The three Wausau mayor candidates are wildly different
I sat down with all of them to bring you this preview
This is likely the most challenging election I have ever covered. One of the candidates in the race is openly anti-Semitic, and it caused something of a crisis among journalists not sure how to cover him.
Many chose not to name him. I don’t agree with that. I believe a journalist’s job is to bring sunshine to darkness. I learned that at least some portion of the people who signed Chris Wood’s nomination papers had no idea who he was, or that he was known for making anti-Semitic speeches on the 400 Block. I learned from another candidate that many later regretted that decision.
There are three candidates for mayor. Mayor Katie Rosenberg is running for office again, after a first term marked by successes and challenges. She faces Doug Diny, who brings a more conservative perspective and one term’s experience on the city council; and Wood, who in our interview says he favors a town hall-style government and doubled down on his 400 Block rhetoric.
We’ll dive into all three candidates so voters can make an informed choice. I was intentionally challenging in my interviews. For examples, I challenged Diny when he would focus on the past without offering future solutions; I challenged Rosenberg on her stance on tax increment financing and on the increases of debt during her tenure; and I challenged Wood on his anti-Semitic views and his populist, nearly direct democracy approach.
The aim is to give you a complete picture of the candidates, as much as possible anyway, so that you can make an informed choice.
Occupation: Current mayor seeking a second term; before that, social media and marketing at footlocker.com prior to that.
Rosenberg started her term in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which she says curtailed many of the things she wanted to accomplish early on, such as the city’s strategic plan (she wanted to get more public input on it, which wasn’t possible when public gatherings were difficult). Even connecting with the city council was difficult. “We had a couple of bombastic hybrid meetings in those early stages,” she says.
But Rosenberg is proud of her accomplishments, including eventually developing the strategic plan, launching the lead pipe replacement plan with help from the White House and exiting PFAS with a plan. Rosenberg made connections with the White House which she says leads to more visibility for Wausau. She wants to elevate Wausau nationally “because we have a lot to offer.”
Rosenberg was also named to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Local Government Advisory Committee and is co-chairing the Small Government Advisory Committee. Her goal is to push the EPA for a complete ban on PFAS. Locally, even something like the fire department explaining how there is PFAS in their uniforms, and the color brushes up against their skin, she says “We’re done with that.”
Her campaign stumbled a bit when it ran an unattributed campaign ad in a coloring book handed out at the Wausau Holiday Parade. That book also directed people to a website with cartoons that depicted drug use.
Rosenberg had once told me she spends more time putting out fires than she expected, leaving less time to spend on policy and vision. She told me that some fires are intentionally lit. “Everyone has the right to be critical of their government, but to want to burn it down without a conversation is hard.” She says sometimes it seems like the council goes out of its way to find new information it needs or new ways not to want to do something.
But, Rosenberg says she’s lucky to have good people in the city and she highlights the hiring of Liz Brodek as a big win for Wausau. Brodek, who once worked as the Wausau River District’s director before working in other cities, Rosenberg says has started to stabilize the Community Development Office. “She is a really good culture builder,” Rosenberg says. “It was as little disjointed before that.”
I asked about something she said when I interviewed her two years into her term about how she asked the city attorney about the development process and how Anne Jacobson responded that there wasn’t one. Rosenberg says there’s been a lot of progress on that front now.
I bring up the mall and Rosenberg points out some projects are so different that there isn’t a template for it. “There’s not a template for how you deal with Terrence Wall,” Rosenberg says. She says their outside counsel, Quarles and Brady, are good at helping the city through these deals.
When I asked about the water rates, she said that goes back to Mielke and his plan for the new water treatment plant and wastewater treatment plant. She challenged him on the need for it during her first mayoral campaign. She was disappointed that the rates needed to be as high as they were to cover it.
She says she isn’t against a plan to move the payment in lieu of taxes the utility pays to the city (which is reflected in the water rates) to the city levy instead, as long as it’s planned for. (Council members pushed for this plan close to when the budget was approved.)
I brought up that she had challenged the city’s debt levels climbing under previous mayor Robert Mielke’s leadership from $55 million to more than $100 million; yet under her watch that debt is now more than $200 million. Rosenberg responded that much of that was due to projects instituted under Mielke and as well as borrowing to match federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act and the CARES Act to accomplish needed projects in the city. And, she says, if the council approves those projects, would it do much good for her to symbolically veto them?
