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Dave Cieslewicz: Dave who?
This guy Cieslewicz is making a big name for himself

This article originally appeared in Isthmus on Aug. 16, 1991.

What's in a name? Ask Dave Cieslewicz.

When, as an appointee to the Dane County Board, he face Brian Freedman in Cieslewicz's first election since winning the vice presidency of his eighth-grade class, he felt handicapped.

"Because my name is so difficult, I felt it was necessary to get out there," explains Cieslewicz, whose fine Polish name is pronounced chess-LEV-ich. "It's true, you know. People look at two names on a ballot and one is Dave something-or-other and the other is Brian Freedman. Well, Brian Freedman is a nice name. So I had to make sure voters knew who I was."

Not that Freedman was setting local political scenes ablaze. A musician and unemployed house painter, he ran simply because he thought it would be an "interesting experience." Nonetheless, he garnered 656 votes to Cieslewicz's 1,050. (Cieslewicz was reelected to a second term two years later without opposition.)

Cieslewicz, 32, still laughs at the thought: "I was up against a guy who didn't spend a dime, who didn't do anything, and still I got [only] 62%."

He should be so lucky next time out. With Dave Clarenbach intent on drumming Scott Klug out of Washington, Cieslewicz has decided to join the scramble for Clarenbach's Madison Assembly seat. Running amid a minor constellation of rising political stars, Dave Ciewlewicz -- that's chess-LEV-ich -- will have a chance to hawk the progressive wares he's been collecting since he first heard tell of Fighting Bob La Follette in Mrs. Meyer's fifth-grade class.

The making of a politician

"I've always had pretty strong feelings about things," says Cieslewicz in a catch-all explanation of his political ambitions.

The youngest of four children, he grew up in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis. His father (now retired) was a foundry metallurgist, his mother a homemaker. After his eighth-grade glory days, Cieslewicz avoided student politics, but honed his opinions as an editorial writer for the Utopian, his high school newspaper.

In college he pursued undergraduate work in political science at the UW, first in Milwaukee and then in Madison, where he served as an intern for Assembly Democrat Steve Leopold. He received his degree in 1981, but, as he quickly found, "that and 20 cents will buy you a cup of coffee."

Cieslewicz continue in political science, beginning work on a master's degree at UW-Milwaukee. He hated it: "They could take the juiciest subject and impale it on statistical analysis." He took a teaching assistant position to keep afloat, but circulated his resume seeking work in the Capitol. Finally, in 1982, Cieslewicz got a call from Assembly Democrfat John Plewa, who took him on for what would become seven years of yeoman's work under the dome.

After Plewa moved to the Senate, Cieslewicz began to apply his own experience and values to the legislative agenda. He was instrumental, for instance, in putting together the state's pioneering family-leave bill. "Dave was the person who brought the idea to me," says Plewa. Cieslewicz helped draft the bill and took part in the public hearing and coalition building that consummated in its passage -- albeit in a watered-down form. Wheareas the orginal draft called for 26 weeks of maternity leave, the final bill required only six, a compromise Plewa fears disappointed Cieslewicz. "I don't think we always agreed on the specifics," he says.

In fact, it was the specifics of abortion politics that led Cieslewicz to leave Plewa's office in September 1989. Cieslewicz was pro-choice and a liberal Democrat, and was looking to work with someone more in tune with his values than the conservative, anti-abortion Plewa. As luck would have it, Rep. Spencer Black was hiring. It was a happy coincidence for both Black and Cieslewicz.

"I look for people who are progressive and concerned about the environment," says the Madison Democrat, adding that Cieslewicz "understood the legislative process very well" and could help Black be a more effective legislator.

Cieslewicz fondly recalls his first few months with Black as "Spencer Boot Camp" -- a blizzard of information, insights and action, the political equivalent of dishwater coffee and 50 pushups in the mud at dawn. He leaped right in, organizing a series of statewide hearings to demonstrate grass-roots support for a state recycling bill.

