Kleczka Seat Is A Prize

Posted January 26, 2004 at 6:10pm

Wisconsin Democrats are confident they will hold Rep. Jerry Kleczka’s (D) Milwaukee-based seat, but his retirement announcement over the weekend was such a surprise that there is no heir apparent.

“Everyone was really shocked by this,” said Seth Boffeli, communications director for the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “It’s a big loss but the Democratic Party is confident we will keep the seat.”

Kleczka said he decided to go out on top after 20 years in office.

“I have accomplished the most important work I came to Washington to do: that is to be the voice and vote for my constituents, and to participate in the making of laws that preserve and strengthen the values of freedom, justice and equality in our society,” he said in a statement.

Boffeli predicted that the likely contenders to succeed Kleczka “will come to the surface in the next couple of weeks.”

Already the names of several Milwaukee-area Democratic state Senators are under discussion as possible candidates.

The 4th district is strongly Democratic — it went 66 percent for Al Gore in 2000 — and most political observers believe that the real contest will be fought in the September primary.

State Sens. Gwen Moore, Tim Carpenter and Spencer Coggs all told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel they might be interested in running.

Coggs, however, just won a special election last fall and may decide it’s too soon to run for a different office, according to one party insider. And Moore, who’s up for re-election this year, would have to give up her state Senate seat to run.

Several members of the state Assembly will think about getting in the race too, the source said. First among them may be John Richards, a prominent Assembly member.

Milwaukee’s open mayoral primary is just weeks away and immediately politicos began speculating that the losers there would join the Congressional fray.

The top two vote-getters in the nonpartisan primary will move on to the general election in April, which would put the ultimate runner-up at a disadvantage but not preclude him from running for Congress.

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr., a candidate in the mayor’s race, is nominally considered a Democrat. But some party insiders suspect he’s actually a Republican who could join the Congressional race, should he lose the mayoral election, as a Republican.

“If he can’t win the mayor’s race though, could he win a Congressional race?” one Democrat asked.

Rick Graber, chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, questioned whether any failed mayoral candidate would want to go into another campaign.

“Would someone who’s unsuccessful want to jump right into a Congressional race? … I’d be surprised,” he said.

The Rev. Timothy O’Brien, director of Marquette University’s Les Aspin Center for Government, said he would expect the losers to get into the race.

If acting Mayor Marvin Pratt loses to Clarke or former Rep. Tom Barrett (D) in the mayoral contest, O’Brien says he believes Pratt would run for the Kleczka seat.

“[This] should be an opening for the first African-American Congressman” from Wisconsin, O’Brien said.

Pratt is black, as are Clarke,

Coggs and Moore. The district is 50 percent white and 33 percent black.

Barrett is considered the mayoral frontrunner but he may relish the opportunity to return to Washington after having his seat essentially re-districted away by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2002.

For now Barrett is mum and only focused on the mayor’s race, according to his campaign.

Even without failed mayoral candidates, the primary will be crowded, O’Brien said.

“There’s going to be a slew of them,” he said. “Whoever gets in [to Congress] can stay as long as they want,” he said, noting the district’s overwhelming Democratic tilt and the seat’s history of longevity.

Kleczka has held the seat since winning a special election in 1984. He replaced the late Foreign Affairs Chairman Clement Zablocki (D), who was elected in 1948.

But Graber says he’s not ready to concede the 4th.

“It depends who comes out of the Democratic primary — it’s wide open at this point,” Graber said.

“Obviously it’s an uphill seat but things have started to happen in Milwaukee County,” he said, noting the recently elected Republican county executive. “The dynamic is changing, I don’t concede anything.”

Even before Kleczka announced his retirement at least one Republican was considering the race, Graber said.

Corey Hose, who worked for former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R), is “taking a hard look” at the race, Graber said. Hose is also black.

Another political figure not to be discounted is Marc Marotta, a top official for Gov. Jim Doyle (D) who once ran for Congress, O’Brien said.

O’Brien also said to keep an eye on another former Marquette University basketball star — Marotta was a four-year starter — Ulice Payne Jr. The former Brewers baseball team executive and lawyer, whose political affiliation is unknown, would be “a real power,” O’Brien said.

While talk of a successor swirls, O’Brien said he expects Kleczka to stay out of the mix, waiting until after the primary to endorse the Democratic nominee.

The Ways and Means Committee member received high praise from fellow lawmakers.

“Congressman Jerry Kleczka’s retirement is a great loss to the Democratic Caucus and to Congress,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “He has been an outstanding Representative for his district, and a great asset for Wisconsin and the nation.”

O’Brien said in the era when powerful figures like House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) leave Congress to make millions as lobbyists, Members like Kleczka — who came from a blue- collar background — are a dying breed.

“He stuck his chin out for the common person,” O’Brien said.