• June 20, 2021

Exclusive: Rift in Wisconsin County Grows Wider Over Diversity Stance

 Exclusive: Rift in Wisconsin County Grows Wider Over Diversity Stance

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When my story about a Wisconsin county’s struggle over whether to declare itself a “community for all” was published last month, I knew it might be uncomfortable for some readers.

What I didn’t anticipate was that it would lead to even more strife in Marathon County, which is now more than a year into a civic debate about the value of diversity and inclusion. At issue is what many in the community view as a long-overdue acknowledgment of systemic inequalities, while others deny that such hurdles exist.

As a national political correspondent at The Times, I report primarily on national- or state-level campaigns and politicians. But this assignment was a return to my journalism roots — a look at an intense local government squabble in Wisconsin, where I began my career two decades ago covering suburban villages and school boards for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

I learned then that for all the passion that Americans bring to national politics, few feuds run hotter than those between neighbors, and that has certainly become the case in Marathon County. It’s easy to hate someone you disagree with about a presidential candidate. Having a sustained argument about local politics with people you see at the supermarket begets an entirely different set of emotions.

Hours after the article was published, Mayor Katie Rosenberg of Wausau, the county seat, called a news conference to say she was “devastated” by the story and issued a proclamation declaring Wausau “a community for all.” She called on local businesses to do the same; some did, with the local botanical gardens announcing itself as “a garden for all.”

“We tried to say, ‘Hell yes, we want you here,’” Ms. Rosenberg said in an interview last week. “We want you to live here, work here, participate and be involved in the process.”

The backlash was swift. Opponents of the resolution dug in even more.

Ms. Rosenberg was accused by a local conservative talk radio host of recruiting The Times to Wausau to write a negative story about her community. A false allegation; I first read about the dispute on the website of Wisconsin Public Radio.

At the next Marathon County Board meeting two days later, an array of citizens lined up to urge supervisors to maintain their opposition to the “community for all” resolution. The local Republican Party chairman, who had organized opposition to the resolution and suggested it would lead to “race-based redistribution of wealth,” said it was me who “is really sowing seeds of discourse and hatred in our community.”

The board’s conservatives invited an anti-abortion activist from California named Kevin McGary to deliver a presentation about why the “community for all” resolution was unnecessary.

Mr. McGary, who is Black, spoke for more than an hour and delivered a broadside against the idea that white people were responsible for racism. He attacked Ms. Rosenberg, saying she “says community for all, but she’s all in for fully exterminating people, Blacks.”

This did not make things better.

Kurt Gibbs, the county board chairman who has opposed the “community for all” resolution, issued a public apology to Ms. Rosenberg for allowing her to be accused of genocide without a rebuttal.

Meanwhile, the resolution at the center of Marathon County’s fight is going through a seventh revision. Gone is the call for equity, which became a hot-button word as resolution opponents argued falsely that it would give authorization for seizing private property from white residents. William Harris, the board’s lone Black member, has replaced it with language saying the board should aim to allow residents of the county to “celebrate and embrace their rich multi-cultural heritage without fear of intimidation or hate-motivated violence.”

What’s next is unclear. There’s no indication that any compromise resolution can win support from enough conservative members of the county board, given the opposition and denial of systemic racism, a rift reflective of local political chasms across the country.

It’s always a reporter’s goal to illuminate an issue, not create more problems — we travel to places like Wausau to reflect the mood of the country. This article happened to awaken emotions that broke out into the open after it published, shining a light on long-simmering community tensions.

Ms. Rosenberg said the experience of seeing Wausau’s local political dispute play out in front of a national audience had undercut her efforts to bring the community together around the idea that all people should be welcome.

“We have ripped our relationship apart,” she said in a recent interview. “I don’t know why it’s so freaking hard. It’s not a hard stance to take.”

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