The battle for District 4
Four different candidates are in contention for the seat left empty by Tom Neal; and they're all quite different
Local politics have been heating up lately. It used to be there might be a couple of contested races for city council, and maybe 4-5 for the 38-seat county board. Possibly one or two in surrounding municipalities.
Today that’s no longer the case. Wausau’s city council has two primaries, and in District 4, it’s a four-way race ahead of a spring election. There are six contested races out of the 11 seats this April. (And nearly half the county board seats are contested.)
On Feb. 15 (always a Tuesday) voters in District 4 will narrow the choices down from four candidates to two ahead of the April election. It’s the most candidates for a primary this year. The seat is open as Tom Neal announced he would no longer be running after several terms on the council. He was the chair of the Economic Development Committee, a pretty important one in deciding Wausau’s landscape.
The candidates are all pretty unique, which makes the race interesting. The Wausonian asked a series of general questions to try to get to know the candidates as people and how they feel about the city. We asked each of them the same set of questions, something this reporter has always done to ensure fairness. Interviews were conducted in person or over the phone, something that used to be a rule of thumb for me; but the recent explosion of contested races has made that impossible now. But at least for the primaries, that is how I handled it.
I’ll break them down in the order they appeared on the candidate sheet from the city clerk’s office. I’m assuming — but don’t know for sure — they were recorded in the order they took out papers.
Doug Diny is a 60-year-old industrial sales person. He’s lived in District 4 and Wausau for 22 years. Diny has been something of a regular on the city council scene since around 2016, attending meetings and sometimes speaking at them. “I got more involved when I saw the $4.1 million the city was going to give to CBL,” Diny told The Wausonian, referring to a deal with the former mall owner and its plans to use the funds to move Younkers from one wing to another to free up the building HOM resides in now. Diny felt the city has had troubles with how it handles economic development, citing Riverlife and its dealings with Mike Frantz as another example.
Diny liked that the city is taking a proactive approach to affordable housing, citing Mayor Katie Rosenberg’s initiative to create the affordable housing task force. Diny himself lives in the East High Apartments; its owners recently announced that it would be cutting its subsidized housing stock.
Diny’s biggest critique of the city is its transit system, something the city recently hired a consultant to study and make recommendation for improvement. He also cites staffing shortages, especially in police and fire (as well as transit) as a major issue.
Diny said he often disagreed with Neal, who isn’t running in April, especially on economic development issues; but always thought he listened and was respectful. “He was always respectful, even when I would zing him with rough emails,” Diny says.
Diny cites his business and military experience, his 22 years in the district and his knowledge of city government from attending so many meetings in suggesting voters choose him.
Kearns is a 42-year-old inside sales rep for Heartland Business Systems of Little Chute, a technology company with Wausau offices. Kearns was born in Wausau, and lived in Wausau at various points in his life between stints in La Crosse, Maui and Madison. The Community for All discussion sparked Kearns’ interest in local politics, and he started attending meetings to find out more. “It was interesting to me that some of the constituents would be against the ideal being put out there,” Kearns told The Wausonian. But Kearns says he was impressed with the civil, well-thought out discussion on the council about it.
Kearns, who told The Wausonian he has known council member Tom Kilian all his life and appreciates his and the city’s efforts toward diversity and inclusion. That hasn’t been part of Wausau’s long-term history, he says.
Kearns says one of the focuses he would like to see on the council is employment opportunities, which he says is lacking. Focusing on employment more in the development process would be an important step. “It’s about more opportunities to the people of Wausau, rather than just a business owner,” Kearns says.
Rent prices were something that shocked Kearns when he moved back to Wausau from Madison — that it was similar was quite a surprise. Like Diny, Kearns says focusing on affordable housing should be a priority.
Kearns told The Wausonian he thought Neal, who currently holds the District 4 seat, was always respectful but sometimes a little too reserved. Kearns says that he would take more measured risk; for example, he cited the A Community for All resolution as something the city was a little too tentative on.
Kearns says voters should choose him because while his opponents might be more bound to continue with what is currently acceptable and stay in the box, he’s more likely to take some risks and try new things. “Let’s put everything on the table and have a discussion.”
Perkins, 50, spent most of his time in the army and public health, is the executive director of regulatory policy and innovation at Bayer Pharmaceuticals. He’s lived in Wausau since 2016, and District 4 since 2017. After retiring from the Army, his wife was from Wausau so they decided to move here. Perkins says he’s running because he wants to help shape the city’s priorities and take what he’s seen work in other cities he’s lived in and apply it here.
Perkins says he feels the council has largely tried to do what is best for the city, even when things have gotten a little contentious lately. The dialogue and discussion is good.
But, there is a lot a city can do and only so much in resources, Perkins says. He wants to see the city focus on things such as keeping taxes low to not drive residents to other communities, focusing on keeping families in Wausau and focusing on the long-term picture — not just 2-3 years but more like 20-30 years. Perkins says national and international businesses were built here, and the city should focus on helping make that a reality again. “This place is Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley,” Perkins told The Wausonian. Transparency and engaging with the public is very important to him. He’d like to see more fiscal responsibility in city finances.
Perkins says his background and experience set him apart from Neal, and he feels it’s very important to acclimate to the community. Perkins joined a curling club here as part of that effort.
Perkins says he’s not necessarily a better candidate than the other three, but feels he’s the right candidate for the job. He cites his focus on fiscal responsibility, focusing on families and encouraging entrepreneurship.
Tracey, 34, is a former lawyer turned yoga instructor. Tracey and her husband moved to Wausau and District 4 from London two years ago, and she currently teaches yoga at the YMCA. She grew up in suburbs in Milwaukee but liked the idea of having a small town feel, living near downtown and being able to walk to nightlife. She’s running because she wants to help the downtown maintain its vibrancy.
Tracey says the city has done a good job being supportive and attracting new businesses, and making sure the RiverLife area is supported. She feels Neal, the current office holder not running this term, did a good job listening to residents and helping them address their concerns.
As for things to improve, she’d like to see the city avoiding things that get headlines for the wrong reasons, and following common sense as opposed to letting things get mixed up with personal agendas.
As someone newer to the community and the youngest of the four running, she feels she would bring a fresh perspective. She wants to maintain a progressive view on business (not politically but in terms of being forward-thinking) and focus on bringing big city amenities to Wausau.
Tracey cites her strengths in negotiation from her law background, and feels she will be good at helping people of different backgrounds and perspectives work together. Tracey told The Wausonian that she’s an open book and is always happy to listen to resident’s concerns and issues.
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