Why you should care
Because he may be the right answer to one of the left’s strongest voices.
When Dale Kooyenga steps into a classroom at St. Margaret Mary Catholic School in northwest Milwaukee, the nearly two dozen elementary schoolers are watching a rap video on the branches of government. Few stages in political theater claim such contrast between actor and audience. Here, the 6-foot-7 accountant with the wonky Dutch name, a self-effacing dad-grin and military-cut incarnate. There, the children, mostly Black, some Hispanic, all decidedly working class-or-less in this voucher school.
But the Wisconsin legislator goes in anyway: Who has heard of a man named Frederick Douglass? All hands are raised: He was a slave, who escaped to New York and wrote a top-selling book, one kid answers. And Kooyenga tells the tale, ending the allegory with his truth: “If you remember nothing from today, it’s that some things do not change even 100 years later. If you want to be free … you need to learn how to read.” It could all seem like stagecraft, pandering, the state rep from the burbs lecturing the inner city with its own heroes. Except there sits My Bondage and My Freedom in his home library in Brookfield, next to Winston Churchill biographies and Ulysses S. Grant memoirs, his name scribbled in the front flap for would-be borrowers–turned–takers.
This is how 38-year-old Kooyenga lays his claim to “big tent” Republicanism, a phrase he does not use himself. Instead, he presents as evidence to your correspondent on a recent Friday: the breakfast at Panera with an Asian-American school board candidate he’s endorsing; playing pickup basketball at the United Community Center, a private charter school that’s boasted strong results for its almost entirely Hispanic student body; the barbershop visit where the Trump-supporting owner pulls out a rifle to show off against a backdrop of Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions and Playboy magazines. If identity is the company one keeps, Kooyenga has worked to craft one of broad appeal — a fact Republicans are counting on if he challenges popular Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin next year. The U.S. Army Reserve captain who built roads and schools in Iraq as part of the 2008 surge is both liked and trusted by his colleagues. Armed with a Paul Ryan–like gift for numbers, he handled a $650 million tax cut reform bill in 2013 (and, like Ryan, he waxes poetic about his own conservative solutions to poverty).
Kooyenga has an ability to cross bridges others would rather not walk.
Kooyenga says he’s considering a run seriously, but won’t declare until he, the vice-chair of the Wisconsin House Finance Committee, has helped pass the state budget sometime this summer. “He’s got all the talent in the world,” says state Rep. Adam Neylon, a fellow Republican. But Kooyenga won’t have an easy job of a run, from either side. As many as 10 conservatives are maneuvering, with a handful potentially coming from Kooyenga’s own backyard, which could split his voter base in a crowded primary.
And that’s just the Republicans. Despite Wisconsin’s recent Republican turn in backing Scott Walker and Donald Trump, the incumbent Baldwin has seen her favorability rise in a March Marquette University poll and has proven an able campaigner, winning her seat in 2013 against one of Wisconsin’s most popular governors in Tommy Thompson. She will also be well funded, with Democrats seeing her as a can’t-lose seat in their hopes to retake the Senate, and may benefit if an anti-Trump backlash from voters emerges. Democrats paint Kooyenga as dry-eyed in the face of trauma; Democratic Rep. Jimmy Anderson cites his opposition to a minimum-wage increase, a perceived antipathy toward unions and inaction on environmental issues. “It’s not red interest, not blue interest; it’s human interest. That’s something Senator Baldwin has in spades.”
And yet, Kooyenga has an ability to cross bridges others would rather not walk, Anderson admits, noting how Kooyenga was one of the few Republicans to visit the newly elected Democrat in his office. Kooyenga’s promised to work with Anderson to allow production of medical marijuana in-state (it’s currently legal to use only). While driving on the phone with state Sen. Lena Taylor, Kooyenga amicably promises to work with the nearby Democrat. It’s magnanimous, considering she once suggested his Milwaukee Public School reform plan was part of a legislative tradition of “raping the children of MPS.” (The plan would have allowed the takeover of up to five underperforming schools.)
To those who’d question his inability to connect with troubled or working Americans, Kooyenga can turn to his origin story. Born to a Teamsters garbageman and nurse mother in Chicago’s Southside, the lackluster high schooler fell two-and-a-half stories while working construction after graduation. The experience left him with two broken ankles, a wheelchair and a newfound academic seriousness. At Moraine Valley Community College, he was recruited to play at NCAA Division III Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, when a scout witnessed one of his rare, strong performances — a single moment of divinely inspired balling, he says. (After playing pickup with him, this reporter agrees this quip is not false humility.) In his mid-20s, after almost a half decade at global accounting giant KPMG, Kooyenga was itching to join the military. His colleague Jennifer Smith challenged him to go through with it, so he headed to the U.S. Army enrollment office the next day. A year later, he proposed to Smith, now the mother to his four children.
Even to the group of not-yet-voters gathered in the St. Margaret Mary classroom, Kooyenga dutifully tells this political genesis story. The kids are curious about the Important Man before them. He’s asked if he has a limo. A mansion. (No, no.) Pipes up another bite-size voice: Since you can pass laws, can you cancel laws? “I love to cancel laws,” the conservative jumps. “I am the king of canceling laws.”
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