— How long have you lived in La Crosse?
I moved to La Crosse in September of 1994.
— What in your education, work and life history makes you suited for the job as La Crosse’s mayor?
There are a wide array of skills and attributes necessary to serve successfully as the Mayor in La Crosse. Among the most important is the need to connect with citizens on a very personal level and listen to their needs. For most of my professional career–16 years as a radio journalist–I listened and worked to understand the perspective of people from all walks. Those who were struggling after a fire. Those who were homeless. Those who were frustrated with the lack of action of local government to meet their needs. Those who thought government was doing way too much. The ability to listen and to have empathy with those who have taken paths that I have not; I count that as one of my most valuable tools.
Also, in my career on radio, I learned to moderate discussions and mediate differences. It is clear that La Crosse, like many other parts of the nation, is embroiled in deep divisions that impact not only how we see national politics but also how we value libraries as opposed to police services, to use that recent debate as just one example. My ability to understand perspective and find a level of compromise will help move the city forward on these and many other issues. Absolutely essential for the next person who fills the position of Mayor of La Crosse.
The Mayor of La Crosse does far more than set policy and chair meetings and cut ribbons. The city is one of just a couple in Wisconsin of a similar size that lack a professional administrator. That means La Crosse’s mayor must be able to function as essentially the head of a $70 million service company and all that an executive position like that entails. There are broad policy directions that the mayor sets that must align with budgetary limitations. The mayor must be able to weigh the real impacts of cuts to one service and additions to others. The mayor must be able to resolve internal disputes among department heads in city hall in order to move the city forward. This same person has to be the face of the city during a crisis and answer questions about garbage service in the checkout at Festival. As a project and operations manager, I have experience in creating operations and capital budgets, experience and understanding of contractual obligations with vendors and with unions and an ability to move a project forward despite obstacles. I have worked through many obstacles at projects around the nation and understand how to manage expectations and reconcile differences. Having earned an MBA also provides me with the education to grasp strategic concepts, recognize risks and evaluate finances, among many other things.
La Crosse struggles with poverty and that hasn’t changed since I moved to the city more than twenty-five years ago. I know that for certain because I was among those who lived in poverty. I understand having to make decisions about whether to pay for electricity and heat or to buy food for my family. I understand what it means to hope that the tires on the car make it through one more winter and that I can afford the next little bit of gas I need for the month. I understand the overwhelming fear of not being able to house and feed my children. I understand what it means to be judged for the food I buy with SNAP benefits. I have been there. As an adult in La Crosse and as a child growing up in Michigan and Louisiana. And that experience and understanding will help guide every decision I make as mayor.
— A lot of help is needed due to the pandemic. Who would you prioritize gets that help and how would you, as mayor, go about providing it?
What we have been through together is not like a typical recession. Many businesses in our community have not been able to adjust to the extreme challenges of Covid. Oddly, while the pandemic has led to some disastrous challenges for some businesses, others have thrived. We cannot possibly have one prescriptive approach for recovery. Also, while Community Development Block Grants—via the federal government—can be useful instruments of growth, the city is not typically in the practice of randomly handing out money for business survival and certainly not equipped to do that now. These are significant challenges that require a hyper-vigilant focus and some understanding of how businesses function.
I recommend a collaborative approach involving our local schools and universities, business advocacy groups, legacy business owners and city hall to provide a resource for ideas and investment to help our small, local businesses thrive. While earning an MBA, I was often struck by the extraordinary levels of working business knowledge among my classmates. We have resources in our midst that often go untapped. Let us find ways to utilize that knowledge base. Sometimes, local business owners spend so much time and resources trying to keep their heads above water, they don’t have time to digest the vagaries of state and federal programs that might help them make payroll for a few more months. The questionable use of funds in the pandemic Paycheck Protection Program are pretty well documented. What if the city can corral resources to help small businesses in La Crosse have a fighting chance at the table when it comes to these federal programs? This should not be the long-term strategy in any business plan, but when a cataclysmic event occurs, why not give La Crosse businesses a chance to keep their doors open?
Small businesses are the cornerstones of our community, providing employment and maintaining economic viability while lending endless support to the work of non-profit groups in our city. We should find collaborative ways to help provide pathways for success for any business owner striving to survive and thrive.
As mayor, I would also work to ensure our libraries and parks continue to be as accessible as possible for those who need to nourish their mind and body. For some of our children, the library is their only safe respite and serves as an essential source of learning and exploration. Parks and playgrounds help provide the physical and spiritual growth for much of our population. We need to make certain that we provide as much access as we can for any of those who would utilize these great resources.
