Crawford County Board Chairperson Pete Flesch made it official this week—he’s running as a Democrat for the 96th Wisconsin State Assembly seat currently held by Representative Lee Nerison (R-Westby).
Flesch, a local farmer from Clayton Township, is ready to end his small dairy operation and concentrate on his beef cattle as he prepares to run and possibly win the state assembly seat.
Flesch owns a 250-acre dairy and beef farm he purchased from his grandparents. In fact, he’s a fifth generation farmer on the property originally owned by his great-great grandfather.
“I’ve lived here my entire life,” he said. He does rotational grazing with his 30 dairy cows and has a cow-calf beef operation.
It’s obvious the 56-year-old farmer will miss milking his cows, but he acknowledged the arthritis in his knees has made it increasingly difficult to do the milking.
“It will be a hard habit to break,” Flesch said of the daily milking chores. “I’ve been doing it since I was big enough carry a milker.”
There are some regrets about giving up the dairy herd, which he will soon sell.
“A lot of farmers say it's hard to give up milking, but people say if you miss milking cows you can always go find some cows to milk,” Flesch said.
“That’s not the same though. When you have smallish herd, you get to know the animal’s personality, you know the traits of each cow. You’re around them all the time. It’s like having 30 or 40 pets. I enjoy handling cattle and being around them. I always have.”
Flesch believes having an agricultural background is important in representing the district.
“It’s a rural, geographically large district,” Flesch noted. “It runs from Prairie du Chien all the way up to just outside Sparta and Tomah. It’s very agricultural. It’s important to have an agricultural and rural perspective to represent this district.”
While Flesch has considerable experience farming, he’s hardly new to politics either. He got his start as member of the Clayton Town Board in 1999 and served as Town Board chairperson from 2003 to 2005. In 2002, he was elected as a supervisor on the Crawford County Board. He has served on the ag and extension committee, the land conservation committee and the fair board. In 2010, Flesch was elected Crawford County Board Chairperson. In addition to being the county board chairperson, Flesch is also the chairperson of the county ag and extension committee and the Crawford County Fair Board. He also serves as President of the Crawford County Economic Development Corporation Board of Directors.
“I have a lot of local government experience and I think that’s important in representing the district,” Flesch said. “It’s local government that impacts the people. That’s who responds first, whether it's the flood in Gays Mills or a tornado in Viola. Local government is the first to respond.”
The county board chairman isn’t sure about whether he should retain his county board seat if he’s elected to become the state representative. He noted others in the estate legislature including state representative Steve Doyle from LaCrosse continue to serve on county boards after being elected to the legislature.
“I think I’ll be able to figure out what’s right for me after the election,” the candidate said.
However, Flesch is running for the county board this April and will then run for the state assembly seat in November.
As for issues in the state assembly, Flesch believes his extensive experience with economic development issues on the county level will serve him well.
“I feel the state should support local economic development organizations on a county or municipal level,” Flesch said. “In a small county, like Crawford, it can be challenging to fund economic development.”
Through the work of Flesch and others, Crawford County has a full-time economic development professional working on business retention, expansion and attraction. He explained this is only possible because of funding the county receives from the Ho Chunk tribe.
Flesch noted that the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation just returned $18 million to the joint finance committee because they had no plans to use it. Wisconsin State Senator Jennifer Shilling introduced a proposal to take some of that money and fund the work of local economic development organizations. Shilling’s proposal was voted down on a party line vote.
“That makes no sense to me,” Flesch said. “It should have had bipartisan support. We at the local level can help the WEDC achieve its goals We can accomplish growth better going from the bottom up than they can trying to go from the top down.”
A related issue that Flesch believes is very important is high-speed internet access in rural areas. He acknowledged the Richland Grant Telephone Co-operative was providing very good internet access locally, but noted many areas with other providers were not being adequately served. Flesch believes businesses are held back in rural areas because of poor internet access in comparison with competitors from larger areas with better access.
Another issue, which Flesch was involved with at the county level, was trying to get a handle on the expanding frac sand mining in western Wisconsin. Flesch and others in Crawford County created a six-month moratorium on frac sand mines in the county and then studied the situation.
The group went on to present the towns and villages with a draft ordinance that would allow them to use their regulatory authority though licensing of frac sand mines. Most of the towns and villages adopted the ordinance or something like it. However, recent action in the state legislature threatens local government’s ability to regulate frac sand mining.
“I’m extremely troubled by legislation introduced last fall that would strip authority from local government to regulate frac sand mines,” Flesch said. “A lot of thought and effort went into gathering facts about the situation This was done in a very thoughtful manner. To me it's just unconscionable that the legislature could pass a bill and wipe this away in one fell swoop.”
Flesch is also dissatisfied with the state’s recent handling of Medicaid funding.
“They turned down federal Medicaid dollars and denied Medicaid coverage to a lot of needy people in our district,” Flesch said. “This cost Wisconsin $100 million. It doesn’t make sense from a financial standpoint. We wound up paying more to cover less people. Paying more for less is never good.”
Despite some obvious differences with his Republican opponent on the issues, Flesch has a couple of things in common with the incumbent state representative in the 96th Assembly District. Both men grew up farming and both served in local offices including becoming county board chairperson. Nerison was the Vernon County Board Chairperson before being elected to become the state representative.
“We have our differences,” Flesch said of Nerison’s position. “I’m not running because I’m mad at Lee. I disagree with him on things. I’m looking forward to a discussion on the issues with him.”