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Senate District 31: Democrat Smith appears headed toward win in western Wis.

An open seat in the state Senate appeared to remain in Democratic control after a former legislator led his Republican opponent Tuesday at the polls in western Wisconsin.

With one county’s results outstanding, Eau Claire resident Jeff Smith was poised to capture the Senate District 31 seat vacated by Kathleen Vinehout during her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign. Smith led Plum City farmer Mel Pittman on the strength of results in Eau Claire County, where he won 22,288 to 14,070.

Pittman won comfortably in his home county of Pierce, 6,002 to 4,325, as well in Dunn, Pepin and Buffalo counties. Smith won in Jackson County. Results from Trempealeau County weren’t available at RiverTown Multimedia’s press deadline.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Smith, an Assembly member ousted in 2011, said late Tuesday.

He said he hopes to work toward lessening divisiveness at the Legislature. Election returns indicated Republicans would maintain control of the Legislature, which Smith said makes the possibility of Democrats influencing the next redistricting effort less likely.

“Something’s got to change,” he said.

The campaign for Smith, 63, represented a return to the political arena after serving four years in the Assembly. The former 93rd District representative was unseated in 2011 by Republican Warren Petryk.

Smith, an Eau Claire resident, presented himself as possessing a mix of private sector experience — he was owner and manager of a window cleaning service for 38 years — and legislative background in response to a RiverTown Multimedia questionnaire.

“These experiences have put me in a unique position of being able to jump right into the fray,” he said.

Smith advanced to the general election after a three-way Democratic primary, where he easily defeated candidates Steve Boe and Jon Schultz.

He said in the questionnaire that he opposed the Foxconn project from the beginning, adding that it “may be the worst deal made in Wisconsin history.”

Pittman launched his Senate bid after serving for 12 years as a Pierce County Board supervisor.

The 63-year-old has been a dairy farmer for more than 40 years. He said experiences along the way have shaped him into a fair-minded consensus builder.

“I understand what it means to serve others,” Pittman said in response to a RiverTown questionnaire. “I have a depth of knowledge relating to what makes our communities successful by having businesses, families and schools for education, all necessary for a thriving community.”

Pittman said that while he didn’t have access to the same information lawmakers did in passing the Foxconn package, he is supportive of its goals. He said the project will have positive business ramifications around the state.

“There are numerous businesses throughout Wisconsin that are benefitting with the construction and employment opportunities in the multiple locations in Wisconsin,” Pittman said, naming Eau Claire as one of those communities.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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