It was nearly a month of back and forth headlines as President Donald Trump attempted to make a campaign stop in La Crosse County.
And that saga is the WIZM No. 1 story of 2020.
The announcement that Trump planned to speak at the La Crosse Regional Airport on Oct. 3 was met by criticism as La Crosse was identified as a “red zone” for community spread of COVID-19 by the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
“We’re really hoping that we can get this event either canceled or postponed to another time based on what we are experiencing here in La Crosse,” La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat told CNN’s New Day. “Under normal circumstances, a presidential visit for a community like La Crosse would be an awesome thing and be welcome, but the situation that we’re in of course with the coronavirus really causes us to try to protect the community’s health and safety.”
In the end, the event was cancelled because of a contract issue with the Colgan Air Service, where the rally was going to be held.
“Our tenant was given notice that holding a political rally was a violation of their lease,” La Crosse Regional Airport Director Ian Turner said. “They returned a notice saying they disagreed with that, but opted not to host the event.”
In the overnight hours of that announcement, Trump tweeted that he and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for the Coronavirus. He was hospitalized at the Walter Reed Medical Center and released after three days.
Later that month, Trump packed the stands at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway in West Salem, Wis., hosting a rally on Oct. 27. The Trump Campaign said they encouraged those who attended the rally campaign to wear face masks. They also took temperatures of those who entered and distributed hand sanitizer at the event.
The motorcade took a lap around the track before Trump stepped on stage and called on La Crosse County voters to make America wealthy, proud and great, by giving him a second term in the White House.
Trump spoke for about an hour that afternoon to a crowd of nearly 5,000. He promoted economic and trade gains made during the last four years, and warned that “soft” and “weak” opponent Joe Biden and “socialists” would “destroy the country.” He also said scientists were rounding the curve on finding a vaccine for COVID-19.
The president was preceded on stage by Congressional candidate Derrick Van Orden, former State Sen. Dan Kapanke, and “My Pillow” founder Mike Lindell.
Trump was the third incumbent president in the past 30 years to campaign in La Crosse County during the final week before the election. George H.W. Bush came to La Crosse in October of 1992, and his son George W. Bush spoke at Onalaska’s Omni Center in 2004.
— Kaitlyn Riley
No. 2 — 19-year-old bouncer shot and killed at downtown La Crosse bar
As the details came out, the story became all the more shocking. A 19-year-old working as a bouncer downtown, shot dead by a customer mad over, essentially, being thrown out.
But what makes this WIZM’s No. 2 story of 2020 is less about the killing and more about the person that was taken, and how the community rallied behind Anthony Fimple’s family.
Fimple was a blood donor. The 2019 Central High School graduate also volunteered in the community working for WisCorps. And, after his passing, was an organ donor, as well. Fimple was also just a couple months away from shipping out for U.S. Navy boot camp, following in his dad, Gus Fimple’s footsteps.
A GoFundMe raised over $27,000 for the Anthony Fimple Family Fund.
Just after midnight June 28, Anthony Fimple was allegedly shot in the head by Spring Grove, Minn., native Timothy Young.
Young reportedly had caused trouble at the bar earlier that night and on previous occasions. Fimple would not let him back in the bar. Not long after, Young returned with a gun.
Young pleaded not guilty to the homicide. Judge Ramona Gonzalez set his bond at $1 million. The case has not yet gone to trial.
Police say surveillance video from the La Crosse Bierhaus showed Fimple being shot by Young.
— Brad Williams / Rick Solem
No. 3: Narrating his own death, George Floyd
murder brings awareness, sparks change in La Crosse
It took the video of George Floyd narrating his own death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer to awaken a movement.
The phrase Black Lives Matter didn’t begin in 2020, but it was made the loudest this year and brought more awareness to how policing unfairly targets people of color.
That movement gave people of color in the La Crosse area the courage to begin speaking out on such matters, while starting the process of bringing awareness and creating change from their community.
Multiple protests swept through the city. It led to some changes at the police department, pledges by city leaders and is WIZM’s No. 3 story of 2020.
