An Interview with Doug Zwank

Jim Zellmer: Good morning, Doug. Thanks for taking the time.
Doug Zwank: Yeah. Thank you.
Jim: So tell us about yourself, your background, and why you're running.
Doug: Well, I grew up in the 77th district. When I was a kid, my father ran Zwank's Farm Market on the corner of Capitol Avenue and University Avenue; now it's Brennan's. And I got a lot of knowledge of the changes in the 77th over the years, so I am looking forward to the opportunity to represent it. But I spent a year at the university, joined the Marine Corps and did a year in Vietnam, and came back well motivated to finish college. I finished college, and I became a drug agent for the Division of Criminal Investigation. Then I became a special agent investigating government corruption and financial crime. I then moved down to Georgia and worked at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, teaching white-collar crime and the use of computers.

I came back here and worked for USDA until last November, when I retired as a computer manager. In that time, I was an alderman in Middleton for five years. I found myself disagreeing with the then mayor, Dan Ramsey, on the issues. He had been in office for 26 years. And I thought if I'm going to be disagreeing with him, someone has got to offer voters a choice in the mayoral campaign. So I ran for office there on the campaign, "26 years, it's time for a change", and it worked.

I was very fortunate. Middleton is a healthy, vibrant, progressive city. It had a strong budget. We used tax incremental financing very effectively. We grew our commercial areas very well. We had a net influx of jobs in the city. So it went well. But I accomplished many things I wanted to do, including affordable housing, selling our train, a focus on youth activity, and conservation projects.

So I decided not to run for re-election after my second term, and fully intended to be out of politics at that point. But when I retired last November, I'd wake up in the morning and read the paper, and my blood pressure would go up 10 or 15 points every time I'd see the kinds of gridlock that was going on at the legislature: the budget process, the imbalance, the deception on our budget.

And I looked at Spencer Black, who I supported in the past. And I even went out and got nomination signatures for him and did a lot of door-to-door, but he had been there 26 years. I think it is a disservice to democracy for politicians to stay in office that long, regardless of what they are accomplishing.

It just discourages other people that could contribute good ideas and be effective leaders from running. And I thought anybody with any sort of political ambition won't run against Spencer Black; he's very popular. But I thought that by running I could get some discussion going on the issues.

So in early April, I talked to him on the phone and told him I was going to run against him. And he was surprised, but not at all worried. He didn't mention he wasn't running. So I geared all my campaign towards it's time for a change. And two weeks later, he acknowledged he wasn't running, and then everybody jumped in the race.

I still believe I have a good message. I'm running on a message of fiscal responsibility. Everything else is important, but there are always priorities in any campaign. And I believe in these times, with this economy, fiscal responsibility is my top priority. And obviously, the way it's impacted school districts in the past budget cycle, we can get into that as we go along.

Jim: So what is the state's role in K-12 education? What should the state do? Should it just be a conduit for money? Should it be establishing and enforcing standards? What should it do?
Doug: I think that's one of the problems right now, it's not clear. I think it's been a slow process where the state has taken over more and more until it's become the major funding source for local education, and at the same time, there's a high demand for local control of education. And so, I don't think either the taxpayers or the local school districts or the state elected officials have a firm grip on what should be. On the last budget cycle, in order to balance the budget, the state cut the aid to local school districts at the last minute. And in Madison, it was a 12% cut, and in Middleton, it was a 15% cut. Madison's already announced that we'll be looking at a $200 per average home increase in the school fund. And in Middleton, they haven't figured it out yet. They're still working out the budget.

I think that's very irresponsible, first of all, to dump that on a local school district at the last minute, and also, use that to try to balance our budget. Because the property taxpayer is going to see an increase in their school tax this year, and a lot of people are going to get angry at the school district for irresponsible spending. They had nothing to with it. It's the state legislature that's hiding behind the curtains and raising your property taxes.

Anyway, I thought that was terrible. And the other tactic they used was the mandated furlough days of state employees. I don't like that at all. If you make that clear at the beginning of a contract period, so I know as an employee, I'm going to deal with this. But it would be like going to the store and buying a new car. And then you go to pick it up, and they say, "We made a mistake. We're going to have to charge you 10% more." It just doesn't settle right.

So what I would like us to do is to have a statewide discussion involving all the players - teachers, their unions, administrators, the Department of Public Instruction, legislators, businesspeople, and property taxpayers - to finally determine what role the state should have. And if it's decided that the state should have full funding, that's fine. But we need to define the borders of what's going on.

