(First published in the May 14, 2020 issue of City Pages)
Wausau’s Mayor Katie isn’t the only one. The April election has seated a big local contingent of energetic young government officials.
Katie Rosenberg at her desk following the election that brought many young local politicians into leadership roles.
The election of Wausau’s new mayor wasn’t underscored by a victory speech or confetti or a jubilant party held in a bar as is often the Wisconsin tradition. Instead, the highlight of Katie Rosenberg’s victory came from a tweet: HOLY BALLS.
Those words on Twitter from the 36-year-old mayor-elect signaled more than a simple changing of the guard. It also was a bright reflection on the trend of younger candidates seeking public office across central Wisconsin, and across the U.S. The wave started in 2016 after the election of Donald Trump, which brought out a number of young female candidates in response. But now it’s not just young women, it’s younger people in general who are seeking office.
The difference is more about attitude and outlook than years on the planet. Instead of the need to present a polished image and act a certain way, young, newly elected local officials tell City Pages they value authenticity and project it. As a prime example, Katie Rosenberg didn’t delete the now famous—but perhaps impulsive— tweet she posted in response to realizing she’d defeated incumbent mayor Robert Mielke; instead, she owned it. The response is telling. It was seen by tens of thousands of people, with 20,600 likes and 544 comments, almost entirely positive, including from people saying that if this is Wausau’s mayor, they’d like to move here.
Rosenberg has continued to use Twitter on the job at city hall, shares videos of her showing how to vote during social distancing, and filmed a video of City Clerk Leslie Kremer talking about what it takes to be an election poll worker. She’s known to post Instagram Boomerang videos, often sporting her signature peace sign. On Tuesday for the 7th Congressional special election, she worked at the polls herself, the first mayor in city history to do so, staff told her.
Rosenberg says that authenticity is something she believes in and has practiced in politics since serving on the Marathon County Board beginning in 2016 (her second term as county board supervisor ended in April). “Authenticity” is something other young, local and newly elected people say they value too. Gone, for example, are the perfectly polished canned responses. Many of the new, young government officials cite Rosenberg as their influence and inspiration to break an important mental barrier: the notion that only older and experienced people can serve on a committee or board, and that they have to act and speak in a certain, reserved way.
Veteran local leaders are recognizing this change and accepting the diversity. In fact, the Marathon County Board will undergo a major structural change that’s unprecedented, acknowledging a young and diverse leadership.
Promoting young leaders on the county level
Kurt Gibbs stood before the county board at an April meeting, in what would usually be a routine meeting following an election with new committee assignments, a few tweaks to the rules, and a few other odds and ends.
Not this time. Gibbs, the county board chairman, instead announced that he had overhauled committee assignments, and overhauled how the Executive Committee, the county’s most powerful group, would work.
Someone’s words from a discussion on committee assignments had stuck with him. In fact, he’d gone back and listened to them twice. The words came from a newly elected county board member, William Harris. Representing District 3 in Wausau, Harris set Wausau history as the first black resident to be elected to local public office (as far as anyone can remember, going back decades).
Harris’ words that the long-time county chairman recited to the 38-person legislative body in April: “You can not have diversity unless diverse groups participate.”
Gibbs told the board it’s the first step in building leadership across all members; including its newest and youngest. “We all need to look at leadership differently than we have in the past.”
To that end, Gibbs assigned many of the newer, younger members as committee vice chairs:
Ka Lo, elected to her second term this spring, is vice chair of the Extension, Education, and Economic Development Committee.
Alyson Leahy, also elected to her second term, was made vice chair of the Human Resources, Finance and Property Committee.
Michelle Van Krey, newly elected in April, will serve as vice chair of the Health and Human Services committee.
County leadership also includes other under-40 members Jake Langenhahn, who continues to chair the Environmental Resources Committee, and now Randy Fifrick as chair of the Infrastructure Committee.
The moves Gibbs made signal more than words; they’re concepts put into action in an unprecedented fashion. The statistics are telling. Of the committee chairs and vice chairs, 50% are held by women, 67% are held by supervisors under 40, and a third by supervisors in their first or second term.
“Reflecting on Tuesday’s meeting, it became clear that we needed to provide for a broader participation in our board,” Gibbs said about the change, which he worked on with Vice Chair Craig McEwen. “We needed a plan that builds on the board’s most significant asset: its members.”
Alyson Leahy, herself first elected to the board two years ago after being inspired from having attended a women’s march in Washington D.C., says she was pleasantly surprised by Gibbs’s proposal, and thinks it strikes a good balance. But the changing of the guard isn’t limited to just Marathon County; it’s something going on all over Wisconsin, and across the country, she says.
