It’s a brisk, cloudy weekday morning in Twin Lakes, and state Rep. Samantha Kerkman is doing something she’s done plenty of this year.
Kerkman is on the retail campaign trail, in a place she knows well, running in what she admits is perhaps the toughest fight she’s faced in her political career.
“I’ve done more doors this year than I have probably combined” in past years, Kerkman said.
While her age, 38, might suggest Kerkman’s elected resume is relatively short, the Randall Republican is doing battle for her seventh term in the Assembly.
Indeed, Kerkman’s involvement in politics long predates the dozen years she has spent representing much of western Kenosha County and Somers.
Before winning her first race at age 26, Kerkman spent four years as an aide to her predecessor, Burlington Republican Cloyd Porter.
And she grew up in a home where her father, Mark Starzyk, served on the Kenosha County Board and the Randall Town Board and where, as Kerkman explained in an interview last year, she could name her state representatives by the time she was in fourth grade.
“I knew who they were because I had met them,” Kerkman said.
Now Kerkman hopes to remain one of them, she said, because, “I love helping people.”
“I think I’ve said that every single election, that I really enjoy helping people,” Kerkman told a reporter during a recent campaign jaunt that included some door-to-door visits and a stop at a Twin Lakes Chamber of Commerce meeting.
“There are lots of problems out there,” Kerkman said. “And if I can find solutions for those problems and help people negotiate what government is — I mean, I’m not somebody who believes there’s no government — I believe that we need it to help people that really need it.”
Fraud, foster care among top prioritiesAmong Kerkman’s favorite issues to work on: Fraud and waste in government (she co-chairs the Legislature’s Joint Audit Committee and sits on a governor-appointed waste commission), foster care (she is now chairing a special study committee on permanency for children in the child welfare system) and matters of import to her district.
Regarding the latter, Kerkman points proudly to a bill she co-authored with Democratic Sen. Robert Wirch, making a swift adjustment to correct a state equalized value error in Twin Lakes.
“We’re kind of generalists,” Kerkman said, of the role of a legislator. “We have to know a little bit about a lot of things, is the way I see it.”
And then there’s the issue that Kerkman’s past election opponents have used to dog her — the illustrious state fruit.
In 2004, Kerkman, with the aid of a class of Trevor School fifth-graders, passed a bill that designated the cranberry as Wisconsin’s official state fruit. Her opponent that year, Democrat David Dunton, derided it as the only bill Kerkman had ever passed that truly addressed a request of district residents.
As she did with all of her challengers since 2000, Kerkman defeated Dunton decisively, and she stands by the cranberry.
“If I can make a difference to get somebody involved in the civic process, to help them be a better citizen and to then give back, I think, even though the policy issue might not have been that huge of an issue, the cranberry industry is huge to Wisconsin,” Kerkman said. “So the more I can highlight that — (and) at the time it was bringing hundreds of millions of dollars into our state.”
Known for constituent connectionsKerkman also points with pride to a commitment to constituent service that, one friend said, rivals that of her well-revered predecessor, Porter.
“She’s a very responsive legislator,” said Erin Decker, a Kenosha County supervisor and Republican Party activist from Silver Lake who sometimes carpools to political events with Kerkman. “A lot of people ask for help, and she helps them all. They know if they need help, they’ll get help from her.”
Decker said Kerkman knows the district well, having grown up there.
“It’s kind of a joke — everywhere she goes, people know her,” Decker said. “She’s kind of like Paul Ryan on a smaller scale.”
Like Ryan, this year’s Republican nominee for vice president, Kerkman has identified with the Republican Party since her youth — a trait that was a good fit for the old 66th District.
“My values have just been more aligned with the Republican beliefs,” Kerkman said. “Not that every single issue that I have is with the platform, but I generally believe in giving people a hand up and trying to help out when we can and trying to limit the size of government and really bring it to what the people really need.”
That said, Kerkman said she believes both she — and, she said, Steinbrink — are metered people who are able to work with both sides of the aisle.
“If somebody’s got a good idea, I don’t care who it is,” Kerkman said. “And I will give them credit. I don’t need to take credit for something when it’s their idea. But if we can all work together to get it done, more power to us.”
Works with other sideKerkman ought to be used to getting along with the other side.
Her husband, Kenosha County Circuit Judge Chad Kerkman, tends to align with Democrats, and Kerkman has always been the lone Republican in a Kenosha County legislative delegation that includes Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca and Steinbrink, with whom Kerkman has worked on various bills for the Kenosha area.
As Kerkman sees it, in this unusual election, she’s running AS Samantha Kerkman more than AGAINST John Steinbrink.
Case in point, the literature Kerkman was dropping off on Twin Lakes door steps that dreary morning. The fliers included no attacks on her opponent, but, rather, a list of her own accomplishments and a recipe for apple pie.
“My personality is to talk about the things that I’ve done and concentrate on that,” Kerkman said. “So I try to avoid the politics side of things.”