Palzewicz takes Democrats’ midterm bat­tle to Wis­con­sin’s red­dest con­gres­sional dis­trict

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - LOUIS WEIS­BERG

In many ways, Tom Palzewicz seems the per­fect can­di­date to ride a Demo­cratic wave in the 2018 midterm elec­tions.

A busi­ness­man with a de­gree in ac­count­ing, Palzewicz owns a small busi­ness that coaches other busi­nesses to help them grow. Mo­ti­va­tional speak­ing, lead­er­ship and team de­vel­op­ment are all among the skills that have made him a suc­cess.

Of course, they’re es­sen­tial skills for politi­cians as well.

Palzewicz is also a vet­eran, hav­ing served on a U.S. Navy nu­clear sub­ma­rine. To top it off, he’s tele­genic and has an as­sured but re­lat­able style.

But this seem­ingly ideal can­di­date — should he pre­vail in the Demo­cratic pri­mary against Ra­mon Hy­ron Gar­cia, an­other po­lit­i­cal neo­phyte — faces an up­hill bat­tle, even if 2018 turns out to be a wave year.


For starters, Palzewicz is run­ning for Con­gress in the state’s 5th Dis­trict, which is Wis­con­sin’s red­dest. It en­com­passes Jef­fer­son and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties, along with por­tions of Dodge, Wal­worth, and Wauke­sha. The dis­trict also in­cludes Mil­wau­kee’s pop­u­la­tion-rich and solidly Repub­li­can north­ern and western sub­urbs.

Adding to his chal­lenge is the ten­ure of the in­cum­bent Palzewicz would face at the polls — F. James Sensen­bren­ner Jr., who has held the seat for 40 years. He’s the only con­gress­man that two gen­er­a­tions of dis­trict vot­ers have ever known.

The 5th Dis­trict has been so red — and Sensen­bren­ner’s elec­toral strength so great — that there have been years when Democrats didn’t even bother to field a can­di­date against him.


Still, there ap­pear to be holes in the red wall this time around. Sensen­bren­ner’s long ten­ure cuts both ways. In an elec­tion year that’s pre­dicted to draw a large num­ber of women and younger vot­ers, the 74-year-old cur­mud­geon has all the ap­peal of a rusty com­pass: He al­most al­ways moves in the di­rec­tion set by Repub­li­can lead­er­ship, even the cur­rent, un­rav­el­ing one. The most news­wor­thy thing that Sensen­bren­ner’s done in re­cent years was ridi­cul­ing the size of for­mer first lady Michelle Obama’s be­hind.

“Peo­ple do get tired of the same-old,” says Ge­orge Gil­lis, di­rec­tor of po­lit­i­cal af­fairs for the Demo­cratic Party of Wis­con­sin. “We’ve got a pop­u­la­tion now that’s antsy for ac­tual change. They’re see­ing stuff that doesn’t ac­tu­ally help them in their ev­ery­day lives. Peo­ple see the ul­tra-rich get­ting richer and


richer. In Wis­con­sin, peo­ple see mas­sive give­aways to (com­pa­nies) like Fox­conn and Kim­ber­lyClark.”

In ad­di­tion, Sensen­bren­ner em­bod­ies the richget-richer re­al­ity that so many now re­ject. Like Don­ald Trump, he earned his wealth the old-fash­ioned way — he in­her­ited it. His fam­ily money came from Kim­berly-Clark, where his grand­fa­ther

in­vented Ko­tex.

Though Sensen­bren­ner has only held po­lit­i­cal of­fice since the age of 25, he has a net worth of over $18 mil­lion — and grow­ing.

In ad­di­tion, Sensen­bren­ner is fiercely al­lied with so­cial con­ser­vatism — a deal­breaker for many mil­len­ni­als and oth­ers. He has an ‘A’ rank­ing from the NRA. Anti-choice groups have con­sis­tently awarded him top marks, while en­vi­ron­men­tal, wildlife, an­tipoverty and equal rights groups have con­sis­tently awarded him very low rat­ings — of­ten ze­ros.

