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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 22.0° F  A Few Clouds
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The battle for Sun Prairie: Progressives and conservatives fight for the soul of the suburb
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Credit:Matt Mignanelli

It's easy to write off Sun Prairie as a sleepy town of little consequence. It's got a Main Street right out of The Andy Griffith Show. Its communities, dotted with neighborhood schools and more parks than seems fair, are homey and welcoming. People are friendly and happy. And its annual corn festival, which starts on Aug. 16, promises to once again be a wholesome family affair where thousands converge for fresh sweet corn dripping with butter.

But Sun Prairie is not the conservative little town people think it is. It's a political hornet's nest just waiting to be stirred. And Gov. Scott Walker has provided the stick.

With 29,433 residents, Sun Prairie is neither small nor sleepy. It's the second-largest municipality in Dane County. And these residents vote. According to City Clerk Diane Hermann-Brown, Sun Prairie had 16,681 registered voters before June's historic recall election, which saw 83% turnout, 1,997 new registrations, and an impressive 13,682 votes cast. With a history of having one of the highest voter turnouts in Dane County - which tends to have one of the highest voter turnouts in the state - Sun Prairie sets the bar for civic engagement.

And when it comes to state and national elections, that bar is blue. In 2010, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett won Sun Prairie with 5,993 votes, 12% more than Walker's 4,731. During the recall period, even more city residents - 6,420 of them, according to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin - signed petitions to recall Walker. These voters spoke again in the recall election, where Barrett increased his margin of victory in Sun Prairie by a whopping six points: 8,003 to Walker's 5,578.

This is not a new pattern. Sun Prairie has voted blue in all three presidential elections since 2000, and in 2010 voted in large margins in the U.S. Senate race for Democrat Russ Feingold over Republican Ron Johnson.

If you're looking for a conservative Sun Prairie, however, you will find it at City Hall.

When it comes to local politics, the prevailing color is red. Mayor John Murray works a full-time day job as a Walker appointee; the eight-member City Council is composed of conservatives and right-leaning moderates; and three of the area's four county board supervisors - Bill Clausius, David Wiganowsky and Dennis O'Loughlin - are conservative. Adding to the aura: The Club for Growth Wisconsin, an influential right-wing power broker, receives its contributions at the UPS store in Sun Prairie.

In recent years the council has followed the Republican playbook, from allowing concealed carry in city buildings to scripting rules for "well-mannered tenants" in multi-family housing. The city has also wooed big-box development: Costco is coming soon, a Woodman's Markets is just about finished, and a plan to super-size the existing WalMart was approved this year.

The only local newspaper, The Star, helps preserve the status quo, often editorializing in favor of Republicans and other right-of-center candidates. Owned by big-time Republican contributors, the Fort Atkinson-based Knox family, The Star is a faithful mouthpiece of the conservative minority.

So why the disconnect? If Sun Prairie's so blue, how did City Hall get so red?

Former Mayor Joe Chase, a fifth-generation Sun Prairie resident and a fiercely independent moderate, says that the council is dominated by Republican Party faithfuls because they run largely unopposed. "There are no leaders" in alternate camps, Chase argues.

With the notable exception of the school board, Sun Prairie has seen few progressive candidates in recent years. And when it has, the opposition is quick to respond with yard signs, fliers and support from local Republican Party players.

But the protests launched in reaction to Walker's attack on public unions served as a wake-up call to Sun Prairie's progressives. Hundreds of volunteers from the city worked with local unions, the Democratic Party and other groups on one of the most active signature-collecting efforts in the state. It was in some ways a coming out for the city's mostly silent progressive majority, of which I am a member.

The Democratic Party has since taken notice. Mike Basford, chair of the Dane County Dems, admits that the party has often neglected local-level offices in Sun Prairie and other small communities to focus on Madison politics. But he says the party plans to use the momentum generated by the recall to recruit candidates to run against conservatives in these communities.

It would be "near-criminal neglect to disengage" at this point, says Basford. "Sun Prairie is a place where we can really help the very strong community organizations find, train, inform and elect candidates, to get people in office who reflect the values of the community."

So here's a look at the new battle over Sun Prairie, from a progressive's-eye view.

Minority rule

However blue Sun Prairie votes, there's no denying the conservative stranglehold on City Hall. Understanding it, however, is another story.

When asked to explain the discrepancy between the conservative face of City Hall and Sun Prairie's Democratic leanings in state and national politics, Mayor Murray defines it as a vague reflection of the will of the people.

"Sun Prairie voters tell me that what they look for in local officeholders is the ability to solve problems for constituents, proactive ideas for the efficient delivery of city services and a vision for moving our community forward," he says. "While they may also look for these qualities in state and national candidates, broader political and philosophical considerations tend to come into play [there]. It tells me that Sun Prairie voters are politically engaged and highly sophisticated in their voting behaviors."

