Democrat Mark Pocan is cut from the same political cloth as his predecessor, Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin, whom he also succeeded in the Wisconsin State Assembly. Like Baldwin, who gave up her House seat to run for the Senate, Pocan is an openly gay, progressive Democrat. After winning a nasty primary campaign in August, Pocan had an easy path to Congress in the liberal, Madison-based district.
Pocan was born and raised in Kenosha, the child of two small-business owners. His father ran a specialty print shop, and his mother owned a beauty-supply store. Pocan’s father also served on the Kenosha City Council, and as a kid, Pocan campaigned with him and attended council meetings. He continued to work on campaigns while in high school. At the University of Wisconsin, Pocan said in an interview, “I started out as a poli-sci major until I took my first poli-sci class that talked about the Ottoman Empire and not political campaigns. So I decided to switch” to journalism. He helped pay for college by working as a magician and tending bar.
Early in his career, Pocan worked in public relations, but in 1988, he followed in his father’s footsteps and opened up his own Madison-based print shop. Around that time, Pocan also had to deal with personal trauma. After leaving a gay bar one night, he was physically assaulted by two men and ended up needing stitches. “I was not out to everyone, to friends, mostly.... But that was kind of a turning point because after that happened, that’s when I got very active with a number of LGBT nonprofits,” he said.
In 1991, Pocan won a seat on the Dane County Board of Supervisors, where he first got to know Baldwin. He served in that position until 1996, and later spent 14 years in the state Assembly. He landed a seat on the influential Joint Finance Committee and cochaired the panel in 2009 and 2010. Among his legislative activities, Pocan helped expand health care coverage for children and extend domestic-partner benefits for gay couples. He coauthored the Compassionate Care for Rape Victims Act, signed into law in 2008, to ensure that hospitals provide information on emergency contraception to victims of sexual assault.
When he launched his bid for Baldwin’s House seat, the four-way primary quickly turned acrimonious. Pocan’s biggest rival was Kelda Helen Roys, a fellow Madison-area state representative. Pocan had support from unions and much of the party establishment, plus a roughly 2-to-1 fundraising advantage. Roys attacked him for compromising with Republicans and for taking money from political action committees. She also criticized Pocan’s votes for two business tax credit bills, describing them as Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s “corporate tax giveaways.”
Still, Pocan did not back away from his image as a strong progressive willing to work across the aisle. “There are those who scream and holler and put out a press release,” he told the Wisconsin State Journal. “I decided I wanted to be the kind that gets things done.” He tried to stay above the fray and emphasized his roots as a small businessman. Pocan won easily, with 72 percent of the vote to Roys’s 22 percent. In the general election, he easily defeated Chad Lee, a 29-year-old businessman who had lost a bid for the seat to Baldwin in 2010.
Since gay marriage is not legal in Wisconsin, Pocan went to Canada to get married in 2006. He still dabbles as a magician for a hobby and said he looks forward to shopping at magic shops in the Washington area.