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Are financial woes relevant in local politics?

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
September 2, 2011
— A city council member’s house is in foreclosure and is being sold at a sheriff’s auction.

Does that mean he can’t manage the city budget?


Or does it mean he has a better understanding of what others are experiencing in this beleaguered economy?


It’s a question voters might consider more often as hard times linger in Janesville. At least two council members and one candidate in the past few years have gone bankrupt, had homes in foreclosure or been close to it.


It’s also a question Gazette editors ponder.


How much publicity is warranted when a local official falls on hard times?


Some people contacted for this article believe personal financial matters have no relation to an individual’s elected job. Others said voters have the right to know so they can consider that information—if they wish—when they cast their votes.


Hard times

Interestingly, the poster child for the issue, Yuri Rashkin, is the most insistent about publishing his financial woes.


Rashkin’s home on Forest Park Boulevard is up for auction Sept. 7. The Gazette reported his bankruptcy two years ago.


“I love the fact of putting this into a wider perspective,” Rashkin said. “I think how we deal with difficult issues like this is really important.”


Since his problems, Rashkin said he has learned to avoid overextending himself by not taking for granted that things will remain the same. That’s an important lesson for city officials to keep in mind, he said.


Rashkin also said his experiences make him empathetic to those going through the same thing.


Residents sometimes say, “Those people on the council can’t relate to regular people,” Rashkin said. “I disagree with that.”


Rashkin appreciated the opportunity to tell his story. He said unforeseen circumstances played a large part and included the collapse of the mortgage industry—he shuttered his own mortgage business—and a divorce.


Rashkin has since returned to school. After renting, he and his fiancé bought a home. He supports himself as a musician and translator, he said.


His bankruptcy became public during his first term, Rashkin noted, and he has since been re-elected.


“People should have the opportunity to evaluate candidates,” he said.


“That’s what democracy is all about. I’m just a strong believer in transparency, especially in government.”


Too much information

Kay Deupree, a member of the local League of Women Voters, and Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, said a candidate’s personal finances are nobody’s business.


A foreclosure doesn’t have a bearing on a candidate’s ability to serve, Berry said.


He laments the quality of candidates willing to run and, subsequently, the quality of government.


People don’t seek office because they are subject to scrutiny in areas that have no bearing on their public roles, Berry said.


People can’t control their employment, especially in Janesville, he said. They can’t control the housing market.


Losing a job and encountering problems because of unforeseen circumstances don’t violate the public trust, Berry said.


“I don’t think people should care what’s going on (in candidates’) personal lives,” Berry said. “I think that thoughtful people and responsible media have to, to some degree, police themselves.”


Issues that are fair game show how a candidate “interfaces” with government, Berry said. That includes his or her tax returns.


Deupree discussed the issue as a voter and not a member of the League of Women Voters because that group has no stated position on the topic.


People take on mortgages assuming their current circumstances will continue, she said. Foreclosures mean they didn’t accurately predict their financial futures.


“I don’t hold anyone responsible for not being able to see that,” Deupree said.


She pays attention to some personal information, such as whether a candidate has criminal convictions or who contributes to his or her campaign.


Piece of the puzzle

Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities and a political science professor at UW-Madison, said voters choose information about candidates that is important to them to cast their votes.


Thompson, for instance, considers how well a municipality is run, a candidate’s voting record or whether he or she has been convicted of a crime. He doesn’t think a person’s finances are relevant.


Voters, however, should be the ones to make those decisions, he said. Some might believe a bankruptcy or foreclosure reflects a person’s ability to manage money.


“I think someone who chooses to run for public office needs to expect their lives will be scrutinized by the public in ways that an average citizen’s life would not be scrutinized,” Thompson said.


Bankruptcies and foreclosures are public record.


If a person listed in a bankruptcy or foreclosure notice is a public official, Thompson believes a newspaper’s readers would expect more details of the circumstances.


Thompson senses that most voters understand that elected officials are human beings and subjected to the same kinds of pressure and personal disappointment as anybody else.


Kathy Cramer Walsh is a professor of political science who studies public opinion.


“People very much pay attention to character traits,” she said.


“Sometimes, they don’t know a whole lot about the details of policy or how a person has voted in the past. They do use ideas about competition and integrity and reliability to make judgments.”


Actions speak louder than words, and facts about people’s lives understandably guide voters, she said.


A candidate might worry that financial problems might cause people to think he or she can’t handle money and shouldn’t be in charge of a budget.


“At the same time, there a lot of people in the Janesville area who have gone through foreclosure for whom it’s not an issue,” she said.


People have endured layoffs or are unemployed, and that’s not a character flaw, Cramer Walsh said.


“Times are really tough, and unfortunately, they don’t seem to be getting a whole lot better.


“It’s nice to know people making our political decisions go through the same struggles we do.”


Gazette reports issues Janesville candidates, officials

Like all media, the Gazette must weigh arguments on both sides before deciding whether to publish information about local candidates’ or officials’ financial problems, Editor Scott Angus said.


Among considerations are whether it’s fair to the candidates or officials, whether voters would find the information relevant, whether an argument can be made that the problems reflect character traits that matter in public officials, and whether the newspaper can be consistent in its coverage.


After much debate, Angus said, the Gazette has settled on a policy of reporting bankruptcies, foreclosures or other publicly recorded financial issues involving city council and school board members in Janesville.


“We can see the arguments on both sides, but we’re generally inclined to publish public information rather than withhold it,” Angus said. “The information is out there, and we can provide background and explanation.”


Gazette editors believe residents and voters are wise enough to put the information into perspective and make sound decisions about whether it matters in a person’s role on the school board or council, he said.


The Gazette covers Janesville more aggressively and devotes more resources to it than other communities, so editors believe they can be fair and consistent in their coverage there, Angus said.


“In other communities in our readership area, we won’t have a policy of reporting on such problems unless they become significant issues in campaigns,” Angus said. “We’d like to apply the same standards everywhere, but it’s simply a consistency and resource issue.


“We do the best we can with what we have available. We have the most customers in Janesville by far, so that’s where we focus much of our attention.”



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