Fox Valley's Nelson, Harris could present challenge to Walker in 2014

Jun. 7, 2013

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Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris was recently elected to his third term. / JOE SIENKIEWICZ/Gannett Wisconsin Media
Outagamie County Executive Thomas Nelson speaks Thursday, May 30, 2013, at Gulfstream Aerospace in Greenville, Wisconsin. Dan Powers/Post-Crescent Media / Dan Powers/Post-Crescent Media

Mark Harris bio

Age: 57
Political experience: Served three terms on the Oshkosh Common Council, including one as mayor. Served as a Winnebago County Board supervisor, representing part of the Town of Algoma and part of Oshkosh. First elected as Winnebago County executive in 2005, and re-elected every term since. In the spring 2013 election, Harris ran unopposed.
Personal file: Grew up in suburban Detroit. Received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the University of Michigan Law School. Received his Michigan CPA certificate in 1979 and was admitted to the Indiana Bar in 1982. He and his family moved to Oshkosh in 1995, where he worked as a trust officer and a vice president of Associated Trust Co. Married to Susan, with whom he has three sons. Enjoys reading about economic policy.
Age: 37
Political experience: Edged Jack Voight, former state treasurer, in 2011 to become Outagamie County executive with 52 percent of the vote. Built a war chest topping $113,000 in the county race, backed largely by labor unions and Democratic Party leaders. Won state Assembly race in 2004 over Republican incumbent Becky Weber. Spent six years in the Assembly before making an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor.
Personal file: Born March 3, 1976, in St Paul, Minn. Graduated from Little Chute High School in 1994. Received a bachelor of arts degree from Carleton College in 1998 and a master of public administration degree from Princeton University in 2004. Married to Maria. Member of Christ the King Lutheran Church.

2014 Democratic governor watch list

• Peter Barca, state representative
• Kevin Conroy, Madison entrepreneur
• Dave Cieslewicz, former Madison mayor
• John Dickert, mayor of Racine
• Jon Erpenbach, state senator
• Russ Feingold, former U.S. senator
• Mark Harris, Winnebago County executive
• Steve Kagen, former U.S. representative
• Ron Kind, U.S. representative
• Jess King, former state senator
• Herb Kohl, former U.S. senator
• Chris Larson, state Senate minority leader
• Mahlon Mitchell, former Lt. Gov candidate
• Tom Nelson, Outagamie County executive
• Dave Obey, former U.S. representative
• Joe Parisi, Dane County executive
• Chris Taylor, state representative
• Kathleen Vinehout, state senator, former governor candidate


As Democrats around the state continue the search for an answer to the political juggernaut in Scott Walker, two Fox Valley leaders have been added to the 2014 gubernatorial short list.

Mark Harris, Winnebago County’s executive, and Tom Nelson, Outagamie County’s executive, both have been approached about running but have kept quiet about their intentions.

“A few people have approached me and encouraged me to consider it,” Harris said. “That’s what I’ve done. I’ve given it some thought. I haven’t reached a definite decision yet, but that’s what I’m doing. I’m considering it.”

The same goes for Nelson.

“It’s flattering and humbling that people have approached me, but I really enjoy my job as county executive, serving the people of this county,” Nelson said. “It’s fair to say I have no plans at this time to run for another office, but that wouldn’t forestall anything.”

This week marked the one-year anniversary of the unsuccessful recall of Walker, and tonight in Oconomowoc, leaders from the Democratic Party will gather for their annual convention to start the nomination process for 2014. Aside from perhaps former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, no single candidate has emerged for Democrats looking to topple Walker in next year’s governor’s race.

Harris, 57, has been executive since 2005. Before that, he served three terms on the Oshkosh Common Council, including mayor. He also was a Winnebago County Board supervisor.

Nelson, 37, has been county executive since 2011 after narrowly edging out Jack Voight. Before that, he spent six years in the state Assembly and ran unsuccessfully alongside Tom Barrett for lieutenant governor.

