- Evening, Weekend & Online Programs
- ALUMNI RELATIONS
- GIVING TO LAKELAND
- ABOUT LAKELAND
Title: An interview with State Representative Terry Van Akkeren
Project: Lakeland Oral History Project
Interviewee: State Representative Terry Van Akkeren
Interviewer: Amy Van Akkeren
Interview location and date: Sheboygan, WI on April 20, 2008
Length of interview: 24 minutes and 46 seconds
Key words: Lakeland College, Van Akkeren, Wisconsin, politics, Sheboygan
Name Index: Terry Van Akkeren, Amy Van Akkeren, Roger Schneider, Bob Jeske, Joe Hauser, Roger Otten, Darlene Nubert, Governor Tommy Thompson, Herb Kohl
Abstract: An oral history interview with State Representative Terry Van Akkeren. Topics covered include Wisconsin politics, Sheboygan politics.
Introduction: Amy Van Akkeren is a student at Lakeland College and the daughter of State Representative Terry Van Akkeren. This interview was conducted as a part of an assignment for Rick Dodgson's HIS 400 Practicum in History Class. This interview will become a part of the Lakeland College's Oral History Project.
The transcript of this interview has been edited for easier reading. All verbal hesitations, stutters and false starts have been deleted. Certain questions and answers unrelated to the focus of this interview have also been edited out.
Amy Van Akkeren: Today I want to start off by talking about your influences with politics. Is there anyone or any specific event that got you interested in becoming a politician?
State Representative Terry Van Akkeren: Well I think the thing that got me interested in politics happened when I was very young. I was probably about nine or ten years-old and a bunch of friends and I were playing baseball down at the lake. We were playing and there was a guy that was cutting grass with one of those great big lawn mowers. I think it was about four feet wide. We just kept playing and he kept yelling at us to stay out of the way. Somebody hit the ball way out into that area and the ball was chopped up by the lawn mower. Of course we blamed the city and him for breaking our ball and back in those days that was the only ball we had. So somebody came up with the idea of lets go to City Hall and demand that they give us new ball because they were the ones that had wrecked our old ball. So we all jumped on our bikes and rode up to City Hall, which happened to be in the police station which scared half of my friends away. They wouldn't even walk in the building. Two or three of us decided that we were going up into the Mayor's office and ask, or more demand that he give us a new ball because they had wrecked our ball. So we walked up the stairs got into the office and there was a lady sitting in the front. We explained that we wanted to see the Mayor. She said he was busy in a meeting at the time and that he didn't have time to speak to us. Just as we were about to leave, two guys in suits came out. Their meeting must have just gotten over. One of them asked the receptionist who we were and she said these young gentlemen were here to see the Mayor. It ended up that he was the Mayor, Mayor Schnieder. I believe it was Roger Schnieder who was Mayor at that time, and he asked us to come into his office. We all sat in his office, he had a big office and he had a bowl of candy on his desk. He asked us if we wanted a piece of candy. We each took at least one, sometimes two. We then explained to him that the person in the park had ended up wrecking our ball, and we thought that it was the city's responsibility to give us a new ball. He sat back in his chair and didn't say a whole lot. He just listened, and then he said, "you know didn't he yell to you that he was cutting the grass?" We said yeah he did but that he was mean and that he aimed for our ball and that he was doing all that kind of stuff, as you would as a kid. It was his fault that we had lost the ball. He (the Mayor) said, "you know you probably should have stopped when he was cutting the grass out where playing, but I can understand." Well he got on the phone and he called over to Joe. He said Joe this is the Mayor. I am going to be sending some boys over, I want you to give them a new baseball and charge it to me. Well I ended up finding out that he called Joe Hauser. Joe Hauser was an old sports person who had a sports shop down town, and he (the Mayor) had called Joe Hauser and told him to have a ball ready for us. As I was leaving there (City Hall) that day I thought, well someday I want that job. You just sit around, you get to order people around, call people to do things, and sit and eat candy all day. You know because that was the whole impression I got. Later I thought he didn't have to give us that time. He didn't have to make that call. I am sure he paid for it out of his own pocket. And that was the first contact that I had with city government or a city official or any elected officially, and I thought you know to me at that time that was something important. So many times I think back when somebody calls me. Maybe it seems trivial to me, what they are talking about. But in their life it is probably something that is very important. It may be their first contact with somebody in government, and it is important enough to them that they came to see you.
