Will this woman flip the Senate?

Kriss Marion bounces along the back roads of southwest Wisconsin in a 1994 red Dodge Ram pickup.

Big signs, hand-painted on plywood, adorn each side of the pickup bed and declare her as a candidate for Senate District 17. She’s a Democrat looking to unseat incumbent Sen. Howard Marklein in a seat once held by Republican maverick Dale Schultz.

On this Saturday in August she wears cowboy boots, a blue sleeveless dress and a cowboy hat. The same Patsy Cline tape plays over and over again on the cassette tape player. When I ask if there are other options she tells me to check the glove compartment. In it I find a few tapes that have somehow, maybe through the intense heat of many Driftless summers, become fused together. I manage to detach one, an old Roy Rogers and Dale Evans tape titled, Sweet Hour of Prayer. We continue listening to Patsy Cline.

On her right shoulder she sports a tattoo of a barn swallow and the word HOPE. It’s her most recent tat but not her only one.

She explains it all. Her husband bought the pickup a few years ago as surplus from the Blanchardville Fire Department. The cowboy boots are “comfortable but dressy.” She wants to make a good impression with voters as she campaigns. The cowboy hat came from a shop in Spring Green. The tattoo is a barn swallow because the bird is the sailor’s sign of returning home.

And it’s home that she loves. “I’m so in love with the Driftless Area, it’s ridiculous,” Marion says.

It is an adopted home. Marion, 50, grew up near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her father was a steelworker (he built some of the World Trade Center) and the family lived just outside of town in a mostly rural area. But she longed for the excitement of cities and visited New York as much as she could.

When it came time for college she chose Chicago. “I picked Northwestern because I wanted to go to the ‘big city,’” Marion explains. “It turned out Northwestern wasn’t in the city at all, but in the worst part of the suburbs.”

To get her fix of the bright lights she stayed in Chicago after graduation and worked as a local government beat reporter for The Daily Herald. When she started having kids she turned to editing and to freelance writing for such publications as The D.O., which, as if you didn’t know, is the official monthly publication of the American Osteopathic Association.

She, her husband, Shannon, who works for InterVarsity Collegiate Ministries, and their four children lived a comfortable urban life in Chicago’s Bowmanville neighborhood.

Then in 2000 Marion came down with severe rheumatoid arthritis. Laid up in bed, she read all of the novels of environmental activist and author Wendell Berry and she began to dream of returning to the rural life she knew in Pennsylvania.

On weekends the Marions started hunting for a small farm, eventually finding a 20-acre place a stone’s throw from downtown Blanchardville, population 825. Why Blanchardville? “It had four bars and a lot of live music,” Marion explains.

Music is important to her. Marion has played the drums for a variety of bands covering folk, rock, country and even some Christian rock. One band she played for was called “Farmony,” which specialized in catchy folk-rock tunes that encouraged the audience to sing along.

The Marions introduced sheep to help restore the farm by eating up invasive plants. They planted an organic garden and later, to supplement their income, started a farm bed and breakfast. And, inexplicably, her arthritis slowly went away. “I haven’t had to take a pill in two years,” Marion says, crediting her new lifestyle.

So life was good, but it was cookies that brought her into politics.

Every candidate has a brochure, usually filled with pictures of the candidate looking hard-working and earnest and often pointing out mundane things like the fact that they are a homeowner and property taxpayer just like you.

Standing behind a table full of baked goods covered in kitchen towels to keep the bees away, vendor Becky Kammes tells Marion, “You’re the reason that I’m able to be here.”

In fact, Marion is the reason that Kammes and others who sell home baked goods in small quantities can legally do business in Wisconsin. Our state was one of the two in the nation (the other is New Jersey) that required those selling baked goods to have a license with all of the heavy investment in commercial kitchens that comes with licensure requirements.

Marion and friends Dela Ends and Lisa Kivirist fought for the right of bakers to bake and sell regardless of the size of their kitchen. Among other things, Marion and others wanted to include baked goods in their community-supported agriculture boxes during times of the year when produce was not producing. Once they found out that they were breaking the law they stopped and set out to change the rules.

This is where Marion’s idealism ran hard into the brick wall of state legislative politics. In 2013 they helped get a bill introduced to change the law. They dutifully worked through the process and things looked good. Their bill was poised to pass the Assembly when they discovered that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos had pulled it from the calendar. Despite their requests to meet with him, Vos has never talked to them or explained why he killed their bill, but they speculate that he was doing the bidding of big food interests who have no reason to want to see their sales undercut by home bakers. Vos did not respond to a request for comment.

Unable to get past Vos, the trio tried the courts with the help of the Virginia-based libertarian law firm Institute for Justice. In May 2017 a Lafayette County circuit court ruled in their favor, striking down the law as unconstitutional because even the state conceded it was not necessary to protect public health.

Subsequent efforts to pass a new statute in compliance with the court ruling have failed, but the law remains unenforceable for now and home bakers are free to sell their wares anywhere in the state.

Early on in her fight Marion reached out to the Wisconsin Farmers Union. They gave her what help they could, but there was no active local chapter. So, she ended up founding the South Central Wisconsin chapter, which Marion claims is now the largest in the state, with about 1,500 members.

With all of that organizing and fighting behind her it was natural that Marion would be urged to run for office. In 2016 she was elected to the Lafayette County Board without opposition and re-elected this year without an opponent.

What motivated her to run was not baking rights, but water. “My passions are water quality and healthy rural communities,” she says. “And you can’t talk about farming without talking about water quality.”

