Sargent: 'I care so much about my community.'
The Saturday before the Aug. 14 primary elections, Melissa Agard Sargent drove to Milwaukee to help support progressive Democratic candidates running for Assembly. On Sunday, with her youngest son in tow, she talked to constituents at the north-side Ride the Drive. Then she went knocking on doors.
"Hi, my name is Melissa, we've talked before," she says to a man who lives on Alpine Street. "I'm now running for the Assembly seat in the 48th District. Did you know?"
He didn't, but he likes that she's talking to people and asking about their views. He'll tell his wife, and, yes, she can put a sign in his yard. Another man, whom she recognizes from previous visits to this neighborhood, shares his concerns about education and tax breaks for corporations.
Why work so hard when you are running unopposed? "I always knock on doors. I like to know what my constituents care about," says Sargent, who has represented District 18 on the Dane County Board since 2010.
Sargent, 43, owns Opacolor, a digital imaging studio on East Washington Avenue. She and her husband, Justin Sargent, chief of staff for state Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), have four sons, ranging in age from 2 to 14.
For her supporters and detractors alike, Sargent's children loom large. A resident in her district once told her she was a bad mother for campaigning instead of spending time with them. This sentiment is voiced more often than you might think, says Sargent, who cites women's rights as one of her issues, and who started knocking on doors in her campaign for county supervisor with her newborn son slung in a carrier on her chest. No male candidate or elected official has ever been questioned about doing this work instead of staying home with the kids, she notes, which "makes it a fundamentally flawed question."
Not that the point is invalid. Being on the County Board has been challenging as a mom.
"I miss events, soccer games, I'm not always there to tuck the kids into bed," she says. "I'm jealous of Justin when he takes the kids fishing or camping."
But she is driven to public life as well. "I love Wisconsin and care so much about my community. I want to be able to be proud of Wisconsin again," she says.
She says her constituents want elected officials who act with integrity and pursue policies based on middle-class values. These include "decent, solid quality education on all levels, clean air and water, open spaces for recreation, land conservation and resource protection."
Looking to her work in the state Assembly, Sargent says Wisconsin needs jobs that support families and offer health care coverage.
"We need to concentrate on job creation, as [Gov. Scott] Walker says from his throne," she says. "But we are the most job-losing state in the country. We need to invest in small- and medium-size companies, not huge corporations."
Sargent was born and raised in Madison, mostly on the east side. Early political influences include U.S. Rep and Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Ada Deer, an advocate for Native American rights and a former head of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Justin was the first in the family to run for office, losing his bid for a state Assembly seat to Kelda Helen Roys in 2008. When former District 18 Supervisor (and Melissa's seventh-grade teacher) Dorothy Wheeler announced she was retiring, Melissa expected that Justin would run for that position. However, neighbors, friends and others who knew her as the PTO president for Gompers Elementary and a community activist started asking her to run. She said no to about a half-dozen people, but then changed her mind.
"I was telling the boys every day to make the world a better place but wasn't walking the walk. So I had to lock myself in a room and have a talk with myself."
But holding office, managing a business and raising kids demands some creative time management.
Sargent and her husband have worked out a system in which he sometimes arrives at home 10 minutes before she leaves for a county board or committee meeting - just in time to transmit necessary information on homework and other issues. They also lean on others.
"We have a great support network of neighbors and family members who help, and the older boys have friends they sometimes stay with. It's that kind of community. People bring unsolicited food to our home. I have wonderful girlfriends who I can call, and they have my back."
Friend and neighbor Barb Baumgartner, for instance, sometimes watches the boys with her partner Priscilla Herman. "That's our contribution to her campaign," says Baumgartner. "She's a supporter of gay rights, women's and workers' rights, public education. We agree with her on every issue."
Sargent, in turn, brings them soup or offers to go to the pharmacy when they are not feeling well. Justin and the boys shovel their driveway. "Justin and Melissa are great parents who teach their kids by example," says Baumgartner.
Not everybody agrees. Eileen Bruskewitz, who recently stepped down from the county board, criticizes Sargent for allowing her children to display a "Solidarity Forever" sign on the second floor of the Capitol during the 2011 protests against Gov. Scott Walker; the sign was in violation of the Department of Administration's administrative code. In a YouTube video that went viral, Justin is seen telling his kids that the Constitution trumps the administrative code.
Justin, Melissa and their children were escorted to the police station in the basement of the Capitol, and Melissa was given a $205.50 ticket. She later requested a jury trial, but the charges were eventually dropped. However, she received hate emails accusing her of using her kids for political purposes and being an unfit mother.
Says Bruskewitz, "[Melissa] would not stop her kids and have them respect the police. A mother who's so willing to use her kids that way demonstrates a lack of respect to the authorities who are trying to manage such a difficult situation."
Sargent, who spent many days at the Capitol with her family during the protests against Walker, counters that her sons were respectful. "I stand by my boys' interpretation of their constitutional rights and am very proud of them."
As a county board member, Sargent has championed youth governance - two youth representatives now sit on six of the county's seven commissions, giving a voice to the concerns of high school students. She says she's also worked well with members of all political stripes.
Bruskewitz says, however, that Sargent has saddled the board with issues that are not county business. This includes Sargent's bill to ban exotic animals.
Sargent, who is chair of the Health & Human Needs Committee, says she was asked by county officials to introduce the ban on exotic animals. The city of Madison, which operates a joint public health department with the county, already bans exotics.
The ordinance is currently being redrafted, she adds, with the participation of conservative Supervisor Keith Ripp, who helped draft language to make sure llama farmers would not be affected.
Board Supervisor Jeremy Levin, vice chair of the Health & Human Needs Committee, adds, "Melissa doesn't waste time on anything. She works incredibly hard, has common sense, and is able to balance the role of governing while protecting the most vulnerable and representing everybody."
If elected to the Assembly, Sargent plans to finish her term as a county supervisor, doing both jobs for a year. That would take more work, more meetings, less time with the kids as they go fishing or hiking with Justin.
But it's in the cards for now. Growing up in a progressive and activist family, she learned early on from her father that complaining isn't enough.
"If you don't like what's going on, come up with a solution. That's what I tell my kids, too. You make your world what it is. One person can make a difference."