Rep. Steve Kagen (D)
Wisconsin 8th District
In 1673, the French Catholic missionary and explorer Jacques Marquette sailed from the open waters of Lake Michigan into what is now Green Bay. He had hoped to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific. He actually found the Fox River, which leads to Lake Winnebago and, after a not-too-difficult portage, the Wisconsin River, which flows into the Mississippi. Green Bay and the Fox River Valley remained mostly wilderness and Indian country for more than 150 years. But once settled by Europeans, they became, as Father Marquette would have liked, one of the most heavily Catholic parts of the United States. The area has thrived economically, with paper mills, a busy port and high-skill manufacturing in Green Bay and Appleton in the Fox River Valley. While paper products have long been an economic mainstay, the industry has experienced some instability. Low water levels in Lake Michigan in 2007 and 2008 hurt Green Bay’s port traffic, and the recession that began in December 2007 further hampered shipping and also lowered demand for the region’s timber.
2008 Presidential Vote
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No reference to Green Bay is complete without a mention of professional football’s Packers, owned by 110,000 shareholding Wisconsinites and unlikely ever to move. Under the team’s charter, if the Packers were ever sold, the proceeds would go to the local Sullivan-Wallen American Legion Post 11 “for the purposes of erecting a proper soldier’s memorial.” The city, by far the smallest to have a National Football League franchise, has earned the nickname Titletown for the Packers’ numerous championships. Thirty miles south is Appleton, which has produced a number of famous, and infamous, Americans—novelist Edna Ferber, escape artist Harry Houdini and demagogue Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the central figure in the Red Scare of the 1950s. Both Green Bay and Appleton are growing, thanks in part to booming Hispanic populations. Green Bay’s Latino community has increased from approximately 1,000 people in 1990 to nearly 10,000 today; the city is now more than 10% Hispanic.
The 8th Congressional District of Wisconsin includes Green Bay and the Fox River Valley south to Appleton. It also includes the inland dairy counties and the North Woods, which has hundreds of pine-ringed lakes where city dwellers from Chicago and Milwaukee keep summer homes. The Door County peninsula, which juts out into Lake Michigan, is another popular summer destination that is closer to the big population centers and as a consequence is more upscale, with art galleries, boutiques and restaurants. Politically, this has often been malleable territory and is one of the must-win regions in this traditional swing state. Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush won 52% of the vote here in 2000 and 55% in 2004, but Democrat Barack Obama carried the district with 54% of the vote in 2008.
Rep. Steve Kagen (D)
Elected: 2006, 2nd term.
Born: Dec. 12, 1950, Appleton .
Education: U. of WI, B.S. 1972, M.D. 1976.
Family: Married (Gayle); 4 children.
Professional Career: Practicing allergist, 1979-2007; Founder, Kagen Allergy Clinics, 1981; Asst. clinical prof., Medical Col. of WI, 1983-2007; Allergy consultant, CNN, 1985-92.
The congressman from the 8th District is Steve Kagen, a Democrat first elected in 2006. A native of Appleton, Kagen was a competitive speed skater in his youth. He earned a medical degree from the University of Wisconsin and founded Kagen Allergy Clinics in the Fox River Valley. His clinics—one is in Green Bay, another in Appleton—made him wealthy. He also taught at the Medical College of Wisconsin and was an allergy expert for CNN. His father, dermatologist Marvin Kagen, a contemporary and friend of former senators Gaylord Nelson and William Proxmire, ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1966. Steve Kagen’s chance to run for the same seat came when four-term Republican Mark Green announced that he would run for governor. Kagen entered the campaign in August 2005, running on a universal-health-care platform he called “No Patient Left Behind,” which included a national insurance risk pool, a deductible limited to 3% of a household’s federal taxable income, and government-sponsored coverage for the poor.
|Steve Kagen (D)||193,662||(54%)||($2,218,166)|
|John Gard (R)||164,621||(46%)||($1,597,322)|
|Steve Kagen (D)||14,500||(100%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (51%)
Kagen became the Democratic nominee by beating two formidable candidates. Former Brown County Executive Nancy Nusbaum had wide name recognition and the backing of the women’s fundraising group EMILY’s List, while business consultant Jamie Wall had the support of prominent Democratic Rep. David Obey, from the neighboring 7th district. The National Republican Congressional Committee saw Kagen as a threat because of his outsider image, his ability to self-fund and his health-care expertise, and it ran ads during the primary calling him “Dr. Millionaire.” The ploy failed. Kagen carried 12 of the district’s 15 counties and won 48% to Wall’s 29% and Nusbaum’s 24%.
