By Kathleen Foody
Wausau Daily Herald

To the national media, Republican Sean Duffy’s congressional campaign began as a punch line, an anomaly. How could a former reality show star defeat one of the top Democrats in the U.S. House?

To Duffy and his wife, Rachel Campos-Duffy, the campaign began as a “mom-and-pop
shop,” with both writing news releases at their kitchen table in Ashland while caring for five children.

“At the start, everyone said we were crazy,” Duffy said Thursday during an interview with the Wausau Daily Herald, two days after his election to the 7th Congressional District seat owned for four decades by Democrat Dave Obey.

The congressman-elect said he decided to run after Congress passed its economic stimulus package, clashing with his belief that government money cannot fix the national economy. He consistently mentions the couple’s six children — MariaVictoria, now 7 months old, was born during the campaign — as his six reasons for entering the race. He argued that the country’s national debt, which Duffy says was increased by the stimulus spending, will hurt future generations, including his children.

Perhaps because of that commitment, Duffy’s family and his roots in Wisconsin have become as much a part of his political image as his opposition to debt spending.

The newly elected congressman said he plans to use that background as a member of the U.S. House, balancing his own experiences with what he hears from constituents of the 7th District as he travels between Wisconsin and Washington.
Northwoods lumberjack

Duffy, 39, describes his childhood in Hayward as “idyllic,” dominated by logrolling lessons and competitions that eventually became the foundation of his campaign advertising. As a teenager and in his 20s, Duffy competed across the country in lumberjack exhibitions.

Rob Scheer, a longtime friend who met Duffy when the future congressman-elect was 15 years old, said Duffy’s commitment to the sport is an indicator of his drive.

Scheer was the world champion speedclimber, one of the most dangerous competitions in the field, in the early 1990s when Duffy decided he would knock his longtime mentor off his perch.

“He pulled the title away from me and he earned it,” Scheer said. “It’s very similar to what I just saw Sean accomplish. He knew (running for Congress) wouldn’t be easy, that he might get hurt, that his family would make sacrifices. But he saw the need for good candidates in our system.”

The 10th child in a family of 11, Duffy said he quickly became independent and “a little bit of a scrapper” growing up. He studied marketing as an undergraduate at St. Mary’s University of Winona in Minnesota, though he now says he should have studied economics or business.

He took a year off and continued to compete in lumberjack exhibitions and contests across the country before beginning law school at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn.

In 1997, his second year of law school, Duffy appeared on MTV’s “Real World: Boston” program, a reality show in which a group of young people is forced to live together in a house, and filmed in the process. Though Duffy said he doesn’t regret appearing on the show, it became a “frustrating” distraction during the campaign, Duffy said.

“I knew that’s what folks would write about at the start,” he said. “But as the campaign went on, it seemed like they kept calling, wanting to talk about the same thing.”

The show did introduce Duffy to his wife, who appeared on the 1994 season of the show. The couple met during an “All Stars” reunion of different casts and have been married for 12 years.

Legal life

After graduating from law school in 1999, Duffy practiced privately for two years at his father’s practice in Hayward before becoming a special prosecutor for Ashland County.

In 2002, Duffy was appointed as Ashland’s district attorney by former Gov. Scott McCallum and ran unopposed for re-election until resigning in June to focus on the congressional campaign.

For the people who worked with Duffy in Ashland County, his “reality star” past is a nonfactor. They say his willingness to gather opinions before making a final decision will benefit the 7th District.

Nancy Thyberg, the victim and witness coordinator for Ashland County, worked with Duffy for 10 years. Thyberg said she was impressed by Duffy’s consideration of opinions from crime victims and office staff members.

“I’ve heard from other victim witness coordinators of district attorneys who just set out what they’re going to do,” Thyberg said. “I never felt that with Sean.”

LaTricia Dugger, a social worker and child abuse and neglect investigator for Ashland County, worked with Duffy for eight years while he was district attorney. She echoed Thyberg’s observations about Duffy’s prosecutorial style and said she appreciated his approach to cases.

“When he felt that someone needed our help, he never stopped looking for alternatives,” Dugger said. “Sean just has a big heart and cares about people and the community.”

On to D.C.

Duffy admits his pledge to live in the district, commuting to D.C. for votes and returning home on weekends, will put pressure on him and the family. But he said he thinks it’s the best way for him to keep in touch with the district and hold town hall meetings in each of its counties.

Campos-Duffy said any arrangement will let the family be together more than they were during the campaign. She stayed in Ashland with the kids, ranging in age from seven months to 11 years old, while Duffy spent his time in Wausau, where the campaign’s main office was located.

“We have definitely missed our family time, but we’re going to make this work,” Campos-Duffy said firmly.

Duffy said his family hasn’t made a decision about continuing to live in Ashland, but he said it might not be the best place for the 7th District’s congressman to be located.

“This is a responsibility I’ve accepted,” he said. “We have to think about where the population is and how that affects that responsibility.”