The participation of two out-of-county Republicans in La Crosse County board races is raising concerns about partisanship in local elections.
Jeffrey Schultz of Madison and Jonathan Minneci of Lodi circulated papers to put four and six candidates on the ballot, respectively. There are no residency requirements for those circulating nomination papers, but it is extremely unusual for anyone from outside the county to circulate nomination papers on behalf of county board candidates, according to University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political science professor Joe Heim.
“I’ve never, never heard of people coming from Madison to gather signatures,” Heim said.
Local politicians, including county board Supervisor Steve Doyle, are concerned about how the introduction of non-county residents as volunteers could change the tone of county politics.
“I think it adds an element of outsiders meddling in our local government, and I don’t think people appreciate that,” said Doyle, a Democrat who also serves as the representative for Wisconsin’s 94th Assembly District.
Doyle said that Schultz and Minneci’s positions in the offices of two Republican Assembly members — Ed Brooks and Bob Kulp, respectively — raised some red flags for him.
“This also adds an element of what I would call ‘unseemliness,’ where now you have paid professionals getting involved in what is usually referred to as citizen legislators races,’” Doyle said.
With his dual role as nonpartisan supervisor and Democratic representative, Doyle said he understands the importance of keeping party affiliations separate from local issues, which don't always fall along party lines.
“This should not be bare knuckle politics. This should be public service,” Doyle said.
The unprecedented help suggests county politics is becoming more partisan, Heim said.
Because of the small number of signatures required to get on the ballot — 50 — it’s unusual to have out-of-county friends gather those signatures on behalf of candidates for county board.
However, with several prominent members of the board being well-known Democrats, it “suggests to the other side that they should get more involved in it as well, and that’s what seems to be happening this year,” he said.
“It’s unfortunate that partisan politics seems to be creeping into more and more things in the state, and this is just the latest manifestation of that,” Heim said.
Schultz and Minneci, however, said they were volunteering to help friends in their spare time, rather than working in their professional capacity. Both men worked on Tony Kurtz’s failed congressional bid, making local connections as they helped the Republican take on U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, in 2014.
When asked whether he would consider himself an outsider, Schultz said, “Absolutely not. I’m from Wilton. I went to school at (Onalaska Luther High School).”
"No matter how anybody tries to portray it, it’s not a concerted effort by any party or anything. It’s just people and a place I’m interested in,” he added.
Minneci said he volunteered to help six candidates as a “friendly favor” because of his interest in politics on all levels. Knocking on doors and chatting about local issues is important work that he enjoys, he said.
“I don’t see it as anything more than that,” Minneci said.
Doyle was skeptical of their assertion that it was an innocent favor, calling it “a little odd” that they would travel so far to get involved in county politics. He pointed to the number of signatures gathered by candidates compared with the number gathered by Minneci and Schultz, including those of Kent Gabrielsen, who is running for the District 28 seat. Gabrielsen gathered three of his 67 signatures, with the rest gathered by Schultz, Minneci and Jason Knack of Onalaska, a member of the La Crosse County Republican Party executive committee.
“That’s not friends helping friends. That’s somebody else simply taking over somebody’s campaign,” Doyle said.
Doyle questioned whether that assistance would affect the candidates’ priorities.
The candidates, however, say they have their neighbors’ best interests at heart, not their volunteers.
Gabrielsen, a real estate agent who lives in the town of Barre, said his main concern was keeping property taxes as low as possible, both for his neighbors and customers.
“I just want to try to be more fiscally conservative,” Gabrielsen said.
Gabrielsen hadn’t met Schultz and Minneci before his campaign but has attended the same church as Knack for years. When Knack suggested Gabrielsen run and then offered to help gather signatures along with his friends Minneci and Schultz, Gabrielsen accepted.
Devin Schmidt, who gathered six of his own signatures and received help from Schultz, Minneci and Knack, said he appreciates the assistance but was running his own campaign against District 8 incumbent Peg Jerome.
“I’m not running as Devin Schmidt who is running with the rest of these Republicans,” he said. “I’m just running as me.”
Schmidt, who has known all three men since 2014, said Knack gave him the idea to run but he chose to take on the challenge because he views the board as a place where he can make a difference.
Schmidt’s focus is making “sure that we’re not spending too much yet making sure the county is taken care of, whatever their needs might be,” he said.
Knack suggested his friends run, then gathered signatures on their behalf, he said, because he believes they are the right people for the job.
“I’m proud to have helped them. They’re really good people,” Knack said.