By Andy Greder
Influence at the Capitol
Thanks to Grassroots Citizen Participation and Connections With
Key Madison Officials, Superior Has a Seat at the Legislative Table
Chamber of Commerce CEOs across Wisconsin tease Dave Minor about his ability to easily connect with government officials in Madison.
They’re probably just jealous.
The president and CEO of the Superior-Douglas County Area Chamber of Commerce can often reach officials with one phone call, while other CEOs tell him that it can take several calls over several days.
“I truly believe it’s those years of building partnerships,” Minor said. “That when we call, it’s not simply to complain or say, ‘Hey, you have to do this for us.’ We have done our due diligence.”
The diligence starts with the annual, two-day Superior Days lobbying trip to Madison – now in its 27th year – and continues the rest of the year with follow-up phone calls, messages and other visits. The relationship is also enhanced with three Superior natives holding influential positions in the capital.
“By building those relationships, it’s the other 363 days of the year that we are not in Madison that come into play,” Minor said. “When we go down to Madison, it’s the 27 years of relationships that get me in the door. I’ve never had a problem getting into the governor’s office or any other secretaries’ offices because when we pick up the phone and say that we are from Superior, there is that recognition of who we are.”
“When we go down to Madison, it’s the 27 years of relationships that get me in the door.”
– Dave Minor, Chamber president and CEO
The recognition derives from the reputation Superior Days has made for itself.
“Superior Days is really a grassroots, citizenship participation with government,” said Superior Days coordinator Fariba Pendleton, a professor who heads the community resource development function at the University of Wisconsin Extension. “It shows every year when a group of over 200 citizens from nine counties over northern Wisconsin take the community’s issues to Madison. They are heard. It’s a very powerful process.”
With small business leaders, local government officials and citizens meeting to vet and prioritize the needs of Northwestern Wisconsin months before the trip, Superior Days displays a fundamental organizational prowess.
“It’s a very affordable, cost-effective way to bring our issues down to Madison.”
– Alan Jaques, Douglas County Board
“We start the planning process in September with not just a few people sitting down with bond issues we are going to take to Madison,” Pendleton said. “We try to have a diverse group of students at high schools to senior citizens to elected officials from government to private sector business leaders.”
Business leaders should be particularly interested in Superior Days because of how it makes financial sense to voice financial distress.
“It’s a very affordable, cost-effective way to bring our issues down to Madison,” said Alan Jaques, owner of Belknap Plaza and a member of the Douglas County Board. “A lot of people that go down there volunteer their time. I could charge the county, but I pay for my own meals, my own hotel room. There is a lot of that that goes on.”
“They do a pretty good job of sifting and winnowing what the top priorities are.”
– Bill McCoshen, Capitol Consultants
A recent Superior Days trip helped alleviate charges paid by Douglas County for birth records of babies born in Minnesota, Jaques said.
“They didn’t know we had to pay for that when babies were born at the Duluth hospital,” he said. “That is a great benefit that came out of Superior Days. There are a lot of little things like that – and you usually just hear about Highway 53.”
Everybody from babies to business leaders to senior citizens has benefited from Superior Days’ crowning achievement: the expansion of Highway 53 to a four-lane thoroughfare north from Eau Claire.
“People laughed at Superior’s participation for Highway 53, saying, ‘Sure, you are going to get a four-lane highway,’” Pendleton said of others’ sarcasm. “Look now – a six-hour trip to Madison now takes us four hours and 45 minutes, thanks to Superior Days.”
“There have been many that have tried to copy it, but I think the sheer size of the effort is just incredible.”
– Dave Ross, Secretary-Department of Safety and Professional Services
Beyond Highway 53, it’s behind-the-scenes, seemingly small changes such as birth record charges – and big goals, such as advocating for the University of Wisconsin-Superior – that also make a difference to small businesses and citizens.
“Whenever you go to the state capital, everyone is looking for what are you bringing back – a ‘Where’s the bacon?’ sort of thing,” Minor said. “For me, what I look for in Superior Days is about building relationships and partnerships for the long-term.”
For outward relationships to be
productive, the inner workings must be diverse and cohesive, said Bill Fennessey, manager of customer service and electric operations at Superior Water, Light and Power and past chair of the chamber board. He’s also treasurer of The Development Association, a nonprofit that administers the Douglas County Revolving Fund on behalf of the county and helps retain, expand, create and recruit businesses in Superior and Douglas County.
“What I see in other groups is that they are solely business focused,” Fennessey said of what other cities offer. “What I see here is that we have a cross-functional group that has the mayor, county board, large business, small business, citizens.”
“What I see here is that we have a cross-functional group.”
