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'Progressive' Democrat challenges Duffy

Sean Duffy represents the wrong people, and it’s up to someone who is concerned about ordinary people struggling with day-to-day needs to replace him, said Kelly Westlund.

On Aug. 12, she will face Mike Krsiean of Houlton in the 7th Congressional District’s Democratic primary. In 2010, Krsiean ran as an independent, challenging Democrat Ron Kind in Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District and arguing for limited government.

Though she’ll have to win the primary first, Westlund who hails from Ashland, said her focus is on defeating Duffy, a second-term Republican.

“I’m just going to keep running as a progressive Democrat,” Westlund said. “My eye is on Sean Duffy.”

Of Duffy, she said, “Too many of his decisions are based on the will of his contributors.”

During an interview in Hudson last week, Westlund — who lives in one of the northern most counties in the 26-county district — said she will campaign vigorously and has already visited all of the counties in the 7th District.

At 31, she’s a year older than Dave Obey was when he first ran for the 7th District seat, a position he held from 1969 to 2011, Westlund said, suggesting her age may encourage other younger persons to vote.

“It’s our future (at risk). We have a lot at stake,” she said.

Observing Duffy’s work in office, Westlund said she began to feel it is her responsibility to challenge him.

“I feel like I can do better,” she said. “I can make better decisions.”

Also, Westlund said, her upbringing in a military family — her dad was in the Air Force, her mom worked for the Department of Defense and her step-father served in the Navy — instilled a commitment to community service.

Westlund launched her campaign last December, just days before Duffy held a Hunger and Homelessness Summit in Wausau.

That summit was held soon after Duffy supported cutting programs that help those in poverty, Westlund said, claiming he talks one way about the issues while visiting Wisconsin and then votes with powerful interests when he’s back in Washington.

Growing up in a military family, Westlund spent much of her life in the South. She settled in northern Wisconsin 13 years ago and earned her degree in Peace, Conflict and Global Studies from Northland College in Ashland.

Westlund went on to work with a local nonprofit group, the Alliance for Sustainability, focusing her efforts on community and economic development. While serving as executive director, she coordinated a regional pilot project with the State Office of Energy Independence to increase energy efficiency and promote the use of renewable energy alternatives.

For the last three years, she has worked as a paid consultant, helping members of the Bayfield Regional Food Producers Cooperative pool resources to build a local food system through farm-to-table events, community supported farming and centralize marketing and distribution.

She is married to Caleb Westlund, a native of the Ashland area.

Her husband is a carpenter, and while he hasn’t collected unemployment for long, he was out of work for a time in 2008.

“I know what it’s like,” said Westlund, emphasizing that unemployment is an “earned benefit” especially important for workers in seasonal areas.

“The minimum wage has not kept up with the cost of living,” said Westlund, who supports raising it to at least $10.10.

“History and common sense tell us that the best way to restore economic growth is to expand economic opportunity to those who don’t already have it,” Westlund said. “Increasing the minimum wage will put money into the pockets of people who will spend it, creating real economic stimulus that just doesn’t happen when CEOs get bigger bonuses.”

Protecting the “social safety network” — which includes heating assistance, food stamps, Medicare, unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage — is one of her goals, Westlund said.

She also supports lifting the cap on Social Security taxes. Now workers pay the tax on the first $117,000 of annual income. About 900 of the nation’s wealthiest people earn so much they stop paying into Social Security on Day 2 of each calendar year, said Westlund, who suggested collecting the tax on higher incomes.

Fear of the Social Security system going broke is “more of a talking point than it is fact,” said Westlund, suggesting there are ways to prevent that. She also noted that lowering retirement ages would open up more jobs for younger people.

She recalled a discussion she had on an airplane with a gentleman who said food stamps are a handout and claimed there is fraud in the system.

“If that’s the only reason for changing the system, then let’s look at all benefits,” said Westlund, noting there is some fraud in most government programs.

Food stamps help mostly the elderly, disabled and children, said Westlund, who wondered how a person can morally object to that: “I don’t believe that’s where our values are.”

Westlund served on the Ashland City Council from 2011 until April of this year. By then she had decided to run for Congress and didn’t seek reelection.

While on the council, Westlund said she learned it’s necessary to listen to a variety of perspectives and accept the feedback after decisions were made.

“I learned a lot about accountability,” she said. “You’d make a decision and that (same) night hear what people thought about it.”

She also learned the importance decisions made in Washington have on local governments.

Westlund is a Group 14 graduate of Leadership Wisconsin, a member of the Young Elected Official Network and the first graduate of Emerge Wisconsin to seek federal office.

For more information about her campaign, visit

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.

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