The two candidates in Wisconsin’s Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, which takes place Tuesday, Aug. 9, both say re-electing Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is their top priority.
“For us, it’s all about making sure that Gov. Evers gets re-elected,” says Peng Her, founder and CEO of the Hmong Institute, who served on Evers’ 2018 transition team. “With a lot of the bills that Republicans are trying to pass, particularly around voting rights and disenfranchising folks,” says Her, “ as well as the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade and making sure that we protect reproductive rights … [Evers] is really the stop-gap.”
Her says he is the best candidate to help re-elect Evers because of his strong relationship with the governor, who appointed Her to his early childhood advisory council.
“That’s what distinguishes me from my opponent,” he says, “having that strong relationship, strong partnership with the governor.”
As for his qualifications to hold an executive office, Her also points to his experience as someone who has run local and statewide nonprofit organizations and brought together a diverse coalition of business leaders, elected officials and community leaders when he was chosen to spearhead President Barack Obama’s Promise Zone initiative in the state.
His opponent, state Rep. Sara Rodriguez (D-Brookfield), agrees with Her about the top goal in the lieutenant governor’s race. “We have to make sure that Gov. Evers gets reelected, and he’s going to need a strong partner by his side on that ticket,” she says.
Rodriguez believes she is best qualified to make sure Evers gets across the finish line in November because she flipped a traditionally Republican Assembly seat in 2020. “So I know the hard work that it’s going to take to make sure that Gov. Evers wins this November in a purple state.”
The two candidates’ priorities are similar.
Both list expanding access to health care as a top goal, and want Wisconsin to accept the federal Medicaid expansion. Both see defending abortion rights as critical. Both Rodriguez, whose husband is from Mexico, and Her, who came to the United States as a refugee, want the state to be a more welcoming place for immigrants.
Both candidates praise Evers’ efforts to increase funding for public schools. Her applauds Evers’ work specifically supporting mental health, and wants to help fill one of the biggest budget holes in state funding for schools by restoring the state’s commitment to shoulder most of the cost of federally mandated special education programs. Reduced state funding “means that the local school district has to come up with additional revenue to cover the cost of special education, and so that often pits programs against each other … so I want to make sure that special education is fully funded,” he says.
Similar policies, different biographies
What distinguishes the two candidates is biography and experience more than policy positions.
Before running for the Assembly, Rodriguez, who earned masters degrees in nursing and public health from Johns Hopkins University, worked at the Centers for Disease Control and for local and state health departments in Colorado and Wisconsin. She has held several executive roles in health care systems, and founded her own health care consulting firm which works with health care systems, insurance companies and businesses.
She says her experience managing large teams and multimillion dollar budgets are good preparation for managing something as large and complicated as state government. “But for much of my career, where my heart really lies is as a public health nurse,” she adds. “And that’s the lens that I’d like to bring to the lieutenant governor’s role, which is really one of investment in our kids and communities and one of prevention.”
In the state Assembly, Rodriguez cosponsored legislation to overturn Wisconsin 1849 felony abortion ban. Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, she says she wants to fight alongside Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul to preserve women’s rights and stop potential felony prosecutions of health care providers under the no-exceptions abortion ban that all of the Republican candidates for governor say they support.
In her conversations with voters, Rodriguez says she sees abortion rights as a key issue.
“I do think overturning Roe v. Wade has motivated voters,” she says. In Waukesha County, where she lives, “It’s basically a 50/50 district, which means I have neighbors, I have friends, I have family members who vote Republican, and they are just as upset at the overturning of Roe v Wade and taking those rights away from from individuals within Wisconsin…. When I talk to voters, those are the things that they’re talking about.”
Besides her advocacy for abortion rights and her background in public health, Rodriguez tells a personal story that shines a light on the importance of health care as a critical issue for Wisconsin families.
Her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when he was in his 60s, working right up until the week before he received his diagnosis. The family struggled to find care for him. Rodriguez says she wants to make sure other families don’t have the same struggles finding services their family members need. “My father was a Vietnam vet connected to the VA and yet still, we had difficulty trying to get him the care that he needed towards the end of his life,” she says. “Those are the kinds of things I’d like to focus on as lieutenant governor.”
As a full-time working mom, with two kids in school, Rodriguez says many of the issues facing families today are the same issues her own family faces. “I’m going to bring that perspective into the lieutenant governor’s role, and I want to make sure that I’m listening to the voices out there who have different experiences than mine and try to bring all of them inclusively into the lieutenant governor’s office.”
