When a handful of possible Democratic candidates for governor addressed a gathering of progressives at the "People's Legislature," Vinehout stole the show.
Vinehout is a great speaker--warm, passionate, and full of compelling facts. It was she who calculated, around the time Governor Walker gave his State of the State address, that 85 percent of the jobs Walker claims to have created in Wisconsin are actually jobs Wisconsinites have taken outside the state. "So let's give a big thank-you to the governors of our surrounding states, for creating jobs for the people of Wisconsin," Vinehout declared.
In hearings of the Education Committee and the Audit Committee, Vinehout often asks the most penetrating questions, expressing, in her cracky voice and with poignant, folksy language, just what is at stake as Republicans work to ram through Walker's destructive agenda.
Describing cuts to school breakfast and milk programs, she said, "The governor says he believes in shared sacrifice. I guess that means the poor, the unemployed, the sick and the children."
A former nurse's aid with a master's in public health, Vinehout taught health administration at the University of Illinois, before she moved to Western Wisconsin to run her family farm. For ten years she milked cows. She was first elected to the state senate in 2006, and beat Ed Thompson, longtime Republican governor Tommy Thompson's brother, to win a second term in 2010. She was one of the fourteen Democrats who fled the state last year to prevent the immediate passage of Walker's union-busting budget repair bill, and has been a happy warrior in the battle against Walker ever since.
As people get to know Vinehout, enthusiasm for her campaign is bubbling up on Facebook and other social media sites. And so are the attacks. NARAL sent out two press releases last week excoriating Vinehout for taking the wrong side on legislation that would allow pharmacists to deny women their legally prescribed birth control thanks to a "conscience" bill pushed by anti-abortion groups: Vinehout issued a statement, explaining that the amendments she sponsored were actually designed to bring the law into line with the state constitution's "conscience" clause, and to ensure that pharmacies are required to fill women's prescriptions, even if individual pharmacists opt out.
But that didn't satisfy NARAL, which called Vinehout's clarifying statement "patently false." "Under Vinehout's law," the group said, a woman could be turned away from a pharmacy owned by someone who objected to birth control. "If the woman lives in a rural town with only one pharmacy, this could mean driving 45 minutes or more to another pharmacy just to have her prescription filled."
Furthermore, NARAL points out, "In 2008, serving on the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, Vinehout cast the deciding vote against SB 398 which would have repealed Wisconsin's unconstitutional criminal abortion ban and removed criminal penalties for women who seek an abortion."
I talked to Vinehout by phone while she was back on the farm on Super Bowl Sunday, to ask about her run, and clarify her stance on choice.
"Because my position on abortion has been to support the current law, NARAL says I am not a strong enough defender of women’s health. At the same time Wisconsin Right to Life says I am pro-abortion," Vinehout says.
Pointing to her generally pro-choice voting record, she said, "I have the same position I had back in 2006," which is that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare."
To Vinehout, that means supporting access to birth control, health care, a living wage, child care, and sex ed.
But, she adds, "I support existing law," on abortion--including the 24 hour waiting period, parental notification (with loopholes where parents are neglectful or abusive), and no public funds for abortion.
When Republicans attempted to change the law to make it illegal to use private insurance funds to pay for abortion, Vinehout opposed the measure and gave a speech about it on the floor.
"I think I represent the vast majority of my constituents who have a more nuanced view on abortion," Vinehout says. "They may call themselves pro-life, but they don’t want to see abortion go back to the days of the back alley."
"That sounds odd for somebody who has worked with the [pro-choice] groups for a long time. But it is where people are – many people consider themselves pro-life but think abortion should be safe and legal."
Some years ago, the National Catholic Reporter ran a story on Vinehout that called her a pro-life Democrat, but said she planned to disguise her views if she ran for public office.
At the time, Vinehout was defending Congressman David Obey from attacks by Bishop Raymond Burke, who was on a campaign to prevent pro-choice Democrats from receiving communion in the Catholic Church.
Vinehout says her comments were taken out of context--that she never described herself as pro-life, or even discussed a run for office with the reporter.
"I haven’t labeled myself one way or the other," she says. "Especially in my world, labels have been used to divide us --and that doesn’t accurately represent our positions."
I remember the communion controversy, and I also remember being taken aback when Obey, whom I always thought was pro-choice, supported parental notification and criminal penalties for anyone who took a minor out of state to get an abortion. Obey, like Vinehout, took a nuanced view of abortion rights.
The troubling thing about that position is that it is exactly these sorts of camel's-nose measures that have so limited access to abortion, birth control, and basic health services for women.
One thing you can say for Wisconsin's last governor, Democrat Jim Doyle--no great progressive leader--is that he held the line against a barrage of retrograde anti-choice laws concocted by the Wisconsin legislature.
So I worry about Vinehout's middle path.
But I also know where she's coming from. Outside Madison, her heterodox politics are commonplace. And people love her direct, unscripted, unpoliticianlike approach.
"Sometimes I drive the Senate Democrats crazy because I won't stick to the talking points," she admits. "I don't even read them."
Vinehout appeals to the same non-ideological progressive tradition in Wisconsin politics as Obey.
"Divisions are deep and anger is strong and we need a candidate who is going to help heal the state, not make the divisions deeper," she says. "I sense a yearning for healing that is much greater among the people than in the parties."
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Which Way, Wisconsin? How to Compete with Walker?"