Carolyn Fath/Daniel Becker
Education: BS Florida Atlantic University
Experience: Elected to Dane County Board in 2000; registered nurse and owner and manager of rental properties.
Education: UW-Madison graduate in sociology
Experience: Dane County clerk 1996-2004; state assemblyman representing parts of the east and south sides of Madison, Monona, village of McFarland, town of Blooming Grove and town of Dunn, 2005-present.
Wisconsin is in upheaval. Gov. Scott Walker has proposed radical changes, neutering the collective bargaining rights of most public employees and drastically scaling back government spending in ways that will be felt throughout Dane County.
So what do the two candidates for Dane County executive on the April 5 ballot think of these changes?
Eileen Bruskewitz, the conservative County Board member who finished second in the Feb. 15 primary with 14,200 votes, or 20%, doesn't agree with everything that Walker is doing, but she believes the "dialogue" he's started needs to happen.
"There are many people who are very concerned about government spending and borrowing and their taxes," she says. "There are a lot of people who want government to rein in spending and to reduce debt. People want their tax dollars to be used wisely."
Joe Parisi, the liberal state representative who came in first in the primary with 18,000, or 26% of the vote, believes gutting collective bargaining is a huge mistake.
"There's absolutely no merit in it," he says. "It's a bad idea any way you look at it. The only way you can solve problems is by working with the people who work for you, who deliver the services."
Parisi, a former Dane County clerk, hopes Walker's bleak budget can be tweaked. "It's important to realize the whole analysis hasn't been done yet, and it's not the final document," he says. "There are going to be a lot of people who will weigh in on this budget."
The Dane County executive manages a staff of 2,500 people and has a budget of about $500 million, roughly double that of the city of Madison.
Kathleen Falk, who currently holds the job and is stepping down two years into the current four-year term, says Walker's budget will cost the county millions in state aid each year, including $1.1 million less in shared revenue, $355,000 less for youth aids, $840,000 less for child support collections and enforcement, $100,000 less for transportation services for the elderly, and $590,000 less for various court programs, including the victim/witness program.
The budget could create a whole new set of problems for the county and its residents. For instance, Walker proposes killing the state's recycling mandate, along with the funding that helps pay for recycling programs. In a memo to the County Board, Falk wrote that if communities no longer recycle as much, "our landfill will fill up more quickly and accelerate a difficult and expensive decision regarding a new landfill."
Moreover, Walker has proposed limiting how much local governments can raise the tax levy. "The increase in the levy is limited by the increase in property value attributed to new construction," Falk writes. This would limit Dane County to a levy increase of about $1.8 million - in a $500 million budget, at a time when state aid is being slashed.
Both candidates claim to be the best person to deal with the pending cuts and hard choices that must now be made.
"I know state government like the back of my hand," says Parisi, elected to the state Assembly in 2004. "What's going on now validates and reinforces the résumé I have. The interplay between state and local government has never been more important."
Bruskewitz, a 12-year veteran of the County Board, promises to "hit the ground running." She says having worked on 12 county budgets, she knows where the savings can be found. "There were $5 million in cuts that we identified in the previous budget that weren't put into place," she says. "I know exactly where we can find $5 million in cuts."
Falk and the county last week filed a lawsuit against the state, attempting to block the anti-union provisions in Walker's bill, which he signed into law last Friday.
In a press release on the lawsuit, Falk says: "The founders of our state and nation created a government of checks and balances to prevent the kind of abuse of power that we've so sadly witnessed in the Wisconsin state Capitol in recent days. That's why Dane County is taking legal action."
Both Parisi and Bruskewitz vow, if elected, to let this lawsuit go forward.
Parisi actively supports it. "The lawsuit addresses a critical point that the legal process was not followed correctly," he says. "Whether you disagree or agree with the bill, and I happen to disagree with it, we have an open meetings process that was not followed."
Bruskewitz is less forceful: "I know there's a lot of people that want the courts look to at it, and that's fine."
That stance may surprise many people. Though Bruskewitz has never been a member of the Republican Party, she's a proud conservative who has spoken of her ability to work with Walker and the GOP.
When it comes to Walker's budget, Bruskewitz straddles the fence, saying there are some things she likes and others that "don't make any sense to me."
In the not-making-sense category is contracting with a private company to do Income Maintenance, a county program that helps connect people in need with federal and state programs like food stamps and BadgerCare. The company, HP Enterprise Services, does this elsewhere in the state; the average wait for services, according to Falk's memo, is 400 days.
"When people apply for Medicaid and they really need it," says Bruskewitz, "it's shameful that it takes so long to respond." She also doesn't get why Walker is proposing selling off state power plants.
As for the governor's determination to undercut public employees' collective bargaining rights, Bruskewitz plays up the anti-union rhetoric, saying, "I am very concerned that the unions are very, very powerful." On Feb. 17 the County Board voted 27-4 in favor of a resolution supporting collective bargaining rights; Bruskewitz was one of the four no votes.
