies pursued by Walker and his fellow Republicans.

“While the rhetoric claims to address the needs of the working class, nobody follows through,” he said.

Officials at the ABC of Wisconsin meanwhile said they backed Jarchow because he would have made it easier for non-union contractors to compete with often-larger union companies on public construction projects.

“Adam Jarchow has been a leader on issues that rank-and-file ABC members care about,” John Schulze, director of legal and government affairs of ABC of Wisconsin, said in an email. “The small businesses that make up ABC believed that Adam would have continued Shelia Harsdorf’s record of addressing the construction skills gap and increasing competition on public projects. That is why ABC members contributed to our political action committee, and why they wanted Adam to receive the maximum (political action committee) contribution.”

Even with Tuesday’s win, Democrats have a long path ahead before they can reclaim any real power in Madison. Beyond the governor’s office, Republicans still hold an 18-14 majority in the state Senate and a 63-35 majority in the Assembly.

About Alex Zank, alex.zank@dailyreporter.com

Alex Zank is a construction reporter for The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 414-225-1820.

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