In The News
No hand-me-down, Senate District 6 race heats up
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted July 20, 2012
New city treasurer Spencer Coggs is a diehard Democrat and that is the D label on all five candidates eager to replace him in the state Senate District 6, so his departure won't take away the Democratic majority.
But clearly, party label is not the main factor in this Aug. 14 finale - it's more family name vs. progressive representation.
The Coggs political dynasty is an evocative concept from the days when Isaac and particularly Marcia Coggs broke important ground in the Madison legislature. Their high community reputation allowed daughter Elizabeth a long-term stint on the Milwaukee County Board, while cousin Spencer advanced in the legislature and gained more fame as one of the 14 who fled to Illinois.
At the Courthouse, Elizabeth Coggs - formerly running as Coggs-Jones -- drew attention on whether her absences outnumbered her presence.
Still, her long-tenure in public leadership along with the Coggs heritage simplified her sail into the legislature to replace retiring Rep. Polly Williams in District 10 two years ago. Now she wants to inherit Spencer's senate seat.
There are other Coggs public servants, most notable the strong community career of Milele Coggs on the Milwaukee Common Council. There is a Coggs relative, Rep. Leon Young, so ensconced inside this senate region (the Assembly District 16) that he has no opponent this year though he doesn't have a get-up-and-go reputation in Madison.
Perhaps the family connection will carry resonance in Young's Assembly area, but interestingly there are intense, active and progressive contests going on in the other two Assembly districts, 17 and 18, where Elizabeth Coggs is not favored by many of the unions and community groups engaged.
Their favorite is actually a more recent (now two-term) county supervisor, Nikiya Harris. The most familiar face is yet another county supervisor, long-timer Michael Mayo.
Another recent election demonstrated that the Coggs name is not a secure path to election, a reminder of what many local politicians say about presence at the doors and solid knowledge and authority being most important.
An Elizabeth Coggs daughter, Pricilla, was beaten for a County Board seat earlier this year by another known last name with a more energetic and persuasive campaign platform, Russell Stamper II.
"It demonstrated that the Coggs brand is not invincible when presence and gumption come along," noted a candidate in a neighboring district who faces a similar problem.
Senate district residents Labor Press spoke to said things like: "It was Nikiya on the hottest days at the doors, showing her familiarity with the neighborhoods” . . . "She was just presenting herself and not criticizing others" . . . "I was quite impressed by her manner."
Indeed, from the time she announced her candidacy at the Talgo grounds -- the site of the "lost jobs" train wreck caused by the Walker administration, a pointed location to signal why fearless black voices are needed in Madison - Harris has been identified as the candidate to watch. She has moved from sleeper in the media coverage to the one making the most impact on the streets.
These are familiar neighborhoods and problems for Harris, the big sister who helped bring up a family. She has a bachelor's degree in community education and a master's in adult education from UWM. She is considered a political newcomer compared to some opponents, but instinctively she understands the power of the doors, the value of meeting and listening and she among all of them has been out there for years holding community forums and education sessions on vital concerns such as the voter ID law and mental health services.
Spencer Coggs was a popular senator, but the question remains whether his coattails and political savvy are big enough for another Coggs to hang onto, particularly one with a spottier reputation.
Harris is hardly an unknown quantity though the state Senate is a significant step up. She has the support of several unions who early announced (SEIU, AFT and the nurses) plus colleagues on the County Board who call her a tireless and detail-oriented member - detail and persistence being vital in the legislative process.
There are some interesting others seeking this seat - a community organizer for veterans, Delta L. Triplett; and another candidate with a noted last name, Allyn Monroe Swan (whose father, Monroe Swan, was a pioneer black figure in the senate and whose cousin is Polly Williams).
Mayo is more likely to pull votes away from former supervisor Elizabeth Coggs than from current colleague Harris.
Despite this veteran supervisor’s legal issues he had enjoyed union support -- until he was quietly snubbed in the last round of elections, largely because while his views and votes were worker friendly, he was perceived as testing the political air too much, serving as too willing right-hand factotum for Lee Holloway. But that power departed with the board chairman’s retirement, leaving Mayo somewhat more isolated on the board.
So Mayo's entry into the senate race is being perceived by insiders as an effort to regain the luster lost to a newly active board (where Harris is part of the team approach).
Wisconsin Progress, the leading wing of the progressive movement, is strongly backing Harris' effort.
But the capper endorsement came when Rep. Tamara Grigsby went on radio to announce her support. Though unable to run again for health concerns, the much admired Grigsby represents District 18, within the Senate 6, so that turns into a key component for recognition and turnout Aug. 14.