State Senate race: Incumbent Harsdorf says core values, constituents continue to be what will guide her
Despite last year's controversies swirling out of Madison, Sheila Harsdorf said another side to state politics gets overlooked.
"While some things have been very polarized, almost 96 percent of the legislation in the last session passed with some sort of bipartisan support," said the three-term state senator from rural River Falls. "So there was collaboration, and that's always the way it is.
"I think we'll be talking about jobs, that'll be the focus of the Legislature no matter who's in control next year, and that we can come together on good policies."
Harsdorf, who easily won a bitterly contested 2011 recall election, agrees that civility matters but said that disagreeing is part of democracy.
"It's OK to have differences in governing," she said. "You have the two parties so it's expected. At the same time you need to maintain a constructive dialogue, find areas of agreement and treat others with respect. That sets the tone."
Harsdorf believes the court-contested Act 10 that strips bargaining rights from public employees and forces them to pay more for benefits is constitutionally legal. She said the legislation saved school districts and local governments money, which helps taxpayers and the state's economy.
Harsdorf said that perhaps the ultimate example of bipartisanship at the federal and state levels was work done this year to gain approval -- after decades -- for the St. Croix River Crossing (Stillwater bridge).
"That was a huge, huge win," she said, crediting politicians from both parties and from both states, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Harsdorf said that Sen. Amy Klobuchar's (D-Minn.) strenuous backing of the bridge resulted in a 100-0 passage in the U.S. Senate and clearly influenced the follow-up vote of approval in the House of Representatives.
After more than two decades of campaigning and work as a legislator, Harsdorf said her approach to this election is the same.
"Naturally you are shaped by your experiences and hopefully grow as a person," she said. "At the same time, you can't lose sight of the people you serve and being accessible to them. That's how government should work.
"Every election is different. Just because some people supported you in an election doesn't mean they will support you in the next one."
Harsdorf says that by going door-to-door, having meetings, and attending fairs and parades she gets "to hear what's on people's minds."
"It's a constant learning process," she said. "The issues and priorities keep changing. Our economy from the 1990s is far different from what it is right now."
Harsdorf said she relies on a conservative outlook formed long ago.
"I grew up on a farm, and my dad taught me some sound financial beliefs," she said. "You try to manage your resources, live within your means, get a good return on your investments, have an adequate cash flow and don't overextend yourself (when borrowing).
"Those same beliefs gave me a good foundation that I still try to live by today."
Her bedrock political principles are this: "I believe that what built this country is opportunity. There is a place for government -- to help those who can't provide or who need help to make it through tough times.
"Government is not there to build dependency. It should be creating incentives for small business -- for people to start their own or to grow an existing business."
During her campaign travels, Harsdorf said the message she hears is about "jobs, the economy, putting people back to work and reinvesting in our communities."
She said feedback from business leaders is the "need for more skilled workers, more venture capital to invest and fewer regulations."
Regarding her overall view of the economy, she said: "We need to look at what we can do to boost job growth and make our state a friendlier place to do business. A big part of that is listening to business people and what they need to expand."
With unemployment still high and many middle-aged workers laid off, Harsdorf said there's a "real retraining need."
She said the state can help by offering "funding incentives," especially those earmarked for technical colleges where quick, affordable vocational retraining is possible.
Harsdorf would encourage "partnerships" between K-12 schools, technical and four-year colleges so they can meet the career needs of their communities and regions.
She added that she hears from college and tech-college officials that post-secondary schools are spending time and money for remedial education of unprepared high school graduates.
Harsdorf acknowledged the concern about high costs and affordability of college. She wants to see students encouraged to take more college-level courses while they're in high school.
Harsdorf was pleased to lead the fight and sponsor a recently passed bill that added an "aggravated factor" in sexual violence cases. Harsdorf and River Falls Police investigator Chuck Golden teamed up to launch this legislation.
"This ties in with my concern for creating safer communities," she said. "What the bill did was give the judge the ability to enhance the penalties for those convicted of domestic abuse if children were present during the incident."
Another community safety issue that Harsdorf backed until it became law was making synthetic marijuana and bath salt drugs illegal.
Harsdorf is now pushing to pass "DNA Saves" legislation. This would require DNA testing during a felony arrest instead of after a felony conviction. About have the states have passed this.
"DNA is the 21st century new identifier," Harsdorf said. "It's very accurate and can identify the real offenders and exonerate the innocent.
"Using this process allows us to get matches faster on repeat offenders for rapes and murders, prevent crimes, and it therefore saves time and costs for law enforcement."
The DNA samples are taken at the time of fingerprinting. If a suspect is later found not guilty, a request can be made to expunge the DNA record.
Harsdorf said the governor and state attorney general support the proposed DNA Save bill.
Harsdorf said she helped stop a mandate from going into effect in 2013 requiring communities to disinfect their water supplies regardless of whether they had tainted water.
She said the law would have cost millions of dollars to fix problems that didn't exist. Such sizable expenditures would financially burden smaller towns.
Harsdorf said recent budget surpluses of more than $200 million are a sign that Wisconsin's economy is tracking upward. By law, half of the surplus must be set aside in a rainy day fund.
And the rest? Harsdorf anticipates more demands for how to spend the surplus than there is surplus money available.
She said education needs and shared revenue to help the stressed finances of local governments should be priorities for surplus spending.