Olson: “We start with the people; we end with the people”

By Roxanne Aubrey

Due to our present political maelstrom, you may or may not be aware of the La Crosse mayoral election in April of 2021. To be fair, it’s still far enough away that you’re likely not giving it much thought, and the current mayor, Tim Kabat, doesn’t exactly incite the kind of fervent devotion or rancor as our national “leaders.” But one person who has given Kabat and the mayoral race some thought is councilwoman Jessica Olson

My first impression of Ms. Olson offers some insight into how diametrically opposed we could be. Being a big-city snob from Brooklyn, I found her campaign mailer (back when she was running for council representative of my district) rather scrapbooky, quaintly amateurish, and very small-townish. But wouldn’t you know it worked for her and she won. So, kudos to her. 

As I became more immersed in the Washburn neighborhood, I began to think of her as “the landlord council woman” and figured she was a Republican, which she technically is. Being the raging aggressive progressive that I am, I remained dismissive of her. Until this summer.

This summer, in the middle of a pandemic—along with the budget issues that come with it—and amid national cries to rein in policing in this country, the city of La Crosse put forth plans to spend $36 million on a police and fire “headquarters” in the Washburn Neighborhood. This does not sit well with many of us who are paying attention. And it did not sit well with Ms. Olson. She proposed an amendment to cut the funding for the facility, but it was voted down. (Christine Kahlow proposed a companion amendment but withdrew it after Olson’s amendment was denied.) I attended the council meeting where these issues were voted on, and of all the council members, Olson and Kahlow seemed to be the only ones who genuinely listened to their constituents’ concerns and conveyed those concerns to the council; the other members spent their time displaying cringeworthy, paternalistic head-patting. Such business-as-usual behavior left Olson and Kahlow standing impressively out and apart.

I finally got to speak one-on-one with Ms. Olson while doing research for another article I wrote for the Independent. I found her informed and passionate about her beliefs and very open to a conversation. And then she announced she was running for mayor, which is why we ended up across a picnic table from each other in the Washburn Garden, talking the body politic. Our discussion covered a range of issues, from Black Lives Matter and policing to the La Crosse Center. Mostly I wanted to poke a Republican bear to see what came out. I was surprised at what I found.

A Woman on a Mission

First off, is her candidacy any sort of sour grapes against the current mayor? While Olson does feel the mayor has been “condescending and dismissive” during their recent interactions, and that he certainly seemed like he was being retributive when he stripped her of her committee appointments last year, she insists her running for mayor isn’t based on a revenge motive. No doubt those interactions with him are fueling her consideration to run, but it’s not about revenge. She worries that the current mayor has become autocratic, “a man on a mission ‘so let’s just scratch this thing off the list and move on.’” As an example, let’s use the removal of the much-contested Hiawatha statue. Ms. Olson didn’t think the decision to remove the statue was wrong, but because of her training in servant leadership, she thought there should’ve been hearings for however long it took for people to say their piece. From her standpoint, the people who “lost” the argument weren’t given closure, which only fostered resentment. “It was easier to [get rid of the statue] the way Kabat did it, and I thought that was disgusting. About a week later, I filed my [candidacy] papers.” 

When I brought up policing in La Crosse, she again offered nuance to an issue too binarily split. She understands the public wants more than just “editing our police handbooks.” She says, they “want to see actual empathy being developed in the police department.” Olson also understands that a lot of the officers are invested in their training and are defensive of their actions. If you challenge them too fast or too hard, “the officers will put up their defenses, and will resist” any change. But Olson also doesn’t like the phrase “defund the police.” When prodded about the need to restructure policing, given its current reputation and actions, she responded, “If you want to talk about reallocation of resources, then we can talk about it. But you can’t jump into that too fast, and I want the officers on board with that, not being passive receivers of action.” 

All of her responses to my questions were measured as a balance between policies and the people those policies affect. She weighs the needs and concerns of the general public against those of the public servants responsible for enforcing those policies, trying to find that elusive point of equilibrium. “To be a good leader, you need to be at the center. Nobody is perfectly happy but there’s some sort of progress. Capitalist corporations make money when societies and communities are divided.” Yup, a Republican just said that.

