Working for the life of the party

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Margaret Plevak | August 13, 2017

ELKHORN -- The last Democratic presidential candidate to win Walworth County was Woodrow Wilson in 1912. From then on the county has been considered -- certainly by political analysts -- a Republican stronghold.

The closest it came to leaning blue since then was 2008, when Sen. John McCain won it by 2.6 points. And although President Donald Trump got only 34 percent of the county's vote in the Wisconsin primary, he won it by 57 percent in the November election, compared to Hillary Clinton's 37 percent.

Just how red -- or purple -- is Walworth County? Ask the grassroots party people.

Local Democrats are far from extinct. When Steve Doelder took over as treasurer of the Democratic Party of Walworth County in 2014, paid membership was at 80. Now they are at 196 and shooting, he said, for 500 by the end of the year. In a Democratic Party of Wisconsin listing, Walworth is in the top dozen of the state's 72 counties with the highest party membership.

“It doesn't surprise me because I've knocked on a lot of doors and there are a lot of Democrats out there, but they're afraid to speak out. They feel alone, isolated,” Doelder said. “That's why we keep this office open because it does give people a place to come if they're interested, and I get calls every day from people interested in working, especially in light of what's happening in the nation. Last year during the campaign, we had over three hundred volunteers come through this office and work.”

Since April, the Dems' office has been headquartered in a former storefront at 15 E. Walworth St. in downtown Elkhorn. The space, complete with tables and couches for small group meetings and a staging area for larger gatherings, has been self-funded through membership contributions, Doelder said.

Beyond the office, the local Democratic party reaches out through social media.  

“I'd never heard of Periscope,” Doelder said. “Now we have Twitter, Instagram, Facebook Live. We got a bunch of new people who said, 'You can't keep doing what you're doing if you want to attract young people.'”

Doelder, 68, understands how the influx of young people can fuel a party. He came of age during a trifecta of campaign-worthy issues: the civil rights movement, environmental consciousness raised by the first Earth Day and the anti-Vietnam War protests. In college, he went door to door, handing out literature for President Lyndon Johnson. He campaigned for Robert Kennedy and felt the shock of his assassination. In 1972, Doelder was a dedicated volunteer for George McGovern.

“I moved back to Sheboygan and got a teaching job there. I would teach all day and then I would go to the office and work all night -- until maybe one, two o'clock in the morning,” he said. “I'm used to living in red or purple areas, but that doesn't prevent you from trying to keep fighting.”

Doelder, who campaigned for Christine Welcher in the 32nd Assembly District last year, said one of the problems discouraging potential candidates is partisan gerrymandering that has turned some of the five Assembly districts in the county into “just little fingers, little pieces and chunks.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that Republican legislators in Wisconsin had drawn maps for Assembly districts in 2011 that were so skewed they violated the U.S. Constitution.

A former high school chemistry teacher and now an adjunct professor at Carthage College and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Doelder said Dems also are concerned about voter suppression through voter ID rules and the continued cuts to education.

"Almost 70 percent of all classes now are taught by adjuncts across the nation,” he said. “You've got people with PhDs who are teaching at three different universities to make ends meet and they don't get benefits.”

Key in growing the party, Doelder believes, is meeting people one-on-one, as he did when knocking on doors while running for trustee in the village of Bloomfield.

“I never had anybody slam a door in my face and I would go to places that had Trump signs on the lawn,” he said. “A lot of times you have some things in common, especially at the local level. It would turn out that this person's son went to school with my daughter at Badger. On a lot of issues we felt the same. People really respect that you're trying to make a contact with them.

“It's not what we're against. It's what we're for. That has to be our focus.”

Although Chris Goebel, chairman of the Republican Party of Walworth County, said there's a level of good feeling among the organization's members about the county traditionally voting Republican, he doesn't take anything for granted.

"There's always work to be done,” he said, noting that membership in the RPWC is around 190 but fluctuates, especially during election years.

"Since I've been chairman, we've had as many as 278 members,” he said. “If memory serves me, it was right after the (Gov. Scott) Walker recall. People were really energized and ready to roll up their sleeves.”

Currently, there are no headquarters for the RPWC, but Goebel said that will change during 2018, an election year. Instead, the organization is a regular fixture at local events. And the RPWC maintains a social media presence, including its website, Facebook and Twitter accounts.

He's impressed by -- and grateful for -- the volunteers who hand out literature, shake hands and meet with people.

“At our booths, our parades, our fair tents, we'll have 20-year-olds working alongside 80-year-olds,” he said. “We're very pleased with the diversity in our county party.”

But Goebel, 60, brushes off a question on how many women are members in a party that in the past has been stereotyped as populated with primarily older white men.

“I don't pay attention to that. I don't think it's a significant factor,” he said. “I don't care about gender. I care about voters and getting my message across.”

That message is “Reforms. Results. Republicans.” It's blazoned on the backs of T-shirts and drink koozies members hand out.

“We're saying here's what the reform is. Here's been the result of that reform. And it was Republicans who brought it about,” he said.

In a July 23 guest opinion column he wrote for Walworth County Sunday, Goebel pointed out examples of the reforms under Republican leadership, including a law that increases Veteran Affairs' ability to hold bad employees accountable and legislation that allows states to withhold federal funding to facilities that perform abortions, including Planned Parenthood clinics.  

County residents are engaged in politics and, he believes, are more informed -- or at least reading more.

“Unfortunately, some of the voters are relying too much upon fake news on social media. You see a title to a piece and hackles come up. It doesn't take long for people to see something and I'll get phone calls,” Goebel said. “I'll ask, 'Did you read the whole article or just the headline? Is there a date? Is there an author's name? Are there any facts in there or is it all supposition?' It's much more in-your-face with social media now than it was 10 or 20 years ago.”

Goebel said former President Ronald Reagan influenced his decision to become a Republican.

“I was in the Air Force at the time and we had just come off the Jimmy Carter years,” Goebel said. “After Carter's failed military (direction), his leadership as commander-in-chief, Ronald Reagan was a breath of fresh air.

“When I retired from the Air Force in 1997 and came home, I kind of laid in the bushes for a while. But then I knew I had to do something. I started putting up yard signs and field signs, and here I am.”

Ask Goebel if the Republican Party has changed drastically from Reagan under Trump, whose approval rating is under 40 percent, and he shakes his head slightly.

“Everything changes and evolves. There's always going to be something about a platform or a candidate I don't like. If I wanted everything my way, I'd be running,” he said. “Compare the two presidents, the two offices, I'd prefer to stay out of it. I don't think it's germane. I don't think it's important today.”

He leaves the decision of whether to change what's going on in Washington to the voters.

“If there are two Republicans running, the voter has to make that choice,” he said. “Now the county party may endorse one, and I may or may not agree with that endorsement. It's my choice when I walk into the voting booth.”

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