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Wis. State Senator Connects Her Politics To Her Past

Wisconsin state Sen. Jessica King stands at the corner of Main Street and Algoma Boulevard in downtown Oshkosh. She won her seat in a senatorial recall campaign last year.
John W. Poole

As the presidential election nears, Morning Edition is visiting swing counties in swing states for our series First and Main. We're listening to voters where they live — to understand what's shaping their thinking this election year. This week, we're spending time in Winnebago County, Wis., where we spoke with two women — one Democrat, one Republican — who embody their state's Midwestern charm and spirit of self-reliance. First, we hear from the Democrat.

Last year, Jessica King became a Wisconsin state senator, swept into office in a wave of special recall votes. It was part of the larger political drama that saw Wisconsin's governor avoid his own recall.

King, 37, made history. In part of her district, she's the first Democrat to serve as state senator since the 1930s.

Her secret to representing a Republican area?

"I'm realistic. I represent approximately 160,000 people, and you have to ask yourself, 'When's the last time you remember 160,000 people agreeing on anything?' Probably never," she says. "If I can get people to agree with me 7 out of 10 times, I'm probably doing a good job.

"Now for those three times that maybe people think, 'Well, my priorities line up differently than the senator's' — well, as long as I do what every fifth-grade math teacher told me to do, which is 'show my work' — show my work, explain it — people then at least respect me."

At a coffee shop in downtown Oshkosh, Wis., the youngest woman in Wisconsin's state Senate was wearing a business suit and stealing bits of a muffin that was her breakfast.

King's story began with a tough childhood.

"My father really suffered from today what we call, you know, post-traumatic stress disorder," King says. "My mother actually suffered from schizophrenia."

Her dad's PTSD dates to when he served on a destroyer in the Pacific before the Vietnam War.

With two parents with disabilities — both hospitalized when their daughter was 4 — King was in and out of foster care. As a teenager, she got her first job, working third shift at a juice box factory. She ultimately went to college and law school and then went into politics. Her father got to see her sworn in last year.

"My father's now in a wheelchair. He can't really move; he can't really talk anymore. But he still has a lot of cognition, so I know he knows what's going on," she says. "And he was able to be there that day. And it was a really exciting, excellent day for me."

A Divided State

No doubt, her political views are rooted in her firsthand experience with social services. She benefited from Wisconsin's social structures, having grown up as a ward of the state. Her father now lives in a public facility.

"It is a county-run nursing home," she says. "And I think it's just an incredible example of how, in Wisconsin, we really take care of our people."

She says she is proud of Wisconsin. But over the past year, as the fight over whether to recall Gov. Scott Walker consumed the state, she struggled to recognize this place that she loves.

"Before 2011, I believe everyone who had heard of Wisconsin or knew where it was thought, 'Well, that's just the nicest place on Earth.' You know, that's the place where you go to summer camp or you go to fish. And gosh, everybody I ever met from Wisconsin was willing to help me out or change a flat tire or help out their neighbor or go the extra mile," she says. "That's it, that's who we are. We're really a happy, good-natured, work ethic; we're ready to show up and be a team."

And now?

"Well, what I'm saying is, can you imagine what it must take to make the nicest people on Earth have the kind of demonstrations we've had in the last year and a half, right?" she says. "To really be divided?"

Can you imagine what it must take, to make the nicest people on Earth have the kind of demonstrations we've had in the last year and a half?

Obstruction And Accountability

In a way, that's similar to the Republican message today: This isn't the country that we know and love; we want something different. So we shouldn't vote for President Obama.

So how can the president combat that message?

"Well, I think people here in Wisconsin, they want to participate, they want to be respected, they want to appreciate that not only their voice but their vote matters," King says. "And I think the best thing that, you know, either of the presidential candidates, whether it be Mitt Romney or President Barack Obama, they will have to demonstrate a place for everyone at the table, define what [everyone's] role is in pursuing a better future and then how their leadership will help build that.

"Because I think there's definitely individuals, maybe within the Tea Party, that say, 'You know, I don't matter. You're taking resources from me but I don't get to sit at the table.' And that may be part of their frustration. You know, I don't pretend to know what motivates every individual out there. But I think it's a challenge for both of these candidates in this national race to explain how we all do this together and is somebody shut out."

Too many people in Wisconsin feel shut out, King says, and there's a feeling that Washington is more obsessed with gamesmanship and less interested in responding to real concerns.

"And I think right now, the No. 1 thing that I feel from the population I serve, the population of Wisconsin, is they're really not supportive of people who are obstructionist," she says. "And I think the thing that is really understood right now is that Congress is functioning in a method of obstruction; they refuse to even attempt to agree. They are very much polarized and pandering. And no one here has time for that.

"And ... for whatever Barack Obama's challenges are, and for the challenge that the global economy has thrown our country, I think the issue comes down to: When you're passing out the accountability, as a voter, are you more angry at Congress for being obstructionist than you are at one guy who's just trying to do the right thing?"

Still, can King blame voters for holding the president accountable, especially in light of the big changes he talked about while running in 2008?

"Like I said, I think voters will measure it out accordingly," she says. "But, then again, you have to balance it back with what the contrast is and what are your options. And when you see people in Washington playing games with something that is very real to them and scares them, they'll remember that. ... And honestly in Wisconsin, the blame game doesn't go too far because at some point you have to be self-accountable for what you do."

Of course, in politics, there's a fine line between holding people accountable and playing a blame game.

Whatever you call it, King has framed a key question for voters: Did Obama fail to lift the country up? Or did he get stymied by an obstructionist Congress?

Finding An Escape Valve

As she took a last sip of her iced latte, King got ready to head out for a day of campaigning. She's actually up for re-election already herself.

She says she does like finding ways to forget about politics.

"I haven't met Mr. Right, but I definitely, you know, I have those things that I care about. And I have a pet rabbit. His name is Irish. He's about six years old and he's really good company. ... You try to find these opportunities to take the stress off a little bit.

"So, I found a 1989 Cabriolet that required some tender love and care and it was the car that Barbie had when I was 16. So you know, I find my ways to have my fun. Even ... in this very serious time, everybody needs to have something they enjoy."

On Thursday, we'll hear from a woman who owns a lakeside fish restaurant and feels a personal connection to Mitt Romney.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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