Democrat Kriss Marion is a farmer, small business owner, and mother of four who lives in rural Wisconsin. Her campaign manager is an award-winning cheesemaker. They could not be more Wisconsin, and together, they’re running what is one of the most crucial local elections in the country.
Wisconsin was the birthplace of the modern American progressive movement, where great leaders and determined activists put forth the idea that the government should work on behalf of the average citizen instead of the corporate monopolies and moneyed elite.
But for the last eight years, Republican Governor Scott Walker has worked to tear down that legacy by assaulting unions, cutting education, throttling voting rights (throwing Wisconsin to Donald Trump in 2016), enabling pollution, and letting infrastructure crumble as he gave billions away to major corporations.
Now, his reign of terror is coming back to haunt him. Walker, who is seeking his third term in office, is trailing Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tony Evers, the state’s Supervisor of Public Instruction, in the polls. Not only that, but thanks to some big wins earlier this year in special elections, Democrats have a very real chance of taking back the gerrymandered State Senate.
Marion’s race, for Wisconsin’s 17th State Senate district, is one several the elections that will determine the balance of power in Madison. She currently serves on the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors, where she helped pass laws that allowed small farmers and bakers to sell food locally, competing with the chains that were dominating the area. Now she’s seeking to take the fight on behalf of working families to the state level. I hopped on the phone with her late last week to talk about her campaign, her priorities, and the issues facing Wisconsin.
You’re on the County Board right now — what inspired you to get into politics in the first place, and why run for State Senate?
I’m a small farmer and I own a bed and breakfast here and for some time I’ve been a grassroots organizer with the Farmers Union, which is a group that stands up for family farms and rural communities. Along those lines is water protection. I’ve been fighting for reasonable water protections in our area and in Wisconsin for a long time and I’m trying to educate the public about what goes on with groundwater. We have groundwater here versus collecting surface water, so we’re real vulnerable to different pollutants; they go right into our drinking water.
That was the thing that got me going. And then I got on the County Board, to try and start a conversation about water and also about rural redevelopment. We are very agricultural out here and we need more options. So I wanted to work on economic development and obviously you bump into state issues, so I ended up going to the capital a lot to talk to my representative. I realized that they were not going to make the changes that we needed here for our rural community. So I thought it was time to do something about it myself.
And Scott Walker and the GOP have been less than friendly to the environment.
There have been debilitating cuts to the Department of Natural Resources. They took references to climate change off the DNR website. We’re in a real intense shortage of environmental workers and watchdog. And in addition, Wisconsin has had a big drive to remove wetland protections so that we can fast-track building for developers and large manufacturers.
Right now we are in the middle of catastrophic flooding that is destroying lots of property and infrastructure in southwest Wisconsin. And it’s not the complete answer, but protecting wetlands is a huge way that we can mitigate the impact of high precipitation.
And that ties into the economic policy of shredding regulations in addition to giving companies, like Foxconn, which got $4 billion from the state, enormous and controversial tax breaks to move there.
Foxconn is nowhere near our district but we’re paying handsomely for it as taxpayers over here in southwest Wisconsin. Foxconn not only got a huge pass when it comes to wetlands, but they’ve opened the door for everyone else to ask for the same. They got record-breaking tax incentives, eight times the average national incentive per job. The Foxconn development, where it’s under construction, is flooding horrifically because it’s on a wetland as well.
My heart is with rural communities. I live in a town of 825 people. I’m sitting here in my campaign office, in an old building on Main Street where we can watch tractors go by in between pickups and ATVs and commuters. And my biggest concern is that we are able to survive and thrive. And so things like Foxconn take money off the top of the budget, and that’s money that we’re not putting towards schools or healthcare or roads. Every service the state provides, budgets have been cut and slashed while giving companies record-breaking tax incentives.
How have the cuts impacted your district?
Don’t get me wrong, Wisconsin is a fantastic place to live, especially rural Wisconsin. I would recommend it to anybody. We want to be here and we want to have this lifestyle, but we need to have the basic tools to build on the beautiful things we have and to protect them and to grow them.