A. Van Akkeren: And then your very first campaign, what were you running for?
T. Van Akkeren: Well first time I ran for city alderman it was like most reasons people who get involved in city politics, there was a big issue and I was watching it or reading it in the paper and going "Why are they doing that?" It was a big issue, and now I can't even think of what that issue was anymore. But there was something going on and I thought to myself why don't I just go up and do that. So I had no idea how to run a campaign or what to do. I just went down and signed up. Little did I know the first time I ran for alderman I was running against the president of the council. He had been there for a while and was the Mayor's right hand man. I had no idea what to do and I got about forty percent of the votes so I did pretty well. That was my first campaign. The next time, because of there being two aldermen in each seat, the person who had the other seat (in district 8) was actually Richard Schneider who had just won to become Mayor. So his seat was open. The council had to go out and appoint a new person to take over his seat. Well I thought I had just run for alderman, was beaten by the other person who was the alderman (in district 8) and because there was an open seat and because I was the only other person that ran it would only make sense that since forty percent of the people voted for me that I then should be the person that they appoint. So I went to the city council, not knowing anything about it, and there were four of us looking to get this position. And the council people voted on who got the seat. Well I didn't get a single vote. So in a matter of a month I not only lost the election, I didn't get a single vote from the common council people. So I lost twice in one month. Well the next time that seat was open then I ran again and that was the seat that I won then for the first time. Which is probably one of the best campaigns I have ever had. It was running against another young man who was named Russ Otten, Roger Otten's son. Roger Otten was a County Supervisor at the time. I would see Russ. He and I would walk down the streets at the same time and go door to door and we would meet each other at the end of the night and we would go have a beer somewhere and talk. And to this day Russ is one of my good friends and I use him as an example often of how you can run a campaign, and disagree with somebody politically but still be friends. Over the years Russ and I have still stayed friends, and he blames himself for losing that first election to me so he always says (chuckles) that he is the one that has gotten me into politics and has gotten me my career.
A. Van Akkeren: And then once you actually became alderman did you have a mentor, or anyone who guided you? Or how did you learn the ropes of the meetings?
T. Van Akkeren: The first time I was an alderman I actually sat next to the guy that ran against in the first election, Bob Jeske. And Bob was the head of the common council, and president of the council. So I got to sit with Bob and actually we became friends too. I learned a lot from him. There were times, before the meetings, I would meet at his house and he would go over the agendas with me. He was kind of my mentor. If I had any questions at that time, Bob Jeske would explain it to me. It ended up being that the guy I initially ran against ended up being my biggest mentor.
A. Van Akkeren: In your time of being an alderman, is there a most memorable event that you can remember helping out someone in your district that you can think of offhand?
T. Van Akkeren: There a lot of times when you are called for the small things, but probably some the biggest or hardest times that I can remember going to was during the year of the big flood. We were called into a lot of the neighbors' houses and there was a friend of my fathers, Roger Nubert, and I was called into Roger and Darlene Nubert's house. And it was tough to be able to go into someone who you knew all the time, and who was neighbors with you and to be able to see their complete basement. We opened the back door to go down their steps and there were no steps. There was just solid water so the water was totally up the eight feet of their basement. So being able to go there and then calling the fire department and having them help pump out the water from there. Then meeting with all of those neighbors that had been flooded in that area behind Washington school, and to work with them to put in some new sewers so that that would never happen again probably is the most memorable. It was good to work with those people in a tragic time too though. It was something where they had lost a lot of things that were personal to them, but being able to help them and to make sure that something like that never happened again.
A. Van Akkeren: What would be your most memorable resolution or motion passed or project you worked on while being an alderman?
