Note: Isthmus and The Daily Page have partnered with professor Sue Robinson and her UW-Madison journalism students to produce a series of issue-based reports on the county executive race. Look for those stories on TheDailyPage.com starting Monday, March 23.
It's been an up-and-down month for Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who's facing a surprisingly strong challenge from Nancy Mistele in the April 7 election.
On March 10, Falk's proposed manure digesters got a $6.6 million boost in promised state funding from Gov. Jim Doyle. On March 14, she was endorsed by the editorially conservative Wisconsin State Journal.
But Falk has also been accused of stonewalling by attorneys for the family of slain coed Brittany Zimmerman, which is suing Falk and the county. They say Falk is delaying a deposition about the bungled 911 Center response until after the election.
And the family of Mark Johnson has taken steps toward filing its own lawsuit against the county. Johnson was killed in Lake Edge Park on Nov. 3 after the 911 Center failed to send help in response to reports of an escalating confrontation.
Mistele's campaign has been putting out almost daily press releases criticizing Falk. Mistele is exceptionally accessible and energetic, and clearly has what momentum there is in this campaign.
"I'm on the street every day, meeting with people," she says. "The response is very, very positive, very, very strong. We've got numerous volunteers all around the county that are engaged helping us get the word out."
Falk's campaign is professional, but less visible or accessible. Campaign manager Melissa Mulliken passed up repeated opportunities to respond to points made by Mistele and her campaign. Eventually, she provided a statement explaining her reticence. It reads in part:
"From land preservation, shoreland zoning, human services, women's health, taxes, Nancy plays fast and loose with the truth and, at the end of the day, hers are extreme positions." The statement then quoted an anti-abortion comment Mistele made in 1998.
The thinking seems to be that the race is Falk's to lose, so she'd better lie low.
Falk, 57, is seeking an unprecedented fourth four-year term as Dane County exec; she was first elected in 1997. She ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for governor in 2002 and state attorney general in 2006.
Falk boasts that she's enhanced public safety, protected natural areas and expanded social service programs while holding the line on taxes. Mulliken also cites Falk's initiatives to promote "clean renewable energy that creates good jobs" and "against the abuse of alcohol that costs us so much in human pain and economic costs."
She says Falk believes government "must be a strong partner" in solving problems, while Mistele has pledged to give the 911 Center all of the stimulus money the county receives.
Mistele, 55, was elected to three terms on the Madison school board, beginning in 1992, but quit when she moved out of the district in 1996. She ran twice for state Senate as a Republican. She lives in the town of Westport and serves as chief financial officer for Aztec Builders, which she owns with her husband, Tom.
Mistele says she's for business, jobs, lower property taxes, increased tourism funding, more roads and road repair, and against what she sees as excessive preservation of wetlands. She is harshly critical of Falk's management of the county 911 Center, so much so that some dismiss her criticisms as shrill and opportunistic.
But Mistele has other issues. "Obviously we have the question of public safety," she says. "But I'll tell you what, the whole idea of a commuter train? That's pretty big. It's captured a lot of people's attention."
Mistele claims that besides costing a billion dollars, commuter rail will lead to increased pollution. "I actually had a student who did a little carbon footprint study analysis of it," she says. "He's an astrophysics student at the UW." The increased pollution would come from "all the cars...stopped at different sites where road closures are to occur."
In fact, Jeff Waksman, who did the analysis (he also edits the newsletter of the Dane County Republican Party), is a doctoral student in plasma physics, not astrophysics, and admits his analysis is not a scientific study. Still, citing Transport 2020 numbers, he says that commuter rail would only take 500 cars off the road, and that some streets would have as many as 12 rail crossings an hour.
Falk's campaign declined an opportunity to respond to Mistele's claims regarding commuter rail.
Mistele's campaign has made some missteps - like the "transportation plan" that consisted merely of the 470-word press release that announced it. And she's drawn flak for not connecting prevention of alcohol abuse with public safety.
But at least Mistele is out there swinging. By not responding to concerns she sees as absurd or unfair, Falk is passing up opportunities to score points with voters.
Perhaps the candidates have more in common than at first appears. Both give voters reason to be wary.