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Capital City Sunday: Kleefisch in the race; Madison firefighter reflects on Ground Zero response

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9-12 Cap City Guests FSG

MADISON (WKOW) -- It has been expected for months and became official this week; Rebecca Kleefisch announced Thursday she is running for governor.

Kleefisch repeatedly painted Gov. Tony Evers as a "weak," ineffective governor beholden to teachers unions.

Kleefisch, who served as lieutenant governor under Gov. Scott Walker from 2011-2019, repeatedly struck notes similar to the 2010 campaign that put the two in office.

Kleefisch also drew a comparison between her 2010 primary victory and former President Donald Trump clearing the presidential primary field in 2016.

"Back in 2010, I was told that I could not run or be elected Lieutenant Governor of the state of Wisconsin because I was an outsider," Kleefisch said. "I beat the establishment by 21 points."

Kleefisch accused Evers of pushing pandemic policies that kept schools from opening to in-person learning longer than they should have. Evers had said he wanted those decisions left to local districts, which Kleefisch said was a concession to union leaders.

"Just watching [students] in an epidemic of anxiety, and depression, and a year-and-a-half of learning loss so he could pay homage to the teachers union bosses," Kleefisch said.

Kleefisch's announcement came after the release of a poll commissioned by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. 48 percent of the poll's respondents said they approve of the job Evers is doing while 47 percent said they disapprove.

UW-Madison professor Mike Wagner said the results were unsurprising as an August Marquette Law School poll had Evers with a 50 percent approval rating.

"They're really within a couple points of each other and so they're both floating around the same general central tendency that Governor Evers's support is somewhere between 50 and 48 percent," Wagner said.

With Kleefisch entering the race with voters nearly evenly divided over Evers, Wagner said any Republican candidate would be girding for a highly-competitive, high-profile race that will draw national attention and money.

"Anybody who wants to oppose Governor Evers knows that they will be in a very difficult, close race," Wagner said. "Just as Governor Evers knows whoever his opponent ends up being will a very hard-fought and close race as well."

Concerns for Resettlement Agencies

One of the Wisconsin agencies that will be tasked with resettling some of the Afghan refugees currently housed at Fort McCoy said they're still waiting to be connected with their first individuals and families at the base.

"We still don't know when anyone is going to be coming to Madison," said Dawn Berney, the Executive Director or Jewish Social Services. "They are spending a lot of time doing the screening that needs to be done by several different federal agencies before anyone can leave Fort McCoy."

Berney said one issue that might keep a number of refugees on the western Wisconsin Army base for a while is that some came directly from Afghanistan to the United States, prompting extra vetting.

While White House officials and lawmakers, most recently the state's Democratic congressional delegation that visited the base Tuesday, have said refugees are being screened in other countries before reaching the U.S., Berney said that wasn't always the case.

"All of them are being thoroughly vetted by all of these different agencies," Berney said. "It's a little bit different because some of the screening is happening in the U.S. where, historically, it happens before people arrive in the United States."

Berney added a familiar challenge for resettlement agencies is finding affordable housing for refugee families. Another complicating factor, she said, is the continued expectation agencies will have a much quicker turnaround time for accepting refugees than usual.

Berney said many of the refugees evacuated from Afghanistan will also face more dire financial situation if they don't qualify for Special Immigrant Visas, which are given to those who aided military efforts over the course of the 20-year war.

While visa holders typically have some say in where they get resettled in the U.S., the sheer volume of cases this fall will lead to many being sent to places with which they're entirely unfamiliar.

Those considered at-risk Afghans who don't qualify for visas will then be considered "humanitarian parolees." Berney said that will put more pressure on resettlement agencies and nonprofits to help come up with funding for those parolees since, unlike other refugees, they do not qualify for various types of federal aid.

"If you have this humanitarian parolee status, you come to the United States, you get work authorization but you aren't eligible for other benefits such as Medicaid or food stamps," Berney said.

9/11 First Responder Returns to Ground Zero

Rob Verhelst was 23 years old when he arrived in New York City on September 12, 2001. The young Madison firefighter helped comb through rubble at the site of the collapsed World Trade Center towers as the rescue mission became one of recovery.

Verhelst, who's still with Madison Fire, has since opened up about the mental health struggles he faced trying to make sense of what he experienced at Ground Zero.

"I was lost for so many years of my life and went through so many different turmoils from the mental health aspect of depression, anxiety, not knowing why this happened," Verhelst said.

Verhelst returned to the site this week while taking part in the 9/11 Ride of Hope, where first responders from across the country rode from the World Trade Center to the Pentagon.

It was his third time back at Ground Zero since the 9/11 response and Verhelst described it as a "very hard day." He credited the brotherhood of those with similar experiences with helping him get through the day.

"Being there with individuals who also have that bond to that time period, also have the invisible wounds that not a lot of people see," Verhelst said. "And being able to have those moments with those individuals there, that was powerful."

Verhelst said he wanted to channel the energy from the ride and his own struggles into being outspoken about the prevalence of mental trauma. The firefighter said, first responder or not, more people should feel comfortable telling someone when bad days get to be too much.

"To be able to be vulnerable myself as well as to be there for those others who need to be vulnerable," Verhelst said. "Have that moment to cry, have that moment to reflect and be- and feel the pain and know that it's OK."

To that end, Verhelst said the long bike ride, and his previous participation in Ironman competitions, perfectly symbolize the never-ending challenge of managing mental health struggles. No matter how difficult it gets, Verhelst said, the key is to keep moving forward regardless of pace.

"Every single day is not gonna be a great day but every single day," he said. "We can continue to take one pedal stroke forward and that's really what this bike ride is about; it's showing through our actions, not just through our words, that we're in this together."