Updated to correct a quotation incorrectly attributed to Bennett.
LANCASTER, Wis. — While the candidates hoping to represent the 49th District in the Wisconsin Assembly do agree on the problems Grant County faces, they disagree on the solutions.
Incumbent state Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, has represented the district since he was elected in 2010. His Democratic opponent is Jesse Bennett, a goat farmer from Bagley.
As the Nov. 8 general election draws near, both candidates are taking shots at the other.
Bennett decried Tranel’s past membership in a legislative group known for its corporation-friendly agenda. Tranel pointed to Bennett’s social media presence, which includes a photo of the candidate in blackface.
Tranel, a fifth-generation dairy farmer, said he understands and represents the interests of rural Wisconsin residents.
“People know me,” he said.
Tranel agrees with Bennett that roads are deteriorating and rural school budgets are pinched. Tranel said that has less to do with total state education funding than the existing funding formula, which does not consider fixed costs like heating and staffing.
Tranel said he would support allocating additional dollars to rural schools, but not an across-the-board allocation statewide.
He noted his voting record indicates he considers issues through a nonpartisan lens, “doing what I believe is right for southwest Wisconsin.”
For example, he voted against the previous two state budgets, while he supported Wisconsin concealed carry, voter identification and Castle Doctrine legislation.
Tranel, who signed on in January to legislation dubbed the Rural Wisconsin Initiative, recently announced his support for a second package of bills that would finance residency programs for rural physicians and training and wellness programs in rural areas.
Although he has never held political office, Bennett has a vision of a progressive future for which he will “fight like hell.”
“I truly believe that democracy is of the people, for the people, by the people,” he said.
He entered the race inspired by the progressive platform advocated by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont.
Bennett said his views are “not entirely” in line with the Democratic Party, particularly in his support of Second Amendment rights.
“Very few people I talk to like the Democrats or the Republicans,” he noted. “I say I’m running against both of them.”
If elected to the Assembly, Bennett hopes to work toward the creation of a living wage, investment in rural roads and reduction of corporate tax credits.
He said such policies siphon money that should be allocated for public school districts.
In District 49, Bennett noted that voters in many school districts voted to raise their local property taxes because the state is not providing adequate funding.
Bennett has been a vocal critic of Tranel, who he characterizes as a “textbook example of representatives that are working for private industry.”
He noted Tranel co-sponsored the Telecommunications Modernization Act, a bill based on one authored by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
The organization has attracted notoriety for drafting and distributing model state- level legislation that critics say prioritizes corporate interests.
The bill deregulated telephone service in Wisconsin and revised rules that allowed the Wisconsin Public Service Commission to set telecommunications rates.
Although Tranel ceased to be a member of ALEC after his first term, Bennett believes Tranel’s involvement calls his judgment into question.
Tranel rejects the claim. He said Bennett lacks adequate understanding of the problems Grant County residents face.
He criticized Bennett for publicly filing a statement in 2008 that rejected a proposal to construct a new Alliant Energy coal electric generating station in Cassville, Wis.
“I was in support of the investment because I support what a billion-dollar investment in Grant County would have meant,” Tranel said.
Bennett told the Telegraph Herald that had the plant opened, it would have been unsustainable, as the country “is moving away from a coal-based economy.”
On Friday, Tranel provided the Telegraph Herald paper copies of posts displayed on Bennett’s personal Facebook account. Tranel characterized the posts as inaccurate and “distasteful.”
Three recent posts, authored by Bennett state that Tranel is a member of ALEC.
Two posts, one of which was directed at the Republican Party, contains explicit language, while another criticized the supposed corruption of the Democratic Party during the presidential primary.
One post depicts a painting of presidential candidate Donald Trump in the nude.
A different post depicts a photograph of Bennett dressed as rapper Flavor Flav during a 2012 Halloween party.
Bennett painted his face black as part of the costume, but denied the getup was a conscious attempt to make use of blackface makeup.
“We don’t take kindly to racism,” he said of his Mexican-American family.
Tranel also drew attention to a post in which Bennett expressed support of the election of “as many progressive environmentalists as possible” to the Wisconsin Legislature. (Correction: The quotation was by a supporter inviting citizens to an event on behalf of Bennett.)
“He is on a partisan vendetta,” Tranel said. “I think people want their elected officials to work well and get along with others. They’re sick of partisan politics.”
Bennett said he was unaware the posts could be viewed by the public. But he contended the material reflects political beliefs he openly expresses on his campaign’s Facebook page.