Following various trials and tribulations in leadership, the Associated Students of Madison’s Legislative Affairs Committee chair said he is trying to get the grassroots group back in the game.
The committee, which LAC Chair Adam Johnson said represents the university’s student population in the various levels of government, came out of a dwindling and barebones session last year.
“I was just elected in April. Last year, before April, this committee didn’t have a chair. Before that there wasn’t a whole lot of things going on. There was stuff that we worked on, but not really anything we accomplished,” Johnson said.
Kurt Gosselin, former Student Services Finance Committee chair and a co-worker of Johnson’s at Wisconsin Student Lobby, said the committee had no chair from sometime in February through April 31. Kevin Ott served as chair from September 2008 until he resigned in February due to other commitments. Prior to that, past ASM chair Brittany Wiegand served as LAC chair from May 2008 to July 2008 when she took up the position of ASM chair.
“The biggest issue in the past was there was no clear purpose,” Gosselin said. “A lot of people this year have some sort of external political experience already, and I don’t know if that was the case (in past sessions). That, with the lack of a centralized mission, I think, that really contributed to the committee not knowing what to do.”
Former LAC chair and UW senior Gestina Sewell said the position itself is extremely difficult, with a large amount of criticism coming from all sides, including the student body, the administration and the state.
“A few times I would get calls from our state [representative] saying you should be here at this issue, there’s a press conference here,” Sewell said. “It’s really hard to decide how to decide to do everything that needs to be done. Sometimes as students, it would take up too much time where our best interests should be academics.”
Transition to city affairs
This semester, Johnson is trying to shift the committee’s focus to local matters, which he thinks will allow for more accomplishments.
“I feel legislative affairs hasn’t done much in the past couple of years. I can’t look back and say ‘Look, we accomplished this,'” Johnson said. “I think if we put a real emphasis on the city level, we can get a lot more accomplished that will directly benefit students.”
While Sewell said the committee made effective and vital accomplishments at the state and national levels when she was in office, Johnson said he thinks the committee’s efforts are best utilized at the city level — at least for now.
He said the committee needs to be realistic and try to center on the issues that will make the most impact.
“On the city level, we are the voice,” Johnson said in an e-mail to The Badger Herald. “(As) the single largest group in the city and one of the biggest users of the downtown, students can clearly have a real and immediate impact on the city level. We’re looking for solid victories.”
And to get those issues and policies addressed by city government, the committee has worked to improve its relations with various officials and administration throughout downtown over the past few months.
Johnson said the committee has been working closely with Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, and Ald. Bryon Eagon, District 8, whose districts encompass much of the student-populated area.
He added he has also been meeting with city planning staff, Madison Police Department Capt. Mary Schauf and mayoral assistant Joel Plant to increase relations. This, Johnson said, is the way to “get things done.”
“We’re trying to meet pretty consistently to build important contacts so they know us and that we care — so we can go to them with an issue and they know we mean business,” Johnson said.
Johnson added the committee has recently been working with the Downtown Coordinating Committee regarding the Downtown Plan to restructure the Mifflin Street neighborhood. He said members have really tried to lobby for what the students want — which in this case means keeping the houses that have been in the area for decades.
Other issues the LAC has been working on include the Downtown Lighting Initiative and a joint committee to focus on Halloween and the Mifflin Street Block Party.
Plant said the joint committee might not be the best mode because of quorum and voting requirements and has suggested to the LAC to create a work group made up of stakeholders such as city officials, university agents, students and ASM representatives.
As Johnson and the committee have increased their involvement, Eagon said, from his understanding, this is one of the most active partnerships ASM has had with city government for quite some time.
He added while in the past there was very limited participation, this year he has really seen the committee try to get engaged and accomplish those issues that relate most to students.
“My relationship with Adam and the committee has been great,” Eagon said. “We’re finding ways that we can work together and actually sit down and roll up our sleeves and see what we can do together.”
Both Verveer and Plant voiced similar opinions — adding they are impressed and excited to see the level of involvement that LAC has taken in city issues.
Verveer, an ASM alumnus himself, said he has worked with many ASM members over the years and this semester has been the “most engaged and impressive” group of any in recent memory.
“For many ASM sessions there was absolutely no communication or contact between ASM and city officials,” Verveer said. “This semester that has changed.”
Plant said UW’s 42,000 students represent a major group in the community, and the mayor’s office welcomes LAC’s involvement with open arms.
“We’re ready to work together to solve problems and have a strong safe city,” he said.
So why the switch?
Sewell said during her term as chair they started out with the idea the committee represents all levels of government: campus, city, state and federal. However, she admitted the broad focus created somewhat of a hindrance at points.
“The issue with that is that it is a lot of areas to tackle. It seems that what they’re focusing on (now) is where they can be the most useful,” Sewell said. “On campus, we’ve had greater victories as students than say at the state or federal level.”
Johnson said he’s been working with one or two others at the state level on various issues, specifically focusing on legislation regarding open records laws that affect students.
He added he has kept the committee’s relations steady with United Council, a lobbying group working to pass policies at the state level in favor of the entire UW System, and Wisconsin Student Lobby, a UW-Madison student organization that provides advocacy training and lobbies at the Capitol on behalf of students.
According to Johnson, LAC has not decreased its involvement at the state level, but instead has doubled its participation in the city level.
Sewell said, however, she is skeptical that the increased involvement at the city level means similar involvement at the state level compared to past sessions.
“It’s really important that even when you’re concentrating on one area more heavily that you are still looking strongly at state and federal issues … that you are still involved in what’s going on because once we stop getting involved in those issues our own ability to make change disappears,” she said.
Sewell expressed her fear that LAC’s new focus on city affairs could lead to isolation at the state or national level.
“If we’re pushed out from state and national levels, we get our place taken by other interests,” she added. “If you are not coming and talking about those issues, someone else is going to bring their issues in your place.”
Verveer said after working at the Capitol, he knows firsthand how students can make an impression, but he also said he thinks the reality is that UW students can have even more of an impact by working on local issues.
“For one thing it’s just easier to grasp your arms around city issues. There are fewer players in city hall than there are at the state Capitol,” Verveer said.
According to Johnson, he thinks accomplishments at the city level will help increase the committee’s legitimacy and confidence, which will allow for more effective lobbying at the state level in the future.
“We are a block from the Capitol. There is no better school to do that,” Johnson said. “I’m hoping to build on smaller local successes and eventually work on bigger, more overarching change and have the respect and credibility without legislators just laughing at us.”
As the LAC gets its grasp on city issues, Johnson said he hopes victories in the next few months will allow for greater moral that will carry into ASM’s next session.
He said with ASM’s “few and far between victories, especially with Legislative Affairs,” he is trying to build stability so that when he’s gone, the committee doesn’t just “disappear again.”
“I want it to continue in some way. I don’t want it to be a point so the committee dissolves,” Johnson said.
Sewell said she still gets notifications about press conferences, campaigns and other issues being confronted at the state and national level. She added whenever she sees those notices, the question as to whether LAC is taking up that issue is in the front of her mind.
Johnson said LAC still has a long way to go, but that he thinks the committee is on the right path for now.
“We have some very committed committee members that are really staying involved and taking an interest in the issues beyond showing up at the meetings. They’re doing their own individual work, which I think is really important,” Johnson said.