Democratic Party History of Clark County

Clark County Democratic Party Communications Chairman Rick Marks’ 2021 interview with former state senator Tom Harnisch (D-Neillsville), long-time Clark County resident, attorney, and long-time active member of the Clark County Democratic Party.

Marks: As a long-time resident of Clark County and active Democrat and former State Senator from Neillsville, can you share some political insight on state and local politics with our website viewers?

Harnisch: My insights are based on my involvement with the local Democratic Party since the mid-1960s.  I recognize certain persons and historic involvement since that time. Before the ’60s, I also found, by documents, certain landmark events and named persons that I believe impacted the Wisconsin Democratic Party politics of today.

   As you know, Rick, I was elected and re-elected to the State Senate in 1975 and 1979.  That time served for those constituents in the 31st Senatorial District was undoubtedly an honor and widened my political experience and perception of state and local Democratic politics.

Marks:  You mentioned certain documents that you have read that may be informative to the web visitors.

 Harnisch:  First, I would strongly suggest a book entitled the Wisconsin Story-The Building of a Vanguard State, written by Russell Austin and published by the Milwaukee Journal; I believe the first edition was written in the 1950s. This book would provide those interested in Wisconsin political history with a great background of Wisconsin politics and some added awareness of national politics.

Second, I suggest you read two articles, the History of Clark County, Wisconsin, written by Franklyn Curtis-Wedge (1918), and the Outline History of Wisconsin in the 1928 Wisconsin Blue Book. In the Blue Book, the Democratic Party Platform can be found on pages 794-801.

Marks:  Narrowing down to Clark County politics, do these resources you recommended highlight politics here in our county?

 Harnisch: Looking first at the state Democratic Party, the Democrats held both statehouses in the Assembly and State Senate in 1893.  However, the State Republican Party did control Wisconsin elected politics for most of those early years until well after the Civil War and until 1975.

   To bring my answer to your question a bit closer to our local county politics and dignitaries, the elected Republican officials that were from our County—those that were mentioned in the Blue Book notes for 1928 for the Assembly and State Senate Officers from Clark County— were, namely, State Senator Walter J. Rush, a progressive Republican lawyer from Neillsville. And Assemblyman Arlo A. Huckstead, a farmer from the Neillsville area. Both were Republicans. Previously, Clark County had State Representatives starting in 1853 with Assemblyman Ezra Squires, a Republican from Neillsville.

 In the early years of Statehood, starting in 1848, the Democratic Party was typically a marginal third party. The Republican Party and the Progressive Party controlled most elected State and local government offices.  

     Interestingly, although the Democrats had not held both houses of the State Legislature since 1893, Democrats since 1848 did control the governor’s office with 13 Governors starting with our first Governor, Gov. Nelson Dewey, in 1848 and ending with our current Governor Tony Evers. Recent Democratic Governors since the 1960’s were Gaylord Nelson, John Reynolds, Pat Lucey, Martin Schreiber, Tony Earl, James Doyle, and now Tony Evers.

  It was not until 1975 that State Democrats ever gained control of both State Legislative houses.  At that same time, I was first elected as the State Senate representative in 1975 for the 31st Senatorial District.

Marks:  Are there others in state elected politics that come to mind whom you worked with as a State Senator from Neillsville?

 Harnisch: The same year I was elected to the Wisconsin Senate in 1975, the first woman, State Senator Kathryn Morrison, was elected. In addition, Democrats elected to the United States Senator were Herb Kohl, Bill Proxmire, Gaylord Nelson, and Tammy Baldwin. Then, since the 1960s, Democrats helped elect and reelect to the United States Congress Dave Obey, Ron Kind, Mark Pocan, Al Baldus, Les Aspin, Bob Kastenmeier, Clem Zablocki, Henry Reuss, Gwen Moore, and Jerry Kleczka. Recently retired State Senator Fred Risser, a Democrat from Madison, was the longest-serving State Legislator.

Marks:  Getting down further to our Clark County-level politics, are there locally elected Democrats that come to mind?

Harnisch:  Certainly, there have been and continue to be some highly experienced and dedicated Democrats elected to county offices in Clark County. We have had many local Clark County elected officers who served honorably in their terms of office for many years. Starting back in the 1960s, I can look back and name several that come readily to mind, including Steve Hemersbach, Frank Nikolay, Gene Oberle, Dallas Neville, Darwin Zwieg, Barb Petkovsek, Kathy Brugger, Vern Hansen, Gail Walker, Gene Radcliffe, Louise Hagedorn, and Harlan Sundermeyer. Currently serving as Democrats in Clark County are District Attorney Melissa Inlow and Clerk of Court Heather Braver.

Marks:  Thank you, former State Senator Tom Harnisch, for taking the time to share your historical perspectives, recommended readings, and recollections about elected officials that you have known.