Wisconsin Keeps On Winning
Seven Greens Gain Seats In April Elections
by Jill Bussiere and Ron Hardy, Wisconsin Green Party and Mike Feinstein, Green Party of California

With seven victories in 2007, the number of Greens in the state holding elected office is now at an all-time high of 22.

The Wisconsin Green Party has been on a steady winning streak gaining elected local officials across the state. With seven victories in 2007, four whom were women, the number of Greens holding elected office statewide is now at an all-time high of 22.

It all started in 1986 when Wisconsin Greens David Conley and Frank Koehn were first elected as county board supervisors in the northern part of the state. In 1994, there were six Greens holding elected office in Wisconsin, and by 1998 there were ten. By 2006 the number more than doubled, with 21 Greens holding seats on county boards, city councils, school boards and town councils.

In 2007 that number continued to grow, even though several incumbents stepped down and most Greens are elected during even-numbered years, when seats for county boards are contested. Despite this, 16 Greens ran for local office across the state, the largest contingent ever seeking office in an odd-numbered year.

Incumbents Re-elected

Returned to office was Madison Common Council member Brenda Konkel, a well-known, respected community leader and political force, who ran unopposed for the second time in a row. Since she was first elected in 2001, Konkel has championed tenant rights, affordable housing and inclusive zoning ordinances. Re-elected three times, she has served as president of the Madison Common Council in 2004-2005 and today is also the executive director of the Tenant Resource Center and on the board of directors of the Social Justice Center and Community Shares of Wisconsin. In her spare time, she helps coordinate the national Green Officeholders Network.

Fellow incumbent Pete Karas of the Kenosha-Racine Green Party was first elected to the Racine Common Council in 2003, and was re-elected in 2005. There he used his role to fight for municipally-owned utilities forming the Bright Public Power Initiative, a citizen group with wide community support whose mission is to bring public power to his local area; and also diligently worked to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the Greens to fight a high-profile, but unsuccessful campaign against new coal plants in the area.

Karas, who also serves as Board President of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, was outspoken against Wisconsin’s 2004 and 2006 proposed concealed carry legislation. He authored and got passed the first-ever municipal resolution in the nation opposing a state Carrying of Concealed Weapons (CCW) law before it became law. This effectively kicked off the statewide campaign against more gun violence and was instrumental in keeping Wisconsin as one of two states where people cannot carry hidden weapons in public places.

An often-heard voice on both local and Wisconsin radio and television, Karas has gained statewide notoriety for this work on gun violence issues, even forming a coalition of Wisconsin elected Greens to concurrently proposed local budget amendments to cover the costs to municipalities if a CCW law were to pass in the state.

Karas faced strong opposition in 2007 from an aggressive candidate in his self-described urban ‘middle America’ district, but held his seat with 53.3 percent of the vote despite being physically limited during the campaign due to recent spinal surgeries.

A third incumbent, Robbie Webber, has been serving on the Madison Common Council since 2003. In 2007 she joined the Greens and received the Four Lakes Green Party’s endorsement for the first time, after working with local Greens on issues like minimum wage. Facing a strong challenge from a local realtor, she was re-elected with 55.4 percent of the vote in one of Madison’s older, more desirable districts that includes some of the city’s highest property values, with a voting population made up of half students and half professors, business people and Madison’s “old money.” An outreach coordinator for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, Webber opposed urban sprawl by promoting increased public transit and bicycling, and by pedestrian and transit-oriented development and land use policies.

Four elected for the first time: in Madison, Oshkosh, and Stevens Point

In Madison, the election of first-timers Marsha Rummel and Brian Solomon increased the Green Party’s representation on the twenty-member Common Council from three seats to four. In District 6, one of the city’s politically greenest, Rummel won with 71.3 percent of the vote. Active in her local Marquette Neighborhood Association since 1994, and its president since 2002, Rummel is a strong advocate for neighborhood identity, voice and historic preservation. Her campaign focused on improving local water quality, creating living wage jobs, and keeping neighborhoods diverse and affordable. In addition, she brings prior governmental experience, having previously served on the city’s Inclusionary Zoning Advisory Oversight Committee and its Tax Increment Financing Policy Committee.

A member of the Madison Equal Opportunity Commission, Solomon was elected with 72 percent of the vote on a platform of bringing economic development (including family-supporting jobs) and equal opportunity to his district and Madison as a whole.

Like Rummel, Solomon brought a history of involvement in his local neighborhood organization, including changing the local Edgewood Park and Pleasure Drive from an auto throughway into a biking and pedestrian refuge. Solomon is also co-founder of the Wisconsin AIDS Ride, as well as founder of the Wisconsin Employment Transportation Assistance Program, which combined four state and federal funding sources to encourage municipalities to help their workers and employers overcome the spatial mismatches between where people work and live. Unlike the other Greens elected to the Common Council, Solomon did not seek the endorsement of the Four Lakes Green Party.