We moved from there to the topic of the La Crosse Center expansion, which Ms. Olson believes was handled poorly. She was on the expansion project’s board, which means she had a front-row view to the mishandling. Her vision of the Center was more visually inviting, while also being more useful to the public. “Maybe I was too fresh to be appointed to a committee of that caliber. Boy was that a learning process for me. Now, it has windows that don’t open into the public space but rather look down on it.” She went on, “The lack of public input was the biggest dysfunction in that process. All the questions that got asked and answered were asked and answered in meetings the public never attended and the media never paid attention to.” She added, “How do you bring people in [to the planning process] who don’t normally participate? I think our Planning Department needs to develop or extend into the public outreach department and take charge of some of this communication and outreach.”  

Owning Up To a Mistake

And then she did something I rarely hear from any politician: She admitted she was wrong about something! It wasn’t about a huge thing, but it’s something. We were discussing the trailheads for the new Grandad Bluff trails, and while we didn’t discuss the actual merits or environmental issues (which are myriad), Olson at least admitted her oversight regarding the parking situation, which is on a residential street. “I was sitting in council and it sounded like it all made sense, and the Parks Department argument was ‘of course they won’t park there they’re going to the bluffs to exercise so of course they’re going to be willing to walk and bike to the trailhead and not park there.’ That sounded plausible in the bubble of City Hall. Reality is different.” She then said, “If a promise was made, even in good faith, but it doesn’t work out, it needs to be fixed.” 

The lack of input from the public was a running theme throughout our conversation, as was her ability to think about public space as more than just a way to collect revenue for the city, or, maybe worse, to develop for the sheer sake of development.  When asked about the recurring issue of the DOT wanting to plop a highway through the marsh, she pointed out she voted “no” on the sustainability rail issue. She says “we have to ask ourselves what it does for our people and our community, because [the marsh] is our gem. … it’s not just the flooding, it’s the quality of life.” 

When discussing Riverside North, she was very clear about how she wanted that land to be protected for the people, and how she didn’t want it to look like Anywhere, U.S.A. “We have an opportunity there to be different.” She talked about the potential of putting a covenant on the land that would limit commercial unit size to 650 square feet, making it impossible for large chains to use the space, since they typically have a minimum square footage requirement that can’t be undercut. Olson understands that having unique spaces people want to be a part of is valuable, not only to the city’s coffers, but to the people who live there.

She is quite cognizant of the human component of public policies. Olson values communication and wants more people involved in the decision-making processes; more public input means more work, but Olson feels this is worth the effort. “[Being mayor is] not an easy job, I know that. It’s a lot of hard work to do it right, and I’m willing to give it a shot.” So much so, that she thinks running for council at the same time as running for mayor would be disingenuous, so she’s risking not having any position in government come April 2021. 

Is there a dark side to Jessica Olson? The worst thing I can say about her is she’s a landlord, and that’s only a liability in this town because of a few large, bad actors. I also worry that her constant quest for unification and appeasement will undermine her ability to lead. She’s aware very few women have risen to any level of power here and that the ones who did had to resort to political maneuvers she says she “would never personally do.” Who knows how she’ll actually react in the pressure chamber of local, patriarchal politics? Am I biased because I’m a woman and I want to see a woman as mayor? Probably. But the fact she consistently brought it back to “We start with the people; we end with the people” makes me want to give her the benefit of the doubt.

We both agreed that La Crosse is so small, it doesn’t have the inertia larger cities have. Things can be done here, incubated here, that could be a model for other small municipalities. Having a mayor that doesn’t do “politics as usual” might be a way for La Crosse to keep from morphing into another boring Midwest town while trying to maintain and foster its potentially quirky personality.

And for the record, while she always says she’d step aside if another, more qualified person wanted to run, I encourage her not to do that. If only so we can see what it’s like to have a woman run things here, for a change.

Roxanne Aubrey is co-publisher/graphic designer at Ope! Publishing in La Crosse.

Support The La Crosse Independent and help us grow by becoming a member today for just $5.75 a month at this link.