Dave de Felice has seen a lot of changes on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. When he was elected in 2004, the liberals and conservatives were in a pitched battle for control of the board. Thirteen years later, conservatives, or what passes for conservatives in ever-more-liberal Dane County, are nearly invisible.
De Felice doesn’t necessarily see the purging of conservatives from the board as a good thing. An upside: meetings are decidedly shorter.
“It’s easier but it’s less fun,” he said. “Because when you are able to discuss issues, I think the final product ends up better. Now it’s pretty much, a ‘Yes, move on. Yes, move on,’ agenda. It’s predictable, and it’s boring.”
Yes, the days of David Blaska’s fiery monologues and liberal eye rolls are over. And now so are the days of self-proclaimed liberal contrarian de Felice, whose recent back injury and subsequent surgery has put the kibosh on his public service career.
“What other requisite is there for public office?” he shrugged. “Sitting and standing. If you can’t do that, you’re out of the game.”
De Felice announced his retirement from the board last week, a year before his term expires. It was a job that kept him engaged in public affairs after his retirement in 2012 after a total of 19 years at the state Capitol, where he started as press secretary for the Assembly speaker and capped his career as chief of staff for state Sen. Spencer Coggs, D-Milwaukee. In between Capitol jobs, he served as communications director for former U.S. Rep. Jerry Kleczka, a Milwaukee Democrat.
He also made an unsuccessful run for the Assembly in 2011.
His was a sometimes unappreciated presence on the County Board, coming on with a platform to cut the cumbersome number of 37 supervisors roughly in half. Then he tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to add a note of fiscal conservatism to a group he says has “never really taken a decent whack at spending.”
In an age in which the once vibrant media coverage of the County Board has gone the way of the dinosaur, de Felice’s commentary didn’t get a lot of ink in recent years. So he jumped at the chance to share his observations with The Cap Times.
When you were first elected to the board, conservatives were a formidable force. Now there’s a mere handful of supervisors who aren’t liberals. What happened?
You know who I thank for that? Scott Walker. He turned Madison a deep blue. I think you could go to the front door while you’re doing doors in prison stripes and say, “I’m a Democrat running for fill-in-the-blank.” And you’d get a vote. Because it’s that strong what’s happened in this city and this county.
Some people say that’s made for a rubber-stamp board where debate has become almost non-existent.
It’s very surprising how little people question things. I was going to introduce a resolution in the throes of my disagreements on spending. You’re supposed to say “aye” or “no” to things. I wanted to change the “aye” to “baaa.” Because really, they don’t question spending much. I’m a lifelong Democrat, and I was trying to instill more confidence in Democrats, because they’ve been labeled tax-and-spend.
Your resolution to cut the number of board members from 37, one of the largest in the nation, to 19 came only two years into your time on the board. That got support from some quarters, but none from your colleagues. Why did you think that was important?
It’s unwieldy, and it’s unnecessary. It’s also a matter of power sharing. I don’t think the county executive respects the board because he or she knows how little power we have. We’re 1/37th. We don’t represent the elected body as well as we could, or should. And I saw the exec sometimes strong-arm things, and I didn’t like it.
You’ve worked with two county executives, Kathleen Falk and Joe Parisi. You think both of them strong-armed the board?
Personality has a lot to do with it. It’s also the power that the exec has, which is pretty complete. We do have to approve spending, but you can always tuck something in the budget. And the power to conform, it’s a very strong influence in that body. Conformity is a big deal over there, and I am a non-conformist.
How does the board get along with the current exec, Joe Parisi?
I think anybody on the board will tell you there isn’t a working relationship there. It’s mostly, “Here’s what I’m doing.” And if the board doesn’t agree with it, which I haven’t seen yet — I mean, we’ve been very accommodating as a board. I think he thinks too highly of himself, and he has too low an opinion of us.
How about Falk?
She and I got along very well, I would have to say, about 89 percent of the time. But that other 11 was knocking heads. We just had to thrash it out. She was always a fair player, for the most part. But I had money in there for suicide prevention and she was messing with that. I didn’t take that kindly.
That’s a very personal issue with you, since your efforts with suicide prevention followed the 2006 death of your wife.
When that happened, it of course completely changed my life. That opens your eyes a lot, and I did what I could to volunteer with groups and put some money in the budget for suicide prevention. And speak. I was the keynote speaker for the local suicide prevention group one year. It’s painful. But I think the best thing that can happen for somebody thinking about suicide is that somebody reaches them and talks to them and lets them know that they care about them. And that there’s no going back and this is a terrible thing to not only do to yourself but to the ones that love you.
How would you sum up your time on the board?
My experience was grossly positive. On a scale of one to 10, it was a 100. It was fascinating, it was boring, it was exciting, it was tiresome. It was all those things. But above all it was an adventure. You’re lucky if you can live your life with purpose. And that gave me purpose.