It's true that the city attracts progressives and conservatives alike. One sunny afternoon this May, downtown's Cannery Square played host to a recall "sign brigade"; a minor counterprotest by two girls wearing "I ? Walker" T-shirts; and the filming of publicity materials by Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Tommy Thompson and Democratic congressional candidate Kelda Helen Roys.

A closer look at City Hall, however, helps explain why many think of Sun Prairie as a conservative town. Murray, for instance, has worked for some of the most conservative Republicans in Wisconsin, including as chief of staff to Congressman Paul Ryan and as an advisor to Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch when he was the Senate majority leader.

Walker appointed Murray executive director of the Office of Justice Assistance in December 2011 and to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council in May 2012.

Murray keeps a relatively low profile as mayor. With a full-time day job, he acknowledges that he doesn't spend much time at City Hall, but says he does work about 10 to 15 hours a week on mayoral duties. His showiest display to date was hosting the launch of Mount Horeb Republican Chad Lee's congressional campaign on the public square in front of City Hall.

Interestingly, when Lee ran against incumbent Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin in 2010, he received only 37% of the vote in Sun Prairie.

Murray says he is "proud of the strong, collaborative working relationship" he has with the Sun Prairie City Council. In October 2011, the council approved a budget whose austerity measures included cutting in half the city's contribution to employee retirement packages and the controversial elimination of several city positions held by longtime employees. Among them were the city's administrator, attorney, director of parks and recreation, and spokesman for the police department.

The council has drawn criticism for both its lack of transparency and its indifference to public input. One time, for instance, the council held its regular January meeting at Buck & Honey's, the same local bar that hosts the Dane County Republicans' "Pints & Politics" events. According to one citizen attendee, Carol Dann, the environment was not conducive to citizen participation, and the posted agenda was misleading.

Dann says it wasn't the first time she's been "misled by what is on the agenda and what actually happens at the meetings." For example, a discussion on whether to allow concealed carry in City Hall took place under the agenda item "workplace violence."

Even Jeff Horn, founder of Party Patriots - the conservative group that formed in July 2011 to recall Democratic Sen. Mark Miller - would like to see some changes, including more details in city agendas so that the public is better informed.

There "could absolutely be more transparency," he says.

Right-wing agenda

Even among conservatives, council member Hariah Hutkowski stands out for his far-right agenda. He has a degree in political management from the Pat Robertson School of Government at Regent University in Virginia and works as a legislative aide to Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), who led the charge to repeal the state's comprehensive sex education law. Hutkowski worked previously for Wisconsin Family Action, the socially conservative group that championed Wisconsin's constitutional gay marriage ban and is currently fighting to overturn the state's domestic partner registry.

Hutkowski has been an alderman since 2006 and has run unsuccessfully for other state and local offices. This spring he lost in the race for county board to Nick Zweifel, a progressive. Although Hutkowski is considered a lone wolf around City Hall, local conservatives nevertheless rallied around him in his bid for county board. His campaign was run with help from Mayor Murray and lobbyist Joe Murray, another Walker insider who is the director of political and governmental affairs for the Wisconsin Realtors Association.

Hutkowski campaigned on "local values" and tried to tie Zweifel to "Madison special interests," but local voters were not convinced. Zweifel won with more than 57% of the vote.

City Council President Zach Weber has a reputation among local progressives as being driven by a personal, right-leaning agenda, but he insists that he takes very seriously the nonpartisan nature of his office and sees his own position as irrelevant. Weber sounds surprised by the idea that the current council is motivated by a partisan agenda, describing himself as "socially liberal and fiscally conservative" and saying he doesn't know if other council members lean right.

"We don't really discuss it," Weber says. "We deal with local government, and I don't necessarily think that ideology plays a role in local government."

Weber claims that during the petition drive to recall Walker, all groups were "treated equally." But in a phone conversation with me late last fall, he told me that he didn't personally approve of the recall effort. In that call, he revoked the permission granted by a city employee for volunteers to use the outlets on Cannery Square to run portable heaters and lights when collecting signatures.

First appointed during a 2004 vacancy, Weber has since run unopposed four times in one of the most left-leaning districts in the city. He says he'd welcome a challenger next spring if only to get more people to vote. He laments voter apathy as well as the lack of people running for office. "I'm not so foolish or arrogant to think, 'I'm doing such a wonderful job people want to keep electing me,'" he says.

Homeowners vs. renters

Under Weber's leadership, the council has pushed big-box expansion and banned kids from buying spray paint. The mayor and council have also called for "cleaning up underperforming multifamily housing" and making 65% of housing in the city single-family. A nuisance abatement ordinance passed in September 2011 penalizing landlords for tenant violations. Sponsor Hutkowski says the new law "monetarily encourages landlords to rent to well-mannered tenants."

