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Wittwer sees problems
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Wittwer sees problems

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Ernie Wittwer said his decision to run for political office took a long time coming. He announced late last month his candidacy for Wisconsin’s 17th State Senate District after deciding leadership changes are critical for the state.

“The state is on the wrong track,” he said. “One way to put it on the right track is different leaders in Madison. We need Democratic (leaders) as opposed to ideological Republicans.”

The district includes Juneau, Monroe, Richland, Sauk, Iowa, Grant, Green and Lafayette counties. The issues that need to be addressed, Wittwer said, are many.

“Public schools took another hit,” he said. “And (the leaders) decided not to take federal aid for healthcare. We’re spending 120 million to 150 million to insure lots less people. We elected not to set up exchanges. Minnesota rates are 60 to 80 percent less because they were aggressive in setting up their exchanges.”

Wittwer was raised on a rural dairy farm in western Dane County and now lives on a 55-acre farm in the town of Willow in Richland County with his wife, Rita, four cats and four dogs. The couple has two sons – Jake, who is attending college, and Freddy, who lives in Oregon.

Wittwer has the strong backing of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

“We’re really excited,” said Doug Haefele, regional political director for Southwest Wisconsin for the Democratic Party. “He’s been a huge help to us across the area. “

Wittwer has more than 37 years experience in transportation, both with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and University of Wisconsin-Madison Transportation Center. He said the state of Wisconsin’s roads is abysmal.

“I drive a lot around the state,” he said. “And the roads are going to hell. Transportation is key to economic development. We have to be able to move goods. But registration fees and fuel tax fund transportation. That worked well when cars got 18 or 20 miles per gallon, but now with high-efficiency cars, we don’t have enough to maintain the system.

“We have 110,000 miles of roads in the state. Some are federal, but many county trunks also need help. We need to demand better from the government.”

The incumbent, Sen. Dale Schultz, a former Republican Senate majority leader, has held the Senate seat for 22 years. He has been targeted for removal by conservatives after he was the only Senate Republican to vote against Walker’s collective bargaining change in 2011 and he opposed making it easier for an iron ore mine to open in northern Wisconsin. Schultz was also the only Republican to vote against Walker’s budget this year in the Senate.

Wittwer said Schultz is a good man.

“He’s just on the wrong side of a few issues,” he said. “But he’s also made a few courageous choices. You won’t hear me say anything bad about him. But I’ll vote for a Democrat to be the leader in the Senate. We need a change in leadership.”

Wittwer said he believes rural hospitals will be in “a world of hurt” due to the Affordable Care Act.

“They will get less pay for pro-bono cases,” he said. “But they’ll still have a lot of those.”

Farm issues are another problem, he said, because of changes in the last state budget.

“The list of problems is long,” Wittwer said. “Fracking – right now it falls to towns and counties to regulate it. We need some state regulations, too, but local authorities still need to have the ability to negotiate with the businesses.”

Wittwer said Wisconsin needs to connect back to its roots.

“We need to go back to the future, if you will,” he said. “Wisconsin has a history of progressive politics. We were the incubator for ideas. We have a long tradition of people from both parties who led us in the same direction. Now it seems we’re trying hard to scramble to the bottom rather than to the top.”

Wittwer’s entry into the race sets up the possibility that it could be a three-way contest. Schultz already has a Republican opponent, state Rep. Howard Marklein, a conservative who got in the race after Schultz cast a series of votes that rankled GOP party leadership. Schultz, who hasn’t decided whether he will seek re-election, could decide to run as an independent if he did.

The Senate seat is important for Republicans as they try to maintain or increase their 18-15 majority in the Senate next year. It is one of 17 seats up for election and one of just a handful considered competitive.

Julie Belschner can be reached at jbelschner@capitalnewspapers.com or 608-495-0276

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