Erin Grunze, the next executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, has been attuned to politics since her parents brought her and her sister along to the voting booth as children.
Grunze, 42, grew up in West Milwaukee developing a crush on Michael J. Fox’s conservative character on “Family Ties” and rooting for Republican Tommy Thompson in his first election. But by the time she graduated with her master’s degree in sociology from UW-Milwaukee, her political views had changed to the point where she recalls not wanting to shake Thompson’s hand at the State Fair.
Grunze worked for 13 years as office manager and then associate publisher at left-leaning magazine The Progressive before joining the League as voter education coordinator in 2016. Starting Jan. 1 she will succeed Andrea Kaminski, who served as the League’s executive director for 13 years.
The League advocates for voting rights and educates the public about issues and candidates.
Grunze met her husband, Paul Schlomer, the women’s volleyball coach at Edgewood College, while attending Wisconsin Lutheran High School in Milwaukee and they went to UW-La Crosse together. They have two sons, ages 4 and 8, the oldest of whom attends Westside Christian in Middleton.
Did you relate to Michael J. Fox’s “Family Ties” character as the conservative child of hippie parents?
Not necessarily because my parents were always very middle of the road. My family by and large is a conservative family on both sides. But I have to say that I don’t necessarily align myself with conservativism and I don’t think that I’m a bleeding heart liberal. I have a hard time coming up with a single term. It’s an issue by issue. It’s just a focus on being pro-democracy.
How do you handle political discussions with your family?
It’s kind of hard. I feel like I can participate in family Thanksgivings when I ask more questions than state more opinions or facts. I’ve found it’s important to listen.
What issues have been important to you in your life?
Education would be one. Just the importance that everybody be given a good education. Social justice. The idea that people should be treated fairly and that if you have more you give to others, you pay it forward as it is or you use those things that have been given to you to help others. And to take an active role in shaping your world, like participating in democracy.
What are some experiences that turned you on to politics and social justice?
There were a few instances of racial harassment directed toward some of the black students on campus (at UW-La Crosse) and also the Native American students on campus. It gave people a chance to talk openly about what’s happening instead of just this underlying tension that would exist. Another situation in college that was very eye-opening for me was when my roommate and I tried to sublet our apartment. We found a renter, a black woman with a young child, and when we told our landlady and followed the policy, she told us that they don’t rent to those kind of people. To which my roommate and I were just, we couldn’t believe it.
What are your goals for the League?
Definitely to keep going as we have. I think our greatest challenges are the challenges to voting laws. Our special registration deputy status that so many members worked toward has been eliminated with the new law. We as an organization are trying to figure out how we can play a role in registrations. And we think we’ve figured it out, but it’s an investment in electronics, and tablets and laptops and printers. There’s still a large segment of the population that will have to register on paper because they’re not connected to the (Department of Motor Vehicles) as the online voter registration is.
Who will the law most affect?
Definitely students, just because students from out of state won’t be in the system. Anybody without a Wisconsin ID or driver’s license, that’s who it will affect the most. … It did create kind of a two-tier registration system. Those people who are in the DMV (system), they do have an easier time.
Any other thoughts on politics?
Politics to me is complex and simple all at the same time. That’s why I find the League so interesting because they’re willing to dig into issues at a very local level. Unfortunately, it’s local elections that tend to get the least amount of attention and turnout from voters. I will be that person listening and I guess I do that more than offering up my own opinions, although I still feel that strong pull toward social justice and what that means and how I can do that.
— Interview by Matthew DeFour