She says there is a debt reduction plan to bring down the city’s debt over 15 years.
We had a back and forth on TIF districts. Rosenberg explained that, unfortunately, it’s one of the few tools the city has to develop blighted properties. She says that on council the “but for” clause — for a project to qualify for tax incentives it must be demonstrated that it wouldn’t happen but for the incentives — has been scrutinized on council but rarely seems to be at the Joint Review Board. Rosenberg says that board term doesn’t seem to expire, so the city’s representative isn’t likely to change any time soon.
When I asked her about extensions and donor districts, something anti-TIF advocates such as retired journalist Peter Weinschenk have said are damaging to communities, she says people in the strategic plan said they wanted to grow, and the most recent extension helped fund $4 million for affordable housing. But we argued over locked value - tax revenue from new growth goes to the district and not the city. If a district is toward the end of its life, say 30 years, that might mean that tax revenue for that district is the same as it was in 1994.
I asked about the most recent battle over whether water utility workers ought to be paid more, or if recent compensation studies are skewed with incorrect comparisons as HR Director James Henderson pointed out. She says they’re difficult conversations that every government is struggling with. Paying workers more would be great, but she has an obligation to city taxpayers and there is only so much money to go around, she says.
The idea of having a city administrator comes up every election. Rosenberg says she doesn’t think it’s a good idea to bring it up right before a budget is about to be passed. She likes the idea of having someone to help out with the day to day operations. She says it works out well when the administrator reports to the mayor, and seems chaotic when the administrator reports to the council. She points to Sheboygan as an example, where a former administrator is suing the mayor. Rosenberg says she’s only heard from one council member who wanted to discuss it, and no one else, so only if more people bring it up would she bring the discussion to the floor.
She says her top priorities are water issues (PFAS, lead pipes, etc), and development and growth, and affordable housing. She says she’s been able to calm down city hall using an Agile mindset (a term stemming from software development for running projects effectively).
She added that former mayor James Tipple has been critical of her, leaving messages. She says there was a lot of missing documentation from that era, and that Mielke had helped shore some of that up.
Rosenberg also says she’s proud of making Wausau a more LGBTQ-friendly community and that people at Pride Fest thanked her for helping them feel seen. And of the city adding Tracy Rieger as they address the homeless issue, and welcoming refugees to the community.
Rosenberg says with climate migration coming, that Wausau could be in a great place to grow in the future, and making Wausau a welcoming and inclusive place will pay dividends down the road.
Occupation: Retired, former salesman in process and controls industry, worked for Ferguson for 20 years; retired U.S. Army aviation officer
Diny says he started paying attention to politics around the time that CBL was asking the city for more than $4 million to move Yonkers from one anchor spot to another and when Mike Franz was chosen to develop the first Riverlife Project. Tom Neal was his city council representative at the time, and says they didn’t exactly see eye to eye. “I was probably tougher on Tom than any constituent has been tough on me,” he says.
That leads to a discussion about how the city also bought the former Sears building for $650,000 (under Robert Mielke’s administration) with the intention of putting a movie theater there — but which ultimately was torn down. He cites that as an example of why the city shouldn’t be in the real estate and property management business. That property would have been paying taxes even as an empty building.
Diny recently held a town hall about water issues in the city, but the mall came up instead. Many there questioned why the mall was torn down so readily, as there were still mom and pop stores operating in its confines. “It’s like WOZ (Wausau Opportunity Zone, a for-profit entity constructed by two area non-profits in order to redevelop the mall) thought, hey these guys seem good, maybe they will take it off of our plate,” Doug said of the current deal with developer T. Wall Enterprises.
Doug said as mayor he would put more pressure on T. Wall, expect more regular updates (Rosenberg says an update is expected in March; Diny says they were supposed to be monthly and there hasn’t been one yet). Diny also thinks WOZ ought to have a plan B in case T. Wall doesn’t ultimately come through.
