For better or worse, both sides describe it as a single-issue campaign. The issue: Are voters upset enough about the 911 controversy to oust County Executive Kathleen Falk? Or will they reject challenger Nancy Mistele's efforts to exploit concerns about public safety?
"Nancy Mistele has a history of running divisive, negative campaigns," says Falk campaign manager Melissa Mulliken. "She began this campaign by accusing Kathleen of having murdered two people, and it really can only go downhill from there." (Actually, what Mistele said was that "Kathleen Falk's poor judgment cost a couple of lives.")
In discussing the 911 Center, which last year failed to promptly dispatch officers in two cases in which people were killed, Mistele uses terms like "public malfeasance," "legal culpability" and "catastrophic failure."
Falk, 57, is running for an unprecedented fourth four-year term in the April 7 election. The last time out, she didn't even face a challenger. This time, she's seen as vulnerable.
Mistele, 55, was elected to three terms on the Madison school board, beginning in 1992. She left when she moved out of the district in 1996. She lives in the town of Westport and serves as chief financial officer for Aztec Builders, which she owns with her husband, Tom.
Falk ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for governor in 2002 and state attorney general in 2006. Mistele says this shows Falk's heart isn't in her current job. But Mistele also has two failed bids under her belt, running for state Senate as a Republican in 1994, when she was on the school board, and again in 1998.
Already the candidates are sparring. Mistele says we need a county executive who understands that "development is good." Falk counters that Dane is the fastest-growing county in the state. Falk wants federal money to try a farm-waste reclamation and energy plant; Mistele says that's fine, but let it be private money.
Falk says she's proud of what she's accomplished so far, but "there's more to do. I am so eager to take what are really challenging times for jobs, for our economy, for our lakes and natural resources, and convert them into opportunities that will serve us into the next century."
The centerpiece of Mistele's campaign is the 911 Center, which she faults Falk for neglecting.
"We need someone who will be serious about this office and take things seriously," she says. "And there is nothing more serious to Dane County residents than safety."
Conservative talk show host Vicki McKenna of WIBA radio says Mistele "has some great opportunities with regard to really kind of nuts-and-bolts, unsexy service failures that we've had here in Dane County. I think she can make some hay out of all that, beyond the 911 Center, [regarding] health and human services."
But given the chance to weigh in on the nuts-and-bolts issue of human services, Mistele takes a pass.
"Being, what, well over 50% of the budget, it's a very, very large department and not one that I can comment on from the outside," she says. "You have to get in there and see what's going on, then find out ways to streamline work or shift dollars from this program to that."
At times it seems as though, for Mistele, all roads lead back to the 911 Center. Here's what she says when asked whether she would cut the county conservation fund.
"If I'm county executive, and the decision is to buy up wetlands that don't need to be owned to be protected, and [not to] put money into the 911 system, I will go with the 911 system every day. We don't need to own every blade of grass in Dane County in order to keep it green."
Well, then, how about the problems affecting the Overture Center, which some say will require funding and commitment from the county to solve?
"Right now, I think we have a very, very, very clear example that public safety has to be first," she says, mentioning the 911 Center. "We can fund the arts, but if State Street isn't safe, or the Capitol Square isn't safe, or Monona Terrace isn't safe, or our parks - who's going to use them?"
Says Mulliken, "I think what we're seeing is clearly a strategy where Nancy believes she can ride 911 to office. Voters, I believe, look for more from their leaders."
Falk adds that much has been done to improve things at the 911 Center, like adding staff and new priority dispatch technology. "And I ordered a very important change in protocol," she says. Now "if there is any reason to believe there is some concern or risk," help should be dispatched.
Both campaigns say they're pleased with the support they're drawing.
"Our endorsements range from the town chairs of the smallest towns, to the village presidents, and to the mayors of the communities all across Dane County," says Falk. "Over 100 local officials have endorsed me from one end of the county to the other. In addition, [I'm endorsed by] Russ Feingold, Herb Kohl, Gov. Doyle, Tammy Baldwin and [Lt. Gov.] Barbara Lawton."
Meanwhile, Mistele has been seeking backing from various organizations, like fire chiefs, Realtors, builders and the Tavern League of Wisconsin. How's that going?
"You know what?" she says. "They're actually at the executive committee levels right now, so I really need to probably wait until they actually make it through." She adds that she has not sought help from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the big-business lobby group, whose spokesman, Jim Pugh, has helped with her campaign ("With a Little Help From Her Friends," 12/25/08).
Mistele began her campaign with $20,000 in donations, and Falk with $200,000. Neither wants to volunteer updated totals until they are reported at the end of the month.
Falk is contributing to her own campaign. "I always put some of my money into the campaigns, so people see that I'm as committed as they are," she says.
Mistele does not anticipate doing this. "You know, essentially, as a candidate I have always taken the position that my time and my energy are basically my contribution," she says. "Financially, I think it's up to folks to support me."