Maybe the state should just be responsible for certification and for curriculum development. I certainly understand that, statewide, we want to have quality education in every district, regardless of whether it's rural or urban, whether it's a very prosperous community or a community that's going through tough times or has a low budget. I don't want to see our children at risk because of where they happen to have been born or live.

Education, in my mind, and I'm not just pandering to the audience here, is the most important thing that we can give our children as they enter adulthood. It prepares them for a career, social responsibilities, to be a contributing member to society. I remember a cute joke at a conference I was at several years ago. The guy came out and said, "Thirty years ago it used to take five workers to support one person on Social Security. Now it takes two, and I want my two to be well-educated". [laughter]

Jim: One of the most controversial things the recent legislature did was they took away the ability for school districts to go to arbitration based on economic issues. And that really changed the whole budget and teacher contract equation. What is your view on that?
Doug: Obviously, you can't tax the local community more than they can afford. And if you give in to contract negotiations and you are mandated to provide a raise that a community can't afford, that's not realistic. You can do it once or twice, maybe. But eventually it's going to break the bank, it's going to break support for the school district. I think that's why we need to have this kind of comprehensive conference to decide what legislation we need to enact to finally fix this, and so it's not up in the air every year. I think there are some obvious things that the state can do to help make education uniform throughout the state. And there are some things that you can leave to the local school district. Obviously, one thing would be like athletic programs and the facilities themselves.

I happened to go to a high school in Madison, Edgewood. My father went to it, when he was fourteen years old. So it was significantly older. It's still the same building. We held classes in the basement, in the attic. But I still am grateful to the Dominican nuns for the quality education that they provided to all the students that went to that school.

I think, perhaps the state needs to get involved in maybe curriculum development, licensing, and maybe funding teachers statewide, so that you get the same quality teacher regardless of whether it's a rich district, a rural district, a city district, et cetera. In my experience, and I've raised three sons who have gone through school systems, it's the teacher that makes the difference. You can put kids out under a tent, a dirt floor, without the most modern school books.

But if you get that teacher that lights that spark in that kid... Now with the Internet and everything that's available, that kid can go on and educate themselves. So I believe that the state could be taking a role, that they could guarantee salaries of teachers throughout the state, so that we've got an even playing field.

Jim: What about citizens who are concerned about education policy? How can they influence it at a state level? Or can they? Is it possible?
Doug: They can run for the assembly. And they can run for their local school district. They can get involved with their local school district. People on local school district boards are very approachable. They're generally your neighbors. Often they serve... It is truly a service, because those people don't get any sort of political recognition. Sometimes they take a lot of harassment and criticism when taxes get raised or things don't go right. I would encourage people to run for office. A lot of times people say, "I don't feel comfortable in front of groups". You don't have to feel comfortable in front of groups. If you get out there and you have the right message, hopefully you can be successful. But also the communication and organization within your community.

People, even when it's not a career office, are very open to input from their friends and neighbors because every day they have to go back to their house and face their friends and neighbors. It's a good system.

Jim: So other than education, what would be your top priorities?
Doug: Well, I think the state budget and its imbalance right now. I'm running as an independent Democrat. I'm a fiscal conservative in these times. With the economy struggling, job loss, lack of job creation, we have a lot of expenses and preconditions that we have to meet, like school for example. So you have to have a balanced budget. If you have a balanced budget, that we can balance a budget, and identifying expenses and other problems that maybe aren't a high priority. I think you also have to look at your major expense areas. Like in Wisconsin, we've seen a dramatic increase in the cost of corrections. And I think that needs to be examined. When we start to spend as much on corrections as the university system, it's not good public policy. We've had this kind of reaction over the last couple decades.

If we have a social problem, let's make it a crime, and let's throw them in jail. We threw them in jail for three years before, let's throw them in jail for ten years now. You have to realize that the cost of incarcerating a person in the prison system is anywhere from forty to sixty thousand dollars.

So if you're going to throw someone in prison for ten years, you're looking at over half a million dollars. And there's no treatment built into that, so they come out of the system just ready to go back in. I think we need to look at that as a society, as a legislature.

Do we want this Truth in Sentencing? Do we want judges locked into mandatory? We elect judges and the philosophy used to be that they used their discretion to reflect the local community's standards within reason.