It was also here that Cieslewicz developed the enlightened sense of populism that, combined with enough savvy, could serve him politically for many years. To wit:

"Wisconsin is a state with a conscience. People out there are fundamentally with you, they're fundamentally decent. All you need to do it be able to communicate with them directly and tap in on that conscience, and you're going to win." It is an essentially progressive ideology, rooted deep in Cieslewicz's political soul.

The nature of the beast

Cieslewicz favors rules and underdogs. He is like the playground moderatirm the earnest kid always insisting on a fair fight.

"Clean government, clean environment and fairness," he ticks off, and he is just beginning: "The idea that people who are the top rungs of society ought to pay their way."

In the 1980s, when Cieslewicz decided to go into politics, he witnessed the erosion of the state's manufacturing base while companies like General Motors lined their pockets with "so-called economic-development funds." Then-Gov. Tony Earl started rolling back the progressive income tax, a practice "taken to new lows by Thompson." Laments Cieslewicz: "I just saw 80 years of progressive tradition going down the tubes."

And suddenly, Cieslewicz is discoursing on the nature of the beast. "Capitalism is like a Monopoly game," he announces, chuckling at the thought. "It reaches a point in the game where one player's got a critical mass. It might take some skill, some maneuvering, some smarts to get early success, but after a while, making money in Monopoly is like falling off a log. Once you've got money, it just attracts more, and pretty soon you don't have competition; you don't have a free market; you've just got a monopoly.

"I think that game is a really good analogy for the way the system works. If you accept the idea that capitalism is an all right way to organize the economy, and you want to keep it going, then the only way is to redistribute things once in a while and to keep the rich guys from getting too rich, and give the people at the bottom run an even chance of moving up. It's a real fundamental idea of fairness.

"Government's role," Cieslewicz continues, moving in for the kill, "is to protect all of those other values we hold as a society that the free market doesn't hold. Left to its own devices the free market will destroy its own workforce and its own environment, because it doesn't plan ahead, it doesn't hold any of those other values.

"My idea is you try and harness the good things about the free market -- it get people going, it gets stuff done -- but then you try to impose all those other values you hold as a society on top of it. Under this scenario, business hates hates government. When business starts saying government is good, something's wrong, something's fundamentally wrong. In a healthy situation, I think you want business to really hate government, because then government is doing its job.

Smashing the pro-growth paradigm

As a county supervisor, Cieslewicz has raised plenty of corporate hackles, most notably where environmental issues are concerned. "Dave has done an excellent job advocating on behalf of county resources," says County Excecutive Rick Phelps, who cites Cieslewicz as an influential force in setting the county's environmental agenda.

Cieslewicz's board work speaks to his priorities. He is a member of the Zoning and Natural Resources Committee and the Regional Planning Commission. He also wrote the county's new energy policy in the aftermath of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

With Phelps he is the source of a controversial zoning ordinance amendment to control growth by restricting unsewered subdivisions. Savaged on the edit pages and in public hearing rooms, the motion, says Cieslewicz, "it not dead, but it's on life-support systems."

But Cieslewicz is still adamant about the need for such controls: "The fundamental problem, not only in Dane County but just about everywhere, is this pro-growth paradigm, the idea that growth is always good, that more and more is always better.

"We're growing too fast," he says of Dane County. "We added 44,000 people in the last 10 years -- a 13.6% increase -- and that just outpaces the ability of our institutions to deal with it." While some see this growth as "economic development," Cieslewicz bridles a the use of the term. "To me [economic development] is the code word for, at the state level, destroying the progressive tradition, and at the county level, being wildly pro-growth, without any idea of what it's doing to the natural environment or to people who live here.

"As I see it, rapid growth doesn't benefit anybody except a handful of developers, the Glenn Hovdes of the world. Everybody else loses. Taxes go up when you grow too fast, because residential development does not pay for itself."

