It started with a tweet. A New York Times reporter who had previously worked at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel saw a tweet about the A Community for All resolution and decided they should check into it. They came to Wausau, asked around, met with the mayor, got a lay of the land.
The reporter and a photographer were at the Marathon County Executive meeting last month in which A Community for All was discussed. It was a long meeting, and a good portion of it revolved around A Community for All.
That was on Thursday, May 13. On Tuesday, May 18, the New York Times story “A Community for All? Not so fast, this Wisconsin county says.” came out.
It wasn’t flattering. The comments were even less so. A few of them:
- “Another flyover state, so many and so little time flying time.”
- “Anyone who uses “the coloreds” and “the gays” and says they aren’t racist is – indeed – racist.”
- “Economic pressure seems to be the only mechanism to break these logjams. Boycott Mutual of Wausau Insurance and other local corporations.”
- “Wisconsin is definitely a racist state, particularly in its rural communities. The nuckleheads [sic] who deny this are either ignorant or lying. I’ve lived in WI for 30 years and have always been appalled by the racist tendencies of the “natives”.”
Mayor Katie Rosenberg still hasn’t caught up with the emails coming in from all over the country about the resolution. (Though it was a county decision, many of the comments decry “Wausau” as having rejected the resolution.) “People were asking in emails ‘how does it feel to be the face of white supremacy and the KKK, and all those other subhumans you represent?’” Rosenberg says. “Part of me is working on not being defensive, but also I want to defend my community.”
The fallout from the New York Times article, which Rosenberg called the most damaging since The Atlantic’s article, has put people on the left and right on their heels, reeling about what to do. Rosenberg felt that she needed to act, and later Tuesday afternoon held a press conference declaring the city A Community for All. She messaged many of the angry commenters back explaining that she was in favor of the resolution, and was introducing a similar measure in Wausau. That mullified many of them.
But how much good that will do is anyone’s guess. What happens next is also anyone’s guess.
A number of people from all political stripes reached out to me after the story ran, and they weren’t happy about it. Some felt it was unfair to the people quoted in the story. Others on the liberal side of the political spectrum, those who might otherwise have been the New York Times’ subscriber base, recognized the damage just as clearly. For them, the story set back efforts at making Wausau a more inclusive place.
Rosenberg heard from many businesses happy for the city’s resolution in response, though many are keeping quiet about that support. Rosenberg says she didn’t want to speak for them but anecdotes from several businesses have reached City Pages ears.
Getting people to talk about it is another matter. City Pages has had trouble getting business owners to speak about it beyond canned statements.
City Pages reached out to Greenheck Fan Corp. after hearing there were efforts around inclusion and diversity following the vote, but the company declined comment.
What about the medical college? City Pages asked Lisa Dodson, Dean of the Medical College of Wisconsin, whether the medical school was concerned about the resolution’s failure and the subsequent New York Times article would have an impact on recruiting efforts. Dodson responded with a statement: “The Medical College of Wisconsin-Central Wisconsin campus maintains our strong commitment to helping create a diverse physician workforce to meet the needs of central and northern Wisconsin. We will continue to recruit and admit students who will help us meet that objective. We will continue to work with our many partners in the Central Wisconsin community who support these efforts.”
Grand Theater Executive Director Sean Wright told City Pages says there hasn’t been an impact on booking shows yet and there hadn’t been any cancellations yet, but it’s something that’s on the Grand Theater leader’s mind. “Agents/artists/producers are always aware of where they are taking their shows and choosing to perform, so it’s certainly something we’ll have to be aware of and ready to have discussions with those respective shows as they come up.”
City Pages reached out to Dave Eckmann, CEO of the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce. A big part of the Chamber’s focus in the past few years has been workforce recruitment and talent; and that means attracting people from outside the area.
With so many municipalities competing for workers, and so few of them to go around, it’s objectively a bad gambit to say no to anyone based on their identity. Embracing diversity and inclusion, even from a purely Machiavellian strategic view, would seem optimial even if a company or municipality doesn’t agree with it. And likely that’s a calculation many businesses are making.
As of press time City Pages had not received a comment from Eckmann.
A history with racism
It’s not like Wausau hasn’t had a rough history with racism. The Times doesn’t mention this context either, but prior to the 1970s Wausau was the major metro of what was the whitest Congressional district in the country. Bar none.
That changed with the Hmong migration that started in the 1970s and continued on through the 80s and into the 90s. The 80s were not a pretty time in Wausau for anyone who wasn’t white and, frankly, if you were white and not racist. It was common to hear jokes about minorities.
