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Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg won’t toot her own her own horn when people tell her that she’s changing the face of Wisconsin Democratic politics. The 36-year-old progressive would rather tell you she’s just being her real self, whether it’s using the occasional four-letter word on Twitter or showing up to City Hall in a skull-print skirt. She’s in her job to make her hometown a better place.
Even though being the mayor of a city with a population of 38,000 isn’t necessarily a partisan gig, Rosenberg doesn’t hide her political leanings – and with the support of the youth vote and the growing respect of the city “elders,” as she calls them, she won the April election by a five-point margin, defeating the previous incumbent of four years.
Rosenberg ran on the platform of improving services and strategic investments in this central Wisconsin city, but also on increasing communication between elected officials and her constituents.
Take one look at her Twitter account, and you’ll see that she’s making great progress on that last part. She’s part of a new group of leaders within her party, and she received a lot of local and national attention for one particular tweet she posted when she learned she would become a new mayor in the middle of an international pandemic.
OnMilwaukee: I have to get this out of the way up front. That “Holy balls” tweet when you won the election turned a lot of head. Has no one ever heard a mayor say “balls” before?
Katie Rosenberg: I went back and counted. This is actually the 22nd time I've tweeted “holy balls.” It's not anything new.
HOLY BALLS — Katie Rosenberg (@katierosenberg) April 13, 2020
That got 20,000 likes on Twitter and a surprising amount of news coverage.
Yeah, it was insanity. Nobody who knows me was shocked. Isn't it kind of an old-fashioned phrase, too? I remember my dad saying it once when I was in sixth grade, and I loved it and I hung on to it forever.
Are you getting tired of talking about that?
Yeah. When I say it in a meeting, I make people laugh and I'm like, "That's not what I'm going for."
But you’re getting people talking. I guess I never really expected the mayor of Wausau to be a rising star in the progressive wing of Wisconsin politics.
Is that what I am?
You tell me. I hadn’t even really thought of Wausau since I got a speeding ticket there in 1999, so you must be doing something right.
I'm trying. I've been involved in politics for kind of a while. Sometimes you elbow your way through, and I'm an enthusiast of these things. I go to inaugurations and all kinds of things. So I don't know, I’m ready. I do wish we had the infrastructure to host the state convention or something here. I think that'd be a really cool thing.
As I look at the new faces of the Democratic party in Wisconsin, I think of people like you, I think of people like Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. You’re both younger than most of the people in the establishment, but you take it a step further. It’s not just that you’re only 36; you were on a roller derby team, you don’t hide your tattoos, you wear cat socks. You swear. You're not trying to change yourself, but is this approach resonating with younger constituents?
Yeah. I think it's been a couple of different things. I think it is resonating with younger people. And I think the elders are learning to deal with it. Even on County Board, I wore my weird shit, but I put a suit coat over it, at least.
I felt like I had to balance it a little bit of making sure that the elders trust me enough for their $92 million budget, but also being authentic to myself is important. So I think Mandela has done a really great job of that. He’s serious on the policy side, it's not a joke, but he's still wearing Jordans every single time I see a picture of him.
He's also really accessible, and so are you. I have never lived in Wausau, so I don't know what previous mayors were like, but it seems unique to me that someone can tweet at the mayor and get a response.
I don't think any other mayor was on Twitter, actually. I guess I'm just doing what I always did. That's another thing that I ran on: just making sure more people can be involved in this process. I think politicians are scared of that. They don't want to hear what people have to say.
I never thought the mayor of a smaller city would be a particularly partisan job.
Does your party affiliation really matter when it comes to being the mayor of Wausau?
So this is interesting, because I was a political enthusiast before I was an elected official. Everybody kind of knows where I bend. Yes, I am definitely a progressive. I even had one mayor tell me, "You should have them guessing what you are." And I'm like, "Well, the cat's out of the bag," so I can either pretend like it's not part of who I am, or I can just kind of say, "Yeah, this is who I am and this is what I stand for." So I went with that because I'm not going to have people shocked once I'm here doing what I'm doing.
