Grassroots activists in Clark County stemmed the neoconservative tide by -- get this -- changing voters minds and telling them the truth.
I have some good news from one of Wisconsin's most conservative voting areas.
In this year's election, a small and dedicated crew was able to help the Clark County Board turn around four seats while maintaining another five or six. All told, nine out of 12 county board seats turned to more progressive candidates.
We should all applaud these candidates for stepping forward and the volunteers who helped them. They stepped forward when others stepped back and they succeeded by doing something that is often dismissed and long neglected: educating the public.
In 2006, the board was taken over by extreme conservative members who were backed by a local group called “The Committee for Fairness in Law.” They proceeded to turn around any and all progress that had been made in the previous 10 years. They did this through fear and an extreme campaign of smearing dedicated local officials.
Most of the fear was generated around the Comprehensive Planning or "Smart Growth" legislation. People were told that they would lose all rights to their own property. The neoconservatives placed blame on Planning and Zoning and the Department of Administration. Both departments were headed by progressive minded people who had saved Clark County a lot of money during their tenures. The Planning and Zoning Administrator resigned in 2006 as the writing was on the wall after these opponents of Smart Growth took control. They succeeded in dissolving the Department of Administration and firing the Administrator.
In the aftermath, they hired a Director of Finance and a Director of Personnel to replace the Administrator. The County Corporate Counsel was called upon to handle a multitude of tasks that normally do not need an attorney’s attention. Outside attorneys were also needed to sort through the mess created by the conservatives. They did not prove that these extra positions and fees saved the taxpayers any money. They took the low road on economic development issues unless forced into a public vote.
To make a very long story a little bit shorter, the citizens needed to be educated that the county was heading down the wrong path for the wrong reasons; because of fear of an unknown future. Even though the conservatives were in control, taxes increased at the maximum allowed by the state. Most reserve funds have dried up to the point that the only options now are to increase taxes dramatically or lose services like the Health Care Center, Highway repairs or Patrolman on the Sherriff's department. The conservatives claimed to have controlled taxes, but everyone could see on their tax bills that it was not true. We could not afford any more of the same politics. The progressives spoke this simple truth and the voters responded.
I wanted to share this with you to show that even a small group, working against big odds, can succeed at grass roots politics. This group consisted of about six activists and an unknown number of supporters. They were not affiliated with any political party; they were just a group that helped recruit candidates and worked the doors for them. They had no budget, no office, no media support or any of the other items deemed necessary to a successful campaign. They succeeded in increasing public awareness.
As the new Clark County Board moves beyond re-organization, we can see a more progressive and positive outlook in a county where it was beginning to feel like there was no hope. It has strengthened our resolve and brightened our outlook for the future of our communities. We know that this must not end. We will continue to work hard to keep our county moving forward. We will also work toward a continuing education of the public that we need not live in fear.
We are the ones who can bring the change that is so desperately needed.
Yes we are.
May 15, 2008
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Tim Swiggum is the mayor of Owen, Wisconsin.