Jayne Swiggum is angry, and she’s going to do something about it.
A nurse for the past 20 years, and before that a schoolteacher, Swiggum lives in Gays Mills and is running in the Aug. 11 Democratic primary for state senate District 32 against Brad Pfaff. The winner of the primary will face Republican Dan Kapanke in the general election.
In stark contrast to Pfaff and Kapanke, Swiggum is not taking any campaign contributions. She’s running on a progressive platform that’s well to the left of Pfaff, who has the backing of the local Democratic Party establishment.
“I don’t know how anyone can take money and say that it does not influence them,” Swiggum told The La Crosse Independent. “If that was the case, why do we have all these lobbyists for insurance and pharmaceutical companies just pouring boatloads of money into campaigns?”
Swiggum doesn’t speak like a politician, and she isn’t scared of throwing a few rhetorical punches at those in positions of power, whether they have an R or D next to their name.
She was motivated to run by watching Kapanke “hanging all over people, not wearing a mask” at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic as he launched his campaign.
“I was mad,” Swiggum said, and although she’d never been involved in politics before, she began investigating the possibility of running for the seat.
She reached out to Jennifer Shilling, who held the District 32 seat from 2011 until this year, about running for the seat, thinking there was a possibility Shilling would support a progressive female candidate.
Shilling told her she was backing Pfaff, the pair having worked together in U.S. Rep. Ron Kind’s office. Swiggum said Shilling then told her she’d need $300,000 to $500,000 to mount a serious campaign and, if she won, she’d immediately need to start raising money for the next election. Initially, the conversation had Swiggum doubting if she should persist with her run.
“I was very put off, but then I thought you know what? I am going to do it, to spite them,” Swiggum said.
She notes that unlike Pfaff, she genuinely understands the concerns of working people. Pfaff was appointed recently to a $120,000 a year state job by Gov. Tony Evers, and before that held another state position, and has had jobs in the Obama administration, and in Kind’s office. On the Republican side, Kapanke is a former District 32 state senator and the owner of the La Crosse Loggers.
“I am a real person, I have the same problems as probably 90% of people in Wisconsin. Money, retirement, deductibles,” she said. “I get it people, this is real life, I am a real person, I have the exact same problems you do.”
As a working nurse, Swiggum speaks with righteous authority on health care.
“Anyone who thinks they have gotten good health care, I can tell you it is not because of your insurer, it is in spite of them,” she said. “The goal of insurance and pharmaceutical companies is to make money and it’s on the back of every American who works.”
Swiggum said she would get behind a drive to institute a Medicare for All style system at the state level, a move currently being pushed by Democrats in New Mexico. She notes that such a system would free small businesses from the enormous costs and complications of providing health care for their employees.
The state should also push to rein-in the power of pharmaceutical companies to make vast profits off drugs while pushing people who depend on those medicines into poverty, Swiggum said.
“We should enact a law where pharmaceutical companies are only allowed to make a certain percentage above the cost of the medicine they make, that is the case throughout most of the civilized world,” she said. That percentage could be as high as 50%, and many drugs would still be cheaper than they are today, Swiggum added.
Perhaps the biggest shock to the system in Wisconsin over recent decades has been the destruction of public sector unions through former Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 reforms.
The law stripped public collective bargaining rights for most state and municipal employees, which has resulted in lower pay and skimpier benefits for many of those workers, and seriously weakened unions.
Few Democrats in power in Wisconsin are pushing hard for collective bargaining rights to be restored for public workers. Swiggum has no hesitation in stating that she would fight to restore those rights by rolling back Act 10.
She was a member of a teachers union before Act 10, and her dad was a member of the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) as a journeyman lineman.
“You weren’t just left out in the dark,” she said about her experience being part of a unionized workplace. “You had people together, saying what you want. I felt protected and there was no popularity thing about it.”
Swiggum compares her unionized teaching days to her current position as an at-will employee, who can be fired without cause at any time.
“For any reason, they could just say to me, we don’t need you anymore and let me go,” she said. “I’m very lucky that i am a nurse, and generally we’re needed but that’s disturbing to me, with no recourse, nowhere to go.”
On the biggest issue of this moment – the uprising against police brutality and white supremacy provoked by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer – Swiggum calls for serious reforms of our police systems.
“I absolutely think we need to demilitarize the police. If you look at the police in Ireland, or in Britain, it’s not like this,” she said. “Certainly they have SWAT teams, but you would not have them walking around in riot gear, it’s nuts. The police also need to live in the places they are working in, and there are ways to incentivize that.”
Swiggum is confident her campaign can catch fire, even without the clout her opponents will have thanks to their deep pockets. She plans to use social media, word of mouth, and her general DIY attitude, to punch above her weight.
“You know that if a person refuses to take money, the only people they are beholden to are the people who elected them, not the people who are stuffing their campaign coffers,” she notes. “Let’s stop electing people who are paying for those dumb commercials on TV.”
State Senate District 32 covers all of Crawford and La Crosse Counties, almost all of Vernon, and part of Monroe County. Click here for more information on Swiggum’s campaign.
Interview by Eric Timmons.
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