Beyond that, Bruskewitz credits the governor for raising the issue of the state's debt. "If nothing else, Walker has highlighted the issue in a [new] way," she says. "And I think that's good because people hadn't been paying attention to the state's debt. At least Walker got the ball rolling on that issue."
She expects there to be more give-and-take before the budget is adopted. "This is a process, it's a painful process, and there are a lot of people who have a whole lot of hurt going on right now," she says. "It's not just the unions, it's people who have lost jobs or have businesses and are literally hanging on by their fingernails. I hope we get a more reasonable discussion."
Parisi, meanwhile, says it's clear that Walker's cuts will have profound consequences, suggesting the governor has miscalculated. "He's off on a very shaky start. And then he proposes a budget like this without seeking a lot of input or considering long-term issues. I don't know where he's trying to take us with all this."
And Parisi says Walker is being disingenuous, twisting the budget data to fit his political agenda. For instance, he says, "the budget deficit the governor talks about is based on agency requests," not actual unavoidable spending.
If elected, Parisi would govern differently. "My approach to fixing our budget is going to be the exact opposite of Gov. Walker's approach. He's taken a my-way-or-the-highway approach," he says. "The Scott Walker way doesn't work. It's extremely chaotic and divisive."
Despite their philosophical differences, both candidates offer surprisingly similar approaches to dealing with the state budget crisis.
Namely, they propose saving money by making Dane County more efficient and looking for other ways to cut spending by encouraging employees to be innovative. And both say that while tough decisions must be made, they will work to protect human services for the most needy.
Some of their quotes are almost interchangeable. On ways to reduce the budget, Parisi says: "We look at the process for how we make our decisions. There are a lot of people with good ideas within county government. They all need to be brought into the process of addressing these problems."
Here's Bruskewitz on the same topic: "The people who work for the county are very talented. If we give them an incentive to find those cuts, county workers will find them. [At present], they're very hesitant to bring forth an idea because they'll just get punished for it, meaning their budget gets cut."
Both candidates also portray themselves as champions of hardworking people, though from different ends of the political spectrum. On the campaign trail, Parisi often notes that he was a high school dropout and credits government programs for getting him back on track.
"The initial step was all because these people were there for me when I wanted to turn my life around," he says. "And today these opportunities are being threatened."
Bruskewitz's partner, attorney Rick Petri, mentions that when supporters were dropping off nominating petitions at the couple's house, he sensed they were looking to Bruskewitz for change.
"I got the impression that these people felt like they'd been cut out of the process in the past decade and now they had some hope," says Petri. "The key to ultimate success here is being able to mine that commitment I saw in the eyes of those people."
Both candidates also stress economic development and say the next executive must encourage business growth. Parisi dissents from remarks made by Falk before the primary, in which she argued that "government doesn't create jobs - the private sector does."
According to Parisi, "times are changing" and this position needs to evolve. "Dane County Executive Falk has done a great job focusing on issues that are front and center. Those issues are beginning to change. The need for job creation has become greater."
Parisi proposes starting an office of economic development within the executive's office, an idea he came up with after talking with business leaders. He sees the office facilitating business needs and gives an example of finding space for startups.
"There's a lot of [research and development] that goes on here," he says. "But there's not always good space for them to take the next step, manufacturing. That's something the county executive could assist with."
Parisi also wants to call a summit of businesses to find out how the county can help. "Local businesses will help shape the mission of this office," he says. "County government is here to listen and do what we can to help our businesses."
Meanwhile, Bruskewitz proposes creating an economic development corporation, as other Wisconsin counties have done. She uses Austin, Texas, as a model for how a university and government city can work with its business community.
"You need to put some of these business people across the table," she says. "They need to look in the whites of each others' eyes and get an understanding of how to achieve goals. There needs to be a more reasoned approach to how we're going to increase our tax base and how we're going to respond to this economic downturn."
The battle over the state budget has become the key element in the county executive race, which wasn't apparent during the primary. The winner of the election will likely spend the next two years focusing on Walker's cuts. As Parisi says, "It frames the challenges we'll be facing."
Will Parisi benefit from the anger and mobilization on the left, which is anxious to stem the conservative tide? Or will Bruskewitz's fiscal conservatism make her the popular choice in dealing with a financial crisis?
Bruskewitz agrees the left is ticked off but says they're not alone: "It's also galvanized people who have been unemployed and underemployed and don't have any benefits in their jobs," she says. "These are not right-wing nuts. There's a lot of Democrats in this. They want to see government become more efficient. They've had to do it in their own businesses and lives."
But she adds, "People think I'm Scott Walker. I'm not. It wasn't me that elected Scott Walker. It was the people of Wisconsin."
Parisi hopes he can capitalize on the mobilization on the left, but he fears apathy. "Everyone rightfully is very focused on state government. I hope people realize that spring elections matter too," he says. "We had a very good demonstration of how important your vote is when we saw the fall elections."