The council indicated at a July meeting that it plans to reject a revised development plan, with Murray "candidly" stating that multi-bedroom units would not attract what the developer was calling "young professional couples."

Such efforts are seen by some as a veiled and misguided attempt to discourage renting to low-income and minority tenants as the city continues to grow.

Weber defends this approach as a nonpartisan attempt to expand business and provide much-needed safeguards to ensure the "balance" of city resources. But it has been assailed by grassroots candidates like Tiffany Keogh, who challenged Hutkowski last April, losing by just 25 votes.

Keogh, the first African American woman to run for office in Sun Prairie, says the "new Sun Prairie" should not, like Milwaukee, fall into the trap of segregating its residents. "We need to get all of the residents together," she told Capital City Hues.

"There is this sort of homeowners versus renter thing going on, this neighborhood versus that neighborhood, east side versus west side," she said in the interview. For Keogh, these debates boil down to a question of demographics: "You have to talk about diversity."

Keogh argues that the current administration's tendency to frame diversity as "problems and crime" is damaging: "Sun Prairie is a small community that literally exploded. A lot of people are attracted to Sun Prairie. That's a good thing. And we can take advantage of all of those opportunities. But you have to do it right and you have to be inclusive. The city of Sun Prairie needs to embrace its diversity."

Progressives speak up

Thanks to Gov. Walker, most people in Sun Prairie started paying attention to what was happening in their own backyard. And progressives started to speak up.

One new group, the Sun Prairie Action Resource Coalition, formed organically as individuals sought out other local progressives. Many of its members formed a Sun Prairie Recall Team that ran a tiny office out of the local painters' union building. The office and signature-collection locations around town were staffed full-time for the duration of the recall campaign by a team of over 400 local volunteers, who gathered more than 8,500 signatures. My own role in this effort was exhausting and rewarding, as more and more local residents began to look to the group as an opportunity to get involved and share information.

The group has since held community conversations with local and gubernatorial candidates, organized a food drive, and generally served as an information network for local elections and events.

While team members describe the group as a ragtag collection of dedicated individuals with a passion for making a difference, the team has been cited as a "model of grassroots organization" by Nate Timm of the Wisconsin Grassroots Network. Our work definitely got noticed: I was one of the local activists New Yorker writer William Finnegan checked in with after the June 5 recall election, having spent a day with our team during the petition drive for his March article on the recall effort.

Other informal alliances have sprouted to promote local action and encourage dialogue. And they have begun to have an effect. In response to calls for greater transparency in city government, local public access channel KSUN began filming City Council meetings earlier this year and streaming all council meetings and other events live in March. In response to citizen outcry, the library board voted in November 2011 to ban guns in the library. In the fall, the city clerk trained about 50 new "special registration deputies" to help with voter registration. And Zweifel, of course, won a seat on the county board.

Progressives also helped turn out a crowd in October 2011 to the annual school board meeting, where residents approved in a nonbinding vote raising the tax levy to include a set of six diversity initiatives. The school board made the vote official at its next meeting.

Things could get interesting

These progressives continue to face a tough battle, though. While Sun Prairie citizens consistently get out to vote, local-level civic participation remains low. Recall-related events regularly filled the library's community room, but most council and school board meetings are underattended, and public input sessions rarely draw a crowd. At one recent forum on a referendum to make the mayor's post a full-time position (which was voted down in June), only six people showed up.

Local conservatives also bemoan this lack of civic engagement, and say the goings-on at City Hall might reflect a Republican Party agenda but not their own. Libertarian-leaning Jeff Horn acknowledges that the recall movement seems to have motivated the local left more than the right, but says the Party Patriots' own canvassing makes him think the "independent" Sun Prairie could go either way.

Horn sees his own watchdog group as ready to recruit strong - and better - local conservative candidates, particularly to challenge liberals on the school board and in the state Assembly.

"There's a concerted effort at the grassroots level [to recruit and support] conservative candidates [and address the] shortage of people who can run campaigns," he says.

So things could get interesting.

Next year will be a good test. Weber and three other City Council members are up for reelection, and three school board seats will be up for grabs.

"The recall has had an amazing impact on the local face of politics," says Mary Ellen Havel-Lang, chair of Sun Prairie's Youth and Family Commission and a former school board member. She says many more people are paying attention to events in their own communities.

"I have seen a gigantic increase in the number of people who want to get involved," she says. "In the past, many local positions were uncontested. I don't think that will happen in the future. I think people will have to compete for their positions and actually talk about what they believe and how they will govern."

Heather DuBois Bourenane is the citizen representative to the Sun Prairie School Board's education and policy committee. She blogs at monologuesofdissent.blogspot.com.

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