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Retiring City Clerk Nearly Became Mayor, Lost Recount

Brookfield City Clerk Kristine Schmidt retires Friday after 25 years of city service, including a mayoral bid before serving as alderwoman and clerk.

In the early 1980s, two members of the Elmbrook League of Women Voters visited then-Mayor Bill Mitchell to offer suggestions and help on improving the city.

"He suggested we might want to plant daffodils," Kris Schmidt recalled.

That wasn't a smart reply to two strong women.

In 1984 Schmidt ran against Mitchell, becoming the first woman to run for mayor. She nearly beat him. And two years after that, the other woman Mitchell brushed off did defeat him. It was Kate Bloomberg, who went on to serve as mayor for twice as long as Mitchell did.

Many of the city's newer residents — and even older ones — are not aware that as Schmidt retires today as Brookfield's city clerk, she had a prior life as an elected official.

After her close mayoral bid, she won election as alderwoman, serving for nine years with fellow 6th Dist. alderwoman Mary Lou Smith until Schmidt resigned in 1995 to become city clerk. 

Schmidt, 65, will bid farewell to her longtime coworkers and friends at a noon luncheon today at City Hall, 2000 N. Calhoun Road. Aldermen might appoint a new clerk next month after the mayor interviews .

Ask people about Kris Schmidt and some of the same phrases emerge. A leader. Feisty. Good sense of humor. A realist. A wealth of historic knowledge. 

"She's a hard person to replace because she's got so much history," said Schmidt's supervisor, City Attorney Karen Flaherty. "She has a passion for trying to solve things. Sometimes I think she even goes way overboard. She really strives to help people."

Bloomberg, who remains close friends with Schmidt and travels with her, said Schmidt "quickly became incredibly well-respected in her job. She just thrived in that job and the job thrived with her."

Uncommon common sense

Mayor Steve Ponto — the third mayor Schmidt served after Bloomberg and Jeff Speaker — said she displayed uncommon common sense in resolving issues.

"She was always very practical and really has a sense of humor," Ponto said.  

Schmidt played an active role with evolving election laws, advocating on behalf of the city and other municipal clerks before the state Governmental Accountability Board that oversees state elections, said Jim Zwerlein, Brookfield's human resources director. 

"She's very highly regarded among staff and her professional peers," Zwerlein said. "She's been very innovative, particularly with elections administration."

Her final election day April 5 appeared to go swimmingly. That is, until 48 hours later when in her countywide tally for the hotly contested state Supreme Court race. Adding Brookfield's votes flipped the winner.

Schmidt — and all clerks statewide — went through a recount. Flaherty said Schmidt "was very concerned about making sure that every single vote was counted in the city and she did a great job of ensuring that."

Joyce and Howard Washechek as chief election inspectors at Brookfield polling sites. They said Schmidt trained her poll workers well and didn't micromanage them.

"When she was at the helm, you always wanted to go back," Howard Washecek said. "She really made it easy for poll workers to do their jobs. We felt comfortable that we were doing it correctly because of her guidance and training."

The Washecheks said they have supported Schmidt for decades, getting to know her in her role as a moderator at .

The couple were listed as supporters on Schmidt's election campaign materials when she ran for mayor.

Changing political views

Schmidt said her decision to run for elected office was not surprising, given her bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1968. 

She said she was active with the college's Young Republican Club and worked on Susan Engeleiter's GOP campaigns for state Assembly and Senate.

Today, Schmidt describes her political views as more complex, using adjectives such as progressive, liberal, libertarian, socially liberal and fiscally conservative.  

When she and her husband moved to Brookfield in the early 1970s, she joined the Elmbrook League of Women Voters and did some part-time insurance and marketing work while raising two daughters. She began attending city council and plan commission meetings.

Like many residents, Schmidt was not happy with the commercialization of Blue Mound Road and what she considered a lack of adequate planning on development and city budget issues. She believed Mitchell was condescending, didn't treat city staff well and failed to work with other governmental partners such as the county and state.

In 1982 she ran for alderman, losing to incumbent Ernest LaMonte.

Two years later a "kitchen cabinet" of mainly league members decided someone should run against Mitchell. Schmidt volunteered. 

"I needed a challenge," she explains now.

Back then, she was 37 and a homemaker who had never served public office. Mitchell was 60, a former insurance man who was a founding member of the city council when it incorporated in 1954. He served 22 years as alderman and eight as mayor before Schmidt became his first mayoral challenger.

No mayoral debates

He would not debate her, saying a league forum was biased in her favor and he opted against finding another venue.

"Kris worked extremely hard" in the campaign, said Bloomberg, but she added: "I don’t think either of us realized that Bill Mitchell was as vulnerable as he was. It was more or less a frustration run than it really was we thought we had the ability to defeat him."

The Sunday before the election, the then-city attorney authored a letter distributed to residents that, according to Schmidt, said "how little experience I had and essentially, who did I think I was?" 

On election night, Mitchell won with a 50.5 percent margin or 82 votes out of about 8,300 cast.

To reporters, he described the results as appalling and "startling," calling Schmidt "a candidate with no qualifications."

Schmidt called for a recount. Mitchell still won but by two fewer votes.

She told a Brookfield News reporter: "People won't be afraid to stand up to him now."

Two years later Bloomberg ran and won, serving as mayor until 2002.

And in 1986 Schmidt ran again for alderman, this time defeating LaMonte.

In 1995 Bloomberg and the council persuaded city clerk Gary Rasmussen to resign in exchange for $25,000, after there were complaints about poorly run elections.

Schmidt resigned from the council to apply and was appointed.

Proud of accomplishments

She points to issues she worked on as alderwoman and clerk, including helping to start the city's farmers market, writing the first sign ordinance ("Blue Mound Road looked like hell, one gaudy sign after another"), cleaning up the city's codes and removing antiquated ordinances such as how many pigeons residents can own, drafting city ethics codes, televising city meetings and approving staggered aldermanic elections.

Elections were clean, she said, with "a couple of cases" of fraud, including one man who served nine months in jail for voting twice in a presidential race, in Brookfield and another municipality.

Schmidt went back to school to get a master's degree in library science and a certificate in public administration. 

In retirement, Schmidt said she take UW-Milwaukee courses in history and other subjects for pleasure. Now living in Milwaukee, she will help her daughter care for her baby and take care of some personal health problems. And she plans to travel abroad to places like Turkey, England and Ireland.

"I hope to still be involved through the GAB and give them my opinion on elections issues," she said.

Scott Berg August 19, 2011 at 04:11 PM
It's been a joy working with Kris these past 11 years. I don't think this is the last we'll hear about her - she's too energetic and capable. Scott A. Berg Alderman, 5th District

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