10 La Crosse mayoral candidates address racism, budgeting amid COVID-19, other issues
LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — The 10 candidates for La Crosse mayor wrestled with some of the major issues facing the city, including systemic racism, budgeting amid financial pressures from COVID-19, affordable housing, and police oversight.
The racial issue prompted references to local demonstrations related to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis on May 25, as well as the Jan. 6 riot of President Donald Trump supporters in Washington, D.C.
“This past summer, we saw the youth of our community lead on this issue,” said Jessica Olson, who now represents District 8 on the Common Council.
Olson, who was referring to several peaceful marches and demonstrations that were largely youth-led, said she wants to keep tapping their ideas and energy.
“As mayor, I want to bring people together,” she said. “As mayor, I would listen and lead and continue this important work.”
Mitch Reynolds, a former radio host and news producer, also cited the summer’s marches, noting that they provided an important first step.
“Acknowledge it, and focus on fixing it,” Reynolds said.
Martin Gaul, who now is council president and District 11 representative, said, “This is a tough one … with the events of this year and Jan. 6. We all know Jan. 6 would not have gone the same way if they (rioters) had been people of color.”
Christopher Stolpa urged education and discipline, adding, “Educate our kids about how we are all the same inside.” When crimes against people of color occur, he said, “come down hard” on the offenders.
Zebulon Kemp also pressed for education, urging widespread diversity training.
The candidates are running for the seat being vacated by Mayor Tim Kabat, who is not seeking a third, four-year term.
A Feb. 16 primary will narrow the field to two, who will square off in the spring election on April 6.
The La Crosse Local and La Crosse Independent sponsored the YouTube forum.
Asked about the possibility of creating a police oversight commission, the candidates generally agreed that it seems OK in principle, but any final decision would pivot on structure and guidelines.
Such a commission could provide as much support for police as criticism, they said.
Candidate Joe Konradt said he recently started a fundraiser to collect money for improved body cameras for the city’s police force.
The candidates demurred when the moderators asked them about a city-funded legal process for people facing eviction.
Vicki Markussen, former CEO of La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce and founder of Engage Greater La Crosse, said the eviction moratorium resulting from COVID-19 “doesn’t mean the IOUs will go away.”
At the same time, lawyers and their groups could be enlisted as partners to handle such cases instead of having the city pay for them, Markussen said.
“The idea makes sense, but how to pay for it?” said Konradt, who added that available resources should be used to maximum effect first.
Candidate Samuel Schneider, an 18-year-old small businessman, said, “We also need to keep in mind the concerns of landlords.”
Katherine Blanchard cautioned that any system should not protect renters who habitually don’t pay.
She also decried high rent prices, noting, “My first apartment — and it wasn’t that good — was $320. Now, it’s almost $800 a month for a one-bedroom, and nothing has changed” as far as improvements.
Gaul wondered about the impact on the city budget, saying, “Other problems have got to be vetted.”
A question about what steps they would take now to move the city toward its stated goal of achieving 100% clean, renewable energy use by 2050 raised budgetary concerns.
“I hate to be the drumbeat of budget, budget, budget,” said Markussen, who also suggested that city officials should confer with officials at Gundersen Health System about its acclaimed energy independence programs.
Stolpa urged talking to residents to drive home the importance of alternative means of transportation, such as bicycling, walking, and riding buses.
Gaul encouraged buying more fuel-efficient vehicles for police and MTU buses, as well as other equipment.
A question about what conflicts of interest candidates might bring to the office elicited a couple of humorous answers.
Parking, said Greg Saliaras, who owns and operates Soula’s Cuisina in downtown La Crosse.
“I’m the most ticketed guy in town,” he said, not only expressing chagrin over that but also emphasizing his sympathy for other downtown businesses.
Hairstylist Blanchard responded that the only conflict she imagines she might have is being the La Crosse County Jail barber.
However, she said that wouldn’t even be a conflict because the county rather than the city pays, and many inmates pay her themselves.
The 10 candidates, all of whom participated in the virtual forum, are:
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