Diny says the city is over-leveraged on Tax Increment Financing, with 15% of the city’s value locked in TIF districts, above the state cap of 12%. He cites Jim Rosenberg (former city council member and father of the current mayor) on his TIF philosophy: Use them when they make sense. He says the city should focus on districts of shorter lengths, closing them sooner and getting the increased value back on the tax roll. And he thinks participation in projects should be capped to 10%, maybe 15% of the total cost of the project.
Diny says the city needs to get better at negotiating — he cites for instance if T. Wall asks for $10 million in a $27 million project, the city should come back and offer $3 million. He also cites the city paying well over assessed value for a piece of property it plans to build a new fire department station at.
A big part of Diny’s platform is lowering taxes, or at least not raising them. He says the city always raises the levy (the total amount of money collected though taxes), and maybe that needs to stop. And residents are already paying more taxes through inflation, which brings their home values up. Lowering taxes will help attract more developers to town.
Diny challenges Rosenberg on debt; he points out Rosenberg in her 2020 campaign attacked Mielke for raising debt from $55 million to $100 million; under her tenure debt has increased to $220 million. (Rosenberg says there is a debt reduction plan; see her write-up for more.)
He says much better vetting of out of town developers needs to happen (he cites the recent fiasco with CPI on the lead pipe replacement project) and that more deference ought to be given to local developers who he claims the city doesn’t treat very well. (He cites a dressing down Miron Construction was given for a three-week delay on opening the city’s drinking water treatment plant.)
He says the city needs to work on its development process and improve it, citing La Crosse as an example where it works “grossly different than what we do here. We’re a little more I’d say loosey goosey. We trust. We trust but we don’t verify.”
Residents at that water town hall he held said they’re not happy about the increase in water rates. He supports the payment in lieu of taxes being removed from the water utility and added to the levy, because he says lower income residents are being disproportionately burdened under the current system. Eventually, he would just phase the payment out entirely over time.
On the water commission/human resources debate over employee pay, he said that should be hammered out behind the scenes, not battled in public (considering a public body was involved, that might not be legal depending on who was involved).
One of Diny’s big pushes is to see a city administrator. In the last budget meeting in which the budget was approved, he suggested adding in funding for an administrator, which didn’t go over well. He says the current council president and mayor won’t bring it up despite his asking. (Rosenberg says he’s the only one asking.) I point out that adding an administrator is another expense, possibly counter to his platform of lowering taxes; but he counters that perhaps that expense would save money “if you didn’t have to go through this monkey business and you didn’t have three directors confused about what the policy is.” He says Wausau is one of the only cities of its class that don’t have an administrator.
Clarification: City Council President Becky McElhaney emailed The Wausonian to explain that she’d explained the rules to Diny around what it takes to hold a COW — two alders requesting it — and that no such request has been received.
Diny says he’s the only candidate that could bring real change to the city. He says you could take a letter Rosenberg wrote about Mielke during the 2020 campaign, cross out Mielke’s name and add hers, and it would still be accurate. “If you’re looking for change, I’m that guy.”
Occupation: Does various work for small businesses
Part of the reason Wood says he no longer works for corporations is that he refuses to wear a mask or get a vaccine.
He says he’s running because he thinks there has been a lack of transparency and leadership at city hall. In a theme he will continually come back to in our interview, he says he wants to host town halls weekly on the 400 Block (and find an indoor space in the winter). “So that we can start getting people involved; everyday citizens that have ideas, talents, abilities.”
He says city hall (and also points to county board meetings) doesn’t have adequate space for allowing for true citizen participation. And that participation is important, because the meetings aren’t just for feedback. Wood suggests he would like an almost direct democracy style where what he hears at those meetings will influence how he governs. As an example, he says if he wants to paint the roads yellow, and people at the meeting tell him otherwise, and yet he paints the roads yellow anyway, now he has to come face to face with voters and answer for those actions.
And if voters don’t like what he’s doing, and someone at the meetings tends to have good ideas, they could recall Wood and elect that person instead.
When I asked about experience, he says the good Lord gave him the ability to work with people and respect his elders. He then says it doesn’t do the people much good if their leaders just say they’ll take care of everything and tell the populace to just go home and watch Netflix. When I further press him on experience, he says he’s a Jack of all trades, and a master of none, then names off a few things he doesn’t yet know well.
