WisBusiness: Kapanke to be Senate's 'Mr. Baseball'
By Gregg Hoffmann
LA CROSSE Dan Kapanke and Herb Kohl don't share political party affiliations, but they do have a couple specific things in common.
Both are senators though Kapanke is just a state senator-elect at the moment while Kohl is a U.S. senator. Both also own sports franchises.
Democrat Kohl, of course, owns the Milwaukee Bucks franchise in the NBA. Kapanke, a Republican, will be sworn in Jan. 3 as the state senator for the 32nd District and owns the La Crosse Loggers of the Northwoods League, a summer college baseball league.
You might say Kapanke is a "poor man's version" of Kohl.
"I don't mind that comparison," Kapanke said recently. "Senator Kohl and I don't share political parties, but I admire much of what he has done. I believe he will be able to serve in the Senate as long as he wants to."
Kapanke, who defeated Democrat Brad Pfaff in November, feels his involvement with the Loggers, his years as a regional representative for Kaltenberg Seed and more than a decade on the Town of Campbell board, including two terms as chairman, all will help him in the state Senate. In fact, he truly believes he has benefited from every experience he has had in his 57 years.
Born on a dairy farm near Coon Valley, Kapanke attended a one-room school. "They expanded it to two rooms in my fourth year, and we were afraid we'd get lost," he jokes.
Kapanke went to high school at Luther High School in Onalaska, where he met his wife of 35 years, Ruth. The couple has four children and 10 grandchildren. Kapanke also began his interest in politics at Luther. He went one year to UW-La Crosse, dropped out and went into the Marines Guard and Reserves, and held a variety of jobs, including one as a carpenter.
He and his wife developed some land near her family home (where they live today). They also built some duplexes and houses. But, Kapanke decided he needed to complete his education, so he went back to UW-La Crosse to pick up a degree in political science with a minor in economics.
"The education definitely helped me as I moved into business and government," he said. " The construction work paid off when I bought the Loggers, because we mortgaged our real estate to raise the money."
Kapanke and his wife are sole owners of the baseball franchise. A grant from the Corrine Zielke Foundation, left specifically for baseball projects in the La Crosse area, helped "jump start" the Loggers, according to Kapanke. He and Ruth mortgaged those houses and duplexes to finance the rest of the costs.
The team's success on the field and at the gate has allowed Kapanke to already exceed the $600,000 in improvements to Copeland Park he was supposed to make under his contract with the city. In fact, his improvements to the ballpark have been double the agreed upon amount.
"The fans have made this happen," said Kapanke, whose team averaged 2,700 fans per game in 2002, its first year in existence, and 3,300 last season. "The Loggers are a true community jewel. We are just the stewards or caretakers." Madison is the only Northwoods franchise that has exceeded La Crosse in attendance.
A lifetime baseball fan who as a kid lived and died with the Milwaukee Braves and loves the Brewers, Kapanke plans to still actively run the Loggers.
"I have a great staff," he said. "But, I want to still be as hands-on as I can. I love baseball and being involved with the game and fans."
His work as a representative for first Pride Seed Company and then Kaltenberg, seemed a natural after his upbringing on the farm. "I worked on the farm, baled hay and did other chores," said Kapanke, whose brother still runs the family farm.
"Working as a seed salesman, I stayed in touch with the farmers and their needs," Kapanke said. "I traveled through the region. That should help because agriculture still is very big in the 32nd District."
Kapanke was recently appointed chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Insurance Committee. "I told our leadership to put me where I can best serve," he said. "This looks like a good fit."
During his years as town chair, Campbell and the city of La Crosse clashed over an annexation attempt. Twenty-six lawsuits were filed over the dispute, and Campbell, which is located on French Island, attempted to incorporate to fend off annexation.
"We eventually lost in our attempt to incorporate, but a settlement was reached on a length of time when only voluntary applications for annexation can be considered," Kapanke said.
"I learned a great deal by going through that. I probably learned as much about annexation laws as any attorney. It got me to Madison, where I met people."
Kapanke also plans to keep the local official in mind when he considers legislation in Madison. For example, he disagrees with the version of TABOR that was being pushed by the Republicans in the past session. He favors a freeze on the mill rate in property taxes, rather than a dollar amount.
"I've made a promise to local officials that when legislation is considered that affects their level of government, they be brought to the table," said Kapanke, who is resigning from the Campbell Town Board. "I believe that is a better way than sending down mandates from Madison."
In 2000, Kapanke was recruited by the Republicans to run for the Senate, but narrowly lost to then-Democratic state Rep. and now Public Service Commissioner Mark Meyer, who left the Senate this year rather than run for re-election.
"Nobody likes to lose, but because I did I became involved with the Loggers and was probably better prepared this time," he said.
When Meyer announced he would not run this year, Kapanke thought for a while before telling Republicans he would run again.
"My main concern was that any negative part of the campaign might hurt the Loggers, but I don't believe that happened," Kapanke said.
The Democrats threw a lot time and resources into the 32nd District race because it looked like a wide-open battle. Kapanke was portrayed as an ultra-conservative, a label he doesn't believe is accurate.
"I consider myself fairly independent," he said. "My priority is what is best for the people of the state of Wisconsin, and the people of the 32nd District. I won't be receptive to aggressive arm twisting from either party. I'm involved in politics, and the other things, because I want to serve. I believe that is all of our roles here."
Kapanke says he has a history of cooperation with those who have been opponents on some issues. For example, he and outgoing La Crosse Mayor John Medinger clashed over the annexation dispute but worked together on the various decisions that brought the Loggers to town.
"I know there are some people in La Crosse who don't like me because of the annexation issue, but to the city fathers' credit, the votes on the Loggers were overwhelmingly in favor," he said.
Kapanke said he knows Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle worked hard for Pfaff, who has a brother on Doyle's staff. "I understand that's politics," said Kapanke, who said Doyle threw out the first pitch at the Loggers' opener. "I plan on requesting 15 minutes with the governor to tell him that I want to cooperate when possible.
"Many issues are not Democrat or Republican issues. They require cooperation. I'm coming from a business background, so am going to Madison to get things done. At 57, I'm not looking to climb the ladder of my party. I believe in term limits, and if the voters of the 32nd District see fit to re-elect me that would be it. After two terms, it's somebody else's turn."
Kapanke considers the budget, and further reduction of the structural deficit, as the top priority once he gets to the Senate. Second is some type of property tax freeze or limits.
Education is a third priority. "We have a great education system in this state," he said. "UW-L is a great university here. Our K-12 system and ACT scores are very good. We're doing a lot of things right.
"But, property taxes are too high. I know people in my district, especially in the southern area, who are driven from their homes by the property taxes, because they can go across the river to Iowa and pay half what they pay in Wisconsin. We have to find a way to pay for education that does not burden the property tax payers so much."
One thing that might distinguish Kapanke from his fellow state senators, and from Kohl too, is a practice he adopted around the sixth or seventh inning of every Loggers game.
"I sell peanuts and popcorn in the stands," he said. "From the first game on, I started circulating around the ballpark, thanking the fans for coming. During one game when we had a big crowd, I realized we didn't have enough hawkers to sell peanuts and popcorn. So, I started doing it.
"It's a great way for me to meet people and thank them, and hawk some peanuts and popcorn too. There might be some games where I can't make it because of conflicts, but as often as possible I still plan on doing it."