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Busy as a bee: Kleefisch talks about serving, what’s ahead

January 11, 2019

CONCORD -- To remain true to the description of the current living and working situation being experienced by Rebecca Kleefisch, the dateline of this interview piece should read, “VERY VERY RURAL CONCORD.”

“Yes, we moved and we love it,” Kleefisch said. “We are in very, very rural Concord. In fact, Caroline Ingalls, Laura Ingalls’ mother, was born here.”

As Kleefisch begins settling into her life away from the job of Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor under Scott Walker, she said she finds living in the country “wonderful.”

“We split a kind of a homestead with my sister and her family, who own a bee distribution company called Heritage Honeybee,” Kleefisch said. “This year I hope to be a bigger help during bee distribution in the spring. I was a little useless last season. I only unloaded about six boxes of bees and they get semi-trucks full of these boxes. But when you consider there are a lot of bees in each, I can say I helped unload 42,000 bees. That makes me sound much more helpful.”

Kleefisch assumed the office of state lieutenant governor after being sworn in in January of 2011. She took time to talk with the Daily Times in recent days to reflect on this period of her professional career. In years prior she came to prominence in the Milwaukee television news media.

“I enjoyed the people,” she said. “I loved listening to their stories. Whether you were a captain of industry or a homeless person, you were my boss, my constituent and I wanted to hear your needs and how government could develop the right solutions for your problem, or get out of your way if we were the problem. I met fascinating people, saw interesting things and was enthralled by our neighbors. Everyone has a story and if you listen closely, people will tell you exactly how to help them -- or quit hindering.”

Kleefisch said among the biggest challenges in her job was dealing with the people of the state enduring chemical addictions.

“I co-chaired the Governor’s Task Force on Opioid Abuse and you can get a hundred great evidence-based practices together, implement them and encourage folks, and some addictions, particularly opioids, will never be solved, fixed. Like alcohol, these are lifelong. You have to deal with it forever like a chronic illness that could always rear its ugly head again,” she said.

Kleefisch said it’s hard to tackle a policy or public health challenge and know that success means managing it, not fixing it.

“I like to solve problems, not just manage them,” she said. “Funny enough, some of the areas I have focused much of my work on -- homelessness and housing, prison re-entry, addiction, poverty, because of the human condition, will always exist. These aren’t problems you can simply ‘fix.’ These are problems that require very individual solutions, good management of every case and constant recalibration. For someone who likes to ‘solve,’ working on issues that don’t have quick fixes has been challenging but really rewarding, too.”

Discussing the greater accomplishments of her career in office, Kleefisch said bringing employment training to the state correctional system will be a big part of her legacy.

“I think getting a job center into one of our correctional facilities, with plans for many more, is a huge accomplishment. I hope that, because we have had record low unemployment for the last 10 months, folks are more open to hiring people looking for a second chance,” she said. “And I hope that, because of my work, those people in our corrections department eager for that second chance will now have access to education that will help them get a job and resources to connect them to employers before they are released. People with education behind bars are 43-46 percent less likely to recommit crimes.”

She said she is proud she helped attract a number of new employers to the state and that Wisconsin is now known as a great state in which to create jobs.

“Our workforce is ethical and educated, and a lot of people didn’t know that before. They do now,” Kleefisch said, adding she is glad that, as chairwoman of the Aerospace States Association and an advocate for this industry cluster in Wisconsin, aerospace and aviation companies, of which there are more than 300 here, have grown considerably and are earning Wisconsin an impressive international reputation.

Personally, she said she is “glad that, after all this, my kids are pretty great and normal. I’m proud that I survived cancer, chemo, a recall election and three traditional elections with my marriage and kids and dignity intact.”

When asked to further discuss her accomplishments and legacy, Kleefisch said she hopes people remember her as the person who assured the lieutenant governor’s office delivered a value to taxpayers in the forms of good customer service, solid advocacy work and was a valuable portal for the executive branch.

“We worked especially hard for small business owners, families, minority entrepreneurs and folks who maybe don’t feel government is ‘for’ them,” she said. “I tried hard to translate the ‘legal speak’ and ‘millions and billions’ in our budgets to what it all means for regular families. You shouldn’t need a master’s degree to understand whether government is working for you.”

Kleefisch said she is especially proud of her advocacy for the poor.

“We created the Interagency Council on Homelessness, which outlives my tenure,” she said. “I believe affordable housing is one of the greatest challenges of our time and the new administration would be wise to address it quickly. I am proud of my staff, who embraced every one of these tough issues with passion and joy, knowing they could make a small difference for their fellow man. I’ve been blessed.”

Among her favorite people with whom to work while in office were those from the state’s technical colleges.

“They offer some of the most innovative and inexpensive portals to success in our economy,” she said. “They are always running fast, inventing new, cheaper ways for people to succeed. They are terrific and a real bargain.”

She also loved working with the homeless population.

“One day a few months ago I took my staff to wash clothes for the homeless at a day shelter in Madison called The Beacon. It’s one of my favorites,” she said. “I was proud of my team. Everyone happily accepted the wash and did the chore with joy, knowing they were serving those who really needed their service. I probably only loaded and folded for an hour of my shift, because as soon as people discovered I was in the laundry room, I practically held office hours outside the free shower facility. People were so honest and humble and they got right to the point. One of the women actually followed up on our conversation and came to my office the following week.”

Kleefisch said she is probably the only lieutenant governor in Wisconsin history to place an exclusive opinion-editorial in Street Pulse, the homeless newspaper in Madison.

“I wanted to make a point and I wanted people to buy Street Pulse, which is published by people who are homeless. It’s very entrepreneurial,” she said.

She liked visiting the state’s manufacturers, as well.

“We make the coolest things here. Everything from your toilet seat to the fan in your bathroom to the brown crinkle papers on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to the device that fixes holes in the hearts of infants is made in Wisconsin,” she said.

The only time in the interview when Kleefisch grew a bit tight-lipped was when she was asked just what her plans are for the future and whether it will it involve any political endeavors.

“I have not announced my plans, but I will definitely be talking politics in one way, shape or form,” she said. “I’ll keep you posted.”

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