From the age of 12, at least, Tricia Zunker has been an advocate and an activist, joining picket lines as a child, later overcoming underdog odds to win a seat as an associate justice on the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court and also winning election to the Wausau school board and becoming the board's president.
Now she is stepping up again as she pursues the Democratic nomination for the seventh congressional district, a seat vacated when former U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy resigned.
Zunker, born and raised in Wausau, is not only a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, but she has deep roots in the state's long history of dairy farming.
"I am Ho-Chunk from my dad's side, but I also come from generations of dairy farmers on my mom's side," Zunker told The Times in a recent interview. "My grandpa was a dairy farmer in Easton, and he farmed until his body gave out and he couldn't farm anymore."
In addition, Zunker says she grew up in a staunch union household. Her mom, Zunker said, was a 30-plus year union member, and Zunker herself remembers standing with her mom on picket lines as young as the age of 12.
She is also a first-generation college graduate, having graduated from UW-Madison, where she says she earned a triple major and certificate in four years.
"I point that out because it demonstrates my efforts at being efficient and maximizing opportunities by working hard," she said. "I had to work two jobs while I was in college. I put myself through school by working along with grants, financial aid, and scholarships. I come from very humble beginnings, so to go to college, that was not something my parents could afford."
Zunker then went to law school at UCLA.
"I chose UCLA because of its stellar federal Indian Law and tribal legal development program," she said. "It's one of the best in the country. As a Ho-Chunk woman, it was important to me to be able to gain that education and experience and bring that back to Wisconsin, which is exactly what I did."
What she did exactly was run in a special election and won a seat as an associate justice of the Ho-Chunk Supreme Court.
Zunker was a big underdog in the election and, complicating matters more, the Ho-Chunk is the only federally recognized Wisconsin tribe without reservation land, but has land held in trust in communities around the state.
At the time, Zunker still lived and worked in California, so, with her young son, the single mom flew back and forth between Wisconsin and California to campaign in those scattered communities, from Nekoosa to Wittenberg to Baraboo and more, setting a new standard for tribal campaigning.
She won - she is now in her second term - and she said that campaign foreshadowed the current congressional campaign, not only because it is a special election, but because the spread out nature of the Ho-Chunk Nation prepared her for the sprawling 26-county seventh congressional district, which covers a third of the state.
After winning her terms on the Ho-Chunk Supreme Court, Zunker moved back to Wausau so her child could spend some time with his grandfather.
When Zunker did move back to Wausau, she said her son was just starting kindergarten, and she became aware of and alarmed by the skyrocketing child poverty and food insecurity rates in the region.
"It's not unique to Wausau, and it's not unique to Marathon County, but I went to local organizations, like United Way of Marathon County, and I tried to learn more, and I was shocked to find out that we have an astounding number of students who get the free and reduced lunch and breakfast from school, but that is all they know," she said. "They know they are going to have lunch at school on Friday, but they have no idea where their next meal is coming from until the next Monday morning at school."
Zunker said she went to her local school board and advocated for them to do more. Ultimately, she said, she decided to do more herself - she ran for the school board and was elected, and is now the school board president of the Wausau school district.
Why she is running
Zunker said she thought about running for Congress in 2018 after a conversation with Duffy at a town hall meeting about food insecurity.
"I found the response to be inadequate, and I thought that our children deserve somebody who could advocate for them," she said. "I believe it is important to be a voice for people who don't have a voice."
After that conversation, Zunker said she knew she wanted to run and was biding her time, but Duffy's resignation moved up her timetable.
"We have so many things that need to be dealt with," she said. "Having affordable health care. Nobody should die because they can't afford treatment. Prescription drugs are skyrocketing out of control. I see Big Pharma getting away with charging us here in America 10 times what they charge that same exact drug in other countries."
Zunker said the nation desperately needs campaign finance reform.
"I don't accept corporate PAC money," she said. "I believe we need to keep corporate money out of politics, and corporations need to stop buying seats in Congress. We need campaign finance reform because Big Pharma is buying seats. Big Ag is buying seats. The fossil fuel industry is buying seats."