That was the early 90s. We can go back to the 80s when Wausau was the center of the spear-fishing debates. Wausau’s history with racism isn’t pretty.
Wausau’s history with being vilified by national media isn’t new either. “In the late 1980s and early 1990s, racial tensions between the native- and foreign-born populations gripped central Wisconsin. Less than a hundred years earlier, hostilities in that part of the country centered around immigrant populations arriving from Europe—Norwegians, Swedes, Italians, and Poles. This time, however, the new arrivals were refugees from Indochina, especially the hill-tribe group called the Hmong (pronounced “MOH-ng”).” That was from a piece in The Atlantic called “To be both Midwestern and Hmong” from 2016.
Preceding that was a hit job by 60 Minutes. Rob Mentzer, then writing for the Wausau Daily Herald, called the 1994 profile on Wausau “a blunt instrument.” Former Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger said something similar to me a few years ago.
City Pages reached out to both Craig McEwen and EJ Stark. Both expressed concerns about the resolution.
“I understand what the Diversity Affairs Commission is trying to do, it says in their mission statement to ensure that Marathon County is a open and inclusive and diverse place to live or work,” McEwen says, pointing out that it’s already in Marathon County’s comprehensive plan. “I believe that the majority of people in Marathon County feel that everyone should be treated… and not discriminated against.”
McEwen says he didn’t want to see policies based on race. “Segregation causes division.”
Stark brought up concerns about the legality of the resolution, citing similar legal issues when he worked for an insurance company. He shared concerns that the county could be opening itself up to legal issues. Similar concerns came up at city hall over a resolution about environmental justice.
Stark in a meeting several years ago spoke about how he kicked contractor out of his house for disparaging Hmong people. He served alongside them in the Vietnam War as a Marine and had the utmost respect for them.
That anecdote didn’t make the Times story. Nor did the fact that all of them voted for a resolution that recognized missing indigenous women, right before the A Community for All resolution came up for discussion.
Neither McEwen or Stark responded to request for comment.
Some, such as Joanne Leonard, said the resolution was divisive. Leonard joined members of the diversity affairs commission in crafted a new resolution that was more palatable to more conservative members, but that version was ultimately rejected by the commission, which recommended its original version.
Others were more sharp in their criticism. Jack Hoogendyk, a former county board member and former Michigan legislator, said it was critical race theory in disguise; the very thing McGary railed against in his later speech to the county board.
Rosenberg stood on the steps of City Hall and proclaimed that Wausau would in fact be a community welcoming for all. She was flanked by Yee Leng Xiong, Executive Director of the Hmong American Center; Ka Lo, a member of the Marathon County Board and the Wausau School Board; and County Board Member William Harris.
Rosenberg’s move wasn’t necessarily intentionally about damage control, but in a lot of ways that’s what it was. Marshfield Clinic thanked her in a tweet. More business leaders reached out privately to express support.
“We have manufacturers and food processors in our county that rely on a diverse workforce,” Rosenberg says. Businesses across the country have steered into embracing the language of diversity, whether sincerely or strategically. “Either they’re sick of fighting it or they’re worried about what they’re community will say.”
Rosenberg says we should be having the conversation, and that does mean sitting down and listening to all sides. Because nearly everyone can agree that we will indeed to address the city and county’s shrinking workforce. “We can’t do it if the first thing they Google is this.”
Shortly thereafter, Monk Gardens announced that the gardens would be known as a Garden for All. The idea of inclusivity in the botanical gardens industry is something the industry is discussing very seriously these days, says Executive Director Darcie Howard. And it has been a key issue for Monk Gardens as well.
“One of the things that happens is gardens can be considered elitist,” Howard says. “But we’re a newer garden and growing in a way that we have the luxury of doing things right the first time. We want to make sure everything we’re going in programming, social media, website, events, that we’re welcoming to all community members.”
For example, the garden highlights a new book every few weeks for parents to read with their kids. The books they’re choosing focus on different cultures every few weeks.
Neither Rosenberg nor Howard had noticed anyone else doing anything similar. But that might be coming.
Whether someone is on the right or left, or somewhere in the middle as many are, almost no one is happy about the Times’ article. It’s biggest contextual error is that it failed to point out that this is something happening across the U.S. Pretending like this discussion is unique to Wausau is flat out wrong.
But it’s something Wausau will be dealing with for some time. The Diversity Affairs Commission passed a new version of the A Community for All resolution. And, Xiong says, a group of supervisors are meeting soon to discuss potential revisions before it comes before the Executive Committee.
Long after the New York Times left town, the discussion is far from over.