Kedzie stands firm on natural resources, building consensus

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March 21, 2012
— Nobody knows for sure if the Legislature would have passed an iron mining bill if Neal Kedzie's committee hadn't been dissolved.

For more than a decade, Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, was the "go to guy" when bipartisan agreement was necessary to deal with a controversial environmental issue.

That came to a halt Feb. 15 when Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, in effect, fired Kedzie, whom he had appointed to chair the Senate Select Committee on Mining Jobs.

Although the committee had not issued a final report or proposed a mining bill, committee talking points indicated bipartisan support for environmental safeguards and remedial payments by the mine. That, apparently, led Fitzgerald to disband the committee and discard its work.

Kedzie was out as a leader on the mining issue. Without his leadership, no mining bill passed and the mine withdrew its interest in Wisconsin.

Kedzie, never one to publicly criticize his party or its leaders, accepted the demotion without comment.

Members of his committee and others, all Democrats, jumped to Kedzie's defense.

"It's the closest thing I've seen in Wisconsin government to the infamous Saturday Night Massacre when Richard Nixon had to fire the attorney general and his assistant before he could find someone to get rid of the Watergate special prosecutor," said Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, a member of the select committee.

The mine would have been in Jauch's district.

"Neal did not deserve to be treated like that," Jauch said. "I think we could have come up with a bill that would have allowed mining, created jobs and protected the environment, but we'll never know, now, because Scott Fitzgerald wouldn't allow it."

Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, echoed Jauch's concerns.

"Sen. Kedzie has a long and earned reputation as a serious lawmaker who works to find a consensus on difficult issues," Cullen said. "He has a proven record of success, but he was prevented by his own party from delivering a bill that would create mining jobs and provide adequate environmental safeguards."

Kedzie said dissolving the committee was an attempt to speed the legislation along.

"The decision to dissolve the special mining committee was made to reflect the position of the majority of members in the Senate Republican caucus who wished to change course and advance the Assembly legislation, with revisions, in a more expedient manner," Kedzie said.

"As time was growing short, we needed to move forward and work through a new process."

'Listening to all sides'

Before Kedzie became a leading Wisconsin legislator on natural resource issues, he had a deep respect for the land, deep enough to get him off the sidelines and into the field.

"We had a situation in which our town board was concerned about a contractor who sprayed 2,4-D along town highway ditches," Kedzie said.

Town residents complained that the herbicide was killing their yard plantings.

"At a contentious meeting in the home of a town resident, I was asked why I wasn't joining in during the heated discussion," Kedzie said. "I replied that I was listening to all sides and trying to understand the best approach to deal with the situation."

Kedzie wasn't yet a politician, but he was able to work with the town board to bring about a solution.

"I guess that struck a chord because I was asked to run for the town board," he said.

Kedzie won a seat on the town board and in 1996 was elected to the Assembly.

In 2003, he moved to the Senate, where he has served as either the chairman or the ranking Republican on the Senate committee overseeing environmental and natural resources issues. He is the future chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

The common thread through his political rise is his respect for natural resources and his ability to listen to all sides while developing solutions.

Outdoor issues

Kedzie grew up near Franklin.

"It was all farms, then, and a very rural area," he said. "As a family, we did a lot of hunting, fishing and camping throughout the country. Two-thirds of our camping trips were in northern Wisconsin."

Kedzie grew up playing in what was then referred to as a swamp on his friend's farm. They floated a raft, collected butterflies and spent the summers exploring.

"That's where my appreciation for wetlands comes from," Kedzie said.

After graduating from Oak Creek High School, Kedzie enrolled at UW-Whitewater.

"I fell in love with the Whitewater and Kettle Moraine areas," he said. "There were hiking and camping opportunities right out the back door."

Kedzie stayed in Walworth County and is entering his 39th year as a resident of La Grange Township.

Before he joined the Legislature, Kedzie worked in facilities and land management for the Girl Scouts of America.

"In that role, I work on a lot of outdoor issues," he said. "It was not a big change from my job and town board issues to concentrate on natural resources and the environment once I got to the Legislature."

Consensus builder

Kedzie was urged to run for the Assembly by Rep. Steve Nass after Rep. Chuck Coleman announced he would not seek re-election.

"After my first term in the Assembly, I was asked what committee I would like to serve on as a chairman," Kedzie said. "I asked for economic development, small business or tourism. I did not offer up environment or natural resources."

While standing in a used car lot looking for a vehicle, Kedzie received a call from then Speaker Scott Jensen who asked him to chair the Assembly Environment Committee.

"I was reluctant because that committee handled a lot of hot-button issues, and they generate so much controversy," Kedzie said. "Speaker Jensen told me that was exactly why he wanted me to chair the committee. It was the best move that ever happened to me in the Legislature."

It took a little longer to earn his reputation in the Legislature as someone who could reach across the political aisle to get results.

"The first big issue was isolated wetlands," he said. "The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government would not regulate them."

The ruling meant there was no regulation, and it was up to Kedzie to work with environmentalists, developers, Realtors and others to come up with a plan to regulate wetlands not connected to streams or other bodies of water. He did, and his reputation as a "big tent" person began.

"It took a long time, but we worked with all stakeholders until we had a consensus."

Kedzie won't accept the title, but he is credited with single-handedly saving the Great Lakes Compact. All Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces were required to agree on the compact.

One Wisconsin Assembly representative threatened to hold up the agreement over water diversion to a community in his district.

"In the end, we gave assurances that we would rely on science and give all interested parties an opportunity to weigh in," Kedzie said. "The agreement was finally reached when we all agreed that you had to replace what you took, and you had to replace it in the same or better condition."

Despite the circumstances surrounding the mining bill, Kedzie said he continues to look for solutions to environmental issues.

The same dedication that led him to protect La Grange Township rural property from herbicides continues to drive him to seek solutions statewide.

"I'll continue to look for solutions," he said. "I'm confident I can continue to find a way."

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