Heckenlively: The man taking on Paul Ryan

2010-10-02T23:06:00Z 2013-12-18T13:47:49Z Heckenlively: The man taking on Paul RyanSTEPHANIE JONES stephanie.jones@journaltimes.com Journal Times

RACINE - John Heckenlively often starts his day Downtown at the bus stop.

He doesn't have a car so he uses the bus to get to his destination. He takes it to stores, meetings and the Democratic Party of Racine County's headquarters, 2005 Lathrop Ave., where his campaign is based.

Heckenlively, 46, of Racine, is running for Congress against U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, who was first elected to the seat in 1998 and has been re-elected five times. The election is Nov. 2.

Nobody was running against Ryan. So Heckenlively, a longtime Democratic Party supporter, said: "If nobody wants to run, well, I'll jump in."

Dressing the part

Now Heckenlively, who is currently unemployed and is insured through the state's BadgerCare Plus program, is in full-fledged campaign mode.

He has a fresh haircut and new glasses. He wears a tie, black pants and shiny shoes.

"When you are applying for a job, you want to look the part," Heckenlively said.

He wore ties when he was student-teaching two years ago in Milwaukee's Bayview neighborhood. But he hasn't been able to find a teaching job and hasn't needed a tie for his occasional freelance writing.

"His timing was exactly wrong," Heckenlively's father, David Heckenlively, said of the timing of his son's teaching degree. He sometimes helps his son out financially, David Heckenlively said; when he gets together with his son, they don't dwell on the job struggle. John Heckenlively is not receiving unemployment benefits now, but he has in the past.

"It's a matter of if one thing doesn't work out, you try something else," said David Heckenlively, 72, a retired Methodist pastor who lives in


Exploring career paths

Through the years, John Heckenlively has explored several career possibilities. He graduated in 1986 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a degree in political science. He considered being a lawyer. Soon after that, Heckenlively moved to Racine. He went back to school to earn a master's in history with an eye toward becoming a history professor. His most recent degree was in education; he is a certified social studies teacher.

While pursuing his degrees, he took the bus.

"It's amazing," said Heckenlively's treasurer, Marilyn Nemeth, 78, of Mount Pleasant. "He gets on that bus and goes."

It is a pain to keep a car Downtown, Heckenlively said. Also, not having a car reduces his carbon footprint and saves money, he said.

In between degrees, Heckenlively wrote a 300-page book: "Bush Must Go: 2004 Reasons America Needs Regime Change."

About 1,000 were published, he said, but many of them now sit in boxes in his apartment on Seventh Street and in his parents' house in Franklin. Two copies are also at the Racine Public Library.

His trademark

While Heckenlively can now be seen wearing his tie and dress pants, his look was a bit different before he started on the campaign trail. If you saw Heckenlively, you could have accidentally mistaken him for independent filmmaker Michael Moore.

Heckenlively has heard that "only about a thousand times," he said.

Before the campaign started, Heckenlively had shaggy hair and big glasses. Heckenlively also had his own style - khaki pants and his signature cargo vest, or jacket as he calls it.

"I started wearing it, and at a certain point it became my trademark," Heckenlively said of his vest.

He said he has gone through at least five or six vests since he started wearing it in the mid-'90s.

The vest has pockets for everything, most importantly his pen, paper and camera.

Those are the essentials for any reporter, which he was for about six years at Racine Labor, a union paper. He also wrote for other organizations.

He was wearing his signature vest in 2004 in Miami when he covered a rally against Free Trade Area of the Americas which he said was "NAFTA on steroids."

A few hundred people were arrested at the event, he said.

"I was one of them," said Heckenlively, who was covering the event for the AFL-CIO.

Running for Congress

Heckenlively's newest endeavor is running for Congress. When no one else was running, Heckenlively stepped up, Nemeth said. He stepped up to be the chairman of the Racine County Democratic Party in the past, Nemeth said.

And he stepped up to become the secretary of the 1st Congressional District Democratic Party, a position he currently holds, Nemeth said.

Running for Congress against Ryan is "an absolute long shot," Heckenlively said. "It's taking on Mount Everest."

But he said no matter what happens in the election, he will have one more thing to put on his résumé.

"Let's face it," Heckenlively said. "How many social studies teachers can put down ‘I ran for the House of Representatives?' "

Copyright 2015 Journal Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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