Prominent Janesville Democrat distances himself from the party
JANESVILLE—Sam Liebert was watching the Labor Day parade Sept. 4 when he spotted DuWayne Severson marching with the Rock County Republicans.
The two former Janesville City Council presidents embraced.
“Let's do coffee sometime,” Liebert said.
It was a hug born of countless hours spent at the same meetings and working on the same problems. But it might have surprised those who have come to know Liebert as the liberal and Severson as the conservative, especially these days when it seems like all politicians are at the barricades, hurling insults at one another.
But Liebert learned a thing or two about partisan battles over the past six years, both on the city council and in getting his degree in public policy and administration, which he completed in December at UW-Whitewater.
Liebert has been a stalwart in the local Democratic Party for years. He proudly displays a photo of himself with his wife and President Barack Obama in his home.
He is not leaving behind the principles he believes in, but he recently called Democratic headquarters in Madison and asked that he be taken off the membership list. He has notified activists he can no longer work on political campaigns.
“For the first time in 10-plus years, I'm no longer a card-carrying Democrat,” he said in a wide-ranging interview Sunday at his Janesville home.
His reasons are both practical and ideological and not without criticism of the party he has worked for for much of his adult life.
For starters, “I'm not too happy with our two-party system,” he said.
Both parties have gerrymandered districts to the disadvantage of the other, leaving voters stranded in districts where either one party or the other is destined to win almost every election, he said.
And within each party, the primary system favors ideological extremists, so voters rarely have a chance to choose someone in the middle who might be more open to compromise to get things done.
One thing Democrat and Republican leaders can agree on is they don't want a third party, Liebert believes. It's a situation he finds, well, un-American.
“I think it's politically healthy to have more than two options. That's American capitalism if you think about it: It's based on choice, and we have choice in all of our lives except when it comes to politics.”
Liebert, a history buff, said he sees the country at a historic turning point: “I feel we're almost there, where a new party is going to form, or one of the major parties will become something new,” as has happened in the past, he said.
“I feel something has to change soon because I don't think either party has all the answers,” he said.
On the practical side, Liebert has just started a job as assistant city administrator in Monroe. The code of ethics for municipal administrators includes no running for office in the towns they serve, and no running for any partisan office. The rules say he can't make any political contributions, and he can't put a political sign in his yard or bumper sticker on his car.
That makes sense, he said, because people he serves should never have to question whether he is motivated by politics.
A good example: He has long been strongly pro-union, but now he is acting as Monroe's human resources director, and he's preparing to negotiate union contracts. His job is to see what he can get from the unions as a way to conserve tax dollars, he said.
“I'm on the other side now,” he added.
It's a strange turn for a man who dove deeply into partisan politics, working for presidential candidates, including Barack Obama's first campaign. Those were heady days for a young black man working long hours with like-minded young adults.
“After Iowa, it didn't feel like a campaign anymore. It felt like a movement,” he recalled.
On election night in Tampa, he sat with an older white woman who was politically active since the 1960s as Fox News called the election for Obama.
“We just cried on each other for 10 minutes. She kept asking me if this was real. It was a hell of a ride.”
He went on to work as a political appointee in the U.S. Department of Agriculture before returning to Janesville.
He ran for Janesville City Council and won in 2011. Over the next six years, he strove to stick to his liberal principles, but he learned that compromising to get half a loaf was better than getting none, he said.
And he learned how easy it was for constituents to contact him with a phone call or just ringing his doorbell. Local government is most efficient, he said, because it's the most accessible to those it serves.
Liebert decided not to run for re-election last spring, in part because he could see that the city council was not a career path, but also because the political climate had super-heated. Friends and relatives were always telling him about mean, heated criticisms of Liebert they heard or saw online, often with racial overtones.
He had heard such comments throughout his time on the council, but they escalated after Donald Trump was elected president, he said.
None of the comments was a direct threat of violence, and Liebert said he supports the right to express an opinion, but his wife at times feared for their safety.
Liebert said with heightened racial tensions this past summer, that decision seems even better now.
“It's a sad state of affairs when someone's reason for not running is they don't feel safe in public,” he said.
Liebert is on a new voyage with his new job, still in public service but in a nonpolitical way.
“My passion now is really for local public service because I think that's where the rubber meets the road for getting stuff done,” he said. “There's no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage. There's just the most efficient way.”