“I think we’re seeing everywhere that young people want to get more involved,” Leahy says. “With working age people specifically, we’re at a different point in our lives and our perspective is different.”
For example, Rosenberg is not the only young mayor in central Wisconsin. In 2018, Merrill Mayor Derek Woellner was 25 when he defeated long-time mayor Bill Bialecki. Zach Vruwink was elected as Wisconsin Rapids’ youngest mayor at age 24 in 2012, and this spring, at 32 years old, he lost re-election to alderman Shane Blasser.
There has been, of course, the occasional young government official in the past. Proceeding them was Mayor Andrew Halverson, who was elected as Stevens Point’s mayor in 2007 at the age of 29. One of the earliest young leaders was John Robinson, who in 1974 was elected to city council and county board at age 18—the youngest person elected to those bodies. After serving in the state Assembly, Robinson was elected Wausau mayor at age 32.
Robinson has served on the Marathon County Board, in his most recent stint, since 2006. And he has observed how the county board has been trending younger in the past few terms. Of the 38 current county board members, at least 10 are under 40. And these newer, younger board members want to be more active. “They’re not going to sit back and watch, they’re going to sit up and participate,” Robinson says. “They’re coming in with the thought that they can contribute from day one.”
William Harris speaks at a candidate forum earlier this spring. Harris is one of several new young members of the Marathon County Board.
William Harris was a little nervous when he first started campaigning this winter for the county board seat. How would people respond to a young (37 years old) black man seeking a leadership position? Pretty well, it turned out.
“So many were welcoming,” Harris says. “I think they felt bad seeing me shivering, so they invited me into their homes to get out of the cold.” He says neither his age or ethnicity ever seemed to make much difference. “That was my hope, that people would listen to what I hoped to bring.”
His election has made a difference for other people of color. Harris talks about a young man who told him he lived in Wausau all his life, and to see a person of color like himself serving on a board made him feel more represented. “I take the responsibility of that very seriously,” Harris says.
Harris also took inspiration from the election of Rosenberg, who he says is a friend and with whom he shares many of the same priorities, such as addressing homelessness. “It’s making sure the county continues to be a place that looks out for all residents, regardless of socio-economic status.”
Harris was chosen by voters over incumbent David Nutting, who had served on the board for several terms and also on the corresponding city council seat. Nutting also lost that seat to a younger opponent, Tom Kilian. Both Harris and Kilian are decades younger than Nutting.
Harris, who works as an attorney for Judicare, is not alone. Michelle Van Krey, who was elected to replace Katie Rosenberg on the county board, will serve in District 1. Van Krey, at 30 years old, says her age never came up while campaigning. Most people just wanted to hear her ideas and what she would bring to the seat.
Van Krey first started to become interested in running for office in 2017 after attending a local government class through the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce. Initially, Van Krey felt like she was too young to serve on a board or council, but seeing Rosenberg elected to county board helped change her mind. “I felt like she represented me very well,” Van Krey says. Each term more young people seemed to be running. Perhaps a younger person could be elected after all.
Van Krey was elected in April over Isaiah Hoogendyk, who at 41 is pretty young himself. More younger people getting into the races helped increase the total number of contested races — nine seats were up for grabs on the Wausau City Council and 11 of the 38 on the county board.
The move by Chairman Gibbs was pleasantly surprising to Harris and Van Krey. Van Krey says as a new board member she wasn’t expecting to be given a leadership role right away, though Health and Human Services was a committee she’d hoped to be on because North Central Health Care is within her district.
Gibbs at the meeting said he expected chairs of committees to serve at role models and mentors to the new board members.
Challenges and a variety of viewpoints
But it won’t be easy. These young new leaders will face challenges as the pandemic brings on new budgetary issues unprecedented in local government. Projections of sales tax losses at the county level have increased to between $1.5-2 million, and county leaders Tuesday unveiled the county is expected to face a $5.2 million shortfall in the county’s budget.
Similar budget woes will face Wausau and other municipalities in the area. The state has seen unprecedented levels of unemployment, with the unemployment number hitting more than 14% by the latest estimates from the Department of Workforce Development. It will be a tough year to budget for because state shared revenues — the amount counties receive from the state for things such as road repair, will surely drop and no one can know for sure how much. Even school districts are expected to be impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic.
But perhaps that is where having diverse leadership will shine the most. Many minds coming from different walks of life will help lead to a variety of solutions to choose from.
“Have you ever been chatting with your friends about something and you all end up agreeing on something and you wonder why nobody had ever thought to do it that way?” Rosenberg asks rhetorically. “And then you extemporaneously share that with someone you work with who ends up poking a few holes in the concept that you and your friends hadn’t thought about? It’s better to have that discussion on the debate floor or in committee with a bunch of different viewpoints.”