When John Medinger announced he was running for mayor, it was no surprise. After all, Medinger typifies La Crosse politics more than anyone we can think of. He is a native of the city, and he and his wife ,Dee, have been married for 30 years. They have four children. He has worked at a variety of jobs here, including clerking in grocery stores (both union and non-union), school bus driver, substitute teacher, bartender and construction worker (union). He has worked for almost every social justice cause you can think of, including a stint in Virginia as a VISTA volunteer.
John served in the Wisconsin State Assembly for eight terms, beginning in 1976, and then served as mayor for two terms, where he won 65 percent of the vote the first time and 70 percent the second. He has also been the western Wisconsin regional coordinator for former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold and office manager for Sen. Herb Kohl. If ever anyone seemed a shoo-in for an office, it was John. And then suddenly he announced a week into the race that he was withdrawing. When we called him to ask what was up, he didn’t answer the call for days. It turned out there was a mistake about the number. When he did call back, he graciously agreed to meet at the Root Note, where we enjoyed an hour of good coffee and conversation. This is a summary.

Second Supper: What made you decide to enter the mayoral race?
John Medinger: People started suggesting I run more than a year ago. In fact, I was getting strong encouragement from a lot of people, even before Mayor Harter announced he wouldn’t run again. There was this feeling that things were not getting done in the city, so I jumped in.

SS: And there’s a good chance you would have won. So why did you decide to drop out so suddenly?  That was a shocker.
JM: I do think I could have won, but it just didn’t feel right.

SS: I have to admit when I heard you were withdrawing, I worried it might be for health reasons, but you look great.
JM: No, physically I’m fine, but the pilot light just wouldn’t turn on. In the first week I was already feeling a lot of stress. I wasn’t sleeping well and I felt a bit depressed. It wasn’t anything political; it just didn’t feel right.

SS: How did Dee feel about your running again?
JM: She really wanted me to run for mayor again. During the recalls I thought about running for the Assembly, or maybe the Senate, and she was not so enthused about that. It would have meant she’d be here while I was in Madison, because her job is here, but she was totally behind the idea of my running for mayor again.

SS: I noticed the number you called from was the Kohl office. So it’s still open?
JM: Barely. It’s just me and the phone.

SS:  That’s sort of strange, like Melville’s Bartleby. How did you get into politics in the first place?
JM: My father, Donald, was on the city council for 30 years and I was helping him campaign at the age of 12. At the same time I was a newsboy, a cornerboy, which meant the corner in front of the Hollywood Theater was my territory. Nobody else could sell papers on that corner, and believe me, in those days the streets were full of people. The papers were a dime and I got 4 cents for each one I sold. Some days I made a dollar. But I was also reading the news and trying to learn about issues.

SS: So, you feel better having made the decision to get out?
JM: Well, I don’t want people to feel I’m abandoning the city. People talked as if I would be the guy with the white hat who would ride in and save things. But there are really good people in the race, so of course it’ll be fine.

SS: It sounds as if you might be suffering a little of that Catholic guilt.
JM: There’s no doubt that Catholicism has played an important role in my life, but I’m also a child of the sixties. It was a special time for Catholics. Pope John XXIII had opened the Vatican windows to new ideas and then we had John Kennedy, our first Catholic president. He inspired our generation to try to make this a better country. Then Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement came along and that helped shape my thinking as well.

SS: You could give me a scoop if you told me who you’ll endorse.
JM:  I’m not endorsing anyone at this point. As I said, there are good people in the race and I’ll be happy to sit down with anyone and help them. I mean I’ve done this for a long while, and I have experience to share. Besides, endorsements are overrated.

SS: What are the biggest challenges the mayor is likely to face?
JM: The number one issue is poverty. There are too many people out of work and suffering.

SS: That’s a big issue nationally, especially in cities, but it’s hardly a sexy issue politically these days. Can a mayor do anything about poverty?
JM: A mayor can work on job creation. It’s the key to improving lives. We need more jobs.

SS: I know we’ve lost jobs recently when Bimbo, the Mexican firm that bought the Dolly Madison bakery, laid people off. But I thought the governor’s programs were going to create a lot of new jobs.
JM: Right. In fact, we lost so many public sector jobs, private hiring hasn’t begun to make up for that.

SS: What were your most important accomplishments as mayor?
JM: We did manage to bring in businesses that helped improve the job situation. The brewery closed and it looked as if that whole complex would remain empty, but then City Brewery took over. Then we also helped attract Logistics Health Incorporated.

SS: What else?
JM: There were things that were complicated and hard to describe, but a lot of what a mayor does, or any good politician really, is just create an atmosphere where people feel optimistic about the future.

SS: I think President Kennedy was able to do that, and maybe our current president as well.
JM: Hope is more than a slogan; it really defines a kind of politics. It changes things. This has always been a great city, but I wanted us on the map. So we started to look outward. I wanted us to become a world class city with a 24-hour environment.

SS: What do you mean by a 24-hour environment?
JM: I hoped we’d be a place where something was going on every moment of the day. I don’t think we quite got there, but we’re close. When I was in office we also became sister city to four communities around the world and that helped put us on the map.

SS: When I moved here La Crosse didn’t seem to be much of a tourist destination. At first I wanted to go back up north as much as possible, but over time I really came to prefer this region.
JM: Yes. If you can’t sell the Mississippi River, you can’t sell anything. But there were and still are real problems in La Crosse. The erosion of the residential tax base is an example. My neighbor recently sold her home for $69,000 and, of course, it’s worth a lot more. That affects the value of my home and the rest of the neighborhood and ultimately the tax base of the city.

SS: Yeah, in my neighborhood there are houses that seem abandoned, perfectly fine buildings that are vacant and deteriorating. It’s like La Crosse is following the model of what’s happening to all American cities. When people get some money they move to the suburbs, and as happens in such cases, they aren’t looking back.
JM: As mayor I tried to address this problem by working on regional coordination among local governments, but we ran into tremendous opposition. Places like Holmen and Onalaska wanted nothing to do with it. I mean they seem to feel real animosity toward La Crosse.

SS: How do you feel about the city manager issue? We just defeated that idea in a referendum.
JM: You know I opposed the idea for a long while because elections are more democratic, but over the years I have seen the city manager idea work in other cities and I’ve changed my mind. To tell the truth, a mayor faces something like chaos most of the time. City Hall needs direction and stability, and a city manager can provide those things.

SS: But I have to tell you I was upset when the governor of Michigan started taking over cities, getting rid of mayors and replacing them with appointed city managers.
JM: That was horrifying. I couldn’t believe he could do that. But there’s a huge difference between a city manager being chosen locally and the governor coming in and just taking over a community.

SS: Can you tell me some of your accomplishments in the state Assembly?
JM: The areas where I felt I was able to contribute were Health and Human Services and Criminal Justice. I worked to frame a law that changed the definition of death, moving it from the cessation of heart activity to the cessation of brain activity. Then after the Brian Stanley case, where a young man murdered a priest in Onalaska, I was able to tighten up our commitment policies.

SS: Do you see yourself running for some office in the future?
JM: You know, I really don’t. At least it isn’t very likely. As I said, I thought about it at the time of the recalls and decided against it.

SS: So you’re finished with politics?
JM: I’ll be active in politics until the day I die, but it will be doing different kinds of things, like working for someone else’s campaign and devoting myself to the issues I think are important. There’s always so much that needs doing.