The biggest local protest came in the beginning of June, when around 700 gathered at Riverside Park. People spoke how they’ve experienced racism in the La Crosse area.
That protest, like many others in La Crosse, then continued with a march to City Hall. It was there La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat and Police Chief Shawn Kudron pledged to do more to promote change.
One of those changes was the police department’s transparency page on the city’s website, which lists stats on arrests, as well as the department’s training records. It also prompted having the city begin the process of creating a Citizens’ Advisory Board, which would help assess the police.
The movement also brought about multiple online public listening sessions with Kabat, Kudron and others, discussing, policing, racism and change.
George Floyd was murdered May 25. A second shooting of a black man — Jacob Blake — by a police officer on Aug. 23 in Kenosha reinvigorated the movement.
In between those two incidents, on June 18, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers proposed nine police reform bills that went ignored by the state legislature. After the Blake shooting, Evers called the legislature into special session to take up the package.
WIZM talked to Onalaska Assembly Rep. Steve Doyle, who went to Madison on Aug. 31 for the session, which lasted less than a minute — gaveled in and almost immediately out of session by Republicans who control the legislature. It was also the only time the legislature has met since April 14.
Doyle wasn’t happy none of the reform bills were even discussed.
“Let’s just talk about these issues, instead of it being Democrats vs. Republicans,” he said on La Crosse Talk PM. “People rightfully have varying opinions on these issues. And I respect both sides of it — I’ve heard both sides of it.
“But what we’re not doing is giving it the credibility that you get by having it in a forum, such as the legislative process.”
While the protests have dissipated with the weather, the La Crosse Police Department has continued to make changes and be part of changes.
The La Crosse Schools superintendent recently made the decision to gradually remove the School Resource Officer program.
And, just last week, the police department launched a complaints and compliments page on the city’s website, as well as its 2019 Professional Standards Report in regards to that year’s compliments and complaints.
— Rick Solem
No. 4: District debates police in La Crosse’s school
The 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to nationwide protests of police, and charges of racism within law enforcement.
Those protests included criticism of School Resource Officers within public schools, such as the La Crosse school district. The WIZM newsroom has ranked the SRO debate in La Crosse schools as the number 4 local story of the year.
The district formed a study committee in July, and heard many comments that non-white students fear the school officers, and that the police treat those students more harshly than white students.
During one discussion of SROs, Mai Lee said a study of the La Crosse system “found that youth of color in La Crosse County were nine times more likely than their white peers to be arrested, and most of these arrests occurred during the school day.”
At a December school board meeting, Nancy Yang said, “We must remove (SROs) completely. We must not maintain amicable relationships with those who traumatize our youth of color day to day, and directly contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline itself.”
New superintendent Aaron Engel, hired this year to succeed the retiring Randy Nelson, often referred to the school-to-prison pipeline and suggested that the school officers not wear uniforms.
In the face of calls to end the SRO contract now, the school board voted in late December in favor of a gradual reduction in school officers which would get them out of district buildings. The current contract with police expires next summer.
In the new year, Engel will negotiate with La Crosse police on whether the SRO contract will be extended past this school year.
— Brad Williams
No. 5: Native American statue ‘Hiawtha’ is removed from Riverside Park
La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat wrote a letter to city leaders saying, “it is time” for the city to remove the large Native American Statue named Hiawatha from Riverside Park in July 2020.
The request from Kabat came on the same day the formally-known Washington Redskins football team announced it would change its franchise name. In the letter to city council members, he said, “It is time for us to address our own symbols and those that cause our residents pain.”
The statue was originally created by Anthony Zimmerhakl. The plaque on the statue said he was assisted by his sons Don, David, and Stephan and was dated 1962. Kabat said they spoke with the Zimmerhakl family about returning the statue.
“I understand there will be many upset residents,” the letter from Kabat said. “But deep down, each of us must know that it is time to retire Hiawatha and return it to the Zimmerhakl family. Let’s come together in solidarity to move all of La Crosse forward in a positive way.”
