Democratic State Senator Will Run To Replace Obey

May 10, 2010

A popular Democratic state senator said Monday she will run to replace retiring U.S. Rep. David Obey, a towering figure in Wisconsin politics.

Sen. Julie Lassa of Stevens Point announced her campaign for the 7th Congressional District after Democratic Party officials spent the weekend plotting how to hold on to the seat held by Obey since 1969.

The announcement means several of Lassa’s colleagues are unlikely to enter the race. Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker of Wausau, who was considered a top contender but would have had to give up his powerful position in the Capitol, immediately said through a spokeswoman he would not run.

Obey, the third-longest current serving member of the House and chairman of the powerful appropriations committee, shocked the Wisconsin political establishment last week when he announced he would not run for re-election.

Lassa, 39, served in the Assembly from 1998 to 2002 and was elected to the Senate in a special election in 2003.

“I have been a tireless advocate for our small businesses, taxpayers, and children, and in Congress I will follow the same common sense principles to deliver real results for Wisconsin,” she said in a statement.

Her decision helps Democrats’ bid to keep control of the state Senate this fall. Unlike Decker and Sen. Pat Kreitlow of Chippewa Falls, who also had been mentioned as a potential candidate, she does not have to give up her seat to run. A special election would replace her if she wins.

Lassa, who grew up on a dairy farm and is married with two young children, is the first Democrat to enter the race and party officials rallied behind her candidacy Monday. Ashland County District Attorney and former “Real World: Boston” cast member Sean Duffy is considered a heavy favorite to win the Republican Party nomination. He issued a statement welcoming Lassa to the race.

Democratic operatives said Lassa has proven popular in the area of the sprawling, largely rural district where a large chunk of its voters live.

“She’s absolutely a strong candidate. I’m a big fan. She works hard. She connects with people,” said Jim Smith, a Democrat who has worked on many campaigns in the central and northern parts of the state covered by the district. “I think Julie will highlight that she’s gotten things done. She’s stood up for people.”

Lassa announced her candidacy Monday afternoon after joining Gov. Jim Doyle at an appearance in Green Bay, where he signed a bill she sponsored to expand economic development programs.

The bill, known as the CORE Jobs act, expands tax credits for investors who fund startup companies and enhances economic development programs run by state universities, technical colleges and the Department of Commerce.

A National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman immediately criticized Lassa’s tenure as chair of the Senate committee on economic development.

“Sending a Madison Democrat like Lassa to Washington will only make things worse for the thousands of northwest Wisconsin families who are already struggling to make ends meet,” NRCC spokesman Tom Erickson said in a statement.

Lassa has taken political punches before. Campaign fliers published in 2002 tried to link Lassa to corruption by then-Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, who had been charged with misconduct in office.

She filed a defamation lawsuit and succeeded in unmasking the funding source of the fliers as Alex Paul, a Stevens Point attorney who she handily defeated in a three-way Democratic primary for the Senate in 2003. A political operative agreed to pay $65,000 in attorneys’ fees and sanctions, a settlement eventually upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Lassa easily defeated Republican Donna Rozar to win the Senate seat. She won re-election with more than 67 percent of the vote in 2004 and 2008.

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