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Joe Parisi's race problem -- and ours
The county executive has a plan for addressing inequality
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Credit:Sharon Vanorny

When state Sen. Glenn Grothman introduced a bill earlier this year to preempt parts of Dane County's 15-year-old living-wage ordinance, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi did what he does best.

He stood up for the little people -- the laborers who benefit from the law.

"How are they going to pay their bills?" he asked the five state senators present at a March 3 hearing at the Committee on Judiciary and Labor. "Try finding an apartment for rent in Dane County on a wage of $7.25 an hour. It's not going to happen."

It was the bill's second hearing since being introduced less than three weeks earlier -- an unusually fast track to the Senate floor. Parisi asked the committee's three Republicans to slow it down. "[T]his bill impacts real lives, in a real way."

But the legislation, which would slash wages for some 2,000 county contract employees, passed 3-2.

Such advocacy has been a hallmark of Parisi's nearly 20 years in public office. But since leaving the state Assembly to become the county's top boss in 2011, he has taken a more targeted approach to helping those on the fringe, from victims of domestic violence to convicted felons.

"We make all the 'best of' lists, but it's not the 'best of' for everyone," he says. "Our goal needs to be that everyone in our community benefits from the richness of our community, and I don't just mean richness dollar-wise."

Parisi, 53, a high school dropout, believes that with enough money and imagination he can move the needle on some of the county's most enduring problems. This year the county will spend an unprecedented amount on lakes cleanup, for example.

And he is especially determined to begin closing the racial gaps that run counter to the county's reputation as a bastion of progressive ideals.

A study on racial disparities published last October highlighted what its author called "the paradox between Dane County's reputation and reality." While the disparities were not surprising, their scale was.

The report, which built off more than a decade's worth of committees, reports and discussions, has given marching orders to local leaders like Parisi, who says he's addressing the issue with "nuts-and-bolts solutions through budgeting."

Aided by a liberal supermajority on the county board, Parisi has so far governed with little resistance to his initiatives. He isn't without critics, however. His spending priorities have rankled conservative board members, while some progressives say he hasn't been aggressive enough when addressing racial disparities and poverty.

"I'd like to see some big leaps on these issues," says Supv. Heidi Wegleitner. "We need to be at the forefront of these issues, not bringing a little bit of change at a time."

Racial disparities

Last year's Race to Equity report, funded by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, spelled out in stark detail the grim condition of Dane County's African American population.

Among the report's most remarkable findings was that, while African Americans in Dane County fare worse than those elsewhere in the country, whites here are doing better than the national average.

Using 40 "life status" indicators, like poverty and education, the report didn't find a single indicator where blacks were on par with whites.

Some 75% of black children live in poverty, compared to 5.5% of white children. Black students are more likely to be suspended from school and end up in foster care. Black juveniles are more likely than whites to be arrested. The same is true of black adult males.

Disparities in the criminal justice system, the worst in the nation, reflect disparities elsewhere in the system, says Erica Nelson, the report's author. That's why it's essential to address what Parisi calls the "root causes" of the disparities.

In his 2014 budget, entitled "An Investment in Our Values," Parisi funded a number of new programs aimed at helping African Americans. He partnered with the United Way to create Early Childhood Zones at area schools, which he says will help low-income families by pairing them with specialists akin to life coaches. His Youth Eviction Prevention Fund is aimed at helping families stay in their homes.

And, among several other initiatives, he partnered with Operation Fresh Start -- a long-running and acclaimed program that provides at-risk young adults with work skills -- to establish a Youth Conservation Corps that will provide 50 young adults each year with work skills in conservation.

"Many of these youths are already in the system," he says.

Pervasive disadvantages

Parisi's interest in racial disparities began shortly after he was elected Dane County Clerk in 1996, around the time he also began volunteering with Operation Fresh Start.

"There are so many incredible young people I worked with who found themselves, at a very early age, in incredibly challenging situations," he recalls. "I saw firsthand the stark realities that existed."

Through his work with Fresh Start, Parisi observed the pervasive disadvantages facing young people raised in poverty -- black youths in particular. But he also saw how programs like Operation Fresh Start can help reel people back from the brink.

"If you invest yourself in people you can make a real difference in their lives," he says.

In 2004, Parisi ran for the state Assembly seat vacated by Rep. Mark Miller, who was running for state Senate. Both men won their races.