Wood did run for office in 2022, challenging Michelle Van Krey for the District 1 County Board seat. (Krey won with 62% of the vote.) He then tells me it’s unusual for Wausau to hold mayoral elections every four years instead of two (four years is a pretty common mayoral term, and I point this out to him).
When I ask him what his priorities would be, Wood says he thinks gentlemen should be gentlemen and ladies should be ladies, and that he thinks the gender roles are being bent too much. When I ask how that would relate to his role as mayor, he says it’s more about encouragement rather than implementation. When I pressed him further on priorities, he said there are only two genders and that children should be protected from views to the contrary, and from sexualization. And he believes in the first amendment, and the second amendment.
When I asked how he differs from the current administration, he points to Katie Rosenberg putting up bulletproof glass (suggesting that she is isolating herself from the people she serves) and that Diny seems against that but doesn’t go far enough. Then he stops, saying he doesn’t want to slander anyone.
Wood talks about showing up to Diny’s recent water town hall meeting; Diny asked him to leave almost immediately. He says he didn’t go there to cause trouble. “I’m very pro Doug Diny, I’m there to support him. If he’s willing to do weekly meetings, that’s all this guy cares about.” (Diny in December released a statement saying Woods’ anti-Semitic hate in Wausau.)
Wood says he thinks the mall was torn down pre-maturely, and thinks more could have been done to keep it going, such as setting up flea market vendors in the spaces that once housed kiosks. He says that might have brought traffic to the other stores in the mall.
But with it torn down, he says he would want to ask his constituents — but he envisions a community center there. When I ask who would pay for that, he goes back to asking his constituents. (I point out that the city doesn’t own the mall area, and only can have influence in the way of tax incentives.) As far as T. Wall’s plan for the mall, Wood says he doesn’t like the idea of one small group of people having access to such valuable downtown space.
Since he brings it up many times throughout our interview, I asked him about some of the challenges with direct democracy, especially in the style he’s suggesting: How does he handle the “angry person in the room” problem — that usually the people who are angry about something often show up to complain about it, but those who aren’t that concerned typically don’t, which gives a skewed perspective of how the populace at large feels? And what if they’re split on an issue?
Wood’s answer was just that he would keep the discussion going until one side or another were persuaded. No matter how long that might take.
His solution when I ask about the idea of Wausau having an administrator is once again to go back to the community meetings. It would seem his idea would only work in situations in which there were a very clear consensus and, from this reporter’s observations, there seem to be few things in city politics that pan out that way.
I asked about Tax Incremental Financing and he didn’t know anything about it and asked me to teach him. I gave him a short explanation of how it works.
When I asked him about whether he could get along with everyone at city hall, he said he can get along with all kinds of people and that he doesn’t judge people based on past mistakes. I then ask him about his 400 Block speeches and his anti-Semitic rhetoric. He tells me he’s moving past that, but also tells me he believes Jewish people are the sons of Satan who killed Jesus, and when I express confusion since Jesus, as far as I knew, was Jewish himself and was concerned with freeing Jerusalem from Roman rule, he dismissed that.
I asked if he thought the people who signed his nomination papers were aware of his views on Jewish people, and he said he didn’t know. I asked if he brought up those views and he responded that they’re only 30 second conversations. Another candidate who went to the same place as Wood to gather signatures told me several people who wanted to sign that candidate’s forms were not aware of his views and rather alarmed to learn of them. Some wondered if they could remove their signatures ex post facto.
Though he’s “moving on” he says he does not regret making those speeches. I asked if he thought they helped or hurt his campaign, and he said he felt they needed to be said. And asked whether he would be able to work with a Jewish employee at city hall (to be clear, I don’t know if anyone working at city hall is in fact Jewish) he said he judges on character, not skin color.
I asked why voters should choose him. Wood said he’s the only candidate that listens and tells the truth, and then goes back into his diatribe about gender roles, the sexualization of children and “degenerate rap music.”
Feb. 20 primary
The mayoral primary is Feb. 20 in the city of Wausau. Besides having three candidates for mayor, there will be three candidates on the ballot for the District 4 City Council (but one candidate dropped out after it was too late to remove his name from the ballot), three candidates for the District 15 County Board seat representing Kronenwetter, and nine candidates for six seats in the village of Kronenwetter.
Successful candidates later this month will move on to the April 2 Spring election.
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