Roger Polack, a Racine native, is one of three Democrats running for the nomination to take on Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Janesville, for the 1st Congressional District. (Photo courtesy of Roger for Wisconsin)
Roger Polack, a Racine native, is one of three Democrats running for the nomination to take on Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Janesville, for the 1st Congressional District. (Photo courtesy of Roger for Wisconsin)

Roger Polack touts his global experience as antidote to “Wisconsin Steil”

[Editor’s Note – This is the first in a series of stories about candidates for Congress in Wisconsin’s 1st District. Josh Pade was profiled Feb. 11, and Angela Cunningham was profiled Feb. 12.]

Two years ago, Republican Bryan Steil ran on bringing “Wisconsin Steil” politics to Washington, D.C., as he succeeded Paul Ryan in representing the state’s 1st Congressional District.

But to Roger Polack, 36, Steil has been more Washington than Wisconsin, so Polack is touting his Racine roots and his global experience as he looks to unseat the freshman from Janesville.

“The place I love is represented by someone looking out for corporations and corporate special interest groups,” Polack said. “It really kind of sickened me.” 

Polack is one of three Democrats vying for the party’s nomination in August. If one of them eventually defeats Steil, Paul Ryan’s old district will flip blue for the first time in 25 years. 

Steil handily defeated the well-funded Randy Bryce in 2018. 

Polack sees Steil’s voting record — he has sided with President Donald Trump’s interests 95 percent of the time, according to analysis by the nonpartisan FiveThirtyEight — as a huge weakness.

After going to college in Eau Claire and Madison and studying abroad in Myanmar and Thailand, Polack settled in Washington, working for the U.S. Department of the Treasury as a civilian intelligence officer. 

The job took him in 2011 and 2012 to Afghanistan, where he was deputy director of the Afghan Threat Finance Cell. 

At the cell, he interviewed Taliban detainees and studied the group’s funding sources. He  developed what he refers to as “a really groundbreaking study that ended up on Obama’s desk.”

Beyond his work in Afghanistan, Polack played a role in developing the Iran nuclear agreement and was a senior policy adviser. His service spanned both the Bush and Obama administrations.

“My background lends itself to working on congressional issues and diving right in once elected and being a key member,” Polack said.

After completing law school in 2017, Polack became an associate at Covington and Burling, an international law firm that has a Washington office. According to property records, he and his wife bought a $1.3 million house in the District of Columbia in 2018.

However, he left his job and moved back to Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District to campaign full-time last year. He is renting a house in the northern Racine County village of Caledonia, according to his campaign manager, Christian Duffy. 

In an interview, Polack brushed off concerns that voters may consider him “a Washington guy.”

“I really don’t think it is (a valid concern),” Polack said. “I’ve been deeply connected to the community and when I was not in Wisconsin, the vast majority of my time was spent serving our country. Everyone that I’ve spoken with sees my time in government service as a real benefit. So, I’m not going to shy away from that one bit.”

Polack said he would live in the District of Columbia while Congress is in session and in Wisconsin when it’s not. It is unclear if Polack’s wife, an othrodontist with her own practice in the District of Columbia, would stay there with the couple’s two young children. 

If Polack is elected, he and his wife will “continue to evaluate what works for their family and allows them to spend the most time together,” Duffy said in an email.

On the issues, Polack advocates for health care as a human right, increasing college affordability, increasing public school funding, ending the current trade war, fighting climate change and improving relations with the United Nations and North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He says he will not take money from corporate political action committees.

Many of Polack’s talking points circle back to education.

He was raised as a blue-collar kid, with both parents working outside the house. His father worked on the assembly line at Racine’s J.I. Case factory and went on to start his own roofing business. His mother worked at both Blockbuster Video and Shopko to provide for the family after his father started suffering with mental health issues.

“I think I’m a good example of the power of education,” Polack said.

He brims with pride when he talks about his mother’s journey. When Blockbuster went out of business, she went back to school at Gateway Technical College to earn an associate’s degree at age 60. She now works at Aurora Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee, Polack said.

“I would like to ensure that my story is not a unique one,” Polack said.

Kenosha County residents Josh Pade, a former gubernatorial candidate, and Angela Cunningham, a defense attorney, are the other Democratic candidates.

The 1st Congressional District includes all of Racine and Kenosha counties, most of Walworth County and parts of Rock, Waukesha and Milwaukee counties. Its three largest cities are Racine, Kenosha and Janesville. The primary is Aug. 11.