MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson is attacking rival Leah Vukmir for taking some pay raises, calling her a hypocrite for not always returning them over her 15 years in the Legislature.
Vukmir, a state senator, has been in the Legislature since 2003, first in the Assembly and now in the Senate. Vukmir returned two raises she’s received over that time, but kept two others.
Vukmir faces Nicholson, a business consultant for Fortune 500 companies in his first race for office, in the Aug. 14 Republican primary for U.S. Senate. The winner will face Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in November.
Vukmir came to office at a time when the state faced a projected $2.3 billion budget deficit. Republican and Democratic lawmakers refused pay increases taking effect that year as a way to share in the pain of budget cuts.
The state constitution guaranteed her $1,335 more than the 2002 salary in effect before she took office. Vukmir returned the full amount of the raise.
From 2005 through 2008, while still in the Assembly, Vukmir took the full salary at the higher level, according to records from the Assembly clerk’s office.
At the height of the Great Recession in 2009, with the state once again facing a record $5.7 billion deficit, another pay raise was scheduled to take effect for members of the Legislature.
Vukmir initially accepted the 5.3 percent pay hike. But in March, after being called out in news reports for taking the money, Vukmir reversed course and again returned the raise.
Her campaign manager Jess Ward defended her decisions.
“As a single mom working two jobs and supporting two teenage children, Leah accepted her pay for the work she was doing representing her constituents, and she was happy to give it back during difficult times for the state,” Ward said.
Vukmir, who got divorced in 2005, was working as a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee when she joined the Legislature. She worked as either a nurse or nurse instructor her entire time in the Legislature until earlier this year. Vukmir’s children were 10 and 15 at the time she was first elected.
Vukmir earns $50,950 as a state senator, plus $115 per-day for qualifying travel allowances.
Nicholson is a Delafield-based consultant for the management consulting firm ghSMART. He reported being paid a salary of $362,417 on his financial disclosure form filed last week.
Nicholson campaign strategist Brandon Moody called her a hypocrite.
“Returning your raise first, then accepting a taxpayer-funded raise later when you think no one is paying attention is the very definition of political hypocrisy that voters are sick of,” Moody said. “Unlike his opponents, Kevin doesn’t believe politics should be a lifelong career, and he does not plan to accept pay raises in the Senate.”
Congress votes on salaries and the $174,000 that senators currently make has been in place since 2009.
Ward said Vukmir would vote against any pay increase in the Senate and supports keeping it at the current level. She voted last year to increase the daily per diem rate in the Senate from $88 to $115.
A committee of Wisconsin state lawmakers, which Vukmir has never been on, approves salaries for members of the Assembly and Senate and any increases cannot take effect in the current term.
Over her eight years in the Assembly, Vukmir returned a total of $8,275, according to the clerk’s office. Had her salary remained at the 2002 level of $44,423 that entire time, it would have been about $23,100 less than what it was with the raises.
Vukmir was elected to the state Senate in 2010, and in 2015 salaries went up again from $49,943 to $50,950. She has not returned any of that money.
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