In the Assembly, Parisi immersed himself in criminal justice issues, even beginning a master's in criminal justice. His proposed thesis: Racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

He toured prisons as chair of the Committee on Corrections and Courts and introduced a bill that, had it passed, would have made it illegal for employers to ask about criminal convictions on job applications. (Madison's Common Council is considering a similar "ban the box" ordinance.)

"I can't stress strongly enough how devastating the mass incarceration of African Americans has been and continues to be," Parisi says. "It's created a cycle that is very hard to get out of, even for people who want to turn their lives around."

Parisi also helped establish the state's Re-Entry Council to help felons released from prison find employment. He also fought to give them the right to vote.

"Once someone is released from incarceration we want to do everything we can to help them feel they have a stake in society," he says. "What better way than to let them take part in the democratic process?"

But again he was unsuccessful.

While he enjoyed his time in the Legislature, being a lawmaker meant working around the edges of the issues he cared about. So rather than seek higher office, Parisi looked back to the county.

In 2011, he entered a five-way primary race for county executive when Kathleen Falk, after 14 years, stepped down to run against Gov. Scott Walker in that year's recall race. Falk lost; Parisi won.

What the office lacks in prestige, it makes up for with influence.

"What I've found as executive is that it fits my personality because I like seeing the challenge and looking for nuts-and-bolts solutions," he says. "I like bringing people together to say, 'What can we do about this?'"

Style vs. substance

Asked about Parisi's leadership as county executive, most interviewed for this article prefaced their answer with some variation of "He's a nice guy, but...."

In David Blaska's case, it was "but he's a liberal."

Blaska, a former conservative Dane County board member and Isthmus columnist, chafes at the priorities of both Parisi and the liberal-dominated board.

"They're going to sit there and examine every single purchase order and every single ordinance to ensure it's somehow beneficial to minority races," he says. "I think that is a poor priority."

Supv. David Ripp, one of roughly six conservative board members still standing, gives a more tepid assessment.

"He's pretty good, I guess," says the 30-year board member from Waunakee. "He likes to govern by press release; all county executives like to do that. I hate it. If we want to know what's going on, we have to read the press releases."

But some of Parisi's most pointed critics have been fellow progressives, who also cite communication issues.

After announcing in April that the county planned to buy Porchlight's Hospitality House to convert into a resource center for the homeless, the outcry on the far left was immediate.

Supv. Heidi Wegleitner and Tenant Resource Center director Brenda Konkel, who are both active on the front lines of the issue, say Parisi brokered the proposed purchase without consulting with the board's Homeless Issues Committee.

"The communication is really lacking," Wegleitner says.

The committee's chair resigned in protest the day after Parisi's announcement.

The county executive gets somewhat defensive when asked about the criticism, revisiting his many achievements and good deeds.

"It's important not to confuse style with substance," he says. "It's easy to stand on the sidelines and criticize, but it comes down to actually making change. I'm not going to fight for the sake of fighting."

Parisi's 2014 $509 million budget received broad support. In addition to funding programs to close racial disparities, Parisi got behind a $20 million project to expand the Dane County Regional Airport parking lot and another $20 million to expand a landfill.

He allocated $2 million to help build a new shelter for victims of domestic violence. And he has set aside $8 million for a jail space-needs study.

"I don't know where all of this money is coming from," says Supv. Mike Willett, a conservative reelected in April. "He's going to have a hard time balancing the budget with all the spending he's doing."

Blaska says the county is spending without much discussion.

"I used to say the Dane County Board is what democracy sounds like, but there is no debate anymore," he says. "There is little debate from the executive's office."

For Parisi, debate is a setback.

"The most effective initiatives are done without an argument, without a debate, without making adversaries," he says. "One of the things I love about this job is that I can put together initiatives and make them happen. You can get a lot done when you use the art of the possible."

A politico awakens

Nothing in Parisi's first 30 years foretells his eventual career in public service, except maybe the fundraisers his band performed at in the 1980s and '90s.

He was born to Italian parents in Madison's Greenbush neighborhood, and the family moved to Middleton while he was still a child.

An insecure teenager, Parisi dropped out of high school at 17 to pursue his dream of becoming a rock star.

"I was never real interested in school," he says, sitting across from a photo of himself with President Obama in his downtown office. "I didn't think I was very smart."

Known back then as Pepo -- Italian for Little Joe -- Parisi was a talented drummer. He played with various bands until 1983, when he joined the upstart Honor Among Thieves. With its brand of blues -- and a little business finesse -- the band became a Madison favorite.

"Joe was the guy who had the drive and intelligence for dealing with people in the industry, professionally," says lead guitarist and vocalist Andy Ewen. "Whatever [success] we had was largely because of his making connections with people. As far as a band mate, we were like brothers."