There are certainly cities in Wisconsin, like Milwaukee, where if you're not running as a Democrat, no matter who you are, you have no chance to win. Is Wausau one of those cities?
No. I’m not going to be out there with a D behind my name, but I'm not going to pretend I don't care about those values. The guy I was running against was using all the Republican resources. It was very clear that he was running as a Republican in the older circle. We can agree on some things; there’s some conservative values I might hold. I don't necessarily love debts, and I want to make sure that we're budgeting correctly.
How is Wausau coping with COVID and the insane year that is 2020?
It's hard for me to tell. I'm not out there seeing what it's like in other communities, but there are some people who tell me, "I was just on vacation in Ashland and everyone there is wearing a mask and they're doing all the right things." And I come back to Wausau and these people aren't wearing masks, they're refusing. Is that a Wausau thing? Is that an everywhere thing?
I think it's a everywhere thing outside of Milwaukee and Madison, at least.
There are people who are not having it. They even walk into city hall and you can tell they're itching to fight about a mask. I’m like, "Well, I'm not fighting with you about this. Just don't cough on my people."
Before you joined the Marathon County Board, you worked in TV and in social media, and you worked in corporate America at Foot Locker. Did those jobs position you well for politics?
I think that understanding how media works is helpful because there's a lot of times when you probably get all kinds of stupid press releases and PR people wonder, "Oh, why aren't you covering my stupid thing?" And you're like, "That's not a thing. I know you're trying to market and you don't know what you're doing." So understanding that media will cover some things and won't cover other thing is helpful in managing those expectations.
For instance, I recently decided that I want high school students to work as poll workers. So what do you do? You cut it down into ways that the media would be interested in. One of my tweets had a Simpsons GIF in it (which brings me great joy). You find the kind of stuff that people actually do care about, so you push it out. Corporate America, social media, it’s the same thing. I think corporate America works a little bit faster than government, so I think me having that background is helpful for deadlines and timing. Government isn't a deadline thing, though. It's frustratingly slow. I think I bring a different kind of energy, maybe.
Has that been a weird transition for you? The County Board was a political position, but that's not exactly the same thing as being a mayor.
Being part of a policy body was fun. You're out there and you're like, "Oh, I'm going to throw a couple of arrows at the leadership and do things that will kind of piss them off." And now if I have a council member doing that to me, I'm like, "Hey now. No.” The County Board was slow, but I felt like I was able to accomplish some policy goals that I had on, specifically for mental and behavioral health and upgrading our healthcare center, and we did it. But the media did not care at all about county stuff.
Yeah, I would imagine there’s a different dynamic in Marathon County versus the city of Wausau.
It's different. And the characters you have on a County Board are a little different. We have 38 members on that board. It's the biggest in the nation. Yes, it’s insanity.
Are you finding yourself to have a life outside of work?
I told myself for the first three months to go insane. Don't sleep, do everything. So I did that. And so now we're past that and I'm still kind of doing that but it's because I feel even more proficient and I want to go further. I'm just glad school's back in session. My husband's teaching, and he’s busy and not waiting for me to come home. But I have a Peloton I like to ride sometimes.
You've left Wausau, but you haven't strayed far from home. You went to Japan for a little while in college, but you grew up in the area. Why did you choose to come back?
My dad was very involved in politics when I was growing up. He was a member of the Wausau City Council and the Marathon County Board. I loved what he was able to do. He was kind of a character, himself. Watching him get shit done in a cool way I was like, "I want to do that." And I could go to Madison, I could go to Milwaukee or I could be a staffer somewhere or whatever, and I had toyed with the concept, but it's kind of cool to be the person that's leading that charge here.
It's an interesting thing to being able to get people excited about Wausau politics, being civically engaged. We have a new voting box out front and everyone went insane about it. I was like, "Well, I'm glad. I'm excited about it, too." I like to be able to influence things. I’m 36, I'm the mayor of Wausau. I don't know that I could be doing that in Milwaukee or Madison.
But here's the thing: you have to follow the progression. (In those cities), you have start out on this body and then you've got to work your way up and go through this training and test this thing and that thing. You don't have to do that here. I can chart my own course, and it's calm, and I love it.