– Bill Fennessey, Superior Water, Light & Power
The people on the other side of the lobbying effort are some of Superior’s own. Former Superior Mayor Dave Ross serves as Secretary of the Department of Safety and Professional Services in Gov. Scott Walker’s administration. Superior native Bill McCoshen was on the policy staff in former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s administration and is now a managing partner at the lobbying firm Capitol Consultants, as well as executive director of Competitive Wisconsin. And University of Wisconsin-Superior graduate Ryan Murray is the Deputy Chief of Staff in Walker’s office.
“Dave is in the cabinet and is very familiar with Superior and the area,” said current Superior Mayor Bruce Hagen, who is a former chief of staff to Gov. Thompson. “I’m sure if he has the opportunity, he could reinforce the discussion. We have had and continue to have some key players in Madison who are from Superior.”
“We are all in positions to be helpful,” McCoshen said. “Ryan is obviously one of the governor’s top aides and [former] Mayor Ross is in the cabinet. I’ve got a good connection to the Walker administration as well as the Republican majority in the Legislature. I think it gives us an opportunity to not only get in the door, but to get our message heard.”
“We hope to … get more business communities on board with presenting their views on what they need to succeed.”
– Mayor Bruce Hagen
The agenda brought forth from Superior Days and subsequent follow-ups are succinct and professional, McCoshen says.
“They don’t come with a wish list that is a mile long, hoping to get things that are outside the realm of possibility,” McCoshen said. “They do a pretty good job of sifting and winnowing what the top priorities are – and then strategically come down and send the right groups to the right agencies and to the right lawmakers and make sure that their voice is heard. It’s very well thought out. The planning that goes into Superior Days is what really makes it successful.”
Superior Days participants don’t feel as though they are superior to the budget problems that continue to hamper state government.
“Last year, we perfectly understood that we couldn’t go down there with our hands out because of the economic situation, and it will be similar this year,” Hagen said. “It turns out to be an introduction of the issue and the desire and the problems, and how we can work together to achieve that end goal over time. This year might be based on protecting what we already have and highlighting the values and assets they provide.”
As mayor, Ross picked up where previous mayors left off on the efforts to receive revenue from the terminal tax, a proceed promised to the city that was never realized.
“We engaged in an aggressive lobbying campaign using not only the council president at the time, myself and other leaders in my administration,” Ross said. “We worked that issue from a number of different angles, from the governor’s office to individual legislators, and we were successful in getting that tax returned to the city of Superior.”
Filling the city coffers with this tax is something that benefits businesses now that might otherwise still be on the agenda of Superior Days and its yearlong lobbying efforts.
“This year alone it’s going to add $1.1 million to Superior’s budget,” McCoshen said. “That is something that I worked on with three of the mayors and Dave Ross was the one who got that in the end zone. Mayor Hagen has done a good job of increasing the amount of money that Superior gets under the terminal tax. Superior persistently and tenaciously worked on it and was successful.”
Minor said the current most pressing
issue is the unresolved future of the Gogebic mine proposed in Ashland and Bayfield counties. He says that Wisconsin should return to its mining foundation and add to the regional mining prowess displayed on Minnesota’s Iron Range and in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“When you are talking about 4,000 to 6,000 jobs across the state, that’s significant,” Minor said of projected employment figures. “That sets the tone that says, how do you produce a bill that allows this company to start a process and an end date … We have to, as an area, come together to protect the environment and tourism, which is very important to us. But yet creating good sustaining jobs is very important to us as well.”
Minor, as well as Pendleton, said that
Superior Days and their efforts have little to
do with party politics, but rather the good of Superior and Northwestern Wisconsin.
“We should look at this as a jobs issue, not as a Republican or Democrat issue,” Minor said of the Gogebic mining proposal. “That’s how we have to look at it for the area and the state.”
Pendleton hopes her impartiality makes legislators partial to Superior Days.
“I try to stay objective and nonpartisan and not take party sides, and hopefully that is to our benefit,” she said.
Ross has seen Superior Days from both sides and says it’s unmatched.
“There have been many that have tried to copy it, but I think the sheer size of the effort is just incredible,” he said. “Every year the region brings over 200 people all the way from college students to business leaders to representatives in the local government. I’ve been in Madison for over a year and others have made efforts – but Superior Days is the most superb, well-organized effort of all. They really do make an impact in the entire community.”
Another strength for Superior Days, besides hundreds on the pilgrimage, is having one strong mayor.
“First of all, if you are the mayor of the community you have to be its No. 1 lobbyist,” Ross said. “You have to be at the table presenting the needs of the community. That means getting in the car and making that drive numerous times during the year.”
Hagen says Superior Days has also established a goal to broaden the reach to more business leaders as well as youth.
“Reaching out five or 10 years, we hope to strengthen the program and the message delivery with more involvement in Northwestern Wisconsin,” Hagen said, “and get more business communities on board with presenting their views and desires on what they need to succeed up here.” P.S.
Andy Greder is a freelance writer.