Representative-elect Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee) and Representative-elect Francesca Hong (D-Madison) are among the 16 new members of the state Assembly. (Graphic illustration by Morgaine Ford-Workman)
Representative-elect Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee) and Representative-elect Francesca Hong (D-Madison) are among the 16 new members of the state Assembly. (Graphic illustration by Morgaine Ford-Workman)

Hong is the first Asian American elected to the Wisconsin Legislature. Ortiz-Velez will be pushing to legalize medical marijuana to reduce opioid addiction.

Editor’s note: The Wisconsin 24 is a new series at UpNorthNews that will run over the next three weeks to introduce readers to the newly elected members of the Wisconsin Legislature. All told, there are 10 new Democratic members and six new Republican members to the Assembly. The Senate is welcoming three Democratic and five Republican members.

This year’s freshman class of state legislators includes a few firsts for the state of Wisconsin. Now that she has been elected to represent Wisconsin’s 76th Assembly district, Francesca Hong, who is Korean American, is the first AsianAmerican elected to the Statehouse. 

“As honored as I am to be the first, I need to make sure and hold the responsibility that I’m not the last,” Hong said. Hong did not have plans to enter politics and said for the last 10 years she’s identified herself as a chef, an organizer, and as a mother. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic, I was hoping, would force the GOP into looking at the humanity of their communities and the needs of their communities,” Hong said.Unfortunately, they have politicized it and not only pitted what I see as Democrats against each other, but have really put the lives and livelihoods of their communities at stake for their own political gain.”

She also thinks her experience as a small business owner in the hospitality industry will be a valuable aspect

“I think it could serve the government really well to have someone who is in the business of putting people first,” Hong said. 

Her top priority entering office is to address the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis. 

“Mom-and-pop shops like mine, and so many other main streets across Wisconsin, are bearing the brunt of this pandemic,” she said. “Looking at relief packages for them while incentivizing them to take care of their workers through hazard pay and paid sick leave, as well as prioritizing frontline workers, are some of the priorities that we need to put into a COVID-19 recovery package.”

She’s hoping that after the results of the election, which flipped the state blue, Wisconsin Republicans will be more open to progressive policies.

“Marquette polls show we favor investing in public education, that Wisconsinites favor increasing the minimum wage,” said Hong, who also favors Medicaid expansion. “We need to make sure our policies reflect the needs and the desires of the people and work across the aisle to achieve that.”

Milwaukee County Supervisor Sylvia Ortiz-Velez is about to trade in her local government job for a seat in state government, but she doesn’t want to lose sight of the issues in her home Assembly district.

Ortiz-Velez, a Democrat from Milwaukee’s south side, won the Nov. 3 election in the 8th Assembly District, raking in 79% of the vote to become the successor of outgoing Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee), who did not run for re-election after being elected to Milwaukee’s Common Council in the spring. 

“I believe I can get a lot more work done in Madison, and I want to legislate,” said Ortiz-Velez, a former real estate broker.

Ortiz-Velez’s new Assembly district roughly overlaps with her district as a Milwaukee County supervisor, so in many ways she is expecting the translation to be painless.

She said she will serve as a voice for Milwaukee in Madison and said she will fight for her home city, which is frequently given the cold shoulder by Republican leaders who argue too much of the state’s money goes to Milwaukee, despite it being by far the state’s largest economic engine. 

The city’s share of the state’s shared revenue fund has remained flat for years, and state Republicans have not allowed the city to hold a referendum to increase sales tax. Both issues have led to drastic cuts at both a city and county level.

“We’re sending more and more money every year but getting less and less back, and there are real people suffering from that,” Ortiz-Velez said.

Milwaukee County is home to 70% of the state’s Black population, 40% of the state’s Latino population, and 25% of the state’s Asian population, according to the state Department of Health Services.

“When you have minority populations that are not receiving adequate or equitable access to public services, that’s a real big problem,” Ortiz-Velez said.

Ortiz-Velez’s biggest bipartisan concern is the statewide opioid epidemic. She said addressing it will be one of her first goals when she takes office.

“It’s low-hanging fruit, but it’s something that can save lives right away,” Ortiz-Velez said.

She said opioid addiction can be reduced by legalizing medical marijuana, something over 80% of Wisconsinites support and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has voiced support for in the past. A UW-Madison study found last year that legalized medical marijuana could bring the state $1.1 billion in additional tax revenue.

“We need to pass that,” Ortiz-Velez said. “Too many people are suffering, too many people are dying because they won’t let people have access to a plant, which by the way is considered medicine in more than two-third of the states.”

On the COVID-19 pandemic, Ortiz-Velez said she is in favor of a statewide mask mandate and closing bars, but would leave stricter limits up to local health authorities.