Cynthia Richson, Richard Oberle

Cynthia Richson, a member of the town of Middleton's planning commission, defeated the incumbent town Chair Bill Kolar in Tuesday's election. Richard Oberle, who previously served on the town board from 2002 to 2014, defeated incumbent Tim Roehl. 

Courtesy of Cynthia Richson, Richard Oberle

Two town of Middleton residents discovered Tuesday that a grassroots campaign of knocking on doors and talking to voters can work.

Cynthia Richson, a member of the town’s planning commission, defeated incumbent town Chair Bill Kolar in the spring election, 707 to 651. Richard Oberle, who previously served on the town board from 2002 to 2014, defeated incumbent Tim Roehl, 754 to 585.

Neither was on the ballot.

Richson and Oberle filed paperwork to run as write-in candidates March 13, five days after a state Assembly committee heard testimony on a bill proponents say will streamline the process by which Dane County towns can withdraw from county zoning.

Candidates can start to campaign only after filing their intent to run and the deadline to be registered as a write-in candidate is 12 p.m. on the Friday before an election, Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell said. The Town Board of Canvass certifies the election.

“I have never seen a candidate in my 20 years win via write-in before,” McDonell said. “If I were a town supervisor thinking of opting out of county zoning anywhere in Dane County, this would cause me to tap the brakes, so to speak.”

So what's the strategy for winning as a write-in candidate?

“We just decided the way to win this was to knock on every door in the town of Middleton that was physically possible,” Richson said.

She and Oberle also handed out information and talked to visitors on Election Day, abiding by electioneering rules that require candidates to be at least 100 feet away from a polling place.

Both write-in candidates oppose opting out of Dane County zoning, but take more issue with how current town board members informed the town about the zoning opt-out legislation.

“Number one is to make sure the citizens are allowed to have a vote on this opt out issue and get informed about it so they can make a good decision,” Oberle said of his priorities.

Roehl, a lobbyist and vice president of the Dane County Towns Association, pushed for zoning opt-out legislation that was signed into law in 2016. When Roehl backed legislation in March that would have relegated resident votes to advisory, as opposed to binding, Richson and Oberle decided to get involved.

Roehl did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Kolar did not take a public stance on the opt-out legislation and said he could not speak about the election until Thursday.

An amended version of the bill, which is pending in the Legislature, allows town residents to vote to opt out but at a special meeting and not the annual meeting. An expected vote by the Assembly was delayed from Tuesday to Thursday.

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The Senate is not expected to be in session until May, meaning it is unlikely the zoning opt-out bill can be approved and signed into law in time for the town of Middleton’s annual meeting April 18.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said the town of Middleton election results send a strong message that elected town officials should be in touch and listen to their constituents.

“When you cut the people you are elected to represent out of the process, that’s going to haunt you,” Parisi said. “People in our community overwhelmingly want us to manage our growth in a manner that maintains the quality of life and the character of our community. And people want to have a voice in how we grow.”

Parisi remains opposed to the zoning opt-out bill.

Richson said her and Oberle’s victory signifies the town residents' voices have been heard.

“I would hope that it would be a reminder and perhaps a wake up call to other representatives who may be deciding that once they get elected that they can pursue any agenda they personally want to as opposed to reaching out to their electors and taking public input,” Richson said.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.