To his credit, Sensen­bren­ner has had the courage to hold town halls in his dis­trict, de­spite the in­creas­ingly ran­corous mood of con­stituents. In fact, Sensen­bren­ner has held more town halls in the cur­rent ses­sion than any other con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tive, while Paul Ryan and his other GOP col­leagues have made them­selves scarcer than hens’ teeth.

But Gil­lis says not to give Sensen­bren­ner too much credit.

“Just show­ing up is the bare min­i­mum, and peo­ple are tired of just the min­i­mum,” Gil­lis says.

Do Sensen­bren­ner’s neg­a­tives — and the mood of the elec­torate — create a path to vic­tory for an ap­peal­ing out­sider like Palzewicz? Al­though the odds are against him, in the event of a mas­sive back­lash against Don­ald Trump — one that in­cludes en­ablers such as Sensen­bren­ner — it’s pos­si­ble. Palzewicz says he’s cam­paign­ing to win and he’s giv­ing the race all that he’s got.

Palzewicz be­lieves shift­ing de­mo­graph­ics in parts of the 5th Dis­trict have raised his prospects for vic­tory. Younger fam­i­lies are mov­ing in, and they’re in­ter­ested in the qual­ity of pub­lic schools, some­thing they ac­cuse Repub­li­cans of ne­glect­ing. About 20 per­cent of stu­dents in the Wauke­sha School Dis­trict are mi­nori­ties who are not likely to feel any affin­ity with to­day’s Repub­li­can Party.

There’s also a grow­ing num­ber of mod­er­ates in the re­gion, Palzewicz says. In his can­vass­ing, he’s heard re­peat­edly that vot­ers are dis­gusted with Wash­ing­ton’s fo­cus on par­ti­san­ship while ne­glect­ing the peo­ple they’re hired to rep­re­sent.

“It’s so frus­trat­ing for civic-minded peo­ple,” Palzewicz says. “They want to see peo­ple get­ting things done.”

By or­ga­niz­ing more than 100 vol­un­teers, open­ing of­fices, and go­ing door to door to talk about Demo­cratic val­ues, Palzewicz says he’s set­ting things up for change. He’s got peo­ple host­ing two or three house par­ties per week for him through the month of March.

“Sensen­bren­ner isn’t go­ing to have an in­fra­struc­ture com­pa­ra­ble to ours in the race, be­cause he’s never had a strong op­po­nent,” Palzewicz says.

Win or lose, he says, he’s build­ing an en­er­gized Demo­cratic or­ga­ni­za­tion in ter­ri­tory that the party has aban­doned. That or­ga­ni­za­tion will help U.S. Sen. Tammy Bald­win’s re-elec­tion race, as well as ef­forts to pre­vent Scott Walker’s re-elec­tion.


Palzewicz in­sists the na­tion has what it takes to raise the qual­ity of life for all Amer­i­cans.

“It’s al­most as if we’re the rich­est coun­try in the world act­ing as if we were the poor­est coun­try in the world,” he says. The U.S. has the money to in­vest in ed­u­ca­tion, in­fra­struc­ture and re­sources that would en­able small busi­nesses to suc­ceed, Palzewicz says, but our lead­ers refuse to spend it. It’s neglect and lack of will, not the ab­sence of fi­nan­cial re­sources, which are stand­ing in the way of suc­cess for mid­dle and work­ing-class peo­ple, he says.

What’s dif­fer­ent about him, Palzewicz says, is that he knows from di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence what’s needed to grow Wis­con­sin’s econ­omy. It’s not pay­ing cor­po­ra­tions to move to the state, but rather in­vest­ing the same money in the peo­ple who live here. As a Demo­crat who’s ac­cus­tomed to work­ing with Repub­li­cans, he be­lieves that he’s in a unique po­si­tion to make that hap­pen.

“Since 2004, I’ve run my own suc­cess­ful small busi­ness,” Palzewicz says. “I’ve helped create thou­sands of good-pay­ing jobs, in­clud­ing more than 500 in 2016 alone.”

Now he wants to take the knowl­edge he’s ac­quired to Wash­ing­ton, so he can help to do the same thing on a larger scale.

Tom Palzewicz, Demo­cratic can­di­date for Wis­con­sin’s 5th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict.

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