Stem Cells Back in Political Spotlight
Sunday, July 9, 2006
MADISON, Wis. -- From the back patio of his official residence here, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle can look across Lake Mendota to the campus of the University of Wisconsin and see a forest of construction cranes at the medical research complex and the new Institute of Discovery. Doyle calls the facilities "the epicenter of the world's work on embryonic stem cells."
Those cells may offer hope for curing crippling diseases, but at the moment, they are also at the center of an impassioned political debate, one that will occupy the Senate this summer and may provoke President Bush's first veto. It is an issue that may swing the outcome of Doyle's reelection race and a U.S. Senate contest in Missouri, where a stem cell research referendum is on the ballot.
University of Wisconsin scientists were the first to isolate embryonic stem cells, and the state, the alumni association and private firms have invested millions in building facilities and attracting scientists to work here. Doyle said in an interview that stem-cell-based bioscience will become, in time, "a $100 billion enterprise" and that his goal is to capture 10 percent of the bounty for his state.
But Doyle faces a difficult campaign, after four contentious years in office, against U.S. Rep. Mark Green, a personable Republican who points to polls suggesting that a majority of Wisconsin residents "think this great state is sliding, that its best days are behind us," even though its economy looks healthier than that of neighboring Michigan.
Green, a protege of Tommy G. Thompson, the popular former Republican governor and U.S. secretary of health and human services, is trying to present himself as a Thompson-style pragmatist who will reenergize the state.
But where Thompson, like Doyle, is an outspoken advocate of embryonic stem cell research, Green has voted to ban work on cells donated by fertility clinics or created from embryos in medical labs. The fourth-term House member supports Bush's policy of limiting work to the relatively few cell lines created before a 2001 executive order setting forth terms for government-funded research.
"I was in the Congress that doubled funding for the National Institutes of Health, the funding that actually helped create the national stem cell bank in Madison," Green said in an interview. "I'm excited about stem cell research. But I don't believe we have to leave our moral compass behind in pursuing the promise of stem cell research."
But Doyle has called Green "a relentless opponent of stem cell research," pointing to eight votes in which he says Green "tried to ban or even criminalize proven methods of stem cell research."
A similar debate is taking place in Missouri, where supporters of stem cell research have placed on the ballot an initiative protecting all forms of the research permitted by federal law. Republican Sen. James M. Talent has come out against it, while state Auditor Claire McCaskill, his Democratic challenger, favors it. The two are in a very close race, and early polls show majority support for the initiative.
In Wisconsin, the Republican-controlled legislature has placed on the ballot two initiatives designed to pull out conservative voters -- one reinforcing the ban on same-sex marriage and extending it to civil unions, the other an advisory referendum to reinstate the death penalty.
Doyle opposes both, and is hoping that the stem cell issue will motivate his supporters. The issues that Green says he will emphasize in his campaign are taxes and jobs, plus some issues of gambling and corruption new to Wisconsin. Doyle was the beneficiary of an independent expenditure campaign in his last race by some Indian tribes with casinos, and he signed contracts giving the tribes expanded gaming licenses in perpetuity -- authority that the state supreme court later overruled.
As for scandal, four legislative leaders of both parties have been convicted of various crimes, and last month a mid-level career employee was found guilty of handing a contract to a Doyle donor.