For better or for worse, has being the mayor changed how you feel about your hometown?
If you're trying to solve problems, that means there is a problem that you're focused on. Recently, for instance, I got an email from the parks department. They said, "My whole staff is mutiny and they're not going to clean up the human fecal matter anymore at this park where all these people are hanging out." And I was like, "Hold up, what?" All summer they've been dealing with this situation: we've got this park where the homeless population is day drinking, and it's a problem.
Wait, they’re pooping in the park?
Apparently, yes. And so I knew that these people had been hanging out at this park. I didn't realize they were also just like sh*tting everywhere. So it makes me think, "Oh man, why can't they hold themselves accountable to even use a restroom?” There's a point where I was thought, "Oh yeah, we're all at different levels of this life." But, man, this level is so low. How can I even help this problem if they can't help themselves? I don't know. It makes me think like the lows are a lot lower than I anticipated. Complex problem solving is annoying sometimes but also rewarding when you figure it out. But no, I don't I think less of Wausau. I just think, “How is this an issue?" I had no idea.
We both went to George Washington University, so we're fellow Colonials. You went there for grad school, right?
I did, and I did most of it online. But the graduation on the National Mall was the coolest thing ever. I think there's a gamesmanship aspect to politics that you see in D.C. that you don't necessarily see here. There are a lot of very sincere people who have very strong feelings and that's what's driving the politics, but in D.C., it's a chess game.
Because of your last name, many people think you’re Jewish, but you’re not. You’re more like a friend of the Jews.
Oh yeah, I am. Yes.
I was saddened to see how much misguided anti-semitism has come your way. It's been that way for your whole life in a smaller town, I’d imagine.
Oh yeah. Forever. My dad was on the radio regularly on this right wing yap yap show for Wausau. Somebody called in to complain about him, being antisemitic, and he was a dude that actually went to the same church my dad went to. It’s just one of those things where people don't know how to react.
Is it strange to have to been co-opted into defending a group that you're not part of?
I don't know. I mean maybe it was before, but now we all have to do that, with the George Floyd marches, with all of these kind of questions we have. I'm not part of these communities. I don't have that shared experience, but I do want to be an advocate for their stories. I think that's important. I'm gave a video message at the Rosh Hashanah service this year.
Do you have grander political aspirations?
I don't know. I feel like some of that will reveal itself. This is a cool job. You kind of learn what you're most interested in. I want to figure out what I really find the most meaning out of, and if that's more public life, that's something. If it's maybe not, that's also something.
I've been working with the United States Global Leadership Coalition. That is fricking awesome. They bring in all these people, and they bring those international issues down to a local level. That's something I could see myself getting really into. That's not something that Wausau has really considered before. It's not like we’re internationally-recognized city, but we do have ginseng. We have all kinds of things that are important. I guess the short answer is I don't know.
Maybe. Yeah. I'm not going to cross it off my list, but five years ago, I didn't think I was going to be the mayor.
This is burning question for me: I’ve always wondered if mayors get a sash or a gavel.
I have a gavel downstairs at the council chambers, and during the centennial of the 19th amendment, I had a nice sash. I looked like a French mayor. It was awesome.
Do you get to give people keys to the city? And can I have one?
That was the first thing I asked. They said, "We haven't really done that in 20 years." I said, "Well, start that up again."
Getting out the vote in November is vital. How important is this cause to you?
Super important. When I was in high school, the mayor started the Mayor's Youth Action Council. She gave us $25,000. I was on the council, of course. And we were able to use that and kind of do all kinds of cool things. And I keep coming back to that: the mayor that I replaced completely disbanded that program. Well, I want kids to still be involved, and I know right now it's tough, but I really want to make sure that they are being able to be part of that process.
As for election volunteering, you can do that when you're 16 and 17. I want as many people as are eligible to vote, to vote. That matters. I just feel like I'm going crazy with any way to get people interested in voting. We're doing it. We're doing drive-up voting. We had thousands and thousands of absentee ballots to send out. Whatever I can do, I'm doing it. I'm tweeting about it. Everything.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.