Tim Kabat knows he sometimes comes off as a little distant, a little stiff, a little wonkish. His background in city planning makes Kabat detail-oriented, eager to explain.
He admits having to learn when stating his positions on the issues La Crosse faces, less is more.
“Making that transition to few words is kind of a challenge sometimes,” he said.
Yet he’s not too serious that he can’t don a green handlebar moustache for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, as he did last year when representing Downtown Mainstreet Inc., where he has been executive director since 2010.
He briefly considered the moustache for this year’s parade appearance, this time promoting his mayoral run.
“Mom advised me to wear it,” he told his daughter and son, ages 18 and 15 respectively, who gave him the type of look teens seem to save for their parents. “Is that not very mayoral?”
He later praised his young nieces’ parade performance by telling them, “We’re trying to win votes with candy, so you really helped.”
Kabat also was willing, in good spirits, to venture back onto the streets that Saturday with a shamrock sticker on his cheek, a gift from a happy reveler during the after-parade gathering at the Eagles Club.
“If they (the public) only knew,” Kabat said, “I think they’d recognize I’m a pretty laid-back guy.”
Making the rounds
After the parade, Kabat swings by Steve Doyle’s law office on Ferry Street — the state Assembly member is letting him use a room as campaign headquarters — to pick up his wife, Christy.
He’s called her “Red” since they met in 1990, when he was a planning intern at Champaign, Ill., and she was in the finance department.
Though not present at the parade, she earned a shout-out there from a former Whitehall High School student who spotted the banner.
She’s driving today despite her leg still not being healed enough to move far without a wheeled cart. They had to borrow his sister’s van, because their two vehicles have manual transmission.
Yet she insists on being out there, even hobbled. They are a team. And between them, he’ll knock on almost 100 doors on a good day.
A former jogger, the 46-year-old Kabat sets a fast pace in the Kane and Island streets area, breaking into a trot between targeted addresses. He has three sets of boots, he said, that he swaps out to keep his feet relatively dry as he works a neighborhood.
He’ll call back to “Red” as they make these neighborhood rounds, asking about addresses, needing more “sorry I missed you” fliers, noting places that want yard signs.
Often, she’s already written it down, listening with the window rolled down, even with the engine idling and considerable distance away.
He’s learned not to try to get away with anything when she’s in earshot. “She hears everything,” Kabat said.
Kabat is willing to chat if someone wants to vent about City Hall, but most stops are to shake hands, introduce himself, ask for support and leave a flier.
Often the first line he must cross is canine.
A friendly shih tzu. Two boisterous young, bull-type terriers, neither with an ounce of malice in them, unless the threat is to be overwhelmed by excessive begging for attention.
These days, dogs seem to have become the equivalent of kissing babies on the campaign trail.
“I’ll take dog votes,” Kabat told one woman on Kane Street.
At another home in the 800 block of Charles Street, Kabat recognizes the graying golden retriever that shambles up to greet him. “Your dog is awesome,” he tells the owner.
“Glad you made it through the primary,” the man replied.
It’s a second visit Kabat has made to many of these North Side homes, so he’s recognized by more than the dogs.
“Hey, Tim, how are you?”
“You know you have my support.”
The general reaction was not hostile but often wary, until they realized Kabat was not trying to get money from them.
Though not always.
“I have a sign that says ‘no soliciting,’” snapped one woman on Winneshiek Street, drawing an apology.
“I guess she did not care for my charismatic sales pitch for mayor,“ Kabat said back in the van.
The candidate eats little during these rounds. He had a Coke at the Eagles Club, admitting he’d have preferred a beer, and said his campaign is fueled by coffee.
“God, I couldn’t live without coffee,” he said.
Learning to run
This is Kabat’s first foray into politics. Though as DMI director he’s had to sell ideas, this time Kabat has to sell himself — one massive, extended job interview.
“They kind of hinted at, oh Tim, it’s going to be kind of intense,” Kabat told a League of Women Voters breakfast, drawing laughter.
And it likely would include, at some point, the topic of the Kabats filing for bankruptcy in 2010. The family discussed in advance being ready when the time came, just a day after he topped the field of 11 mayoral candidates in the Feb. 19 primary, Kabat said.
The reaction to his explanation — they lacked sufficient health insurance to offset medical bills after his wife needed two of what eventually became four operations — has been overwhelmingly positive, Kabat said.
But Kabat acknowledged it might have done some damage, even though DMI flourished and expanded its membership at the same time the Kabats were going through the worst of their financial troubles. It seemed to take some of the momentum away from the campaign as well, after the strong primary showing.
Kabat’s opponent, Doug Farmer, has painted him as being a fringe dweller of La Crosse, on the bluffs at 2819 Quarry Place, while Farmer lives in the heart of the city. He finds that almost humorous — almost — because the Kabats regularly walk their “spoiled rotten” Britanny past the Farmer home, only about eight or nine blocks away.
Kabat said, ultimately, he doesn’t understand why there has to be this attempt to divide up the city, rather than look at La Crosse as a whole.
He’ll stick with his positive message of collaboration, cooperation, ability to listen and build a consensus to make things happen. He’s done that in one role or another, for two decades.
“You need to get people to dream,” Kabat said.
And he can find common ground with even some of his most fervent opponents.
Former primary rival and City Hall critic Craig Nestor, who calls the prospect of Kabat as mayor “a nightmare,” does have a point that City Hall records should be more easily accessible and available online, Kabat said.
“When you’re mayor,” Kabat said, “you’ve got to be mayor for everyone.”