And so that’s infrastructure, right? It’s schools, it’s roads, and broadband. We don’t have basic broadband out here. You have hours on end where you’re traveling and you can’t reach anybody on the phone. There are kids who go home and can’t do homework because they don’t have broadband at home. So we said no to federal money for that. We also struggle with healthcare. People are just trying to make do with so little, but we’re not a third world country. We should be investing in our future.
We found $4 billion to give Foxconn. If we had divided that among all of our regional planning commissions or any other sort of regional economic development setup, you could have kickstarted the economies in any number of counties. They could be making loans or grants to Main Street, to small business owners. We’re incentivizing the wrong things right now in Wisconsin. We have been dead last in the nation for small business startup and entrepreneurial activity for three years running.
Reading about your campaign, I came across a story about how you had gotten sick and moved to Wisconsin in the early 2000s, and how moving to the state literally helped heal you.
I grew up in Bethlehem, PA and lived in downtown Chicago for 20 years, after school. I was raising my kids there and then got really sick. I had the great fortune to be able to go to multiple doctors to get different opinions on what was wrong with me. I finally found one who diagnosed me with rheumatoid arthritis and got me on a great twice-a-week injection regimen that basically gave me the ability to move out of the city, to go explore a country life like I had growing up.
I was so incapacitated prior to that diagnosis. If didn’t have an affordable way to keep seeing doctors, I don’t know where I would be. And my medication was a thousand dollars a month, just a crazy amount of money. Having an insurance safety net really saved my life. So I got better really fast, we came out here, and I got off my drugs after couple of years. Being surrounded by green spaces is what ultimately healed me.
My whole life out here has been about building something productive on my farm and bringing people out to share it. And I’m really, really committed to preserving the clean air, clean water, beautiful agricultural lifestyle for the future and for other people to come and either enjoy it or move here permanently.
I’ve had my life saved from health insurance several times, but still find myself in medical debt, so I know what you mean.
I have a daughter who works for Deloitte, so she doesn’t hurt for health insurance, but I have four kids. I have others who do day labor in factories and another that is always trying to move up and is often between jobs. The healthcare issues for those kids that don’t have stable work are really terrifying. My daughter Emma, who’s 22, has friends who don’t have stable corporate jobs. They tend to work for a church or they work at a bar or at a restaurant and they literally decide from day to day, do I take my medication or do I eat?
Out here, we have a lot of people who are on plans that their copay is so high that they wait and wait to go to the doctor. Several people I’ve met have lost family members who didn’t go in for checkups because they didn’t want to pay the copay and then died of breast cancer that was fast-moving.
The choices that people are making to get by in a low wage economy — our wages are very suppressed in Wisconsin, thanks to the loss of unions, a stagnant startup economy, lots of reasons — we have people who are literally having to make hard choices about their health on a daily basis. It’s trade-offs involving food versus medication versus school, paying off the debt or getting more into that. Maybe it’s time remake the whole thing.
Rural campaigning is very different than urban campaigning — what’s been your strategy?
I’ve been direct-marketing my farm for over a decade on Facebook. The bed and breakfast is almost all word of mouth and AirBnb. We’ll also have been in 50 parades the end of this by November 6th. We’re in an all-rural district with seven counties and just a handful of cities. Everything else is villages. Every village and township, almost every community has their own parade and it might not be worth going door to door rurally, but when you go to a parade, you get not just that community of 200, you get all the communities around them.
I have a farm truck, which is our old fire department truck from the Blanchardville Fire Department, and we had an artist paint billboards on the side of it. We always have a good crowd, people bring their dogs or their sheep or goats or whatever they got. We’re just trying to make democracy fun again. The whole game is to re-engage people because people are depressed, they feel angry about the money in politics. They feel filthy about what’s going on in Washington DC, regardless of what side of the aisle they’re on, you just feel like politics are dirty.
So everywhere we go, we try and be colorful and smiley and optimistic. We’re just trying to remind people that democracy is our privilege and our right, it should be our joy.