Sunday, April 7, 2019

Oshkosh election upset puts city on path for change

This screenshot shows the mayor-elect's campaign website. She is working on a first hundred days action plan.

By Miles Maguire

When it comes to Lori Palmeri’s upset victory over two-term incumbent Mayor Steve Cummings on April 2, you can take your pick of possible explanations: shifting demographics, a hunger for change, growing support for female leadership or deep dissatisfaction with how decisions are made and city services are distributed in Oshkosh.

In a nonpartisan race, where fewer than a third of registered voters went to the polls, it’s hard to know what conclusion to draw from the balloting, which put Palmeri in a position to make history as the first-ever person of color, and the first directly elected female, to be chosen as mayor of Oshkosh.

“I don’t know” how to explain the election the results, said Matt Mugerauer, an incumbent Common Council member who did not have to run this year. “I don’t think there was any one issue that pushed voters one way or the other.”

The 2018 decision to sell part of Lakeshore Municipal Golf Course to Oshkosh Corp., the most bitterly divisive issues in recent memory, may have influenced the election—even though both Cummings and Palmeri voted the same way in support of the transaction.

Bob Poeschl, an Oshkosh school board member who knocked incumbent Tom Pech off the council in last week's election, believes that the Lakeshore controversy is still fresh in voters’ minds.

“As much as the community was supportive of Oshkosh Truck taking over the golf course for expansion, some people who supported that are still uncomfortable with how that decision came to be,” Poeschl said. “That’s still out there.”

Another area where Cummings, 74, and Palmeri, 51, seem to agree, at least on the surface, is on the importance of diversity and inclusion. But their approaches are different, perhaps based on their backgrounds.

Cummings, who says age and gender contributed to his defeat, has built relationships with leaders of the city’s diverse communities and developed an annual celebration called “Unity in Community.” By contrast Palmeri, who identifies as a “first-generation Latina of Colombian descent,” has approached the issue on a “street level, ... what’s really going on,” Poeschl said.

Palmeri said one of her first acts as mayor will be to propose either a board or commission to focus on diversity and inclusion issues.

In his job as a property manager for the Oshkosh/Winnebago County Housing Authority, Poeschl said he frequently finds himself in poorer and more diverse parts of the community. While there he has observed that city services seem to be provided at a lower level, a situation that becomes particularly apparent during a hard winter like this past one.

While acknowledging that the city has a street clearing plan based on traffic volumes, Poeschl said differences appear to exist across various neighborhoods.

“I live on Washington [Avenue], so I can pretty much relax in knowing that my street will be plowed,” he said. “But that person who lives in that poor neighborhood cannot relax and assume that their street is going to be plowed. They have to worry about getting stuck.”

He believes that racism and “classism” have become bigger factors in a community that traditionally has been known as overwhelmingly white and largely middle income. Over the years the city has become “a much more diverse community than we believe it is,” he said. “When you tap that resource, it can change the makeup of how elections can take place.”

A review of voting tallies shows that Cummings had his sharpest loss of support, compared to the 2017 election, in Ward 7, which is bounded by Bowen Street and Lake Winnebago between Washington Avenue and a part of Murdock Street.

Palmeri, who collected a total of 4,681 votes, had her strongest comparative showing in the Middle Village neighborhood, where she lives, and also did well in other nearby wards as well as in older neighborhoods south of the river towards the lake.

Cummings, who collected a total of 4,359 votes, had strong showings in Westhaven and other areas west of I-41. He also did well in the Millers Bay and Northshore neighborhoods, encompassing the streets around the far eastern end of Murdock.

In all races a total of 9,763 votes were cast out of 35,073 registered voters, for a turnout of 27.8 percent.

Palmeri ran on a platform of transparency and accountability, and she says has been working on ways, and will continue to work on ways, to make it easier for citizens to contact City Hall and to know that their message has gotten through.

One recent change that Palmeri pushed for is an interface that allows citizens to email all councilors at once without having to send individual messages to each member. “We are seeing more people emailing because of that,” she said. “When you are contacting your representative, no one wants to have to click through each name individually.”

Some people have criticized her push for this change as an example of micromanaging City Hall, an accusation she rejects. “It was just a matter of asking [staff], ‘Can you please work on this?’ And now it’s there.”

Cummings said he is “concerned, very concerned” about the future of Oshkosh. “Staff is concerned” as well, he said. In Oshkosh the mayor has a limited role in day to day operations and a largely co-equal role on the council with the other members. Cummings said he fears that Palmeri does not understand the scope of her powers.

Pech echoed this worry that Palmeri and Poeschl are “going to take the city the wrong way.” He ticked off a list of accomplishments that occurred while he and Cummings have been on the council, including the renovation of the Oshkosh Convention Center and the reopening of the adjacent hotel, the expansion of the Riverwalk and the replacement of the derelict Buckstaff factory with the Menominee Nation Arena.

“It’s a weird, weird political environment,” Pech said.

Incumbent Council Member Steve Herman, who did not have to stand for re-election this year, said other factors at work in the election include a national shift toward liberal policies as well as the desire of local voters to see new faces.

During the campaign Palmeri positioned herself as “the choice for real change” and can run through a list of ways she thinks City Hall could be made more accessible to citizens. But she is realistic about the limits of whatever mandate she has.

“Half of the voters didn’t vote for me,” she said. She takes this to mean she needs to be “sensitive and considerate of those who are not interested in change.”

Still she is developing an “action plan” for her first 100 days in office, which she will unveil after April 16, the date she will be sworn in along with the newly elected and re-elected members of the council.

An important variable for the common council is the filling of Palmeri’s at-large seat. Interested residents have until 10 a.m. on May 9 to complete a questionnaire. Candidates will have an opportunity at the May 14 meeting to make a presentation to the council, which will select a replacement that evening.

Mugerauer said he thinks Palmeri will “do great” in her new role. But other council members are withholding judgment on how well her proposals will go over. Some degree of change “may be to the good,” said Herman. “Let it play out, and hopefully we don’t lose any momentum.”

“At the end of the day the mayor, who is the face of the city, is only one vote” in council decisions, said Deb Allison-Aasby.

She was re-elected to the council with 5,012 tallies in her favor, more than any of the other candidates in either of the city races. About the elements of Palmeri’s action plan, Allison-Aasby said, “I’m anxious to hear what they are and see if it is something I can wrap my arms around and support.”

City Manager Mark Rohloff said: “I have enjoyed working with Council Member Palmeri and appreciate her being so conscientious in her duties as deputy mayor. I look forward to pursuing our strategic goals with her as mayor.”

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