T. Van Akkeren: I think if I am looking back as an alderman the ones that I can remember fighting for the most was probably trying to keep as many police officers and fireman on the job. Constantly it seemed like as an alderman people were trying to cut taxes all the time, but being able to balance that while being able to keep as many of the fire department and police department at the services people expected. I think that over the years I can remember many times we (the city of Sheboygan) were trying to get rid of 5 cops or 3 or 4 firefighters. In many cases we liked to prioritize those types of things because of the public's protection and safety that was involved. Over the years just fighting to continue to be able to provide that kind of service as a reasonable cost. You still have to keep the taxes as low as you possibly can, but people expect certain things from their taxes and fire and police protection are ones that I think most people are willing to pay for and are willing to protect.
A. Van Akkeren: What made you decide to become a State Representative?
T. Van Akkeren: Well the first time I ran for State Assembly, I had been invited with Mayor Schramm down to Madison to see the State of the State address. I walked into the room, a large area which now I know is the Assembly Chambers. We got tickets and were brought in and were treated as dignitaries because I was the President of the council and Mayor Schramm was there. We spent a whole day down there touring. After the State of the State address we were taken into the Governor's office at that time and it was Governor Tommy Thompson. He had a small reception in the back and we were V.I.P.s and were brought into his office. It was the first time I had been in the Governor's office happened to be just at the same time they were delivering the Rose Bowl trophy, Wisconsin had just won the Rose Bowl, and Governor Thompson had the Rose Bowl trophy sitting on his desk. He allowed us to take pictures of all of us holding the Rose Bowl trophy. When I left that day I was impressed with the building and all of the things that had happened. So I decided that the next time there was an election I would try (to run). I was contacted by people that were in that area. Jim Baumgart was the Senator from that area who I had known and worked with in the past and he and some of the people from the Democratic Party contacted me about the possibility of running for the Assembly seat.
A. Van Akkeren: Was there a major difference in campaigning for a State Representative and Alderman?
T. Van Akkeren: Well besides the obvious main difference, as an alderman you are only representing a small part of the city. The Assembly seat is the entire city (of Sheboygan) plus Kohler and a little bit of the Town of Falls (Sheboygan Falls). Just the area itself is a lot bigger. The biggest difference in campaigning is that you have to run as a Democrat of Republican. As an alderman, or with city politics, such as the city's Mayor, you don't have to declare yourself as a Democrat or a Republican. In the Assembly you have to run as a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent or Green party, but you do have to have a party affiliate. That's probably the biggest difference because then the politics becomes party politics, not just local politics and talking about things that are important to the voters. It also become the party politics and partisan politics that comes from mixing the two parties. That is probably the worst part of running elections, the Partisanship. Luckily Sheboygan voters are independent enough that in a same election they don't just all vote Republican, they don't all just vote Democrat. Many of them switch and vote for people in both parties. On the same ballots you will see people like Tommy Thompson who was the Governor and is a Republican win 68% or 70% in Sheboygan and then turn around and have Herb Kohl win 68% or 70% of the vote as a Democrat while being on the same ballot. So people (of Sheboygan) are independent that way. That is the biggest difference between the elections, the partisan and party politics that are involved.
A. Van Akkeren: How do you handle personal attacks? I know a lot of times with campaigns there is what people call "mudslinging" going on. How do you handle that and how do you respond to that?
T. Van Akkeren: It's hard to handle, but the best way I think to respond to it is not to get involved. A lot of times it is hard to do because your opponent might be accusing you or twisting your votes or words. It may even be personal attacks on you, your family, people that you associate with. I think the best way to handle that is to stay out of it completely and not answer. There have been many times were I have had opponents in elections where they have attacked me or tried to "sling mud" and twist things I have done in votes and or in personal things, and the best thing is to say nothing at all. I think people are tired of that kind of politics. I think people are sick of having everybody tell you what is wrong with the other person or opponent rather than telling them what is good about you. It ends up being a battle of who is the worst of the worst rather than who is the better of the two candidates. So staying out of that type of politics is what I try to do most of the time, but it is also probably the hardest thing to do because it is personal. There are things you want to reply to, but many times by replying, that just gives them (the opponent) another opportunity to reply to your reply. If you are trying to say something, then they'll try to explain why that isn't right. A lot of times it is just better to leave it alone and stay out of it.
