In an era of “divide and conquer” politics in Wisconsin, four recently elected suburban mayors are emerging as pragmatic, results-oriented leaders in their communities.
These transpartisan, old-school public servants are not idealogues. You won’t find them carrying signs at rallies against climate change or at a political party delegation calling for secession from the union.
You will find them rolling up their sleeves and seated at the table, forging new alliances with the business community and other constituents. In their world view, the notion of political compromise for the greater good of the public they serve is an honorable goal, not a sign of weakness or something to be expunged by partisan purity.
This new breed of suburban mayors, who are determined to rise beyond the two-party bickering that is polarizing Wisconsin voters, includes:
- Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi, who was elected to his first term in April 2012.
- Wauwatosa Mayor Kathy Ehley, who was elected in April 2012.
- Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly, who defeated an incumbent mayor in April 2014.
- South Milwaukee Mayor Erik Brooks, who defeated an incumbent mayor in April 2014.
These fresh faces are working to build new consensus in their communities.
Scaffidi’s story is perhaps most illustrative of this new – or old – style of governance. Scaffidi faced an unimaginable leadership test when, just months after he took office, an assassin killed six people and wounded four others with a rifle at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek on Aug. 5, 2012.
Thrust into the spotlight, Scaffidi united his community and brought his people together to heal their wounds. First Lady Michelle Obama came to Oak Creek to visit with families of the victims and others in the community. Scaffidi, who is a Republican, gave Obama a warm reception and guided her through his city. Eventually, Scaffidi accepted an invitation to go to the White House. He spoke openly about a need for reasonable gun control and changes in the mental health system.
For those deeds, he received a smackdown from the machinery of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. He was told to “tone down” all of that gun control rhetoric. When Scaffidi threw his hat in the ring to run for a State Assembly seat, some of the GOP leaders in Madison made it known immediately that he would not be supported by the party machinery, what with all of those photographs with Obama and all. The party support – and the campaign donations – immediately went to a “more pure” partisan candidate.
“One of my biggest frustrations politically is how much time we spend on the nonsense of politics,” Scaffidi said. “When I was considering a run for a State Assembly seat, I remember a conversation with a ‘campaign expert’ who told me leadership was not something I could run on. This was just after I had spent the last year dealing with the aftermath of a mass shooting in Oak Creek and had to figure out how we could move our city forward and avoid the stigma usually associated with cities that have had that happen to them. That was probably my biggest wakeup call on how politics works now.”
“Elections have absolutely nothing to do with real issues anymore. You can take any candidate, get the right endorsement from a prominent leader in their party, dump tons of outside money into the race and win the election. Some very good candidates for state races are being thrown to the curb with these tactics, and ultimately it will result in a weaker group of elected officials at the state level, who have zero knowledge about how businesses or municipalities work, or how legislation in Madison can impact them.”
Scaffidi’s transpartisan style has resulted in his ability to bring together multiple businesses and other varied interests in the community to build Drexel Town Square, a new designer downtown for Oak Creek. The city’s private partner in the Drexel Town Square Project is Wispark LLC, the commercial real estate development arm of We Energies.
“Steve Scaffidi has excellent communication skills – not just speaking, but his ability to listen and empathize with people who represent a wide array of perspectives and interests,” said Jerry Franke, president of Wispark. “In our highly polarized society it is critical that people feel their concerns are being heard and considered. He gathers input from the broader community, carefully evaluates it, and then makes an informed decision. He sticks to that decision and holds those who can effectuate it responsible for implementing it. People respect him for that, and it makes him a very effective leader. It is often difficult for those who are elected to public office to think beyond the next election. Mayor Scaffidi has demonstrated that making the hard decisions in the best interest of the community outweigh his political aspirations. Those of us who work with him have the greatest respect for him because of that.”
‘Meeting in the middle’
Shortly after taking office earlier this year, Brooks, who considers himself to be a “moderate Democrat,” reached out to Scaffidi to pick his brain about building consensus to achieve results.
“I’m tired of ‘divide-and-conquer’ politics. I’m tired of ‘us vs. them,’ where the party in power at the moment acts with the power of a mandate where a mandate doesn’t exist, where achieving a party-driven agenda, not reasonable compromise, becomes the focus. This applies to both Republicans and Democrats because I’ve seen both parties act this way,” Brooks said. “I understand why they do. Partisanship is easy. Compromise is hard. It’s easy to stake your claim on the ends of the political spectrum and push through – or push against – legislation that reflects one view of the world while neglecting to consider half of those you represent may disagree with what is happening. Meeting in the middle is tough. It’s also the right thing to do. That is why I admire those who work toward consensus, people who understand that ‘compromise’ is not a four-letter word and should be sought, not shunned. I admire people who understand that most voters, like me, are in the middle, craving common-sense solutions where everyone can win. This shouldn’t be a zero-sum game.”
