Q&A w/ Brenda Konkel


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Posted by Bud on June 14, 2011 at 10:33:30:

Q&A: Brenda Konkel's other side
by SHAWN DOHERTY | The Capital Times | Posted: Monday, June 13, 2011 5:30 am

Longtime Madison activist and community organizer Brenda Konkel has a reputation in town for being smart, dogged and difficult. She represented District 2 on the City Council for eight years until she was narrowly defeated in 2009 by Bridget Maniaci, a recent UW grad backed by two former mayors, the police union and then-Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, with whom Konkel had one of her legendary falling-outs.

While observers debated whether that loss meant the establishment and voters were tired of her particular brand of irascible progressive politics, or just of her, Konkel, 42, remains a force to be reckoned with. She is the executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, a prolific blogger, the host of a radio show and a contributor to Madison's community television station. She puts in close to 70 hours a week juggling these gigs.

I quickly learned that with Konkel you want to turn on the tape recorder as soon as you walk into her office. She started talking before I started asking questions. She has a lot to say and she doesn't beat around the bush. I had figured I'd save the most sensitive subject for last her reputation. No need. Konkel launched right into it.

Brenda Konkel: I hesitated to do this interview because it will just give people another chance to criticize me. But what can I do? It's gonna happen no matter what.

The Capital Times: So why did you decide to do the interview?

BK: Maybe this will help people see a different side of me.

CT: What do you mean?

BK: People only see a sound bite or when I'm mad about something. So it's sort of a warped picture. Usually there's a lot of things that get resolved, but they are not reported on because it's not newsworthy. So people only see what comes up as conflict.

CT: You do have a reputation for being hard to get along with.

BK: I don't think I'm hard to get along with. I will tell you when I disagree with you. I don't shy away from it. I'm a lawyer by training. I argue about things, you know? I advocate hard for things.

CT: You also have a reputation for holding grudges.

BK: A few people hold grudges against me. But I don't hold grudges.

CT: So if you think I screw up a story you're going to yell at me but then you'll still talk to me?

BK: Yep. That's pretty much it. (Laughs.) If I didn't talk to everybody I got mad at, I wouldn't have anybody left to talk to!

CT: Do you have people to talk to?

BK: (Laughs.) Yes, I do have friends.

CT: Do you have a life outside work?

BK: I like to go camping and gardening and see live music.

CT: What kind of music?

BK: I'm a Deadhead. I like to follow jam bands and camp out at festivals. I like to get away from the beaten path and just hang out near the fire and relax and talk. Not that we get to go a lot.

CT: Who is we?

BK: I've had a partner for about 20 years. I call him my boyfriend and it drives him crazy. We live three blocks from the Capitol on the east side. We have a cat called Niko.

CT: Where did you grow up?

BK: I was born in Madison, but my parents lived in Waunakee and then we bought a campground in the Wisconsin Dells. And then my parents divorced and we moved to Saukville and to Portage on a farm when my mom got remarried. We were pretty poor.

CT: How poor?

BK: The first year I filled out my college financial forms my parents made $8,000. It was the '80s, and it was farm poor, which is different than city poor. We could grow all our own food and slaughter our own pigs. The farm was paid for so we're not paying for rental housing. But $8,000 a year was not enough for a family to live on. We got free and reduced lunch and ate government cheese.

CT: When did you start becoming an activist?

BK: The first issue I worked on was the 18-year-old drinking age. I was on the Student Senate at UW-Platteville. It was the first time I appeared in the media and stuff. I was sort of like: Why, just because my birthday is July 20, am I any different than my friends in my same class who could drink? It just seemed arbitrary and weird and unfair. A lot of things for me come back to being unfair.

CT: So this is how you developed a social conscience?

