It can be argued that Rob Zerban, entrepreneur and current Kenosha County Supervisor, held a good amount of the spotlight throughout much of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s annual state convention, which was held this past Friday and Saturday at the Hyatt in downtown Milwaukee.
Zerban is running against U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) in the 2012 election. Ryan, who has served in the House of Representatives since 1999, represents Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, which covers a large swath of the southeastern portion of the state, including the complete counties of Racine and Kenosha, as well as the majority of Walworth County and portions of Waukesha, Milwaukee, and Rock counties.
In what may otherwise largely be considered an uncompetitive race in this Republican stronghold, the tide appears to be turning, fueled in large part by what many in the party see as Ryan’s overreach in exercising his role as House Budget Committee Chairman, specifically in what appears to be a call for an end to Medicare and replacing it with a government voucher for private insurance. Ryan assumed the powerful chairmanship this past January after Republicans regained control of the House in the November elections.
Also helping Zerban’s cause and firing up the party base is what many see as a strong rebuke Ryan and Congressional Republicans recently received when Democrat Kathy Hochul was elected to serve New York’s 26th Congressional District in a special election held May 24. Her district, too, is considered a Republican stronghold. Hochul made preserving Medicare a centerpiece of her campaign, and her name came up multiple times during the convention by various speakers, including Zerban himself.
These dynamics have earned Zerban has the full blessing and backing of the state Democratic Party in what has been a Republican safe haven for many years now. Usually an uncompetitive district, the state party has typically shied away from allocating significant resources to the Democratic candidate of the 1st Congressional District. However, in introducing Zerban to convention attendees on Saturday morning before Zerban addressed the convention, state party chairman Mike Tate expressed his confidence in Zerban, saying “He is more than capable of defeating Paul Ryan…and Rob has actual experience in the private sector - unlike Paul Ryan.”
In an exclusive interview with Patch on Friday evening, Zerban expressed great optimism, saying he is receiving “a very positive reception throughout the district.” Asked how he would respond to the Republican-fueled stereotype that Democrats don’t know a thing about business, Zerban said, “I think my record speaks for itself. I ran two successful businesses in which I balanced the bottom line, made tough decisions, and managed dozens of employees. And I was able to do all of this while providing them with great benefits.”
Those benefits are something Zerban is particularly proud of. Speaking on the health coverage he provided his employees with during his speech Saturday morning, he told the crowd, “I made it affordable because it was the right thing to do.”
He also recalled in his speech how he grew up on free milk in school and government cheese at home because his mother didn’t earn a lot. He would often be the one to cook dinner for his siblings because she would be gone at work.
This early experience in cooking instilled in him a great appreciation for food, and he would go on to study at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, a school Zerban joked in his speech was referred to as “the CIA.” He was proud to admit that, “I couldn’t have done it without the help of Stafford Loans and Pell Grants,” in reference to two forms of popular federal college financial aid.
After completing his studies, Zerban went on to work at restaurants and hotels around the country before coming home to start his first food service business in 2000 with a dozen employees. Eventually, he would add one more business and 33 more employees to the mix. He sold his last company in 2008.
It was in 2008, Zerban noted, that his public service really began to take footing. It was during this time that the Great Lakes Compact was being discussed and debated, and he started doing volunteer work with the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. Soon after, he found himself serving on its board of directors.
During the interview, Zerban said he thought about getting in on the 2010 race, but got out early, never officially entering it. State party chairman Mike Tate approached Zerban about the 2012 race in February.