Rodriguez also has a personal connection to the issue of immigration. It’s important to her family that her children speak Spanish and embrace their Mexican heritage, and both are enrolled in a dual language immersion program in the Waukesha school district. “I think immigrants in Wisconsin make us a better state,” Rodriguez says. “They bring so many things with them in terms of skills and culture that we should be welcoming as a state.”
Her biggest motivator, she says, is her desire to see her kids stay in Wisconsin and settle here. “I want my family to stay. And for young people to stay in Wisconsin, we have to make sure that the policies and the programs that we’re implementing are amenable to younger folks. And they are going to leave if we implement the regressive Republican policies that they are promoting.”
Her number-one priority, after taking office, she says, is to continue the green energy work pioneered by current Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (who is leaving office as he makes a bid for U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s seat). Her next priorities are expanding health care and nurturing entrepreneurship.
Like Peng Her, she wants to focus on helping small businesses succeed. Taking federal Medicaid money to expand Badgercare would help, she says. “I think that we can expand BadgerCare, which is actually quite popular within Wisconsin,” she says. Covering more working families would be “overwhelmingly positive for the state,” she asserts, since accepting the federal dollars would make it possible to cover more people for less money, and allow Wisconsin to invest another $2 billion in local communities.
An inspiring personal story to counter ‘hateful rhetoric’
Her also wants to continue Barnes’ work on the climate task force, and also lists health care as a top priority: “I firmly believe that health care is a human right and not a privilege,” he says. Like Rodriguez, he wants to expand Medicaid and he connects expanded access to health care to helping small businesses and building an economy where everyone can succeed.
Her also says he wants to focus on removing barriers to employment including transportation, workforce training that better matches employers and potential workers in their area with available jobs, and high quality child care. “We need to start looking at child care as an economic driver,” he says. “And if we want people back to work, we need to have access to high quality child care, as well as how do we make sure that folks can afford it, and that folks who own child care centers pay a good wage for their employees and have adequate training to offer high quality childcare. Those are issues that I recognize in order to create this thriving economy where everyone succeeds.”
On immigration, Peng Her has a compelling personal story which he contrasts with the “hateful rhetoric” emanating from both state and national Republican candidates, including former President Donald Trump’s comments calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals.”
“As someone who is a refugee, I can stand up against Republicans to talk about my lived experience, that that isn’t who we are,” he says. “We are hardworking Americans. We come here seeking opportunity and freedom and the American Dream.”
“Who better to be able to stand up against Republicans than a refugee who came here with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs?” he adds. He recalls arriving in the United States from Laos at age 5 and starting school. “The school had to clear out the janitor’s closet and the wife of the janitor volunteered to teach me English,” he says.
While working at a Pella Windows factory, Her put himself through Central College in Iowa, and then graduate school, earning a master’s degree in applied physics from DePaul University in Chicago. He worked at Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory, as the lab’s first Hmong physicist, and then moved to Madison with his wife Mai Zong Vue. He ran a successful restaurant for five years and then went to work for the University of Wisconsin- Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty, where he was part of the DreamUP Wisconsin initiative, a community-University collaboration to expand economic opportunity. He has been involved in various community organizations, including the Urban League, and founded the Hmong Institute, which works to preserve Hmong heritage and to help people around the state access education and health care.
Her draws on his own life experience “to stand up against the hateful rhetoric of Republicans,” who he feels are stirring up fear of immigrants as a wedge to divide people and to justify efforts to disenfranchise voters.
“They’re going to try to disenfranchise people who look like me, like my parents, who worked so hard to become good citizens, who fought to defend America, to be allies with the United States,” he says.
The Hmong Institute launched a program in 2020 to educate communities around the state about Hmong culture, including the role of Hmong people in fighting alongside the U.S. in Cambodia and Vietnam.
As the first Hmong candidate for statewide office, Her sees his candidacy as a good way to push back against anti-immigrant scapegoating.
Traveling across the state, Her says he finds that voters are excited about the diverse candidates in multiple races this year. “That’s super exciting in the sense that folks are supportive of having candidates like myself running,” he says.
“As important as it is to be the first Hmong to run, it’s also just as important not to be the last one,” he adds. “We want to make sure that we continue to have diverse candidates running, knowing that diversity helps, whether it’s in the school board, local offices, in business or in the community.”
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