What’s Making Local Work

Fair Wisconsin Executive Director Katie Belanger gives a rundown of important spring elections and endorsements, and explains why local matters.

Local communities are the next frontier in the movement for full LGBTQ equality. In the past two years, we’ve see the greatest gains in Wisconsin come at the local level, where fair-minded leaders made the connection between inclusivity and thriving communities.

And I’m not just talking about Madison and Milwaukee. Since 2011, the Cities of Appleton, Racine, Manitowoc, Eau Claire, Janesville, and Kenosha have extended domestic-partner benefits to their employees. Having personally witnessed some of these victories, I can attest to the difficult choices local governments are making in the current economic climate. For example, minutes before approving domestic-partner benefits, the Manitowoc City Council debated whether they could afford to continue paying school crossing guards. These leaders, however, understand that building an inclusive community and investing in the future of their cities are not mutually exclusive proposals. In fact, they are quite dependent.

The stakes in these communities have never been higher. Nevertheless, the visionary leadership I’ve seen has been inspirational. The leaders we’ve worked with get it: Invest in your workforce, invest in your community, and together we will become stronger.

But this change does not happen overnight.

Fair Wisconsin PAC (FWPAC), Wisconsin’s only LGBTQ political action committee, is one of a few issue-focused PACs that work on municipal-level elections in addition to state legislative, statewide, and federal elections.

It is not a coincidence that as we’ve identified more pro-fairness advocates at the local level, we’ve seen more local victories. Therefore, it is not surprising that as we’ve gained more momentum at the local level, identifying and supporting local candidates has become a key element of Fair Wisconsin’s work to advance LGBTQ equality in Wisconsin.

This spring, we have the chance to move equality issues forward in several key races.

In early February, FWPAC formally endorsed Ed Fallone for Wisconsin State Supreme Court. A law professor at Marquette University, Fallone was a vocal supporter of his institution’s efforts to build a more inclusive workplace and campus for LGBTQ faculty, staff, and students. This was during the same time I was building a partnership with Marquette that resulted in the extension of domestic-partner benefits for faculty and staff. The partnership also helped shape the creation of the new Marquette University Gender Resource Center.

Closer to home, FWPAC is incredibly proud to endorse Rhonda Lanford for Dane County Circuit Court Judge. Given her tremendous community involvement over the years, it’s not surprising that she has racked up an impressive list of endorsements, including Congressman Mark Pocan, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, State Senator Mark Miller, and some of the most fair-minded state legislators. Her background in the law, both in private practice and teaching, as well as her community leadership, including her role on the board of directors of the Out Professional and Executive Network, make her uniquely qualified to serve as judge.

In Madison, we have no shortage of pro-fairness leaders at the local level. In fact, we have yet to receive a questionnaire that received less than a 100 percent score from any of the candidates in Dane County who participated in FWPAC’s endorsement process. It is truly an embarrassment of riches.

So when the FWPAC committee, a mix of Fair Wisconsin Inc. board members and community leaders, voted on endorsements, we had a particularly difficult time with the Madison City Council decisions. Do we endorse everyone with a 100 percent score, limiting the value of our endorsement to a mere rubber-stamp? Or do we endorse in order to communicate which candidate we believe is the strongest champion in a crowded field? And how do we factor in a candidate’s viability? After all, endorsements are also a tool to build relationships with elected leaders, so “picking the winner” is also important.

It is an equation with no simple answer.

We believe it is essential to stand with leaders who are already championing LGBTQ equality. Pro-fairness incumbents with a solid questionnaire and a track record of supporting the community are usually endorsed, regardless of whether they have pro-fairness challengers.

Open seat primaries become difficult. We attempt to balance indicating who we believe is the best champion with validating everyone in a race who is solidly pro-fairness, all while hoping our choice is successful on Election Day.

The race in Madison’s 6th City Council District has been particularly challenging this spring with an issue surrounding Plan B, an LGBTQ owned and operated business. Challenger Scott Thornton has entered the race to ensure that an LGBTQ person from the district has a seat at the decision-making table. He understands that from Stonewall to Plan B, gay bars have played a critical institutional role in the LGBTQ community, a tradition that Plan B has continued. Scott’s support for Plan B as an outspoken neighborhood leader shows the community that this gathering place is a vital part of a vibrant and LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood.

By endorsing Thornton, FWPAC is acknowledging that his efforts to support an LGBTQ institution reinforce the importance of having a seat at the decision-making table. If you are not part of the conversation, they are talking about you, not with you.

Katie Belanger has been Fair Wisconsin’s Executive Director since 2009. She also currently serves as the Board Co-Chair for the Equality Federation, the national alliance of state-based LGBT advocacy organizations.