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Candidates debate issues for Wisconsin’s largest Assembly seat

With Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, running for state Senate, the 74th Assembly seat is up for grabs for the first time since 2010.

Two Democrats have stepped forward in a bid to replace Bewley.

Graham Garfield of Mason and Beth Meyers of Bayfield are facing off in the Aug. 12 primary for a chance to appear on the ballot in November, where one of them will face a challenge from Republican candidate Jamey Francis.

The 74th District covers Bayfield, Ashland, Iron and Price counties, and portions of Douglas, Sawyer and Vilas counties.

Garfield and Meyers fielded questions from a panel of reporters during a debate July 23.

“I believe in government that works for the people and I believe state representative should be no one more than a neighbor willing to be a partner in making government better and more effective in serving the people,” Garfield said during his opening statement. Garfield, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Superior, who served as student body president for two years, said he was raised with strong progressive values and has worked with the Democratic Party for a number of years, including working on President Obama’s 2008 bid for the White House.

“I have 25 years experience helping people in the district, and I want to take that experience to Madison and start working for you on Day 1,” Meyers said. A fourth generation Bayfield County resident, and graduate of Northland College in Ashland, Meyers said she learned how to work hard from her parents, and she learned that when people work together, great things can be accomplished as executive director of CORE Community Resources, a nonprofit serving seniors in Bayfield.

After opening statements, Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Mike Simonson, Ashland Daily Press reporter Rick Olivo and former Ashland Daily Press editor Claire Duquette challenged the candidates on issues facing the district.

Duquette asked the candidates about the new state mining law.

Garfield said he testified against the bill.

“The mining law is so irresponsible at this point it doesn’t even vaguely reflect the former mining law we had,” he said. “And if we’re not able to establish a mining standard that is as responsible as that that exists in Minnesota — and Minnesota’s mining law is a very good example of a responsible mining law — then at this point, I would not see why people of northern Wisconsin would want to work with that company. I’m making the pledge right now that we do need to completely repeal Act 1 as it relates to ferrous mining and replace it with a responsible mining bill.”

Meyers agreed, stating that as a legislator she is going to do what is necessary to protect the land where her grandparents are buried and her grandchild walks.

“We need to create laws for mining that are effective for the whole state, not just for this district,” Meyers said. “That’s what we need to do. When G-Tac came in and broke the trust, and what our government did when they allowed them to do that, is not right.”

Meyers said it has nothing to do with her stance on mining, but has everything to do with a law that doesn’t require responsible mining, something she cannot support.

“It can’t be just about jobs,” the Bayfield County Board supervisor said.

Beyond prohibiting the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from doing its job, Garfield said there is no tonnage tax. Common sense amendments proposed by Democrats to support local communities were struck down by the Republican majority, he said.

Olivo questioned the loss of jobs in Wisconsin and what candidates would do to get the state back on track.

“We can’t wait for big business to come in and save us in this area,” Meyers said. “The possibility that someone’s going to come in with 200-400 jobs is very remote for us. What we need to do is look at the current employers in our district and what they’re doing.”

Meyers said Coco’s in Washburn is an example of the kinds of anchor businesses that are growing in the 74th District. In addition to small business, she said roads, and access to broadband internet are vital to the region’s success in creating jobs.”

“This is a matter of ‘what is the business priority for the state of Wisconsin?’” Garfield said. “Right now Wisconsin is 38th in job growth, and we’re … last in the Midwest.”

He said the heart of the matter is the state is giving tax breaks to the wealthiest without evidence that jobs are being created. In the north, he said small businesses will be key to creating jobs.

“Minnesota has had the right idea,” Garfield said. “It’s ironic actually that if you look at the little job growth that’s been created under (Gov. Scott) Walker is along the western border because of the economic success of Minnesota.” He said he would pursue similar measures as those used in Minnesota.

Candidates also fielded questions about education, from education standards to student loan forgiveness.

While the candidates agreed the Common Core standards has its merits, they had different opinions where student loan forgiveness was concerned.

“Student loan forgiveness is not new,” Meyers said. “There are a lot of opportunities where a student loan is forgiven” such as a doctor working in a deprived area.

Forgiving loans is looking at the problem backwards, Garfield said. He said he doesn’t believe anyone would favor taxpayers picking up the tab for student loan debt for all classes.

“For people who are in poverty, there needs to be flexibility for how loans are paid back,” Garfield said. He said he was active in pursuing legislation that would have allowed students to refinance their debt, and the way to solve the problem is to make sure education is publically available and affordable.

Candidates also addressed funding public schools.

“It’s actually a matter of equity and equity for our rural public schools,” Garfield said. He said schools are suffering because of the governor’s decision to cut $800 million from public schools. He said while property taxes alone won’t fix the problem, school districts need the flexibility to set levies in a manner that allows the districts to function.

“Education is the cornerstone of our society and our economy won’t prosper … if we don’t start investing in education in a real way in Wisconsin,” Garfield said.

“Education is extremely important,” Meyers said. “… Education should be affordable and attainable to all.”