By Tom Still

LA CROSSE – If you follow Wisconsin’s race for governor by only watching the television ads or listening to “squawk” radio, you might believe voters care primarily about gun control, the death penalty, abortion rights, stem cell research, immigration and the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage.

But when you spend time talking with ordinary citizens about problems that matter most to them, you get a dramatically different picture. Their priorities in this election are much more basic and consistent with what public opinion polls tell us: They want to know what the candidates will do about taxes, the economy, health care and education.

That won’t stop campaigns and independent groups from focusing on what they believe are the “wedge” issues, which are hot-button topics that split traditional political support bases. But those are not necessarily the messages most voters want to hear.

My conviction on this point comes from working with a group of citizens, selected to reflect a cross-section of Wisconsin, as part of the “We the People/Wisconsin” civic journalism project. Those citizens have twice asked questions of the candidates for governor in live, televised debates, most recently the Oct. 20 debate at Logistics Health Inc. in La Crosse. Each time, they had the chance to ask about the wedge issues; each time, they chose not to do so.

My role in the We the People/Wisconsin exercise was to moderate discussions in which citizens set their priorities and honed their questions. The process began in Stevens Point in July, when nearly 30 citizens spent the day reviewing the results of a statewide issues poll and hearing from a parade of public-policy experts. It continued Sept. 15 at the first We the People/Wisconsin debate at GE Healthcare in Waukesha, where the topics were taxes, government and the economy.

Last Friday in La Crosse, 17 of those citizens met one last time to question Gov. Jim Doyle, the Democratic incumbent, and U.S. Rep. Mark Green, the Republican challenger, about health care, education and any other “quality of life” issue that made the group’s cut. In essence, it was a grab bag, and virtually any issue outside taxes and the economy was fair game.

A week or so before the debate, a list of 40 citizen questions was put up for a vote. The panel of potential questioners narrowed the list of possible on-air questions to about 15. Ninety minutes before the cameras went live, the citizens met on last time to narrow their list to no more than 10 – the expected limit during a debate that was scheduled for just under an hour.

Out of the mix came three questions about health care, three on education, one on crime, one on Wisconsin’s moratorium on nuclear power, one on tort reform, and one on clean government.

The citizens had heard both candidates talk extensively about stem-cell research during the July “boot camp” in Stevens Point, so there wasn’t much need to hear more. Gun control was mentioned once in July but never again. The death penalty never really came up; neither did abortion. Immigration was discussed, but no proposed question made the citizens’ final list.

The proposed ban on gay marriage and civil unions was debated, and with a fair amount of passion, but at the end of the day it fell just short of the “on-air” list. That wasn’t because the group expressed much of a sentiment about the amendment on way or the other – but because they concluded it was an issue for Nov. 7 voters to decide, not the candidates for governor.

Granted, this was only a focus group of voters. But their choices mirrored what public opinion polls show when citizens are asked what issues are most important to them. Repeatedly, the citizen questioners in the We the People/Wisconsin debates had the chance to talk about “wedge” issues; repeatedly, they chose to stick with bread-and-butter questions that mattered most to them, their families and their neighbors.

It may not make for a riveting television ad or a controversial talk show, but it’s what people want to know. The candidate for governor who comes closest to answering those bread-and-butter questions in the closing two weeks may be the one who brings home the whole loaf.

Still is the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He was a co-founder of We the People/Wisconsin and serves on its board of directors. Go to to watch streaming video of the Sept. 15 and Oct. 20 debates.