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Former Ald. Brenda Konkel remains a force through biting criticism of government and media
'I'm not going anywhere'
on

Credit:Jack Pollock

Brenda Konkel is a busy woman. Responding to a request for an interview, she writes on a Friday that she has a meeting at 6:30 that night plus four meetings on Saturday and two on Sunday. And so she adds a meeting with a reporter on Saturday evening at the offices of community television station WYOU, where she is a volunteer producer and the chair of the board. Our meeting is suspended for a while when a Spanish-language live show is about to go on the air and its members need help.

Since leaving the Common Council in 2009, where she served four terms, Konkel hasn't slowed down a bit. Besides putting in many unpaid hours at WYOU, Konkel, 43, also hosts a weekly call-in show on community radio station WORT. She's a board member of the Social Justice Center and co-chair of Progressive Dane, the independent political party founded in 1992. She holds other positions in Madison and Dane County organizations. Her day job is as executive director of the Tenant Resource Center.

"Even on election night I said, 'I'm not going anywhere, I'll still be an activist in the community,'" says Konkel, who championed tenants' rights while an alder and helped broker the city's inclusionary zoning ordinance, which has since been repealed.

But it is her role as blogger that continues to keep Konkel in the limelight. Her collaborative blog, ForwardLookout.com, is closely read by people interested in happenings at city hall.

Konkel touts her willingness to sit through four-hour meetings and detail incremental changes to developing policies. On that score, she has become an increasingly vocal critic of local media.

"You don't see reporters at Board of Estimates meetings anymore," she says. "They write about what they heard from other people. I think that's why people like my blog - I capture what really happened there.

"I feel it's influential," she adds.

Lewis Friedland, professor of journalism and mass communication at UW-Madison, says blogging is a trend among current, former and future public officials.

"Many politicians look for new ways to reach people," he says. "For those who were defeated it's a good way to stay in the public eye."

Former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz started blogging while still in office, and he's continued to blog as a private citizen on Isthmus' TheDailyPage.com. Mayor Paul Soglin penned one of the earliest local blogs and "blogged his way back to office," says Friedland.

Konkel says she has no idea whether she'll run again for office. "I'm not ruling it out, but it's not something I want to do right now."

Whatever the future holds for Konkel, one thing has remained consistent in her transition from public official to blogger: her penchant for speaking her mind and alienating opponents and would-be allies alike.

Konkel started her blog in 2005 in response to what she saw as the need for more transparency about lobbying activities at the local government level. Being off the council has given her more time to write.

Several hundred people read it daily, including, she says, many community activists and city and county insiders.

Konkel reports on two or three meetings a week. "So a lot of people use my blog to find out what's going on," she says. Recently she was the sole reporter at a meeting on the fate of the Collins House in James Madison Park and at a meeting about homeless individuals who spend the day in the City-County Building.

"The blog is invaluable," says Ald. Marsha Rummel, who reads it daily. "It's a great and accurate record of what happened, almost like a court transcription. City staff love her, and a huge number of her readers come from city IP addresses.

"Brenda's blog is important for democracy," Rummel adds. "Her comments and questions are important too and often reflect what other people want to ask."

In fact, says Rummel, when Konkel considered running for mayor after her defeat by Ald. Bridget Maniaci, some of those she consulted said, "But then you won't be able to blog. Don't run!"

Konkel is equally in demand at WYOU, which had to drop its three paid staffers in 2011 after losing city funding that had been supported by cable franchise fees.

As members debated whether to continue as an all-volunteer operation or close down, Konkel pushed for the former and was elected president of the board.

A little over a year later, the station's office remains open six days a week, with continued programming of live and taped shows. The station also offers popular training on the use of studio equipment.

Konkel estimates she spends about 10 to 15 hours a week as an unpaid volunteer at the station, on top of 50 hours at the Tenant Resource Center and two to three hours working for Progressive Dane. She also spends 12-20 hours a week blogging.

"Brenda, being Brenda, has a lot of energy," says Luciano Matheron, producer and vice chair of WYOU's board.

Last August, funding for the Tenant Resource Center was slashed, and staff members left for other jobs. This could not have come at a worse time: Republican state legislators successfully stripped many of the longtime renters' protections that were law in Madison. As a result, the center's materials had to be rewritten, its website updated and volunteers retrained.

Konkel has picked up the slack herself. The blog, as a result, now contains more opinion pieces and less reporting, she says. Still, on some days, it boasts as many as five posts.

Ald. Mark Clear praises Konkel for digging into issues ignored by others and for being smart and informed.

But he says her achievements are "overshadowed by her negativity, and that's a shame." She seems angry, he says, which makes her less effective and less credible in her work as an activist. He says it had the same effect on her effectiveness as a Common Council member.

Clear says constituents respected Konkel, but her biting criticism scared off some alders.

"She finds a way to tear down anything," he says.

"She did alienate some people, that's for sure," agrees Rummel, and because of that some alders don't read her blog.

WYOU's Matheron is comforted by Konkel's inner fire. "Don't trust anyone who's not angry," he says, laughing. "I find her relatively patient with people. And I haven't seen her getting offensive at all with people."

Konkel wonders herself whether she was that effective on the council, given her acerbic style. "So being off gave me opportunities to do other things." Like being deeply involved in the new Poverty Coalition and its work on voter ID, homelessness and child development.

Why devote her life to activism, often collecting enemies along the way, rather than spend that time making money or having fun?

"I grew up poor," she says, "and I feel rich even though I'm just lower middle class. I want to give others opportunities too. It's important to me to make change and make the community better. Madison can be a great place for all people, not just developers and business people."

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