West Bend has long been a conservative stronghold in southeastern Wisconsin. The city seems to have taken a few steps further to the right in recent years, as conservative and Tea Party ideology has made its presence felt.
In 2011, the West Bend School Board refused to sanction a gay-straight alliance at the city’s high schools. Board members said the club went against their views. Students filed a federal discrimination lawsuit, and the district eventually reversed its decision.
A year later, the public library board – with several new, conservative members – voted to allow concealed guns in the building.
More recently, the West Bend Common Council offered the U.S. Concealed Carry Association a low-interest loan and five years of property tax rebates to relocate in a former art museum building downtown.
“I wish we had deals like this lined up around the corner right now,” says West Bend Mayor Kraig Sadownikow.
In exchange for the incentives, he says the concealed carry group will bring around 30 jobs to West Bend and invest $1 million in its new location.
“We’ve been looking for ways to inject some adrenaline into the downtown as many communities are. It keeps a building fully occupied, puts it back on the tax roll,” Sadownikow says.
Sadownikow says he’s aware that some residents are upset the government is subsidizing the divisive group, but contends the deal is not about politics. And the mayor defends his refusal to allow public comment on the incentive package.
“It’s a very slippery slope for local officials such as myself to get caught up in the politics of the day. This was about bringing jobs to West Bend. It was about investment in our community,” Sadownikow says.
Despite the mayor’s assurances, Waring Fincke perceives an agenda behind recent decisions by city, school and library leaders. Fincke is vice chair of the Democratic Party of Washington County. He says an increasing number of office holders are aligned with a local Tea Party group, called Common Sense Citizens.
“They have a pretty far right fringe view of what government ought to look like and they certainly aren’t shy about rewarding their friends with largesse for following those party lines,” Fincke says.
Fincke claims political newcomers won election without fully revealing the scope of changes they plan to make.
Ed Duquaine takes issue with that characterization. He’s a member of the West Bend Common Council, and the Common Sense group. Duquaine says he made no secret of his Tea Party affiliation as a candidate, and believes it helped him win election.
“If our council has been overrun or overtaken by anyone, I would say it’s been overrun with highly engaged individuals that are willing to engage in the difficult problems that we face coming up here in the future,” Duquaine says.
He says those challenges include growing the city economically.
“Well, I think the role of local government is to look out for the best interests, to find the best value for the taxpayers’ dollars and I work to do that every day,” Duquaine says.
One person who’s been watching West Bend’s evolving political landscape is John Torinus. He used to be a newspaper editor and now owns a local manufacturing firm. Torinus considers himself a fiscal conservative, yet feels newcomers to City Hall have taken their philosophy too far.
“They’re just primarily concerned with cut, cut, cut, cut. And that, in and of itself, doesn’t get you to the top of the mountain. You have to have a vision as well. You have to know what you want your city to be down the road. And I just don’t see that. It’s all about balancing the budget and keeping the tax rate down,” Torinus says.
Torinus says he’s also concerned that several longtime and highly respected public workers retired early or resigned because they were at odds with the new conservative leadership and its policies.
However, he says he’s starting to see what he calls movement in the right direction, albeit at a slow pace. City leaders have begun talking with the local economic development agency, business representatives and citizens to develop a long-term vision for West Bend.