Knilans prepares to serve

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Sunday, January 2, 2011
— It’s been more than five years since Joe Knilans and his newborn son were baptized together at St. William Catholic Church in Janesville.

Tomorrow, Knilans will face a different sort of baptism when he’s sworn in as the new representative of the 44th Assembly District that covers most of Janesville.

Less than a week after upsetting three-term incumbent Rep. Mike Sheridan, the 46-year-old Knilans made his first trip to the State Capitol as representative-elect.

He said the grand old building looked different that day.

“It’s like driving by someplace you’d really like to work and then getting a job there,” Knilans said. “It becomes a reality, and you see it in a totally new perspective.”

Inside, fellow members of the Republican Assembly Caucus greeted him as the upstart who defeated the Speaker of the Assembly, a post Democrats elevated Sheridan to in 2009.

Statewide, Knilans’ defeat of Sheridan was characterized as the David-knocks-off-Goliath event of the fall election.

Knilans was in the right place at the right time, benefiting from a surge in voter discontent with incumbent Democrats, and his opponent was ripe at the top of the Democrat-controlled Assembly food chain.

But he also used what his college professor and others refer to as retail politics—a strong focus on local events and the burning of shoe leather—to beat Sheridan by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin.

“When I heard that he’d won, I was very surprised, but I was so thrilled and proud of him,” said Susan Johnson, Knilans’ political science professor and academic adviser at UW-Whitewater. “I don’t care if he’s a Democrat or a Republican.”

For the record, Johnson is a Democrat from a politically active family in Chicago, a fact she closely guards in her classroom lectures.

Knilans earned an associate degree at UW-Rock County. Later, while working at General Motors, he enrolled at UW-Whitewater and graduated in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in biology.

“We talked a lot, and it was clear that Joe had an interest in politics,” Johnson said.

Many of their discussions were based on spirited but respectful differences of political opinion.

“He was very engaged.”

After his November victory, Knilans returned to Johnson’s classroom as the poster child for retail politics.

“As is the case with most nontraditional students, Joe brought different sorts of experiences to the classroom,” she said. “We’d spent a couple of weeks in class, which was on elections, talking about retail politics, so the students knew what it was all about.

“But most people of that age don’t know what that is. They think everything runs like it does in a presidential election.”

Knilans is proud of his grassroots campaign. Walking the city’s wards and knocking on thousands of doors, he now knows the city better than most.

“I listened to people, and I asked them to do me a favor and help spread the word to family and friends,” he said. “It just cascaded.”

That’s easy to say in hindsight.

Many days found Knilans wondering as he wandered: Will the strategy work?

“Some days I would think, ‘No way am I going to beat the Assembly Speaker. Who’s gonna vote for Joe Knilans?’” he said. “Other days after talking to people, I felt like, ‘I got him.’

“I had to keep reminding myself that I was not running against the speaker, I was running against Mike Sheridan.”

It’s no surprise that Knilans doesn’t agree with Sheridan’s politics. He does, however, have a new appreciation for Sheridan’s efforts.

“My hat is off to Mike Sheridan,” Knilans said. “He put his life on hold for six years to do this, and I really salute his commitment.”

A firm foundation

Commitment and hard work have been a hallmark in the Knilans family, a collection of eight sons, three daughters, three adopted daughters and two foster sons all raised with the conservative values of Richard, a well-known veterinarian, and Marie Knilans, who supported her husband’s practice for years before a lengthy nursing career.

“We were raised to be self-sufficient,” Knilans said of his childhood on the family farm. “It was instilled in me at a very early age.

“I’d get up and do chores, and after school and football practice I’d come home and do chores. Those are life experiences that stay with you.”

Knilans graduated from Parker High School in 1982 and worked for a couple of local companies before moving to Chicago. He returned to Janesville in 1989 and worked for several manufacturers before landing a GM job in 1996.

He worked at the plant until July 2008, when GM cut a production shift. Accepting a buyout, he officially cut his GM ties in August 2009.

During his 13 years at the plant, Knilans worked as both an assembler and a supervisor, positions he said allowed him to appreciate both union and management perspectives.

“I went to GM to work, not complain, and I was paid generously for that,” he said. “Learning how to work with both sides will help me now.

“As Republicans in control, we can’t squeeze the Democrats out.”

Connie Carter believes that’s more than lip service.

She was a GM supervisor when Knilans was an hourly employee with aspirations to become a supervisor.

Knilans got a job as a per-diem supervisor, shadowed Carter and filled in for her while she was on special assignment in Detroit.

“A lot of times, the fill-in supervisor would just put off everything until I returned: ‘Wait until Connie comes back,’” Carter said. “You have to make decisions, and Joe made decisions.

“They weren’t always right and they weren’t always wrong, but he accepted the responsibility and made decisions.”

