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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  Partly Cloudy with Haze
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The New Activists: The Businessman, Brad Werntz
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Werntz has organized small business owners.
Werntz has organized small business owners.
Credit:Carolyn Fath

Brad Werntz is quietly intense, with close-shaved hair, wire-rim glasses and a compact frame that betrays the avocations - rock climbing, endurance sports - that inspired him to build two Madison businesses. Werntz opened Boulders Climbing Gym in 1996 and, five years before that, Pemba Serves, a firm that works as a middleman between outdoor retailers and gear manufacturers. Prior to Feb. 15, Werntz's political activity was confined to issues related to his outdoor recreation businesses.

"I've been a political gadfly," Werntz says. "I'm always happy to get into a flame war on a blog or whatever. But most of my advocacy has been environmental."

In the days after Gov. Scott Walker first unveiled his budget repair bill, Werntz marched around the Capitol Square with his wife, a teacher. He gave "the worst speech of my life" in front of the Joint Finance Committee and was among those who stormed the Capitol on March 10, climbing through a window, when the state Assembly passed the bill in the middle of the night.

"Here we are in the Capitol Rotunda at two in the morning. There's Darren Bush from Rutabaga, John Besmer from Planet Propaganda, Christopher Berge with his restaurants," Werntz recalls. "And you have Walker and his crew saying we're thugs brought in from outside Wisconsin. I thought, I just can't walk around this Capitol another thousand times. We need to do something else. So right there I figured small business still hasn't been heard. Big business and real estate and agribusiness are busy making their case, but none of these are the job creators."

Werntz and his group assembled shortly after and decided to build an organization of small business owners who will push back against Walker's agenda, insisting that it doesn't represent their interests. These businesses represent hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue and attract talent to the state, thanks to good schools and strong communities.

"The word is resolute," says Werntz of his outlook these days. "I think for me and thousands of others, this is not going to end until it's finished and we've won. And many of us, especially those of us who have created businesses, are not used to losing. I've been high up on Everest. I've run the Ironman three times. I've built businesses from scratch, and I'm not going to fail at this."

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