Although the band in its early years played up to three shows a week and did some touring, Parisi's rock-star fantasy never materialized. Part of him had anticipated that outcome.

Not long after leaving his parents' house at 18, Parisi realized that chasing dreams came with sacrifices. He worked low-paying odd jobs.

"It was hard," he recalls. "I had to make rent and buy my own food. I remember living on bologna sandwiches and thinking, 'I can't do this, man; it's just too hard.'"

By the time Parisi joined Honor Among Thieves, he had earned a high school equivalency diploma and was taking classes, one at a time, at Madison Area Technical College.

"I didn't know what I was going to do with a college degree, but whatever I was going to do I knew I needed it," he says.

Eventually he transferred to UW-Madison and, at age 30, earned a degree in sociology.

"I never had any vision or plan," he says. "But the closer I got to graduation I had to figure out what I was going to do."

Building coalitions

During his last two years of college, Parisi landed a job with the Sierra Club, where he acquired an appetite for public policy.

"I was interacting with a lot with folks at the Capitol, so I thought I could potentially start working there," he says.

After graduation he worked for state Reps. Louis Fortis and David Cullen. Under Fortis, Parisi helped secure enough votes to pass a bill requiring companies to post warning signs on lawns they've treated with pesticides.

"My job was to build the coalition to advance that, to walk it through the process," he says.

In 1996, an opportunity opened for Parisi to have a bigger say in the conversation. Elected county clerk, he used the paper-pushing office as a platform for advocating for transparent government and campaign finance reform.

He made county government a little more accessible when he became the first clerk in the state to allow candidates to file financial disclosures electronically and to post election results online.

And when the Legislature began debating same-sex marriage in the late '90s, Parisi, who signed off on marriage licenses, threw the office's nominal weight against the push to make it illegal.

"It was really a place you could use as a platform to talk about some of these bigger issues, as well as focusing on the nuts-and-bolts of running an administrative office," he says.

Real-world impact

Of his many initiatives aimed at fixing racial disparities, Parisi is particularly proud of his Project Big Step. Similar to a program in Milwaukee, it will provide unemployed African American adults with training for jobs in the trades and construction.

"As we speak, it's having a real-world impact matching people from the minority community to jobs in the trades," he says. "On a micro level we can do this a person at a time. Every success we have makes a difference, and we should learn from it."

Parisi has also supported efforts by the Dane County District Attorney's Office to revamp its drug diversion program and establish a community court, both designed to give low-level offenders the chance to avoid life-changing convictions.

Sheriff Dave Mahoney says he's had Parisi's full support for his alternatives-to-incarceration programs within Dane County's jail, including a bracelet-monitoring initiative that has kept approximately 3,000 people at home instead of jail.

"It costs us $32,000 a year to keep someone in jail," says Mahoney. He says he has saved the county more than $1 million by downsizing the 1,000-bed jail, which, on average, now houses around 800 inmates.

Neither Parisi nor Erica Nelson could say what, exactly, progress on racial disparities will look like, but both say it is happening.

"We're seeing the sprinklings and beginnings of long-term change for the better," Nelson says.

Parisi tempers expectations.

"It's going to take our whole community, it's going to take time, and it's going to take real work," he says. "The challenge is going to be to keep the public focused on this issue."

Lingering self-doubt

Parisi lives on Madison's east side with his wife, Erin, and their two daughters, ages 13 and 14.

His thesis on racial disparities wasn't meant to be, at least for now. His schedule filled upon becoming county executive, and he dropped out of grad school.

Up for reelection in 2017, he has no intention of stepping down.

"I never planned on running for county executive," he says. "But a lot of the issues I'm passionate about I can address at the county level, some might argue even more effectively."

Although Sen. Grothman's assault on the county's living wage never reached the Senate floor, there is plenty the Legislature has done to make Parisi's work on racial disparities all the more difficult.

"Just recently, this Legislature passed laws that made it easier to refuse felons housing, and made it legal to fire people for any reason if they ever had a felony," he says. "And these people are expected to somehow succeed? It just perpetuates poverty."

Parisi, who hasn't performed with Honor Among Thieves since 1998, still struggles with the self-doubt that led to his dropping out of high school. He figures it will never go away completely. "Especially in this position."

He still can't quite believe where he finds himself today.

"I look at that picture of me and the president," he says. "If you would have shown me that picture when I was 20 years old and said, 'This is you in the future,' I would've said, 'I don't think so.'"

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