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Stem Cells Winning Issue for Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Doyle

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Message Michael Leon
Madison-Wisconsin - Governor Jim Doyle is widely seen as the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent governor facing reelection this coming November. But stem cells may cure his electoral woes.

Triangulating to the middle political ground in his first term, Doyle has repeatedly vexed Democratic and progressive constituencies on such issues as campaign finance reform, school "choice", and contracts for state employees' unions.

Yet Doyle has managed to stave off a primary opponent through the aggressive use of his partial veto pen that has, among other things, preserved funding for education and health care [vital Democratic issues] that otherwise would had been slashed by a Republican legislature. And Doyle has bluntly vetoed religious right mini-crusades that have led to legislation passed against gay marriage, immigrant populations and stem cells.

Activist Democrats know well that Doyle is the only thing standing between a monopolistic right-wing state government, a Republican legislature headed by religious radicals and the gubernatorial administration of right-wing U.S. Rep. Mark Green (R-Green Bay), Doyle's presumptive Republican opponent and a stem cell research opponent.

Many here fear that blue-state Wisconsin would become a fundamentally different state should Doyle be defeated by the Republican Green, and though Democratic progressives have been making noises about a primary challenge to Doyle (July 11 is the deadline to file), no one really expects wide defections from Doyle's vulnerable reelection campaign.

Though Republicans believed that placing on the ballot a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage would spell defeat for Doyle, Wisconsin is now seen as likely the first state to defeat this Rovian initiative, and at the state convention, the Wisconsin Democratic party became the first state party to pass a resolution against an anti-gay marriage amendment.

Another religious right initiative, banning stem cell research, looks to crack the Republican coalition here.

Stem Cells

At the state Democratic convention in early June, Doyle focused on stem cells in his keynote address firing the opening salvo driving this perfect wedge issue dividing Republicans.

"Wisconsin pioneered this research, and I believe that the governor of Wisconsin has a special obligation to these families (relatives of those stricken by ailments for which one day stem cells may provide treatment or cure). I will not turn my back on these families. I will never let partisan politics slam the door on hope for these families," thundered Doyle.

Now, three weeks later, stem cells have driven a razor-sharp obstruction between the two main Republican constituencies - the business community and the religious right - heretofore held together here by former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, a still-popular politician (and now businessman) who recently begged out against running for governor and U.S. Senate.

The business community is keenly aware of the enormous benefits of stem cells to the business climate in Wisconsin, home to break-through research on stem cells at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and is already aggressively fighting the religious right on the issue with each candidate for state office.

"A trio of business groups is so eager to stay at the front of the issue it's firing off letters to every statehouse candidate urging support for the controversial research. 'At a time when Wisconsin is seeking to succeed in the new, knowledge-based economy, it is irresponsible for us turn our backs on this life-saving research,' wrote (A-list Wisconsin Republicans) Mark Bugher, director of the University Research Park, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce President James Haney, and Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council," reads a popular political column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Spivak & Bice, June 29, 2006).

Supporting pioneering research on human embryonic stem cells sends a positive message to the scientists, science-based companies and communities that already call Wisconsin home. Without that support, attracting, retaining and nurturing new high-tech companies becomes extremely difficult if not impossible."

Predictably, the religious right went ballistic when alerted to the pro-stem cell letters coming from leading Republicans. As Spivak and Bice write, Susan Armacost, of Wisconsin Right to Life, lamented, "We're very disappointed with them...very disappointed. It is irresponsible to be calling this life-saving research..."

Armacost is known derisively among many Democratic legislative aides as "Susan Armageddon," a reference to her religious right affiliations and what some regard as an idiosyncratic persona.

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Michael Leon is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. His writing has appeared nationally in The Progressive, In These Times, and CounterPunch. He can be reached at
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