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Thursday, August 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 76.0° F  Overcast
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Close encounters with Kathleen Falk and Nancy Mistele
Candidates for county exec have vastly different approaches
Nancy Mistele and Kathleen Falk
Nancy Mistele and Kathleen Falk

When I was on the Dane County Board from 1992 to 1998, I had the opportunity to work with both candidates for Dane County executive. I think my experience gives me some insight into their character.

When Falk was elected in 1997, I was the chair of the board's Personnel and Finance Committee. I also had regular contact with her later, when I was with the Urban League of Greater Madison.

Meanwhile, I got to know Nancy Mistele when she served on the Madison school board from 1992 to 1996. That was when the district was wrestling with minority student achievement, school pairing and classroom space issues on Madison's west side, including my County Board district, and planning a new middle school on Madison's south side.

My perspective is that both are strong, fiercely determined women who drive hard to advance their causes. Where they differ is in their approaches and their values.

Mistele served on the school board during admittedly difficult times. Slapped with a civil rights complaint, the district began busing elementary and middle school kids. An elementary school pairing plan was initiated, setting off white flight. And the district's budget steadily climbed as state aid grew ever tighter.

Falk also began her political career in tough times. Back in 1997, as now, the Dane County Board was a nasty place where governing became personal. Bitterness and partisanship marked the board's disposition.

But despite it all, Falk emerged as a coalition builder.

Two major projects stand out for me. One dealt with planned county growth, which included the creation of conservation areas and zoning for diverse economic development. A coalition of developers, business leaders and environmentalists joined to back a referendum approving this plan, which passed overwhelmingly. It was a stunning success.

Time and again, I saw Falk meet with supervisors, community people and service users, striving to maintain quality human services. Falk and others sat for hours listening to pleas for budget support of services. It was a grueling process.

Kathleen Falk never shied from working with others to improve the county and its services. For instance, former County Board Chair Michael Blaska, a conservative, proposed a drug court to reduce jail capacity. Falk jumped at the chance to work on this. The program has since helped save tax dollars as it reduces jail population and gives people the supervision they need to conquer their addictions.

Now Falk is working to combat the culture of alcohol abuse and increase the penalties for drunk driving. It's a noble effort that I suggest be named after the late county Supv. Roberta Leidner. During public budget hearings on the human service budget, Leidner always called for taxing jailed drunk drivers to pay for human service programs.

Falk is a consummate professional with a demonstrated ability to achieve consensus among diverse groups.

My association with Mistele leads me to less flattering conclusions.

I agree, as one county resident charged in a recent letter to the editor in The Capital Times, that Mistele lobbed grenades and created chaos on the school board.

For instance, during the west-side space study and the south Madison Middle School study, I got frustrated with Mistele's lack of preparation. She'd arrive late at times, ask questions that had already been asked or were in the material she was given prior to the meeting.

Mistele, as I recall, was a major impediment to efforts to locate a new middle school on Madison's south side. At first, she opposed the school because it cost money; when that didn't work, she pushed to have it located south of the Beltline in Fitchburg, on land provided by Promega.

Thankfully, she lost this battle too, and James C. Wright Middle School is now successfully serving Madison's south side.

Mistele has always wanted government to spend less money. So has Falk. When I was with the Urban League, I was often frustrated by Falk's use of a formula - "population growth plus inflation" - to create her budgets. But at least she had a formula.

With Mistele, the ethic always seemed to be cut, cut, cut. She could have spent time looking for other revenue enhancements and grant funding, but didn't.

The truth is, we're in an era that calls for serious problem solving, not political posturing. Mistele may be favored by some conservatives, but Falk also has strong backing among Republicans and business leaders. That kind of support is harder to come by. It must be earned.

Steve Braunginn is a writer, radio host, businessman and community activist.

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