In South Milwaukee, the city is placing a higher priority on its urban forestry program and is moving ahead to invest in an automated garbage collection system. Brooks also is promising a fresh and renewed emphasis on rejuvenating downtown South Milwaukee.
“This approach will also be critical as we dive into our downtown planning process. Revitalizing downtown South Milwaukee was the centerpiece of my campaign for mayor, and, to me, that starts with a community-generated plan,” Brooks said. “This is a huge opportunity for South Milwaukee to rise above partisan politics because there should be nothing partisan about revitalizing your city center. Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green, you name it – I believe we can all agree that breathing new life into our downtown area is critical to the future of South Milwaukee.”
Business leaders in South Milwaukee are praising Brooks for his trans-partisan style of governance.
“He fits that bill. He and I are often on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but he knows how to get things done,” said Brett Briesemeister, owner of Briesemeister Realty & Appraisal.
In Waukesha, Reilly is being warmly received by a business community that was alienated by his predecessor, Jeff Scrima.
“The City of Waukesha is roughly split equally along Republican and Democrat lines. I am a member of the Republican Party but during my campaign I purposefully did not run as the Republican candidate. When asked whether I was a Republican or a Democrat, I indicated that I was a member of the Republican Party. I also indicated that as mayor, there would be many times that I would take positions that would not follow the Republican platform. I indicated that the mayor’s duty is to work for the best interests of the city. Therefore there would invariably be times when the best interests of the city would not align with the Republican positions,” Reilly said. “The City of Waukesha is a diverse community. Waukesha includes wealthy people but it also has a large population of hardworking families that are in the middle to lower middle class and it also includes many families and individuals that struggle every day to get by.”
The city recently entered into an agreement with Waukesha County and the Waukesha School District to create a shared on-site medical clinic available to all of their respective employees, dependents and retirees. The clinic will be available to serve more than 8,000 people.
“As one of my campaign platforms, I advocated for the city to enter into the inter-municipal agreement as it would save the city money and allow for more health care options for city employees,” Reilly said.
Reilly also is determined to unite the entire community around a plan to bring fresh water from Lake Michigan to Waukesha, which has a public water supply that is tainted with radium.
“I believe Shawn Reilly’s ability and willingness to collaborate is what got him elected and what will ultimately serve him best in his role as mayor,” said Suzanne Kelley, president of the Waukesha County Business Alliance. “Not only has he made it clear that he wants more transparency in city government and to foster an open dialogue between the city’s leaders and its residents, he is already taking concrete action steps to achieve that goal. Shawn has made a point of reaching out to the business community. He is a positive representative for the city and a true proponent for a strong business community. Shawn has an effective leadership style and is not afraid to tackle tough issues…Partisan rhetoric is not Shawn’s style. He wants to bring all parties together to get things done for the city in a practical, no-nonsense way. It’s very refreshing and will absolutely be a positive force for Waukesha’s economy.”
Ehley is guiding Wauwatosa through the turmoil of the Zoo Interchange reconstruction project.
“I create an environment or culture in an organization that allows transformational change. I ran because of the partisanship and party politics that I witnessed seeping into the municipal level. I couldn’t stand it any longer because I believe it was holding our community back,” Ehley said. “I identify people with skills and willingness to tackle and accomplish. Finding balance and compromise – these should not be dirty words, but in this polarized time, they certainly seem to be. The lack of regional cooperation is holding the greater Milwaukee area back, as well as the State of Wisconsin. I see success stories all over the nation with areas that have broken down these barriers.”
Ehley previously served as the executive director of the Village of Wauwatosa Business Improvement District, where she built several successful collaborations with the local business community and helped bring the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Innovation Campus to the village.
“The village commercial district evolved from a local destination to a regional destination and continues to grow with new businesses and residential development. The area transformed from one that shut down at 6 p.m. to a bustling, energized area teeming with people and activity from early morning to late at night seven days a week,” Ehley said.
Ehley’s transpartisan leadership builds consensus in the village.
“Without a doubt, that’s her,” said Erin McCarthy, community president of WaterStone Bank in Wauwatosa. “I’m a board member of the village BID. She was the liaison for the village with the businesses. She worked directly with those businesses. Kathy was always that point person the businesses felt comfortable going to. Kathy just took that to the next level. Ten years ago, there wasn’t a lot happening there in the village. There just is so much foot traffic now. She has a way of getting things done.”