MADISON, Wis. — Immigration attorney Marisabel Cabrera wasn't looking for more motivation to challenge Democratic state Rep. Josh Zepnick in next week's legislative primaries, but she got it six months ago.
Cabrera had been eager for a rematch after she nearly beat Zepnick in the 2016 primary. After two women accused Zepnick of sexual misconduct in December and Zepnick refused party leaders' demands to resign, she was further galvanized.
"He was given a second chance and in two years not only has he failed to be the voice of the people but failed to live up to progressive values," Cabrera said. "The accusations illustrate that."
Zepnick apologized to the women and wasn't charged with any crimes. He said his constituents have forgiven him.
"I wouldn't be working this hard all summer long if I thought I was somehow banging my head against the wall and (campaigning) was a waste of time," he said.
Their clash is one of 20 legislative primaries on the Aug. 14 ballot. The contests won't change who controls the Legislature. Republicans will go into the general election with a majority in both houses no matter what. But the races will solidify matchups in those all-important November contests.
The Zepnick-Cabrera primary is easily the most intriguing race. No Republicans registered to run, meaning the primary winner will take the south Milwaukee seat.
Zepnick, a full-time lawmaker, has represented the district for nearly 16 years. Cabrera decided to challenge him in 2016 after he sponsored bills that would have made it harder to trigger local referendums on privatizing public water supplies and enabled the state to collect unpaid taxes from Milwaukee County residents. Neither measure passed but Cabrera said the bills would have silenced the public and targeted people already struggling with taxes.
Zepnick beat her by 149 votes in the primary. He kept a low profile during this past two-year session until December, when two anonymous women told The Capital Times newspaper that Zepnick drunkenly kissed them against their will at political functions in 2015 and 2011.
Zepnick apologized, saying he was drinking heavily during that time in his life and didn't remember the incidents. Democratic leaders stripped him of his committee assignments and called for him to resign but he refused, saying he was treated unfairly and the women shouldn't have been allowed to make anonymous accusations.
"I still have conversations (while knocking on constituents' doors) and people have been disproportionately positive and acknowledge sometimes people make mistakes," he said.
Cabrera said the accusations are just another reason to run. She said she wants to fight for women's rights and for immigrants. She promised to put pressure on Gov. Scott Walker to withdraw Wisconsin National Guard troops he sent to the southern border to support border agents as they break up immigrant families.
Campaign finance reports show Cabrera outraised Zepnick during the first six months of the year, with $15,647 to Zepnick's $10,227. Both had most of that still on hand at the end of June.
Other notable primaries include:
—Mosinee Mayor Brent Jacobson challenges Rep. John Spiros of Marshfield in a Republican primary in central Wisconsin's 86th Assembly District. Jacobson said he's upset Spiros voted for $3 billion in incentives for a Foxconn Technology Group plant in Mount Pleasant and for a state budget that didn't create new revenue streams for road repairs. Spiros has countered that Foxconn will have an enormous economic impact on Wisconsin and Assembly Republicans suggested raising the gas tax to help pay for roads but the Senate and Walker rejected the proposal.
The winner will advance to face Democrat Nancy Stencil in November.
—Outagamie County Supervisor Dan Grady and Outgamie County Democratic Party chairwoman Lee Snodgrass are vying for the right to face Republican Senate President Roger Roth in the 19th Senate District in November. The district includes the Fox Cities as well as rural portions of southern Outagamie and northern Winnebago counties.
—Rep. Andre Jacque of DePere faces Bll Nauta of Washington Island in a GOP primary in northeastern Wisconsin's 1st Senate District. The seat came open in December after Gov. Scott Walker tapped incumbent Republican Frank Lasee to join his cabinet. Democrat Caleb Frostman defeated Jacque in a special election in June to fill the seat. Frostman must run again in November to keep the seat; Jacque wants a rematch.