After 59 years of standing along the Mississippi River, Hiawatha left La Crosse’s Riverside Park on Aug. 11. Critics said the 25-food statue was a caricature of Native Americans. Defenders were upset the city did not hold a public vote on whether to keep Hiawatha in the park.
Local historian Steve Kiedrowski argued the statue should have been restored with educational material posted nearby. He said years ago, there was a sign explaining the statue’s origin and background information about area tribal nations.
Zimmerhakl’s family took Hiawatha to display the statue on private property.
The city is currently working on approving new artworks to replace Hiawatha in the park. A report regarding legal and environmental hurdles is expected by February.
No. 6: Fight over parking spot at Menards leads to death of 79-year-old
A dispute in a La Crosse parking lot this year led to a fight, and to a murder case is WIZM’s No. 6 story for 2020.
Russell Paulson died in May at 79 years old, three days after being hurt in a fight with 50-year-old Matthew Kinstler outside the Menards on Lang Drive.
Kinstler said Paulson hit his SUV while parking.
Investigators say Kinstler knocked Paulson’s hat off, after which Paulson slapped him, and then Kinstler reportedly grabbed Paulson’s walking stick and hit him in the head.
Kinstler claimed self-defense, saying Paulson swung and struck himself with the cane.
Kinstler was charged with reckless homicide, and has a four-day trial scheduled in La Crosse in August.
NO. 7: La Crosse Mayor decides not to run for third term
It was a question being asked for months of Mayor Tim Kabat.
“Are you running or not?”
The final answer, our WIZM News No. 7 story of 2020.
The question always seemed a bit of a joke, because few probably expected Kabat would bow out of a reelection bid for a third term.
That, however, is exactly what the mayor announced Dec. 1.
“I will not be seeking another term as La Crosse’s mayor,” Kabat said. “I have some other opportunities that I am pursuing.
“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. We have accomplished so much together in our future as a community is incredibly bright.”
The decision followed quite a 2020 for Kabat, pandemic aside — from the removal of the Hiawatha statue to responding and speaking at multiple protests in the city over police violence stemming from the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis and the city’s, more or less, banning President Donald Trump from conducting a MAGA rally at the La Crosse Regional Airport.
Kabat’s departure leaves an open seat for mayor for the first time since he took over the office in 2013. Kabat ran unopposed in 2017.
In 2013, 10 people ran for mayor with Kabat easily defeating Doug Farmer in both the primary and April election. Before that, the last open seat was in 2005, when 14 people ran.
That year, 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).
As of right now, with two weeks left to file for the position (Jan. 5), six people are on the list to run for mayor.
Other officially registered candidates so far:
Jessica Olson — City Council member
Martin Gaul — City Council President
Mitch Reynolds — WholeTree Architecture operations manager
Chris Stolpa — Former downtown La Crosse business owner
If there are more than two candidates — so far nobody has met all the requirements — there will be a primary on Feb. 16 to cut that number to two. The election will be April 6.
For those who wish to run for mayor, they need to live in La Crosse 28 days before the election (March 9).
— Rick Solem
NO. 8: THE $42-MILLION LA CROSSE CENTER RENOVATION BEGINS
The $42-million expansion of the La Crosse Center in 20202 was complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.
The makeover of the 40-year-old La Crosse Center, as it tries to compete for more conventions and big events, has been in the works since 2013.
One proposed design which would have put part of the building into Riverside Park was rejected by City Hall in 2018.
Construction started early this year, just after the annual MOSES organic farming convention in February.
The biggest parts of the $42-million project are the addition over Front Street and an expanded lobby entrance at 2nd and Pearl.
Some critics have called the project a waste of money that could be spent on other community needs, and have argued that the only part of the Center which ought to be expanded is the arena, so the building can host bigger concerts.
The arena has not changed in size, but workers have replaced the original seats which had been there since the 1980 opening.
— Brad Williams
No. 9: The construction of the new bandshell at Riverside Park
No. 10: The resignation of Wisconsin state Sen. Jennifer Shilling, leading to the election of Brad Pfaff to the 32nd District Senate seat, defeating former Sen. Dan Kapanke.