Republicans nominated John Gard, Wisconsin’s Assembly Speaker, who won early support from state and national party leaders and easily turned back primary opposition from state Rep. Terri McCormick. Democrats used a March fundraising visit by Vice President Dick Cheney to attack Gard as a “rubber stamp” for the increasingly unpopular Bush administration, and Gard’s nearly two decades in the Assembly made it difficult to sidestep criticism that he was a “career politician.” Kagen told the Appleton Post-Crescent, “I’m an outsider in an outsider year. I’m not a professional politician. I’m the only candidate in this race, on both sides of the aisle, who hasn’t been involved in government. I’ve never been part of the problem. I’ve been solving problems as a doctor.”
Kagen’s political inexperience wasn’t always an asset. He had to apologize in late October for saying he was on “Injun time” as a way of explaining his tardiness for a meeting on an Indian reservation. Republicans used the comment as evidence that he was ill prepared to serve in Congress, although it drew few condemnations from tribal leaders. Republicans claimed Kagen would support higher taxes and amnesty for illegal immigrants. In the final weeks of the campaign, one Kagen ad called Gard “the most corrupt politician in Madison,” though it offered no evidence to back up that claim. Kagen spent $3.2 million on the race, $2.6 million of it his own money, while Gard spent $2.8 million—making it the most expensive House race in Wisconsin history. In a tough political environment for Republican candidates, Kagen won by fewer than 6,000 votes, 51%-49%.
After the election, Kagen said he was mindful that Republicans would work to make him a “one-timer,” but he nevertheless covered himself in controversy. Apparently unaware that an editor for an alternative monthly newspaper, the Scene, was present, Kagen bragged to local peace activists that he had, during a chance encounter with Bush political advisor Karl Rove in a White House bathroom, told Rove: “You recognize me? My name’s Dr. Multimillionaire and I kicked your ass.” Kagen also claimed to have insulted Bush by intentionally greeting First Lady Laura Bush by her mother-in-law’s name, Barbara Bush. The White House denied Kagen’s story, and Kagen apologized in a letter to constituents, but not before newspaper editorialists questioned his judgment.
In the House, Kagen established a moderate voting record, with more-conservative positions on gun-ownership rights and immigration. In 2007, he co-sponsored the Secure America with Verification and Enforcement Act, which sought increased border controls and heightened enforcement of existing immigration laws. In May 2008, Kagen sponsored a bill to label the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries an illegal cartel. It quickly passed the House but was ignored by the Senate. Kagen supports renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and co-sponsored legislation in 2008 to end a program created under NAFTA that allows Mexican truckers to drive in the United States. A provision similar to Kagen’s was added to a 2009 spending bill, leading to $2.4 billion in retaliatory tariffs from Mexico, including one that targeted the carbonless-paper manufacturers in Kagen’s district. As one of the few Democratic physicians in the House, Kagen has a unique opportunity to influence the health-care policy that was kicked off by the Obama administration in 2009.
As expected, Kagen was a top Republican target in 2008. Gard ran again, accusing Kagen of being soft on illegal immigration and weak on the economy. Both sides spent considerably less than they had two years earlier, with Kagen outspending Gard $2.2 million to $1.6 million. The National Rifle Association endorsed Kagen, a plus for him in the hunter-heavy North Woods. He beat Gard by a wider margin this time, 54%-46%. Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s weak performance and Democrat Barack Obama’s heavy spending in the region likely helped Kagen, whose county-by-county totals mirrored Obama’s.
Kagen has kept his skills as an allergist and doctor sharp since being elected. In May 2008, he came to the aid of a woman who had fainted during a flight to Minneapolis, then helped the paramedics treat her once the flight touched down.