Cieslewicz, who lives downtown on North Pinckney Street, believes growth is compromising the county's economic strength, primarily agriculture. "Once it's paved over, once it's zoned residential, commercial, it's not going to go back to ag. You've lost it forever.

"We need to develop this concept of sustainability," he says. "What's a sustainable population for Dane County? We may have already reached it, for all we know. There is a certain level that the natural environment can support. Someday you can fill evey square inch of Dane County with a subdivision. I suppose that's physically possible. But you still need farmland.

"There is a level of sustainable growth that we can handle, and there is no question in my mind that we've exceeded it."

Rep. Cieslewicz?

A frustrated Packers fan, Cieslewicz likes jazz, especially Charlie Brown at Christmastime. And ex-office mate Curt Pawlisch says Cieslewicz was "appalled when his new wife [Dianne] took a sudden interest in country music." Cieslewicz explains that "while I used to be entirely repulsed by it, now I'm only uncomfortable." Some of it he kind of, well, likes -- Lyle Lovett, for example. There's another, too, but he can't remember her name.

The key to Cieslewicz's future is, will the voters of Clarenbach's 78th Assembly Distict remember him? With almost nine years of work in the Capitol and four years on the County Board, he seems qualified. Virtually everybody considers him bright, humorous and well-spoken.

But the field for the September 1992 Democratic primary may be crowded. Among the possible other contenders: Dane County Democratic Party chair Ken Strasma, County Supv. Tammy Baldwin, former Phelps aide Billy Feitlinger, local attorney Michael Christopher and Madison Ald. Ricardo Gonzalez, who, like Cieslewicz, represents Madison's 4th District.

Clarenbach isn't ready to handicap the race, but he does express a candid concern that Cieslewicz "has not come from a community or neighborhood perspective" -- such as active work in civil rights, the anti-war movement and community development. In his mind, "that is one of the most important criteria for judging ambitious young politicos."

County Supv. Roberta Leidner, meanwhile, is unabashedly enthusiastic, citing her colleague's wit, legislative style and speaking skill: "I think Dave Cieslewicz will be very appealing to the same voters as Dave Clarenbach was."

"Of course, I wouldn't vote for him, and he knows that," says board conservative Lyman Anderson with a laugh. but political differences aside, Anderson respects Cieslewicz's low-key style and ability to listen, though he has had a hard time getting Cieslewicz to come play sheepshead on the zoning committee's off-nights. "I'll quote him right back to you," says Anderson: "He knows how to disagree without being disagreeable."

Another board conservative, Michael Blaska, lays Cieslewicz's shortcomings bare: "He sorely lacks business experience. Sometimes you lose perspective when you don't have to go out into the 'real world.'"

"Nothing was given to Dave Cieslewicz on a silver spoon," counters Plewa. "He's a self-made person." And Black, citing Cieslewicz's working-class roots on Milwaukee's south side, says he is "not someone who looks at things from the perspective of what goes on in the Capitol. He has the point of view of the average working person."

Even Blaska concedes that "Dave's a hard-working supervisor and he'd be a hard-working legislator." And, says, Blaska, even after a heated debate, "you can sitll go out and have a beer with him."


"Your name," a writer prompts Cieslewicz over a beer, must get pretty mangled."

"," he utters, each work a different vocalization of incredulity. "I like to tell people it's an Irish name," he laughs. "It was O'Cieslewicz, but it was too long so we dropped the O."

He's never really kept track, but SIZZ-la-wits and chis-LEV-ski are among the common mishaps. Once he had a gym coach who pronounced is cheesebock. Cieslewicz explodes. "I mean, where do you get cheesbock out of Cieslewicz?"

"There's not much I can do about the name," Cieslewicz says with Zen-like resignation. Of course, he could always change it, like Gary Hart. Maybe that gym coach was on to something. Can you imagine a David Cheese running for office in Wisconsin? It could be a landslide.

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