Jamie Kuhn is no stranger to the Dane County Board.
It was back in 2000 that she left after one term representing the town of Madison and part of Fitchburg to pursue a master’s degree in social work. And now she’s back, representing a different district, which consists of east Madison, the town of Blooming Grove and a small piece of McFarland, a district where she lives with her partner and four kids. That’s down from five; her stepson is currently an ROTC cadet at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Kuhn, 44, won the seat, vacated by Dave de Felice earlier this year, last week with no opposition.
She brings with her a vast experience in government. In her current job, she handles outreach and strategy for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. Prior to that she served as government affairs director for Milwaukee County.
She also spent nearly 14 years working for state Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona.
“I was able to do most jobs that a legislative staffer could do,” she said.
And then some. As chief of staff for Miller, then the Senate minority leader, Kuhn coordinated with senators and staff during the chaotic 2011 protests. When Miller and 13 other Senate Democrats fled the state in defiance of Republican anti-union legislation, she was right there with them.
Her first term on the board was not without controversy. In an era in which liberals and conservatives vied for control, she was targeted by ex-Vietnam POW Don Heiliger, who was incensed that Kuhn and Supervisor Echnaton Vedder were not even bothering to mouth the words to the Pledge of Allegiance. (Kuhn said she took issue with the phrase “One nation, under God.)
In a move that some considered dirty pool, Heiliger mailed letters to war veterans living in the northern district of Kuhn’s then-legislative boss, Rep. Sarah Waukau, D-Antigo, urging them to express their outrage by writing letters to editors and contacting local media, igniting a debate over patriotism versus freedom of expression.
Kuhn ended up leaving her job and taking a previous post with the Assembly Democratic caucus.
You got some pretty harsh treatment last time around. Why do you want to be on the board again?
I’ve been engaged in public policy since I was in college and clearly my entire life has been about trying to work on issues that matter to the community. I’ve always been invested in the value that local government provides its citizens and I continue to care very deeply about how those decisions are made and who makes them and how they benefit the community.
And the timing? Is it because the seat happened to open up?
Yeah. I think a lot of people felt some frustration after the November election as well. I, too, was trying to figure out what else I could do in my community despite what is happening at the state and federal level.
When you left, the board was bitterly divided between liberals and conservatives. Now it’s a much different make-up. Is it comforting to be heading into an environment of like-minded liberals?
The board was definitely made up of different folks at the time. I’ve worked with people from both parties with very different views of how policy should be passed. I’m not necessarily thinking about it as where people are politically as much as I know several of the people on it and have worked with them in other capacities and I am excited about working with people who want to get things done and who care about ensuring that we’re protecting the programs that are important.
Some critics, including the guy you’re replacing, have characterized the current board as a herd of sheep. Do you think members are a little too docile?
I think our democratic system is set up such that when there is agreement among the public and between elected officials there is a process that can move efficiently. I also believe the system was designed to ensure when there is disagreement and there is no clear consensus, deliberation should occur before the policy advances.
Are there issues near and dear to your heart the board isn’t currently addressing?
I guess I don’t know what they’re not addressing. I would say what’s near and dear to my heart is I clearly have a background in working on children and families' issues, public health issues and environmental issues. Those still remain important to me and I think remain important to folks in my district, and remain important right now given some of the challenges those issues face at other levels of government.
What lingers in the public memory of your last stint on the board is the pledge flap. Do you plan to sit out the pledge this go-round?
I never sat out the pledge. That was a misnomer. I stood up just like everyone else.
But you didn’t say it, according to Don Heiliger.
I think that I didn’t mouth the words every time we were standing up. And I know that the issue was not really about the pledge. From my perspective there were some folks on the board who had a concern about a young woman of color coming on the board and having an opinion, and the best they could do was try to start a controversy about whether or not I was mouthing the words of the Pledge of Allegiance.
I think it was your patriotism that was being questioned.
I think my years of service have proved that people can show their patriotism in many ways.
As chief of staff for Mark Miller, you also got caught up in the Capitol strife over Act 10. What was it like being in the Capitol at that time?
For us, it really wasn’t about us or the senators. It was about making sure that the citizens had time to voice their concerns, that they had opportunities when some folks were trying to move things along very quickly without public input.