As a county board member she’s most proud of her efforts to encourage testing of private wells to detect harmful chemicals and the hiring of an economic development director for the county. And she takes a practical view toward government, calling herself a “small government Democrat.” She thinks the government over-regulates small business owners like home bakers but doesn’t do enough to protect drinking water.

Now she’s looking to unseat Marklein, a Republican. The Democrats need to hang on to a Republican-leaning seat in Door County that they won earlier this year in a special election and a seat in the northwest currently held by Democrat Kathleen Vinehout who gave it up to run for governor. Then they need to wrest two more seats from Republicans to take control of the state Senate. Everyone agrees that they can’t do it without picking up the sprawling district that runs from the far southwest corner of the state all the way up to New Lisbon.

Marion is a natural extrovert and organizer, but running twice unopposed for the Lafayette County Board is nothing at all like the no-holds-barred world of state-level politics with control of one-half of the Legislature at stake. Marion needed help. She turned to a friend and another woman with a similar story. Anna Landmark was once a top-notch political operative who gave it up to move to a farm and start a small business. But she came out of retirement for her friend. Can the cookie activist and the artisan cheesemaker change the direction of the entire state?

The future of state government may be in the hands of two “Soil Sisters.”

A decade ago Marion and friends Dela Ends and Lisa Kivirist founded a loose support group of women who were farming or interested in starting up a farm. They called themselves the Soil Sisters and tackled the nitty-gritty, dirt-under-your-fingernails issues of farming: how to buy land, what to do with all that manure. Today, there are about 150 women in the group, most of whom live in southwest Wisconsin. They meet for a potluck once a month and host a conference each August.

Landmark, now 40, joined the group shortly after it began. She was transitioning from political organizer to cheesemaker.

Landmark had grown up knocking on doors and making phone calls to voters, a foot soldier in countless local progressive campaigns. Her father, Jerry Landmark, was a Dane County supervisor from the rural western part of the county when she was a kid.

Landmark was my campaign manager for Madison mayor in 2003. At 24, it was the first time she had run the whole show and we won an improbable victory. She went on to work on other campaigns, including a successful Madison school referendum later that year and a congressional race and a minimum wage referendum in Ohio. And she served a stint at the National Education Association, the national teachers union, in Washington, D.C. She later returned home to serve as research director for One Wisconsin Now, a union-backed liberal issue advocacy group based in Madison.

One Wisconsin Now Executive Director Scot Ross, who hired Landmark, says she played a key role in identifying issues to pursue and in strategizing. He credits her with targeting the student loan crisis as an important topic before it became a national cause. She was also a source of calm. “Our office can be a font of chaos,” Ross says. “Anna helped keep us focused.”

Then in 2012, and much like Kriss Marion 10 years earlier, Landmark felt the pull of her rural roots. She took two years to study to be a cheesemaker while continuing to work at One Wisconsin Now. She started her own business, Landmark Creamery, in 2013. Along with her business partner, fellow Soil Sister and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel food writer Anna Thomas Bates, she opened a retail store in Paoli last year.

Thomas Bates and Landmark say the idea for their business was incubated in true Wisconsin fashion. “We were drinking old fashioneds,” Thomas Bates reports. “You were testing cocktails for a story,” Landmark adds in her ever-earnest way, apparently feeling the need to point out that even cocktail hour can have a purpose.

Their young business has been remarkably successful. Landmark’s Petite Nuage sheeps milk cheese recently won a blue ribbon at the American Cheese Society’s national competition.

Landmark now juggles being a wife, mother, cheesemaker and small business owner with running a political campaign: “I’m confident that I’m the only campaign manager in the country who makes cheese one day a week.”

Four years ago Pat Bomhack survived a bloody Democratic primary to take on Marklein. In some ways it seems like a precursor to the rift between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters two years later. Bomhack was a lawyer and Stanford graduate who attended the London School of Economics and he had no strong ties to the district. But Bomhack was the choice of Madison Democratic strategists over the more grassroots-based candidate, retired state employee Ernie Wittwer. Only seven votes separated the candidates on primary election night, but Bomhack won in a recount.

In the general election Marklein easily defeated Bomhack, who got just 45 percent of the vote.

This time Marion had no primary and both she and Landmark don’t want to touch what happened in 2014. Both said that they were not involved in Bomhack’s or Wittwer’s race. But they agree that now Democrats are united behind Marion and that she has a good chance of picking up independent votes in a district that went for Tammy Baldwin in 2012, Donald Trump in 2016 and liberal-backed state Supreme Court candidate Rebecca Dallet in April.

“I don’t think she’s the kind of candidate who would have been recruited out of Madison. She’s not an accountant, she’s not an attorney. She’s a farmer and small business owner,” Landmark says pointedly.

While not eager to directly criticize Marklein, Marion crisply outlined her priorities as we bumped along the back roads of the Driftless. First, she noted the bumping and underscored the importance of fixing the roads. Then she talked about water quality, schools and the need to bring broadband service to rural areas. And she wasn’t shy about talking about the natural environment in general.

“Stewardship values have been eroding for some time,” she says. “But in the last two or three years it’s been massive. WMC gets everything it wants.” The Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce is the state’s most powerful business lobby.

Marklein, a certified public accountant who touts himself as a member of the “CPA Caucus,” did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. One big advantage Marklein had heading into September, according to the latest campaign finance reports, was cash: $472,811 compared to Marion’s $56,202. That enabled Marklein to start running TV ads in the Madison market while Marion was not on the air.

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