Both are lauded for their attention to in-depth budgeting with a knack for stretching dollars. They are perceived as moderate Democrats and adept negotiators whose conservative areas span rural farmland and urban centers.

While Harris is known for a “quiet integrity” style, Nelson grabbed headlines around the state this year with a potential plan to skirt Walker’s denial of federal Medicaid expansion funds.

Money, name recognition top challenges

Any candidate who challenges Walker will face a monumental fundraising challenge.

Walker raised a remarkable $30 million to fend off the recall challenge, shattering previous Wisconsin records. His fundraising machine already is ramping up for the 2014 race. In March Walker’s campaign sent a mailer to supporters that urged donations to bat back “perhaps their biggest effort in 2014.”

Pitting a county executive against Walker, Milwaukee County’s former county executive, could pay off, said Joe Kallas, the former congressional contender from Princeton who lost to Tom Petri in the fall. Kallas hopes to replace Mike Tate as the Democratic Party chairman this weekend and is floating the Harris and Nelson strategy.

“Mark and Tom are both level-headed. They won’t swing hard one way or the other, they know how to get the most out of the taxpayer dollar and have vision,” Kallas said. “Whoever runs probably won’t have statewide name recognition so the sooner someone commits the better, to start the process to get the name out.”

But Tate said the party hasn’t yet narrowed the list of potential candidates because it doesn’t want to give Walker more time to run negative ads against his eventual opponent.

Dave Cieslewicz, former Madison mayor and potential contender himself, concurred.

“I think it’s understandable that no one has come forth so far. The concern is they’ll be pummeled immediately by national interests who want to keep Scott Walker in office,” Cieslewicz said. “I think Walker appears to be more invincible than he is. The issue will remain jobs, and we rank 44th in the nation at job creation.”

Tate said he would be proud to have Harris or Nelson as a candidate for the Democratic Party, whether for the gubernatorial race or for a congressional seat.

“I think that, in general, Tom Nelson and Mark Harris have bright futures within the Democratic Party of Wisconsin if they want them,” Tate said. “I think they’re doing phenomenally great jobs in what no one would deny are tough economic times. Both of them just exude substantial leadership potential for higher office. ...

“For a long time, we’ve had our nominees come out of the Madison-Milwaukee corridor. I think having a nominee come out of the Fox Valley would be incredibly compelling.”

When and how

Walker’s job approval stood at 51 percent in May in the Marquette University Law Poll, a sign that he can be beaten in a still-divided state, Cieslewicz said.

“We need someone serious, who can beat Walker and help the rest of the ticket — not a sacrificial lamb candidate,” Cieslewicz said.

A February poll by the North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling group showed former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold was the only Democratic contender capable of defeating Walker in 2014. Feingold was reportedly in talks this spring to become U.S. special envoy to Africa, which likely would eliminate a run for governor.

The poll showed Walker defeating U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (46-42), State Rep. Peter Barca (48-43), State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (48-42), former U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen (48-41) and former lieutenant governor candidate Mahlon Mitchell (48-39).

Polling won’t heat up on potential Democratic candidates until those contenders make more solid moves at a run, said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette poll.

“A big speech this weekend (in Oconomowoc) could do it — but I think we’re probably six months out before we see candidates,” Franklin said. “The names which may be locally well known just aren’t elsewhere. Look at Paul Ryan — he wasn’t known by 35 percent of the electorate in Wisconsin before he was picked for vice president.”

Arnold Shober, a political science professor at Lawrence University, said Democrats in Wisconsin are looking at “an empty bench” of candidates. Plus, early speculation could take a wild turn should Walker announce a bid for president.

“Tom Nelson has been maybe waiting in the wings and definitely seems interested in remaining in politics,” Shober said. “The Valley is an important part of the state, and I can also see Harris or Jess King running in the future. At this point any candidate will have to work on statewide name recognition and working on a plan to beat Walker.”

— Nick Penzenstadler: 920-996-7226, or; on Twitter @npenzenstadler. Jessie Oppoien writes for the Oshkosh Northwestern.

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