BY DAN RYLANCE
April 4th, 2003
Sometimes democracy asserts itself and does some serious butt kicking. It does not happen very often anymore in this country because most people don't vote. But when it does it should remind all of those who complain and stay home as well as those elected that it can happen. No one is immune when voters decide to take matters into their own hands.
It happened this year and in all places, Oshkosh. Yes, it was an April's Fool's election because the results fooled a lot of people especially incumbents like Jon Dell'Antonia of the Oshkosh Common Council and Karen Bowen and Mike Stratz of the Oshkosh School Board. It also fooled the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce and the power brokers at the Oshkosh Northwestern. They placed their bets on the incumbents minus the Chamber's endorsement of Bowen, who really isn't a Chamber type anyway. It was also reported that Mayor Steve Hintz had seven signs on his lawn -- all incumbents. So much for mayoral endorsements! Was the mayor fooled, too?
The results of the Common Council election demonstrate the power of the voters. In a totally unexpected ending, Brian Poeschl, a first-time challenger, won a seat on the Council. Poeschl, however, not only claimed victory but he ran second in a field of six to Mark Harris. There was more surprise. Jon Dell'Antonia, former mayor and 10 year veteran got the boot. He not only got the boot, he ran last! Last! What happened to the darling of the Chamber and the "never can do wrong" endorsee of the Oshkosh Northwestern? I doubt anyone could have predicted this exit for a very proud, and, at times, somewhat arrogant incumbent.
The other three Council incumbents have little to celebrate, either. Mark Harris, who will replace Hintz as mayor could not even poll 4,000 votes. Bill Castle ran fourth beating Bender by only 22 votes. Shirley Brabender Mattox, ran ahead of Castle, but was 500 votes short of her first win two years ago. Bender's vote total, on the other hand, increased by 783 over what he received in April of 2002. Clearly the voters aren't that supportive of the three returning incumbents and a larger field could very easily have put two of them in the dugout with Dell'Antonia.
The surprise in the Common Council results pale in comparison to the School Board results. The three incumbents ran last in a field of five candidates. And the two biggest advocates for the current Board, President Karen Bowen and Mike Stratz ran last. They were replaced by two newcomers, Amy Weinsheim and Dan Becker. Weinsheim, a new comer from California, of all places humiliated Bowen by over 2,000 votes. That is not a misprint -- over 2,000 votes. The other incumbent, Dennis Kavanaugh, should go to church twice this coming Sunday. The only reason he survived is because there were only two challengers in the race. If there would have been three, he would have lost as well.
There are many who have expressed dissatisfaction with the current School Board over the past couple of year. But the results Tuesday demonstrated beyond most people's belief just how upset voters really were. For years, the Northwestern has ragged on the incumbents who lost, but then with their usual flip-flop, endorsed them. Local endorsements usually prove effective, but not on this one. The credibility of the editorial board is a big joke this year on April Fool's Day!
What now? There will be minor changes if any on the Common Council. Poeschl's seat doesn't really change the Chamber controlled board. It also remains unclear where Poeschl's preferences are, but whatever they are, they will bring a new voice to a rubber stamp Council that needs a new voice. Perhaps one of the ironies of the race is that Harris, who is making noise that he is interested to run for a bigger office in 2004 as a Democrat and Mattox, who remains the voice of "smart growth", are two of the biggest cheerleaders for the new Wal Mart complex. Mattox again this election promised to hold some town hall meetings. She didn't follow through last time and it remains to be seen whether she will renege again.
Change on the School Board is a much greater result of Tuesday's election. Who will run the Board? Will the fiscally Blessed Trinity of Dennis McHugh, Ben Schneider and Tom McDermott have support from either Becker or Weinsheim? Becker, a conservative Republican, said in some interviews that he is a follower of McHugh. What does that portend? This could be a wild three years. Weinsheim is a more of a mystery. She holds one key to making the Board less hostile although with the removal of Bowen and Stratz, one side of the contention, is now gone. There is another issue, the defeated incumbents voted for the Indian logo change at Oshkosh West High School and the two challengers both said on Commentary that they would not have voted for the change. Will the logo issue be revisited?
There are more issues. The pain tolerance level for Supt Ron Heilmann and the election of the new Board president. I have written earlier that Heilmann could be "looking" if the Board incumbents lost. He may be still "looking" but I now think he will stay. I think he is up for the challenge and has a deep commitment to the Oshkosh School District. On Tuesday, the Northwestern endorsed McDermott for Board president. They have an itch to micromanage the Board as much as Schneider. My choice is McHugh. He's the senior member of the board and a leader of the critics. Put him on the chair and if he can't produce then voters should give him the boot next time around. Finally, Theresa Thiel and Kavanaugh move from being on the majority to the minority on the board with the loss of their two constant voting colleagues Bowen and Stratz. What influence they will have on the new board is a big question?
If you believe what you have read is still an April Fool's spoof, I urge you not to ask Dell'Antonia, Bowen or Stratz. They don't!
Rylance is a former editorial writer for Knight-Ridder newspapers who now lives in Oshkosh and writes regularly for this web site.
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