All Politics Is Local in This House Election

Posted March 30, 2004 at 6:44pm

The city politics of a little town not too far from Milwaukee may determine who gets to challenge Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) in November.

Oconomowoc Mayor Gary Kohlenberg and political science professor Bryan Kennedy are both hoping that 5th district Democrats will turn to them to try to turn out the 12-term Congressman.

Presumably Kohlenberg, an incumbent politician, would have the advantage.

He knocked off an entrenched Republican two years ago to become the top pol in the town of 12,545 residents.

Not only did he defeat longtime Mayor Tom Foti (R), whose family name is known in Badger State politics, but he did so as a write-in candidate — a state first.

“He put together a masterful campaign,” Kennedy said of Kohlenberg’s effort, which he began only three weeks before the election. “He and his small team pretty much knocked on every door in Oconomowoc; it made state headlines.”

But if Kohlenberg enjoyed any kind of honeymoon, it was short-lived.

The proof?

Two of the city’s eight alderman have formally endorsed Kennedy in the Congressional primary.

“It comes down to that they had two awful years with Gary,” Kennedy said.

A perusal of local media coverage shows that Kohlenberg has frequently butt heads with his non-partisan city council.

“Aldermen voted vehemently against Mayor Gary Kohlenberg’s two most recent attempts to change the look of the city,” one Waukesha Freeman article begins. “The proposed sign and white light ordinances were shot down 7-1 each during the common council meeting Tuesday night.

“After about 45 minutes of debate, Alderman John Gross cut Kohlenberg off by forcing the vote.”

Gross is one of the two aldermen not backing the mayor.

“He’s a successful businessman but I don’t know if his term as mayor is reflective of what he’s been able to accomplish in business,” Kennedy said of Kohlenberg.

For his part, the mayor said he is not worried about his colleagues’ betrayal.

“Different people support different candidates; it’s the democratic process,” Kohlenberg said.

“Recent history in Wisconsin will show that electability trumps endorsements,” he added.

It would seem that Kohlenberg might just be a chief executive who has met resistance because he tried to change a small town after a long-running administration lost power.

Kennedy said the conflict has been less about ideas and more about petty problems.

For instance, Kennedy cited an Oconomowoc woman whom he met who said that people do not like the way he has conducted himself in office.

“Gary hasn’t made a lot of friends here,” the unnamed woman reportedly told Kennedy.

Still, other articles about Oconomowoc suggest that Kohlenberg has won battles fairly often too.

One Kennedy supporter, Oconomowoc Ald. Lora Mae Cochrane, said as much when Kohlenberg announced that he would run for Congress last year and forego seeking another term as mayor.

Kohlenberg’s tenure as mayor expires April 20.

“He told me when he ran for mayor it would be for one term,” Cochrane told the Freeman. “He said he would shake it up and move on.”

As Kohlenberg’s chance of success, she said: “He has the following. Maybe he will beat Sensenbrenner.”

So far, however, it seems Kennedy is drawing more support from traditional Democratic sources, especially ones who can turn out the vote.

Four labor unions have already endorsed him, including the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council and the National Association of Retired Federal Employees Chapter 94.

In the money game, the two are even, though both lag way behind Sensenbrenner, an entrenched incumbent in a Republican stronghold with $556,000 in the bank as of Dec. 31, 2003.

Kennedy banked a little more than $23,500 in 2003 while Kohlenberg began the year with about $22,000 cash-on-hand.

He said he has been working hard to raise more money.

“I have been focusing on my fundraising and will continue to focus on fundraising,” Kohlenberg said.

“I have a wide base of support including Democrats, Republicans, swing voters, Independents … people just want me in office,” he said.