State News

Talk radio host and lifelong educator vie for assembly seat in Wausau

Image By: Katie Scheidt and Katie Scheidt

Each week, The Daily Cardinal will be taking a look at down-ballot races throughout the state. This week we look north to the 85th Assembly district in Wausau where Republican Pat Snyder and Democrat Mandy Wright are locked in a rematch.

Due to the retirement of state Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Wausau, 2016 presents a repeat of 2012 when Wright narrowly beat Snyder for representation of the district.

Since her defeat in 2014, Wright has returned to her career as an educator. The foundations of her unlikely political career were laid in her first job as an English as a second language teacher.

Wright’s first education job as an ESL teacher for the Wausau School District was made possible in part by the city’s large population of Hmong refugees. After fighting for the CIA during the Vietnam War, the Hmong were violently driven to refugee camps in Thailand after being abandoned by the United States in 1975. Many eventually found sponsors in cities like Wausau due to the generosity of local churches and other groups, and they have continued to flow into Wausau within the past decade.

“I taught the last wave of Hmong immigrants that came out of Thai refugee camps,” Wright said. “And I understand their family needs and their desire for access to quality public education to be successful in America.”

Access to education continues to motivate her political career. She hopes to turn the tide against a GOP that she calls “the most anti-education legislative body in the history of the state.”

“The UW cuts have been damaging,” Wright told The Daily Cardinal. “But it's particularly devastating up here at UW-Marathon County. We have basically no student services left. When there’s an issue like we had, a student suicide, there’s no guidance counseling left.”

Without the rash of education reforms passed by Republicans since 2010, Wright might never have run for public office.

“I wasn’t politically involved until 2010,” Wright said. “I wasn’t even a member of the Democratic Party, but I not only disagreed with the attacks on labor and education. I disagreed with the way they were pushed through.”

In contrast, the entirety of her opponent’s recent career has been inseparable from politics.

“It’s all about what’s best for the people,” Snyder told The Daily Cardinal over the phone with a persuasiveness no doubt honed through a successful career as a conservative talk radio host.

After spending 22 years as a disc jockey, the Milwaukee native joined the growing ranks of right-wing commentators in the late nineties, eventually moving to Wausau, where he spent 15 years as AM 550’s morning talk host. Every weekday morning he would warm up the same audience that later in the day would tune in for the station’s slate of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage.

As a host, Snyder found a loyal following, propelling him to his first bid for state legislature in 2012. He says he’s learned from that loss.

“The one thing I do now is less talk,” Snyder said. “When I was on radio I would bring my opinion forward. Now I listen.”

One of the things Snyder has learned by listening is the importance of education, although he comes down on the issue differently than Wright. He calls for enhanced technical education at the high school and community college level.

Citing his district’s 600 job openings in light manufacturing alone, he claims that it’s “important that we bridge the gap between what an employer needs and the skills people have.”

He also calls for a more moderated tone on funding the UW system, borrowing former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s call to “quit making the UW a political football.”

“I think it’s been cut enough,” Snyder said.

Wright is not buying Snyder’s outward moderation regarding education.

“I’ve invested my life and career making sure that kids have opportunities to learn and grow like I did,” Wright said. “My opponent has been all about entertainment on a very negative forum before running for office.”

For his part, Snyder vows to continue meeting Wausau voters to seek out their counsel.

“I’m basically just out doing the doors,” Snyder said. “It’ll be a close race.”

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