We need representatives who are accountable to the voters, Zunker said.
Zunker said she is also running because of the environment.
"We have a climate emergency that needs to be addressed with the urgency it requires," she said. "We need to ensure clean air, clean water, and that our beautiful lands be protected from corporate greed."
The environment is especially important to her, Zunker says. The Ho-Chunk story in history is one of removal, she said, people carted away in cattle cars but always finding a way to return here.
"This is our homeland, and we have a duty to protect it," she said. "So when I talk about caring for the environment, that is an issue that runs through my veins."
Specifically, she said the U.S. needs to rejoin the Paris Accords, and she said she did not take seriously arguments that the emission cuts required by the treaty would be too draconian for the American economy.
"We are on the planet together, and we all need to work together on this issue," she said.
People are struggling financially, too, Zunker said, and so she is running to help make sure that people have a livable wage.
"Nobody can live on $7.25 an hour," she said. "People should not have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet."
On economic development issues, Zunker says she supports investing dollars in regional transportation to bolster the infrastructure needed for that development.
"That would definitely open some doors, not just in job creation but in the ability to travel to jobs that are not accessible by car," she said.
Zunker said leaders need to get creative and address opportunities that are currently not being addressed, such as the opportunities that hemp farms might provide.
"We need to invest in sustainable, renewable energy," she said."That will also create jobs."
It's important, too, Zunker said, to make sure that, while people should have a livable wage, it does not come at the expense of small businesses.
"We need to close corporate tax loopholes," she said. "We see these huge corporations that make billions of dollars a year and they don't get taxed. We could tax them at a significant rate, and they would still have immense profits, and we need to make sure that the millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share."
That would enable such funding possibilities as subsidies to small businesses so they could pay a living wage, Zunker said.
Zunker said she did not support raising taxes for the middle class at all, but that we need to make sure that the people who aren't paying their fair share do pay their fair share.
Zunker also said she was not supportive of the state's Foxconn deal, which could deliver up to $3.6 billion in subsidies to the international corporate giant.
"I'm always supportive of opportunity," she said. "However, I don't think that was an opportunity that was fully vetted, and in fact I don't think it is an opportunity. What's happening with that? It's just sitting stagnant at the cost of millions of dollars. Maybe there was a way that it would have been effective, but it's done nothing for Wisconsin."
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and other Democrats have lauded a similar Brookings Institute proposal to direct targeted federal subsidies to cities like Madison - as much as $1 billion a year for 10 years - to create a new technology industrial cluster, but Zunker said her focus would be on the northern portion of the state.
"I can see why they would choose Madison, but I want to a strong voice for this district," she said. "Rural Wisconsin is overlooked, and I would be an advocate and say, 'This is something that would be extremely beneficial in rural Wisconsin.'"
Northern Wisconsin has tech issues, Zunker said.
"We need broadband access for everybody," she said. "We need to send a message that says we need to look outside our state capitals and larger cities and consider people in other areas."
Zunker said she is not supportive of President Trump's tariff-based approach to achieving fair trade for the U.S.
"Yes, we do need to get tough on China, but not at the expense of our small and mid-sized farms," she said. "I have been meeting with dairy farmers. I have been meeting with ginseng farmers in the district, and I see firsthand the decisions they have to make. They don't even know if they are going to be in business after this year."
The impact of trade policies must take into account those everyday hard-working families, and that is what is missing in Trump's approach, Zunker said.
"It's this idea of 'let's send a message' without really fully thinking it through," she said.
Zunker said her approach to trade would be to make sure farmers have access to competitive markets, first and foremost.
"We need to eliminate predatory business practices that hurt our small and mid-sized farmers," she said. "We need to make sure they have funding for mental health assistance - we have a mental health crisis happening in Wisconsin - and make sure they have the mental health resources that they need."
Zunker said incentives to use renewable, sustainable energy should also be provided to farmers.
