EC native, Senate candidate Godlewski explains rural plan

·5 min read

Jan. 26—EAU CLAIRE — Growing up in Eau Claire gave Sarah Godlewski an appreciation for the environment. She remembered learning how to swim in the Namekagon River in northern Wisconsin and visiting a recycling plant in elementary school.

Environmental protection "is a core value for me," Godlewski said. "You have to take care of our land and the water and the air that we breathe."

Addressing nature concerns was part of a rural plan Godlewski released earlier this week as part of her 2022 Senate campaign. The plan includes making broadband a public utility, combating climate change, expanding Medicaid and increasing funding for family farms.

Since unveiling the proposals, Godlewski has toured rural parts of the state, including an Augusta farm Wednesday.

Godlewski was born in Eau Claire and graduated from Memorial High School. She is the current state treasurer and one of several Democratic candidates vying for the Senate seat currently held by Republican Ron Johnson, who is running for reelection.

State Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Brunswick, is one of many politicians supporting Godlewski's proposals to help rural residents.

"Sarah's plan will address our unique challenges and increase access to vital services with bold new strategies to bring opportunities to rural Wisconsin," Smith said in a statement.

Access to broadband, clean water

The plan is focused on rural areas, but Godlewski said rural residents' concerns are the same as people who live in urban areas.

"We're all just trying to find our best quality of life possible," Godlewski said.

Rural internet access is an ongoing quality of life issue in the Chippewa Valley, as evidenced by the Eau Claire County Board last year allocating $2.8 million in federal funding for broadband development.

Godlewski said federal funding to bring reliable internet service to everyone is an "out of the box solution" but one she thinks is required to support rural businesses, education and health care.

"We have to treat (broadband) the same way we treat electricity," Godlewski said. "We have to treat it the same way we treat water."

Water is also a local issue. Several city of Eau Claire wells were shut off last year after slightly elevated levels of PFAS chemicals were detected in them. The wells are located in the wellfield that provides all of Eau Claire's drinking water.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources sent a letter in August 2021 to the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport suspecting that firefighting foam is a potential contributor to PFAS affecting city wells. Foam was used as a precautionary measure at the airport in April 2021 when an aircraft went off the runway.

An airport consultant submitted its recommendation for investigating PFAS contamination to the DNR in November.

The Eau Claire County Board also recently approved adding a question to this April's election ballots: "Should the state of Wisconsin establish a right to clean water to protect human health, the environment, and the diverse cultural and natural heritage of Wisconsin?"

For Godlewski, the answer is yes. Godlewski said she was heartbroken to hear about well contamination in Eau Claire.

"If you don't have access to quality water, you can't do anything," Godlewski said. "Eau Claire stands for 'clear water' in French ... We pride ourselves on being a clean water area, and then to find out this news? It was really shocking for so many people."

Known as "forever chemicals" because they don't break down in the environment, PFAS are a group of human-made chemicals used in a variety of products. Not all PFAS have the same health effects, but research suggests that high levels of certain chemicals may raise cholesterol levels, decrease how well bodies respond to vaccines, lower fertility in women and result in slightly lower infant birth weights.

Godlewski's plan includes banning the future use of PFAS and providing more funding to test for and clean areas contaminated by the chemicals.

"We've got to view it as the danger that it is," Godlewski said.

She also said corporations that produce PFAS should be held to account to address "the poison that they have put in people's communities."

Clean water is one environmental issue, and climate change is the overarching environmental challenge facing the state, country and world. Godlewski said incentivizing farmers to use carbon capture technology can help combat climate change, and so can partnerships between businesses and the government to fund job training and address supply chain issues.

Responding to polling, COVID

Godlewski is one of several candidates in the Democratic primary, voting for which occurs in August. Others running for the seat include Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, who is currently on leave to campaign.

An internal primary poll released by the Barnes campaign earlier this month showed Barnes with 40% of votes compared to 11% for Lasry and 10% for Godlewski. Twenty-nine percent of poll respondents said they were undecided.

However, a November 2021 poll showed Godlewski as the only Democrat with more support than Johnson in a general election. She received 48% of votes, just ahead of Johnson's 46%, with 5% of voters undecided. That poll also showed that 28% of voters believe Godlewski has the best chance to defeat Johnson, compared to 21% believing Barnes does. Fifty-one percent of poll respondents were unsure.

Godlewski said people have underestimated her electability before, like in 2018 when she won the vote for state treasurer.

"Whenever people have told me what I can't do, I've shown them what I can do," Godlewski said.

Godlewski also had strong words regarding Johnson's recent COVID-19 rhetoric. Johnson said he does not plan to get vaccinated and claimed that a body's natural immunity could offer better protection against the virus than vaccines.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, in December 2021, people who were not fully vaccinated died from COVID-19 at a rate 14 times higher than people who were fully vaccinated.

"When Sen. Johnson makes those comments, he's literally impacting lives," Godlewski said. "When you are perpetuating disinformation ... I would argue you are killing people ... I look at Ron Johnson, and I see McCarthyism 2.0."

Informed by her local upbringing, Godlewski has a plan to improve rural life. It remains to be seen how supportive state residents are to that plan.