I'm not arguing that people should be given a free pass for crimes. But for some of the drug-related offenses, - where a drug dependency problem is the root of their violation - I would like to see those people, at least the first time through, put in a low-security facility where they get treatment, and where they're more mainstream to the local community.

We isolate our prisons in incredible locations like Stanley, Wisconsin. So every time somebody has to have a hearing or go back to court, you got to have the transportation. And if someone gets sick or seriously ill, they bring them down to the university hospital. It would be much more economical to put as many people in a location perhaps like the Oregon prison farm, a low-security facility close to courts, close to the hospital, where they're not as cut off from the mainstream.

Jim: Right.
Doug: So I think right there there's potentially a large savings in the budget. Over the last 10 years, the legislature has passed what is called a balanced budget. But in fact, they know going into it that it's going to be out of whack by the end of the year. In 2009, using generally accepted accounting principles the state was in debt $2.7 billion. Yet, two weeks ago, they announced that the state had a $54 million surplus. We need to be honest with the public. And we need to let them know the truth, so that these public policy decisions can be made in daylight and not by politicians behind closed doors.

I also think there are a lot of things that we can do for job creation. I mentioned that I want a balanced budget. I want to look at efficiencies in cost-cutting in the cost side of the budget. I don't want to raise taxes, but we can raise revenue, and the easiest way to raise revenue is to create more jobs. In Middleton, we were very effective with the tax incremental financing.

Basically, you defer tax on a development for a period of 8, 10, 20 years. At the end of that period, you haven't invested any general revenue from the community. It's all been done by deferring tax collection and using those taxes to pay off the debt. At the end of whatever the TIF period is that property goes back into the tax roll, and you realize the full benefit of it.

In Middleton, we've been drawing large amounts of property out of our TIF district because we're at the point where it can be paid off. Which has generated large amounts of tax revenue for the community without putting any additional property tax on. I think the same principle can be used with jobs.

Right now, you follow the news, there are a lot of employers that are sitting on the edge: "Is the economy going to come back? Can I hire, or should I hold off a little longer?" We need to give those employers some incentive. And perhaps, we can use something similar to a TIF district, where we can defer taxes on income generated by those additional employees. Or perhaps, we can defer taxes on any equipment and upgrades for the next two years or three years.

I think the concept is very workable and would be very successful. Obviously, the devil's in the details because there's a lot of technical analysis that would have to be done. But I think Wisconsin is poised to expand its job growth very quickly if we do it right. We have a well-educated workforce.

Wisconsin has a work ethic that's second to none. We have a pool of workers that are looking for jobs right now, so it's like the perfect storm. All the things are there, we just need something to light the spark, and hopefully, it will explode.

And it's a snowball effect too. As jobs are created, the economy gets healthier, tax revenues increase, and more businesses are drawn to the area because you do have a healthy economy. Taxes for education increase naturally without increasing rates. And public support for education to prepare their children for the workforce grows. It can be a snowball.

So I'd like to go to the legislature to get these things started. How much you can accomplish in two years, obviously, is limited. If I was successful and I was doing the right thing, people would like me and send me back for another two years. However, I do not intend to be a career candidate.

Jim: 26 years.
Doug: I'm not looking for a job. I'm looking for the opportunity to provide a service to my community. And I think I have a good message. I'm hoping that people get out and look at the message and hear that I have the right message for these times. Now my opponents have a lot of endorsements from other politicians and that sort of thing. I've avoided any endorsement from any PAC, special interest group, or public figure because I want to go into office with no baggage. When I go there, I want the people to see my first vote reflecting what I told them when I was campaigning. I don't want them to be disappointed saying, "That's not what he told us when he was running." I'm a very open person, and when I say something I mean it.

People ask me, "How can you do all of these interviews and be prepared?" I say it's not hard because I'm talking from the heart what I believe. And so, I generally will not be caught in a contradiction because I'm pretty consistent.

I've got the experience of being an alderman in Middleton and a mayor in Middleton. A mayor's position, even in a small town like Middleton, is significant in that you have to provide the leadership. You have to build the consensus. You have to bring the parties together. And you have to be focused on the right issues for the community at that time.

I feel proud that I was able to be in that position. I certainly don't take credit for all of the accomplishments because it was a mix of the community, volunteers, committees, city council, and city employees. It's a big fabric. And when it's all woven together and everybody is pulling their weight, it becomes a very strong community. And I was just fortunate to be there at a good time.

Jim: Great. Well thanks for taking the time today.
Doug: Yes. I appreciate the invite.

Watch the video here.