Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Legislature

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, the top elected female Democrat at the Capitol, is deferring to Milwaukee leaders on whether former Dem Sen. Spencer Coggs should resign as city treasurer despite her call for state Rep. Josh Zepnick to step down.

“I think former Sen. Coggs should do what is best for his constituents that he represents and do a self-examination about his continuing in public office,” Shilling said in one of several year-end interviews she did this week.

The interviews were the first time Shilling weighed in on Coggs after revelations the state settled a sexual harassment complaint from a former staffer. Her office issued a statement after speaking with WisPolitics.com adding, “That type of behavior shouldn’t be tolerated in the state Senate.”

Shilling, D-La Crosse, said even though the Assembly and Senate are separate houses, the public views them as one entity, and she believes Zepnick should resign after he was accused of kissing two women without their consent at political events in 2011 and 2015.

Coggs, who left the Legislature in 2013 after he was elected Milwaukee treasurer, has denied he harassed anyone. He also wrote in a newspaper column he did not engage in or condone any behavior that could be viewed as harassment or discrimination. The settlement that included a $75,000 payment to a former legislative aide came to light amid questions on sexual harassment complaints filed with the Legislature.

Shilling said the Senate was already looking at its policies and training on sexual harassment before the explosion of allegations against men in media, politics and other industries that have come to light in recent weeks. She noted that allegations were not raised by human resource departments, but women who had been harassed.

“Time and time again, it was women coming forward feeling that they had a safe environment without fearing retribution,” Shilling said.

The rash of allegations and President Trump’s policies have resulted in an uptick in women who are interested in running for the state Legislature, Shilling said. It’s also played into what she says is a sustained enthusiasm among the grassroots that she believes will help Dems compete in challenging seats and those where they face a fundraising gap, including western Wisconsin’s open 10th SD.

Ahead of next week’s primaries, GOP state Reps. Shannon Zimmerman, of River Falls, and Adam Jarchow, of Balsam Lake, have reported receipts of $215,568 and $151,253 respectively. Zimmerman boosted his numbers with $184,400 in loans, while Jarchow gave his campaign $50,000.

Meanwhile, St. Croix Medical Examiner Patty Schachtner, the Dems’ favored candidate, reported $13,210 raised through Dec. 4, the end of the pre-primary reporting period.

The Jan. 16 general election will fill the seat vacated by Sheila Harsdorf, Gov. Scott Walker’s new ag secretary.

Shilling said the race will be an uphill battle financially. But she said the combination of Schachtner’s background, Dem energy and the SSDC’s efforts to get “creative” in pumping resources into the race should help make it competitive.

She declined to decline to detail the SSDC’s plans other than to note a rewrite of campaign finance laws gives the caucus new avenues to help candidates. She also declined to share Senate Dems’ polling in the district other than to say Schachtner is within “striking distance.

Shilling said Dems will try to ride the “blue wave” they’ve seen in other states this year. Also, the leader said Schachtner, who faces two other Dems in next week’s primary, has not been “tainted” by votes in the Legislature on bills such as the budget and the $3 billion Foxconn incentive package. What’s more, she said the GOP primary has turned negative, turning off voters.

“I think that stench that voters get from that incivility, that’s not the kind of leadership that they want representing them in the Senate,” she said.

Looking ahead to 2018, she said potential candidates are waiting to see the results of a challenge to Wisconsin’s Assembly boundaries before the U.S. Supreme Court. If the justices overturn the lines, that could also trigger a re-working of the Senate districts.

Still, she said Dems’ initial targets include: GOP Sens. Howard Marklein, of Spring Green; Terry Moulton, of Chippewa Falls; and Roger Roth, of Appleton. She also noted rumors Sen. Frank Lasee, R-DePere, is looking for an appointment to the Walker administration, which would create another vacancy. The 5th SD, now held by outgoing GOP Sen. Leah Vukmir, is typically a solidly Republican seat. But Shilling said she’s keeping an eye on it after the presidential race was unexpectedly close there last fall, which she said was likely because some Republican voters declined to support Donald Trump.

However the maps look, Shilling acknowledged Dems, now in a 20-13 minority, need to notch some wins next fall to give them a shot at re-taking the Senate majority in 2020. It will be key for Dems to have the Senate, Assembly or guv’s office to have a role in drawing the next round of legislative maps after the 2020 census.

Along with targeting Republicans, Dems will have to protect the seat of Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, who is running for the Dem guv nomination.

“Winning begets winning,” Shilling said.

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