A. Van Akkeren: What would be your favorite part of campaigning?
T. Van Akkeren: The favorite part of campaigning or what I like the most is just going out and meeting the people. I find that the more you are out publicly, whether it is going out to brat fries, dinners, door-to-door, or the more you just go out and meet the people and talk to them one on one, is probably the best type of campaigning you can do. You don't have to spend a lot of money. There are some elections on Assembly and State Senate that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to get elected. I will spend 15 or 20 thousand total and I think you can get just as much publicity and just as much contact by that personal contact by going out on all of the radio ads and things like that. So I think what I enjoy most about campaigning is going and talking to the people one-on-one, talking to small groups, and talking to larger groups. Just going out and talking to the people in the area. The more you do that the easier it is when that next election.
A. Van Akkeren: When you were elected to the State Assembly, what was it like your first day at the Capitol?
T. Van Akkeren: It was pretty overwhelming. If you have been to the State Capitol, you know it is a very big beautiful building. The first meetings are always organizational and it's all ceremonial. Big speeches and everyone is treating everybody like you are somebody really special. I walked into the building like who the heck am I to be part of this building now with a lot of the people who were there before me and the history of the building. Now I am just a small guy from Sheboygan who has worked half his life in factories, just an average guy, now I am here in Madison amongst this building and amongst these people. After a while you find out that everyone there is just an average person that represents the people from where they come from. It's pretty overwhelming the first time you walk into that building. Even to this day there are times I walk around the Capitol, inside and out, and look at it and am in Awe of the building itself and what it stands for and what you are really representing going down there.
A. Van Akkeren: What is the most difficult part of your job?
T. Van Akkeren: The most difficult part of my job again is the partisan and bi-partisan bickering that goes down. I like leaving that in Madison. I don't participate in a lot of it. If you go and watch the T.V. shows the Democrats are bashing the Republicans and the Republicans are bashing the Democrats. When we leave Madison we leave that type of politics to Madison. While I don't agree with some of the people that I serve down there being that they are Republicans, and their philosophy, I still respect what they do. There are many times that I travel with Senator Joe Leibham or Representative Kestell and Lemahui and we are at the same meetings. We talk, we sit together and have a cordial and working relationship. Again I don't have to agree with their politics or their theories on how to get things done, but we don't just sit and bash each other. Just because they are Republicans doesn't mean I won't go show up in the same room with them and things like that. I think it is the partisan type things that happen, "if it is being brought up by a Republican then you automatically have to vote no," and those things happen down in Madison. That is why a lot of things don't get done. It is because of the party type system and the partisanship that happens.
A. Van Akkeren: What would be the best part of your job?
T. Van Akkeren: Again the part that I enjoy the most is coming back to the district, going to the schools. I enjoy that a lot. In the last two years I think I have gone to every school in the Sheboygan Area School District and Kohler. Talking to schools, the children and their classes. Again talking to the people, because they are really the ones you are representing. It's easy to be able to, and I enjoy sitting and talking to them, and it's easy to put a face on the dollar amount you are putting back into the schools. Or the money you are putting back into the County or the City. So talking to the people back here in the district (District 26) and finding out what they want you to do, and to represent what their feelings are is the best part of that job.
A. Van Akkeren: What would be your most memorable Bill co-authored or worked on while down in Madison?
T. Van Akkeren: I think the most memorable one is one that we just passed in the last couple of weeks, during the last couple days of the session. It was a Suicide Prevention bill for the school district. My wife Sue has a friend whose son committed suicide while he was in high school, and I was talking about a bill that would require teachers to be given information about it. School districts would give information to teachers and staff about the red flags so that they could possibly recognize suicidal issues in a student of theirs. Many times teachers or staff spend as much time, or more time, then even some family members do with students. So giving them the information of what some tell-tale signs of somebody who maybe needs help may be able to prevent some of these suicides from happening. We wrote a bill that would require school systems to hand out this type of information to their teachers. Ether some type of a form or in-service so they are given that information and have it. After that bill did pass both the Assembly and the Senate it was signed into law by the Governor. It was nice to be able to take the family that we were working with in the beginning and they came down with us to Madison, met the Governor who was there for the signing of the bill that was done in the memory of their son who had committed suicide years before that. So that is probably one of the most memorable things I have done since I have been in the Legislature.
A. Van Akkeren: Well thank you Representative Van Akkeren for your time today and good luck with your upcoming election. Thank you!Back to top