Carter describes Knilans as an excellent listener with top-shelf people skills, a trait necessary on the floor of a shop or the state Assembly.

“I think Joe was always looking beyond GM,” she said. “Even if the plant was still open, I don’t think he would have stayed.

“That’s just the way it is. Some people aren’t meant to stay forever.”

New frontiers

Out of work, Knilans signed on with JG Innovations earlier this year and installed metal soffits over sprinkler systems.

While on the campaign trail in September, however, he was laid off.

“I didn’t file for unemployment,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be right to be collecting unemployment and be out knocking on doors for the election.”

Knilans’ family, which includes 5-year-old Griffin and 3-year-old Grace, tightened its budget and set about living off the salary that wife Nancy was drawing at Norwood Promotional Products.

A month after the Knilans family won a job in the Assembly, they learned Nancy would lose her job next year when Norwood closes its Janesville operation.

“It is kind of ironic,” Knilans said. “Thank God I have a job, now, one in which I was hired by the people.”

Knilans is confident his wife will find another job, but he acknowledges there aren’t a lot of marketing positions open in Janesville.

Knilans said his wife is a strong woman capable of channeling her energy, whether helping him run a successful campaign or finding a new job.

“Nancy is the most important person in my life, and I can’t thank her enough for everything she’s done for me,” he said. “She was right there with me every step of the way, as my campaign manager, the family manager and the manager of me.”

While Knilans comes from a Catholic family, he admits not being active in the church. He was not baptized until that 2005 day with his son at St. William in Janesville.

As big as the Knilans family was, he said, it was difficult to get the whole clan to church on Sunday.

“My wife is Catholic, and we wanted to raise our children in one religion,” he said of his return to the church. “St. William is a good school, and we like that the kids can say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning and have God as part of their education.

“That’s just our opinion. I have nothing against public schools, because in Janesville they are very good, and I went there.”

Come Monday when their father is being sworn in, Griffin will be in his kindergarten classroom and Grace will have just wrapped up a pre-school session at St. William.

The kids, Knilans said, are too young for the day’s events.

Instead, Knilans’ allotment of five tickets will go to his wife, her parents and Joe’s eldest brother and his wife.

“I’ve taken the kids to the Capitol, so they know that’s where Dad’s going to be working,” Knilans said. “It will be a busy day, but it will also be a lot fun.”

It will also mark the day that Knilans officially enters “the book” that his wife quipped about shortly after he was elected.

“She said that ‘I’ll be in the book, now,’” Knilans said. “I said we’ve always been in the phone book.

“She said ‘No, not the phone book, the state Blue Book.’

“It took a minute to register, but she was right. It’s quite an honor.”


Hours after Joe Knilans is sworn into office Monday, he said he’ll go to bed on one side of Janesville.

He said his family will do the same on the other side of town.

That’s because the Knilans family has been unsuccessful in selling their house on Alpine Drive, which sits about three blocks outside of the 44th Assembly District that Knilans was elected to represent in November.

State law mandates that anyone being sworn in as a state representative must live in the district.

Knilans now meets that requirement, but at the time of the election, he couldn’t vote for himself because he was out of the district. He signed a lease in November to rent a portion of his brother’s house on Winchester Place on the city’s far west side.

“I’m living in my brother’s basement, as strange as that may sound,” Knilans said.

Since announcing his candidacy earlier this year, Knilans has said that the family planned to sell its home and move into the district.

The family, however, has had a difficult time selling the property.

“Since November, I’ve done what I need to do to establish residency in the district,” he said. “I’ve changed the address on my driver’s license and have all of my state mail going to the new address.

“And if it means I put my children to bed on Alpine and drive over to Winchester to sleep, that’s what I’ll do.”

Beyond “establishing residency,” state law is ambiguous on details. It’s not clear how much time Knilans must physically spend at the new address, but he does plan to spend evenings there.

That should discourage anyone who might want to stake out the new address to track his comings and goings, he said.

“I’m in a business now where ‘Gotcha!’ can be a story for some people, and I don’t want that to be the story about me,” he said.

Knilans’ wife recently learned that she will lose her job early next year. The rental arrangement with his brother, he said, will remain until the family can sell its house on Alpine and buy one in the district.

“Financially, things are tight, and we have to make the right financial decisions for ourselves just as I have to make the right financial decisions as a state legislator,” he said.


Two days after he’s officially sworn in, 44th Assembly Rep. Joe Knilans will have a similar ceremony in Janesville.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser will administer the oath to Knilans at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Parker High School.

The event is open to the public.

Knilans said donations will be accepted on behalf of Washington Seminar, an advanced placement U.S. government course that Joe Van Rooy teaches at Parker. Each spring, the class makes a trip to Washington, D.C., and Knilans said the donations will help with that trip.

Last updated: 4:11 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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