— What are the most important housing/rental issues in the city, and how does the mayor go about handling those?
One of the ongoing challenges facing hundreds of La Crosse home and business owners are the lingering impacts of floodplain designations for those properties. Especially true on the city’s north side. As in so many other issues, La Crosse’s struggles have more to do with what is happening nationally than any failure in the city itself. In this case, the federal flood insurance program’s inequities mean ratepayers in La Crosse with $75,000 homes help foot the bill for the damage caused in much more vulnerable areas of the nation where claims on houses worth millions are much more commonplace. To be fair, some areas of the city are vulnerable to one in every hundred years flooding but much of what the city has to continually deal with has to do with the bureaucracy of FEMA.
The latest dispute that could lead to much higher flood insurance rates in the city has to do with how data on homes has been reported to the federal agency. The risk of flood insurance hasn’t increased. FEMA just doesn’t like how the city has completed its paperwork. That’s solvable. We can fix that. Longer term, we need to continue to identify ways to physically remove structures from the floodplain. As long as the city is held hostage by the federal flood insurance program, that is our only way out. That means continuing to allocate resources to help property owners deal with structures that likely should have never been permitted in the first place.
I will make this a priority for our city. La Crosse has 1,700 property owners who have lived under the thumb of the federal government’s floodplain maps for long enough. We can’t fix the whole problem in the city over the next four years. But I will make it a priority as mayor to try.
In addition, the condition and availability of housing in La Crosse means that many are either not able to find affordable housing or, when they do, the homes they do find are in embarrassing levels of disrepair. This is another issue that has plagued La Crosse for many years and only in recent times have there been efforts to hold some landlords accountable for the condition of their rentals. This effort has been curtailed by rules put in place by state government recently to limit the ability of local rental regulations, but more can be done and I will insist that it will. I was asked not long ago whether we further limit affordable housing if older homes are continually making way for new developments through a gentrification process. To that I say affordable rent should not be predicated on whether there is operational plumbing for children to use in a home. We can both expect our landlords to keep their properties in good repair and encourage development of newer homes that provide opportunities for affordable rental and ownership opportunities.
— Transportation and parking get a lot of attention from the public. What do you see as La Crosse’s most important issues surrounding transportation/parking and how would you address them as mayor?
Because there are so many stakeholders in relation to transportation and parking, any action on these issues will result in some level of dissatisfaction. This is one of the many areas of city government that our representatives have struggled to meet expectations of citizens on an ongoing basis. The city of La Crosse has 220 miles of streets. Until recently, those street surfaces were completely refurbished or replaced at a rate of 3-4 miles per year. That has increased to as many as 8 miles in recent years. Even at that level–borrowing millions of dollars a year–it would take about 28 years to go through an entire city street upgrade. Many residential streets in the city have only received some patching in the last 80 years. The goal is to press forward with street repairs at a sustainable level while incorporating as many human-powered travel improvements as possible. Some city work with greenways and other such improvements have made some headway into providing better transportation access for bicycles and pedestrians. We can and will do more.
Parking is another area where solving one problem often creates others. Finding a middle ground and understanding what goals of parking enforcement and availability are will be important for the next mayor. This issue, like street repairs and improvements, are not static problems that will be solved by prescriptive solutions but those that require constant strategic evaluation over time as our community evolves.
— If elected mayor, what would be your top three priorities for the city and why?
We have faced the biggest health and economic challenge of our time and some have suffered tragically. The most optimistic projections are that the fallout of the pandemic will linger in fiscal problems and service impacts through the next three years. My top priority as Mayor of La Crosse is to navigate a path forward through a recovery that addresses the most difficult obstacles faced by families, individuals and small businesses and identify ways to help our recovery move faster. While moving towards recovery, we have to remember to address the needs of all citizens.
Another priority for me is addressing the social and economic inequalities that continually plague our city, whether those inequalities exist in housing, transportation, food access or police response. Facilitating lasting collaboration to address homelessness. Identifying and acting on plans to improve how we respond to emergencies. Improving housing stock. Even providing city help in mitigating the nagging food deserts that exist in some of our most vulnerable neighborhoods. We can achieve our best life when we improve lives for all.
Finally, I have made the goal of collaboration a cornerstone of my campaign. This also will be one of my top priorities. Finding a way to bridge the social, economic and ethnic gaps in our society will help us heal from the stark divisions that have dealt blows to our community and others. I pledge to work tirelessly to find means to solve some of our most pressing issues through collaboration.