BK: I always had that. A lot of it is from my grandparents and from religion. I believed all the Good Samaritan, love-your-neighbor kind of stuff, though I'm not religious at all. And also from some of the TV shows I watched when I was a little kid, like "M*A*S*H" and "All in the Family," some of those were more progressive. It seems odd but there were some values I was taught in them that I wouldn't have been taught otherwise in rural Wisconsin. I mean, my parents are basically Republican, even Libertarian, though not anymore. The whole Walker thing has kind of got to them.

CT: You must have had feisty debates over the dinner table!

BK: We didn't ever really talk about politics. It's kind of a Norwegian Wisconsin thing. We don't talk a lot about anything.

CT: Do you like being an activist or a politician better?

BK: An activist because you can deal with the issues that you want to work on instead of the issues you have to work on.

CT: Which one do you think you're better at?

BK: A politician. It's hard to get people to pay attention and go to meetings (on local issues) when there is so much going on right now. And social media has changed the way that you organize. There's a real "slacktivist" mentality now where you send an email and think you've done something.

CT: How has Walker changed activism?

BK: When I was at the Capitol somebody came up to me and said 'We're not alone anymore.' I do think people are more aware and they are trying to do something. But no one knows what it is that we're supposed to do, so walking around the Capitol or putting up a sign is what we are doing. Or getting arrested. But I don't know that it's having an impact. One of the things that's really frustrating is that you can show up to a meeting and you can testify but nobody is going to listen to you. You get cut off and they don't care what you say. The tools that we used to get attention, those aren't effective. Decisions are being made before the politicians walk into the room and you can't influence them.

CT: Is it depressing to be a progressive activist right now?

BK: At first it was exciting to see everybody at the Capitol. I was up there for the first 21 days until (protesters) got kicked out of the Capitol. But then it became emotionally draining. I was very angry because I saw members of the media not being able to do their jobs. I saw police violating people's rights, carrying them out of the room but not arresting them. I saw just the utter disrespect of the political process and the open meetings violations. That was really hard and sad to watch. Something I never thought I'd see in my lifetime. I haven't been back up to the Capitol since.

CT: So you gave up?

BK: I decided there was really no point to me going back up there and holding a protest sign or videotaping people with protest signs. I'm not sure what my role is now. (Maybe) to turn more to the media to get people to know what's going on. And to keep track of the local stuff. We can't all just be fighting Walker.

CT: So what are your top goals for the Soglin administration?

BK: To figure out how the city can have a positive impact on affordable housing. The previous mayor just ignored that issue. I'm also very much intrigued by the discussion of poverty. It was big during the election and now it's just disappeared because everything is all about the budget and Scott Walker. What are we going to do to address the 17 percent poverty rate here in Madison?

CT: Are you holding Soglin's feet to the fire?

BK: On poverty, maybe. Our view of how to address poverty might be different.

CT: How so?

BK: When (at a recent meeting) I asked him if he is going to have a poverty task force, and what is he going to do about poverty, the first thing he said is we have to deal with the gangs on the southwest side. And I said, well, crime is not poverty and poverty is not crime. We can deal with the people in poverty who are not part of crime. We have to come up with a local strategy and that strategy can't just be bringing in more police officers.

CT: Were you surprised by Soglin's response about gangs?

BK: No. Eight years ago he would say things like homeless people come from Chicago, and we can't build affordable housing because more people will move here. There's been many Paul Soglins. I think all that stuff at the Capitol made him return to the earlier more progressive Paul Soglin. Otherwise I wouldn't have supported him.

CT: Will there be a task force on poverty?

BK: Obviously he's overwhelmed right now dealing with Walker and the budget stuff. He's busy. But I hope so. I'm not ready to give up on it yet.

CT: I saw some blog gossip that you were asked to apply for a job in the Soglin administration.

BK: I wasn't asked to apply for a job, I did apply for a job. I was one of 14 out of 130 (applicants) who got an interview. I didn't get the job but they have asked me what committees I want to serve on. I told them I don't have any time. I don't want to be on the housing committee because I don't think it's very effective. The one thing I would want to do is be on a poverty task force.



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