"And we need to support our small businesses, because when we support small businesses, we are supporting our small and mid-sized farmers," she said.
Zunker said she was supportive of the intent behind the original NAFTA trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada.
"Often times there is good intent behind an agreement without fully understanding the implications," she said.
Health care, debt, climate change
Zunker say the nation needs to ensure accessible, affordable health care, but she does not embrace a Medicare for All plan that would eliminate private insurance.
"I support a robust public option for those who want it," she said. "Health decisions are deeply personal, and people must be empowered in making their health care decisions. In going throughout the district, I talk with people who like their private insurance. I talk with union folks who negotiated the health care that they have and they don't want to see that taken away."
Zunker says she believes it is wrong to impose something on people before they are ready.
"So that's why I support a robust public option," she said. "We certainly need to see the cost of deductibles go down, they are still way too high."
The bottom line is, Zunker said, we need to give people time to make that decision on their own.
"I don't believe it is good leadership to go around and say, 'this is what is right for you' in your health care and in your deeply personal decisions," she said.
What we can do is make sure people with pre-existing conditions are covered and are not penalized, Zunker said.
"We can work to lower the cost of deductibles, and we can take on Big Pharma and address the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs," she said.
Zunker said the cost of insulin is an example of the high cost of those drugs. The governor of Illinois just signed a bill capping the cost of insulin at $100 a month, Zunker said, but she said that was still way too high.
"People die without insulin," she said. "When people need insulin to live, then we need to work hard to make sure people have access to it because $100 a month is a lot for a lot of people."
With respect to the nation's $23 trillion federal debt, Zunker said the government needs to prioritize where it spends its money.
"Putting money into a border wall is a waste of money," she said.
Zunker said she was happy to hear President Trump say he was going to bring troops home - another way to cut spending, she said - but that hasn't happened.
"In fact, people have been deployed, including within my own family," she said. "We need to stop funding never-ending wars and bring our service men and women home and put that money into reducing the debt, in infrastructure, in building roads and bridges, and in job creation. We need to prioritize where we spend our money."
On the question of gun rights, Zunker said she supports the Second Amendment, but she doesn't believe it is under attack.
"I support individuals being able to defend themselves in their homes, and I support our hunters," she said.
But, Zunker said, speaking as a mom and as the school board president of one of the largest districts in the state, she sees our children having to do active shooter drills - in her entire academic career, and Zunker said it was pretty long, she said never had to do one, while her child is in third grade and has had to do seven.
"What are we telling our children?" she asked. "We're telling them that if someone comes in with a gun to shoot and kill you or your teacher, here's where you are going to go. It's horrible, what we are doing."
So we need common-sense gun legislation, Zunker said.
"We need universal background checks," she said. "I don't know why this is controversial. If somebody doesn't want a background check, that tells me something."
Zunker said she would support a ban on semi-automatic weapons such as the AR-15.
"I believe weapons designed for warfare have no business being in the hands of civilians," she said. "The amount of destruction, of death, of immeasurable grief isn't worth it."
Zunker also is supportive of red-flag laws.
"If there are people identified with certainty that they should not have access to a gun because they could hurt themselves or somebody else, then I do support that," she said.
Finally, Zunker said there are three principles that guide her decision making when considering legislation and policies.
"Number one is compassion," she said. "Is this the compassionate answer?"
Number two is equality, Zunker said.
"It doesn't matter what someone looks like, who they love, or how they identify their gender," she said. "Does this legislation protect them equally?"
The third principle Zunker goes by is opportunity.
"When I look at decision-making, I look to see, does this result in the most equitable and inclusive opportunity for people to have a chance at success?" she said.
And that's what we need from leaders, Zunker said,
"We need leaders who are looking out for everybody's interest," she said. "Everybody matters."
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
The Northwoods River News | Walker Communications, LLC 232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361
Corporate billing office: The Lakeland Times / Lakeland Printing Inc. | P.O. Box 790, Minocqua, WI 54548 | (715) 356-5236 | Fax (715) 358-2121 Members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Community Papers, Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce