Janesville67.3°

Republican or Democrat? It’s not supposed to matter at local level

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
December 25, 2011
— Two candidates for Janesville City Council and one for Rock County Board also are high-ranking members of the Democratic Party of Rock County.

Coincidence? Or is it an organized effort by Democracts to influence politics after their power eroded at the state level?


And are Republicans gearing up their troops as well, turning the supposedly non-partisan seats on the council, county board and school board political?


Local councils and board seats are nonpartisan to negate the influence of political machines, said Dennis Dresang, professor of public affairs and political science at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at UW-Madison. Those elected are supposed to serve the community with no other agendas.


In reality, partisanship at the local level is nothing new, and the state is seeing more of it, especially with the furor in Madison, Dresang said.


“The reality is that unless we’re going to do away with partisan elections at the state and the federal level, it’s going to really have an affect all the way down the line,” he said.


Local offices sometimes serve as springboards for those who seek higher office. Democrats Kevin Murray, a school board member, and Yuri Rashkin, a council member, are running for state Assembly, for instance.


Candidates who are members of the executive committee of the Democratic Party of Rock County said their decision to run for local office had nothing to do with their party.


They did say they, however, that the party as a whole is energized since the Republican-controlled Legislature stripped most collective bargaining rights from public unions.


Those running for local office who are Democratic executive committee members are:


-- Michael Southers, deputy chairman, running for council.


-- Angela Smillie, vice chairwoman of finance and fundraising, running for council.


-- Cathy Myers, vice chairwoman of communications, running for Rock County Board.


In addition, Sam Liebert, secretary, already is on the council.


Ted Kinnaman, vice chairman of elections for the local Democrats, acknowledged a “partisan tinge” to some councils and boards. He said most would like to keep it nonpartisan.


“Things have definitely become polarized since Scott Walker became governor,” Kinnaman said. “Many people have said he has energized the Democratic Party like nothing has done since maybe the Vietnam years.


“In some of the younger people … it has encouraged them to move ahead like this.”


Membership in the Democratic Party of Rock County quadrupled in 2011, according to a news release.


Liebert said the Democratic Party encourages anyone who wants to run for office, and he’s sure the Republican Party does the same.


He believes the Janesville City Council remains “pretty nonpartisan … I hope it’s not just me being naive. I really think a lot of the members—we read the packet and the agenda the week before, take input from people and base decisions on core values.”


He said he ran for the city council because he was ready for a leadership role.


Local offices are good places to learn how government works, he said. There also are ways local government can “push back” on state actions, he acknowledged.


‘Nuts and bolts’

Myers agreed that Madison politics awakened in some the need to get involved.


Myers, a teacher, said she was raised in a political family, is on a union bargaining committee and has been involved in public service for years.


She is running for the Rock County Board because she believes people should be active in their communities.


“You really don’t have any business complaining about anything unless you are part of what you deem the solution to be,” she said.


Being a member of a certain party might mean she puts more weight in certain areas, she said. For her, that includes social services. She would like to see collective bargaining rights restored, but she realizes that is a state issue.


“Local government is really nuts and bolts—keeping the roads paved and making sure health and safety is top priority,” she said.


“You can be as focused on ideology as you want, but, honestly, you gotta pay the bills.”


Angela Smillie, a state employee, said her run for city council has nothing to do with personal political ideologies but rather timing in her personal life.


Madison politics reignited her interest in politics, and she was “highly encouraged” by her fellow Democrats, she said.


Still, “I think it has more to do with my values as far as serving others and helping others more so than, ‘Am I blue or red?’” Smillie said.


“It is a nonpartisan race, and, ultimately, it is about serving community members. It’s not about me. It’s about, ‘What do the citizens want?’”


Michael Southers, a county employee, said timing was right for him to run.


“I felt that I couldn’t stand around anymore and wait for something bad to happen in my backyard,” he said.


“Ultimately, when you are dealing with local issues, it’s more of a common sense (solution),” he said. “What works at the state or the federal level doesn’t necessarily apply to the local level.”


He categorizes himself as a “conservative Democrat” who has a degree in business management.


As far as negotiating wages, pensions and benefits, “you need to look at what package is being presented,” he said. “There’s a city to be run.”


The other candidates

Andy Murray said he is running for Janesville City Council because he is committed to Janesville.


His father is Kevin Murray, a retired firefighter who is on the school board and who is a Democrat running for Assembly. His mother worked for the United Auto Workers.


Andy Murray is employed in the private sector, and he believes that gives him good balance for a nonpartisan seat.


“I’m going to do my best to see the issues from the other person’s point of view, get feedback from the taxpayers and make informative decisions on resources I have available,” he said.


Murray said he is not “really looking” at running for higher office, but if others think he would make a good candidate, he would make the decision then.


DuWayne Severson said he is running for city council to serve the community. He does not belong to either political party, and he describes himself as a fiscal conservative.


He decided to run when the council approved a wheel tax for residents but then OK’d bonuses to employees to make up for what they recently were required to pay toward their pensions.


“We have to cut taxes as much as possible … so that people can maintain their homes and get a job,” he said. “That’s what I’m concerned about.”


City council candidate Matthew Kealy said he is pays $25 a year to be on the Rock County Republic Party’s mailing list, but that’s the extent of his party affiliation.


Kealy, who owns three restaurants, said he is running partly to represent the small business point of view on the council. The recently approved 21 percent increase in water rates will hurt his business and his employees, and he doesn’t know if that was even considered by the council.


He said he would strive to look at all sides of an issue.


He is also concerned about employee wages.


“Until the city employees contribute to their health and pensions, we’re going to be in a tough spot, “ he said.


Kathy Voskuil, the only incumbent running for re-election to the city council, said she has no aspirations to be in Madison or Washington. She is running because she believes in the community.


She agreed council members are acting more partisan. A recent comment by Rashkin—he called the wheel tax the “Walker Tax”—was “blatant partisanship,” she said.


Comments like that worry her, she said, because the council’s goal is do what’s best for the city, not any party.


“I see that more as a personal agenda, and I don’t believe that is the reason why individuals were elected,” Voskuil said.


Brad Westness, a state employee, said earlier he decided to run for city council after talking to his childhood friend, Sam Liebert. They were discussing what was happening in Madison, and he decided he had to do something, he said.


Westness said he realizes the council is nonpartisan. He could not be reached for further comment.


Billy McCoy said he is neither a Democrat nor a Republican and would approach council business from a “Janesville point of view.”


“I’m looking at it more as a homeowner, as residents of Janesville (who are on) fixed incomes and are tired of being overtaxed.”


City council candidate Jim Farrell said there is a “real danger” that the city could become politicized by people who are officers of any party.


Farrell said he’s an independent and is running to offer his knowledge of finance. He said he has no other agenda and no interest in running for higher office.


The Republicans

Jason Mielke, chairman of the Republican Party of Rock County, said it’s disingenuous to say local offices are nonpartisan.


He sees county board and city council members at times act very partisan, and not just recently.


“My response is, ‘I’d like to resort to a little bit more reasonable tone and use some common sense,’” Mielke said.


He said his party doesn’t push slates of candidates, but it does encourage people to run for office.


He said some in the party give him flak because the city council is supposed to be nonpartisan.


“I think it is still consistent with our political agenda to make sure that our philosophies are carried out as best as possible,” Mielke said.


Democrats and the unions do it, as well, Mielke said.


When you get a look at people’s backgrounds, he said, “you get a much clearer picture of where things stand.”



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