Since first meeting candidate and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, this city on the Mississippi River has weathered a recession and the ensuing lukewarm recovery better than much of the rest of the country.
La Crosse has been transformed by a construction boom both private and public. Citizens and officials have worked on improving La Crosse’s neighborhoods.
And the city has been the fertile ground from which grew key ideas in signature achievement of Obama’s presidency: the Affordable Care Act.
All this on the left coast of Wisconsin, a state that has turned bright red at the state level on the watch of a Democratic president who twice carried the state while barely breaking a sweat.
Obama first visited La Crosse during the middle of the Great Recession — 18 months of greatly slowed economic activity — the recovery from which has been slow, often tepid. La Crosse weathered the recession better than most, posting a 3.4 percent jobless unemployment rate in April, the lowest figure for that month in 15 years.
Tim Kabat was the executive director of La Crosse Downtown Mainstreet Inc. before being elected mayor in 2013. He remembers candidate Obama’s visit “like it was yesterday.”
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While the recession was challenging, it didn’t stop the renaissance of downtown La Crosse, Kabat said.
“We have more employment downtown than we did in 2008,” Kabat said Wednesday afternoon. “We have more people living downtown than we did in 2008.
“There have been a lot of significant, positive accomplishments in that time,” he said, citing the growth of the Logistics Health Inc. campus, the Weber Center for the Performing Arts, four new hotels under construction downtown, and the retail and housing project by LHI CEO Don Weber’s development company underway on the former Lot C property south of City Hall.
Kabat credited a diverse economy — services, health care, retail, manufacturing, tourism — with helping La Crosse avoid the rockiest shores of the recession.
“I know we weathered that pretty well,” said Kabat, who will greet Obama and Gov. Scott Walker at the La Crosse Regional Airport, “and we’ve been rebounding really well.”
“It’s a great showcase for the city,” Kabat said of the president’s visit.
Building booms on three campuses haven’t hurt the La Crosse economy either. The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Viterbo University and Western Technical College have changed the face of higher education in southwest Wisconsin with aggressive building programs since 2008, with all three institutions adding programs and increasing enrollment.
Creating the congressional coalition that passed the Affordable Care Act was no easy feat. Caregivers, clinics, hospitals, and insurance and drug companies were among the many stakeholders that demanded attention.
And there’s evidence of Gundersen Health System and Mayo Clinic Health System’s influence in the final form of what was eventually called Obamacare, first by its opponents, then by its fans.
On today’s Tribune Opinion page, Gundersen Health System CEO Dr. Jeff Thompson touts the La Crosse area’s success providing excellent care for Medicare patients at the lowest cost in the country.
On the same page of today’s Tribune, Dr. Tim Johnson, CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare, points to an increase in insurance coverage that has allowed the St. Clare Health Mission to refocus time and energy on other community health care needs.
And since Obama’s last visit, La Crosse has become famous worldwide as the town where people know how to die the right way — 96 percent of patients have an advance directive specifying what kind of end-of-life care they’re going to receive. Or, as Thomson writes, “This region has mastered the ability to have conversations with patients and families about how they want to live at the end of life.”
And figuring out how to encourage such conversations was turned to “death panels” by opponents of the ACA, without regard for the truth.
“Shifting how providers of health care are paid from a system based solely on volume to one that also acknowledges quality, safety and efficiency will go a long way toward aligning the needs of the patient with those of the providers and payers,” Johnson writes.
When Obama campaigned in La Crosse in October 2008, he was in a state that boasted Democratic majorities in both houses of its Legislature. Democrat Jim Doyle was in the governor’s mansion. The Supreme Court had a liberal chief justice.
Things have changed.
Six years and nine months later, Gov. Scott Walker is an early leader in the race for a GOP presidential nomination he has yet to officially enter. State government has been a solid red for more than four years, despite recall efforts against Walker and state senators by Democrats and others angry that Walker’s Act 10 had stripped most public employees of their union rights.
Voters gave Walker a third gubernatorial victory in four years when he handily beat Democratic challenger Mary Burke last November.
Having redrawn Senate and Assembly boundaries to concentrate Democrats in as few districts as possible, Republican legislators contributed to widening GOP majorities in both houses in 2014.
And a statewide referendum vote essentially removed Shirley Abrahamson, leader of the minority liberal wing of the state Supreme Court, as chief justice, a decision she has challenged in court.
Joe Heim, political science professor at UW-L and longtime watcher of Wisconsin politics, called Obama’s visit a coup for Wisconsin Democrats, who’ve had little to celebrate of late.
“It’s a boost for the Democratic Party,” Heim said. “There’s not much political content here, but the Democrats need some excitement, some energy.”
However, Heim said redistricting means it could be a long time before Democrats dominate state government the way they did just a few short years ago.
“I don’t know of know anyone who thinks the Democrats can retake the Assembly anytime soon,” he said of a chamber in which the GOP now has a 63-36 advantage.”
“They (state Democrats) need a new face,” Heim said, noting that top three vote-getters in a gubernatorial straw poll at their recent state convention had a western Wisconsin flavor: state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma, state Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind of La Crosse.
Southwest Wisconsin Democrats received a dubious consolation prize in the redistricting process: Kind’s 3rd District became even more blue.
But that history will take a back seat today: The leader of the free world is in town.