In Oshkosh, located 70 miles north west of Milwaukee, three of six Common Council seats are elected at large every year, in an area containing over 64,000 residents. Tony Palmeri finished second out of six candidates to become the first Green even on the Oshkosh City Council. A University of Wisconsin communication professor, Palmeri has co-hosted a local cable access program, a university radio program, writes a monthly column for the Fox Valley Scene, and maintains an award winning website, http://www.tonypalmeri.com.

Palmeri last ran for office in 2004 for state assembly against a Republican incumbent, Democratic challenger, and an independent. He received 8.8 percent of the vote, drawing accusations of ‘spoiler’ from the Democrats, when the Republican incumbent won with less than 50 percent for the first time ever. Despite this, less than three years later, Palmeri’s campaign for Common Council found support not only from Greens, but also social progressives and labor, as well as fiscally conservative blue-collar voters.

Palmeri’s primary campaign theme was open, accountable government, and especially transparency in regards to development schemes. This resonated so well that, following his stellar performance at the editorial board meeting and candidate forum of the local Oshkosh Northwestern newspaper, he even received that paper’s endorsement, despite that as an active blogger and local media critic, he frequently had criticized it for how it covered local issues.

In Stevens Point, former Wisconsin Green Party co-chair Amy Heart ran unopposed to earn a seat on the common council. A membership and outreach coordinator with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, Heart also has a strong local electoral history. Months after earning 35 percent of the vote in a bid for mayor in 2003, she earned 16.5 percent of the vote and the endorsement of the Stevens Point Journal in a four-way special election for State Assembly in 2003.

Now in office, Heart hopes to add Stevens Point to the growing number of cities in the Eco-Municipality Network who “seek to develop an ecologically, economically and socially healthy community for the long term, using the Swedish Natural Step framework for sustainability as a guide, and a democratic, highly participative development process as the method.”

Incumbents Stepping Down

Four Wisconsin Greens did not seeking re-election in 2007, including Madison’s Brian Benford, Austin King and Shwaw Vang.

Up until 2003, Madison’s District 12 had been represented by a conservative aldermember, until Benford broke through and served the district for four years. Benford championed high profile citywide progressive causes like the minimum wage ordinance, inclusionary zoning and smoking ban, as well ‘in-district’ efforts to combat gang activity, keep local schools and make the local Warner Park Community Center more inclusive.

King was elected in 2003 at the age of 21, and re-elected in 2005 with 79 percent of the vote. In 2006, at the age of 24, he was elected Madison Common Council president, the youngest ever to serve in that role. In his two terms, he sponsored several public policy initiatives such as leading the Madison Fair Wage Campaign to the victorious adoption of the nation’s fourth municipal minimum wage, slated to rise to $7.75 per hour and be indexed to inflation thereafter. The success in Madison spread as Milwaukee, La Crosse, and Eau Claire followed suit, eventually leading to the first statewide increase in eight years. This resulted in more than 200,000 low-wage workers getting a pay increase in Wisconsin.

King also won passage of a landmark local tenants’ rights law allowing tenants with negligent landlords to make needed repairs to dilapidated housing and deduct the cost from their rent. He even helped repeal Madison’s Prohibition-era Cabaret License law, which has prohibited dancing in more than 80 percent of Madison bars.

Also stepping down was Vang, who served six years on the Madison Metropolitan School Board. Highly respected for his quiet, thoughtful comments, Vang tirelessly made sure the voice of low income and minority students was heard. For example, Vang made it a priority for the board to reexamine how local schools treat students with behavioral problems. He said, “statistics shows most of the kids that receive punishment were youth of color, particularly African American students.”

In March 2006, many of Madison’s Latino students wanted to participate in a massive local march against proposed federal policies sponsored by Wisconsin Congressmember James Sensenbrenner, which would criminalize undocumented workers and those who assist them.

A special Board meeting was planned to vote on the matter, because it was not clear whether students could be excused from school if they attended. But the administration found that parents could provide a written excuse for their children to attend the rally, so the meeting was cancelled.

Vang felt the Board should have met anyway. “We have a very high local profile population of Latinos. We should have allowed them to speak out against policies that will split their families and send their parents back. And the Board should have affirmed our belief that if there are policies or state laws that are going to affect our students, we will speak on behalf of them. Those are valuable lessons that our community and schools should be teaching.”

Vang’s first election was also a historical milestone. Wisconsin has the third-largest Hmong population in the nation, behind California and Minnesota, with more than 800 Hmong students in the Madison School District. But since the late 1970s when the Hmong first began arriving in Madison as refugees of Laos, none held a visible public position until Vang was elected in 2001.

“Being able to serve on the school board affirmed that the Hmong people, the Southeast Asian people who had chosen to settle in Madison were now a part of the daily life of this city and that we were accepted as a part of this community,” Vang said.

In his first run, Vang won a close election with a team of grassroots activists distributing more than 25,000 leaflets across town. In 2004 he was re-elected with 70.8 percent against a well-funded extreme conservative challenger. Earlier he also survived a recall effort by right-wing activists promoted by Rush Limbaugh. Vang said he might run for office again in the future. “I’d love to run for a political office where I may deal more with social issues.”