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Tim Kabat reflects on eight years of service as La Crosse’s mayor

Kaitlyn Riley

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After serving for eight years, La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat announced Tuesday he will not seek re-election in April.

In his announcement, Kabat said he is pursuing another opportunity, but did not provide additional details.

“These two terms as La Crosse’s mayor have been an unbelievable experience for me and my family and we want to thank the people of Lacrosse for entrusting me with the stewardship of this beautiful vibrant and caring community these past eight years,” Kabat said. “We have accomplished so much together in our future as a community is incredibly bright.”


Kabat was first elected in April of 2013, defeating Douglas Farmer with 65.4 percent of the vote. He ran unopposed in 2017. He recalled the platform for his first campaign, which focused on neighborhoods, customer service and economic development.

“I feel very proud about the accomplishments we made in those goals,” he said.

Some highlights for the outgoing mayor included the neighborhood resource officer program, which Kabat thought of as a model for the entire state when it came to community policing. He also noted investments in people and infrastructure with numerous park refurbishments, a neighborhood-driven capital improvement program, pop-up library programs and a new circular route to the transit service.

“We created from scratch a floodplain management program,” Kabat said. “We repaired and paved more than 40 miles during my time as mayor. We also helped build and repair more housing, including affordable housing through our housing replacement program.

“We became the first community in Wisconsin to end veterans homelessness, and we have grown our tax base by more than $680 million in the years I’ve been in office, which is about a 22 percent increase. We have still lowered total city spending. We’ve lowered our local property tax levy, and we’ve lowered our property tax rate.”

Recently, the city established the racial equality team to focus on racial justice. Kabat was also proud of changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day in 2019 and relocating the Hiawatha statue.

He pointed to the city’s green initiative. La Crosse lowered its carbon footprint by more than 30 percent in the past eight years, according to Kabat.

“I’m proud as mayor to be one of the signers of the 100 percent clean energy pledge to become a carbon-neutral community by the year 2050,” he said.

Kabat said operationally and financially there will need to be change in the coming months because of disruptions from COVID-19 and the nature of local government.

“I have no doubt that our next mayor will be a caring, community-focused person who will put the people of La Crosse First, and that’s what this job takes,” he said. “This job demands a 100 percent unwavering commitment to our people, plus stamina and a thick skin. I’m especially proud of how our organization has responded this year during the COVID-19 crisis, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, social unrest, and the ongoing impacts that we’re trying to deal with related to climate change.”

He still saw issues related to poverty and homelessness as key concerns as he looks to exit the public office.

“The lack of affordable housing is really troubling, and it seems to only be more challenging in the COVID pandemic and with the economic downturn,” Kabat said. “The concerns we face now are homelessness and people who might be facing evictions.”

Kabat said he and his family started weighing the pros and cons of running for mayor again over the summer.

“Ultimately, you decide what is best for the City of La Crosse, what is best for our citizens, and what is best for you and your family,” Kabat said. “That’s how we came to this decision.”

In response to the announcement, Assistant Police Chief Rob Abraham thanked the mayor for his service.

“I’ve worked with the city for 30 years, so I’ve been through a lot of mayors,” Abraham said. “You were by far one of the best because you respected the fact that the department heads knew what they were doing, and it didn’t feel like you were going to weigh in over them. Today is not a good day for city employees because we’ve come to respect you even though you don’t always agree with us. You always treated us fairly.”

Kabat said he would miss opportunities to interact with people the most, and especially after a year when most of those celebrations were canceled because of COVID-19. He stated because La Crosse is a rare city that does not have a city manager or administrator, the elected, political role as well as day-to-day work of running a city lands on the mayor’s desk, making each day interesting.

“I don’t think people can imagine the level of commitment until they’re sitting in the seat and just what the demands are, and those are only going to continue to grow,” Kabat said. “I wish all of the candidates luck, including those for the city council that are throwing their hat into the ring to take this risk. It is a lot of work, but it is very rewarding.”

Three now, appear to be running for mayor. City council member Jessica Olson is on the list of candidates already. City Council president Martin Gaul is also going to run.

Greg Saliaras, who operates Soula’s Cuisina in downtown La Crosse, appears to have taken out papers, as well.

In 2013, that was the last time La Crosse had an open seat for mayor. Kabat and 10 others were in the running.

A 2021 primary would happen the third week in February (Feb. 16). The filing deadline for getting on the ballot is the first week of January. The election will on April 6.

Before 2013, it was 2005 when there was last an open seat for mayor. That year 14 people ran, and it was a peculiar primary.

Mark Johnsrud didn’t win the primary over Harold “Deak” Swanson — Johnsrud got 1,399 votes to Swanson’s 1,694. But, in the April election, Johnsrud did beat Swanson for mayor with 52.08% of the vote (5,519 to 4,925).

Pat Zielke is La Crosse’s longest-tenured mayor. He came into office in 1975 and retired in 1997. When he started, it was only a two-year term but by the time he finished, the terms were extended to four years.

John Medinger served two terms from 1997-2005. He was followed by Johnsrud’s one term, before 24-year-old Matt Harter served one term through 2013.

Milo Knutson was also a long-tenured mayor, serving five terms from 1955-65.

Kaitlyn Riley’s passion for communications started on her family’s dairy farm in Gays Mills, Wis. Wanting to share agriculture’s story, she studied strategic communications and broadcast journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In college, she held officer positions with the Association of Women in Agriculture and Badger Dairy Club while volunteering as a news reporter for the college radio station. She also founded the university’s first agricultural radio talk show, AgChat. In her professional career, Kaitlyn has worked in radio, print and television news doing everything from covering local events to interviewing presidential candidates, and putting back on her barn boots to chat with farmers in the field. Today, Kaitlyn can be seen covering local stories that matter to you in the La Crosse area.

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