Two candidates are running for District 4 on Wausau's city council - but you'll see three names on the ballot
Deb Weiss will face off against Tom Neal, but the third candidate, Vylius Leskys, has dropped out of the race
By Devon Welsh
Editor’s note: The City Council District 4 primary is kind of an odd one. That’s primarily because one of the candidates, Vylius Leskys, decided he no longer is able to run. With Leskys not running, ordinarily that would mean there would be no need for a primary election; Deb Weiss and Tom Neal would simply face off in the Spring election April 2.
But, Leskys decided too late in the game to drop out, as ballots need to be printed by a certain date. So his name will still appear on the ballot, though he no longer considers himself a candidate.
Debra Weiss, 43, is a farmer who owns and operates Ethereal Gardens, an organic farm that sells produce and herbs in the Marathon County area. Weiss also started the Wausau Alternative Farmer’s Market, which hosts a number of local vendors selling produce and other food items. Weiss has some experience in local politics – she was formerly a chair of the Commission for a Greener Tomorrow, a non-profit established in 2007 oriented towards sustainability projects in the Wausau area. She says she is a longtime advocate for environmental conservation. Weiss also founded the Wausau Pagan Society.
Weiss said she decided to run for city council because she sees a demand for policy changes. Her priorities all revolve around strengthening local control of the area’s basic needs – food, water and the environment.
Weiss said that if elected, a focus will be developing the local food economy so that the area is less dependent on increasingly volatile global supply chains. She would do this by expanding local farmer’s markets and farm to table programs, which would increase opportunities for local farmers and grocers. Weiss feels that too much dependence on foreign-owned corporations for our basic needs puts the city in a fragile position. In a worst-case scenario, Weiss would like Wausau to be fed by local producers.
Founding the Wausau Alternative Farmer’s Market was Weiss putting these ideas into action. She said that if the city puts local farmers ahead of corporate retailers, it could stimulate a local food economy, and the broader local economy by extension. Weiss says the city needs to do more to encourage entrepreneurship and help locals develop small businesses.
Weiss brought this pro-local perspective to the issue of PFAS in the water supply. She agrees that updating the water filtration system was necessary, and she fully supports the recent lawsuit filed by the city against a number of local manufacturers for contaminating the water. Weiss said that it’s not the fault of the taxpayers that the water was contaminated, so they shouldn’t carry the financial burden required to fix it. But water filtration systems are a band-aid solution to a systemic problem, she said. The self-destructive pollution and disregard for the local environment is the root of the problem, and the city will be spending money to clean up messes until that is fixed.
Weiss said she believes that raising water rates to solve issues like the water contamination is the wrong approach. The government should be providing citizens with access to basic needs at as affordable a price as possible. She promised to fight for residents’ rights to healthy food and clean water.
Weiss’s regard for food, water and the local environment is partially inspired by her spiritual life. Weiss identifies herself as a druid and describes a philosophy based on love and reverence for nature. She sees humanity as being a part of the greater natural world, and so her efforts to bring the Wausau area into deeper connection with its natural resources is informed by this philosophy.
Tom Neal, 72, spent a career in marketing and brand management before recently retiring. He is also a familiar face in Wausau politics – Neal previously served four consecutive terms on the city council, beginning in 2014, before declining to run for re-election in 2022. He made this decision amid uncertainty as to whether he and his wife were going to move out of the area. That issue having been settled, Neal is once again vying for the District 4 seat. He says he is running again in order to continue the work he had been involved in during his previous terms.
The continued growth of Wausau is a primary focus for Neal. In his previous terms on the city council, Neal twice served as the chair of the Economic Development Committee. He sees this element of the city’s work as one of his main priorities – bringing in new businesses that will in turn bring more people to the area, which then broadens the tax base. Neal pointed out that Wausau has to compete with other cities for new developments, businesses and residents, and it is this competition that informs his approach to growth.
A related priority of Neal’s is housing. He says although Wausau is on the right track in expanding housing, there is still work to do. Neal said that in the course of door-knocking for his campaign, he hears a lot of questions about this issue. He would like to work on adding housing options across the income spectrum.
Neal said that along with adding housing, we wants to improve the amenities and quality of life in Wausau, which he sees as a valuable aspect of attracting new people to live and work in the area. He said that for a city to grow in the right way, it has to be seen as fun and cool.
I asked Neal for his thoughts on TIF districts as a means of financing these kinds of developments. He said he sees the approach as a necessary tool to attract developers in a competitive environment, but that it can pose a risk to the city if the development is unsuccessful. For this reason, he favors a version the city often uses called “reverse TIF”, where a loan is taken out by the developer rather than by the city, which reduces the city’s financial risk.
On the subject of Wausau’s water being contaminated by PFAS and the resulting costs, Neal said that while upgrading the city’s water treatment systems did come with a big price tag, it was necessary. Neal felt that the ongoing lawsuit brought by Wausau against a number of manufacturers over the PFAS contamination may get complicated and drawn out. Nonetheless, he considered the lawsuit justified and said he hopes to see the manufacturers pay.
Neal was formerly the chair of the city’s Welcoming and Inclusivity Committee, which began in 2019 under former mayor Robert Mielke and was dissolved in 2022. He told me he had been happy to be a part of the committee and that it was attempting to address real concerns, although he considered it odd that he was made the chair of the committee. Neal considers the work of inclusion to be an ongoing process and sees such efforts as an important part of attracting new residents to the city.
Vylius Leskys, 53, is an attorney and former Army Green Beret Colonel who has spent most of his career in the military.
Leskys submitted his nomination forms for the city council seat before subsequently requesting to be removed from the ballot, citing “unforeseen personal circumstances”. Since he had already been approved as a candidate, the city could not remove his name. However, Leskys confirmed in an email exchange with The Wausonian that voters should consider him to no longer be a candidate, and that he would decline the nomination even if he won.
This last-minute change turns the District 4 primary into something of a formality, since only two candidates are actively running for the seat. Consider these interviews a preview of the general election in April.