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Senate candidate stops in Monroe
State Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, visits with Andrea Nolen, Monroe, at Peppercorn Banquets in Monroe April 22. Vukmir made the stop as part of her Wisconsin Way Tour in her campaign for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democrat Tammy Baldwin. Vukmir is contending with businessman Kevin Nicholson in a Republican primary election Aug. 14. She wrapped up her state tour April 23. (Times photo: Mark Nesbitt)
MONROE - State Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, has a history of not backing down amid controversy.

Decades ago she questioned her child's teacher about the research behind certain reading strategies. She stood by Gov. Scott Walker when protestors flooded the Capitol in Madison before the state approved Act 10 in 2011, dramatically restricting collective bargaining for most public employees.

Her latest endeavor is a Wisconsin Way 72-county campaign tour as she seeks to become the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate to run against U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Vukmir stopped by Peppercorn Banquets in Monroe Sunday to visit with roughly 20 residents and other members of the Green County Republican Party.

A nurse and Brookfield native, Vukmir is running against fellow Republican Kevin Nicholson in a primary slated for Aug. 14. Nicholson, a political newcomer, is a businessman and retired U.S. Marine.

Vukmir chairs the state Senate Committee on Health and Human Services and is on the Joint Finance and Education committees. She has two children, a son, Niko Vukmir, 26, who is a U.S. Army Ranger, and a daughter, Elena Bukowski, 31, who lives in New York City working for a financial investment firm.

"They were the reason I got into this," Vukmir said of her children. "I was a mom with a cause."

She addressed several prominent issues while in Monroe, including immigration reforms centered around building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, health care, President Donald Trump's tariff negotiations and her experience as a lawmaker.

Vukmir said she considered running for U.S. Senate after the November 2016 election when Trump won Wisconsin, the first time a Republican presidential candidate won the state since 1984. Vukmir has been traveling across the state since February 2017 going to various dinners and parades to test the waters, she said.

"I wanted to get an understanding and a sense of what the issues are and what people thought about Tammy (Baldwin)," Vukmir said. "I wanted to see what issues people wanted the Trump administration to follow through on and is there a connection."

One immigration reform plan Vukmir supports and has heard from Wisconsinites is "build the wall," she said.

"I agree with them and feel strongly about that," Vukmir said. "We really can't talk about the whole range of immigration reform unless we seal and secure that border. I watched my aunts, uncles and cousins come here, and they had to go through a legal process. We have to honor that process. There is drug trafficking, sex trafficking and health risks."

Vukmir identifies as a conservative Republican with strong views on abortion.

"I'm 100 percent pro-life," she said. "I made the decision that I need to jump into this race to help get the president's agenda through by having a strong conservative not afraid to stand up. I've done it here in Wisconsin and I will do it in Washington."

Another issue she is passionate about is repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

In September, Baldwin supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' legislation expanding Medicare into a single-payer, universal, government health care plan called Medicare for All Act of 2017.

"As a nurse, I'm looking forward to debating her on that," Vukmir said. "Clearly, we need to add more free-market approaches, and we need to get government out of health care."

Under the ACA, Vukmir said health care premiums have skyrocketed, contrary to the original proposal, and not all Wisconsinites have been able to keep their former doctor. Champions of the law have called for change, not a repeal, because of its full coverage for preventive exams and how it prevents insurance companies from turning down someone with a "pre-existing condition" like cancer or a disability. Vukmir noted her disappointment that legislators fell short of repealing Obamacare by one vote.

"We need to have more reliable conservatives that are going to follow through and make sure the promises made during that November 2016 election will actually happen," she said.

Vukmir is watching closely as Trump continues tariff negotiations. She said she understands agri-businesses have concerns about reciprocal tariffs, like China's proposed 179 percent tax on sorghum imports set to take effect Wednesday. Soybeans and beef cattle are also going to be subject to a 25 percent tariff from China as part of its retaliation against Trump for recently announced steel and aluminum import tariffs.

"They are legitimate concerns," Vukmir said. "Nothing has been passed. The president is negotiating. I will be mindful of that and will be listening to how it affects the industry here in Wisconsin. I think the president is known for being a negotiator, after all ... If he is able to make fairer deals for Wisconsin and people across the country, I think we need to look at it. Nothing is definite right now."

She said she thinks her experience as a state senator will be ideal as she vies with Nicholson to challenge Baldwin for the U.S. Senate seat.

"You really understand the process, No. 1," she said. "You really know how to withstand the pressures that happen. I'm not really going to have a learning curve. When it comes to that, I will hit the ground running."

Vukmir, who remains a strong supporter of Gov. Scott Walker, contends that having experienced protests at the Capitol in regards to Act 10 will also help her in national politics.

"Clearly, having withstood that, I don't think anyone has to question whether I have the resolve to go to Washington and stand strong," she said. "I didn't cave then and I'm not going to cave now."

Vukmir uses "the Wisconsin Way" in her election campaign.

"To me, the Wisconsin Way is we brought an economic miracle," she said, listing figures from the unemployment rate to the deficit.

The state's unemployment rate has dropped since reaching about 9 percent in the aftermath of the Great Recession to 2.9 percent last month, and the budget deficit, calculated using generally accepted accounting principles, started at $3 billion in 2011 and was down to $1.6 billion by June, according to the state's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. Through Act 10, Vukmir contends the reforms have made a financial change apparent in an announced surplus calculated without factoring in the state's debt.

"Mainly it freed up local units of government to have the resources and millions of dollars they were now able to use as they see fit for true local control, whether they wanted to lower property taxes or create the changes they wanted to make in the schools without having that constant pressure of negotiating contracts without all the stakeholders at the table," she said. "As someone who believes in limited government, the more power down to the local level - that is what I believe in. Going to Washington as someone who truly believes the federal government shouldn't be in the states, I will be that voice that says, 'No, this is not our job.' Let the states be the laboratory of democracy and let the states decide."