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5 top Wisconsin Democrats running for U.S. Senate spell out differences in debate

candidates running for U.S. Senate
Screenshot from TMJ4's Debate Broadcast
Mandela Barnes, Alex Lasry, Sarah Godlewski, Tom Nelson and Steven Olikara took part in a candidate forum for U.S. Senate Sunday night at Marquette University.

Five of the Democrats running for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin took part in a candidate forum Sunday night at Marquette University. Protecting abortion rights and reducing gun violence were two issues that brought out some differences in the candidates' backgrounds.

The Democrats are competing to take on Republican incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson this fall. The five Democrats allowed to take part in the televised forum were Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson and Waukesha County nonprofit executive Steven Olikara.

All five said they opposed the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe vs. Wade, and that at least temporarily halted abortions in Wisconsin.

Barnes spoke of his mother getting an abortion decades ago due to a complicated pregnancy that put her health at risk.

"She had to make the decision to end that pregnancy. That's a decision that any woman across this country should be able to make without interference from politicians," Barnes said.

Lasry mentioned that his wife is chief of staff at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

"I see first hand how her and her colleagues are working on the front lines doing the heroic work to make sure people are still able to get their health care," Lasry said.

Nelson promoted expanding the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce the power of the court's current conservative majority, which three appointments by then-President Donald Trump have strengthened.

Then, Nelson made one of the few criticisms of other Democrats, saying Godlewski did not vote in the 2016 general election narrowly won by Trump in the state.

"He was able to get three appointments because in 2016, people here did not turn out to vote, including Sara Godlewski," Nelson said.

Godlewski replied: "I don't need to be lectured by any men about how important the 2016 election was," she said to cheer from the audience. "Look, I am the only person on this stage who left their job to join the Hillary Clinton campaign."

Olikara, who is campaigning on a platform of getting big money out of politics, criticized the fundraising that's taken place since last month's Supreme Court ruling.

"That to me was revealing of the core issue here, which is, the political-industrial complex is much more interested in your dollar than your human rights," Olikara maintained.

All five candidates were also asked about funding for police and efforts to combat gun violence.

Barnes, a Milwaukee native who two years ago called police budgets "bloated," said he's lost friends to shootings.

"I lost my first friend in high school, and many more after that. That's the unfortunate reality we have. So, yeah we need to make sure law enforcement officers have the resources they need to keep us safe," Barnes said.

Barnes said more investments in crime prevention are needed.

Lasry said he supports using federal tax dollars to put more police on the street as part of a three-pronged public safety plan.

"The first approach was to make sure that the police have the resources they need for training, to stop and solve crimes and make sure we rebuild trust in communities," Lasry said.

Lasry and Barnes also back tougher gun laws. So does Godlewski, who mentioned she grew up in western Wisconsin in a family of hunters.

"I will tell you, talking to my dad about this issue, that if you need an AR-15 to go hunting, go back to target practice," Godlewski said.

Olikara said the organization he founded, the Millennial Action Project, helped bring together a bi-partisan group of lawmakers who got the ball rolling on authorizing Centers for Disease Control studies of gun violence after the Parkland, Florida shootings in 2018.

"We passed that through both chambers of Congress, got it signed into law, the first gun violence prevention law in two decades. That's what real change looks like," Olikara said.

Nelson spoke of his days in the Wisconsin State Legislature when he voted against concealed carry of firearms and legal immunity for gun manufacturers.

"I'm the only one here on this stage, that has made that kind of difference. And that's something that I'm proud of," Nelson said.

The Democratic primary election in the Senate race is Aug. 9.

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