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Under the influence

The year’s 15 most influential people in Greater Madison

Illustrated portraits by Chelsea Weis | Photographed portraits by Bill Fritsch and PGA

(page 1 of 3)

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Several members of our 2016 Most Influential class prove that you don’t have to be a big shot to make a difference in fields such as academia, activism, or the arts. Unlike the 2015 class, which was highlighted by people who led the community through a crisis that followed the tragic death of Tony Robinson, this year’s class has largely operated without a spotlight.

Keep in mind that our definition of most influential won’t always be positive in the view of every reader. Our first Most Influential list included Gov. Scott Walker, whose shepherding of Act 10 was certainly influential but not very popular in Dane County.

Readers also may wonder about the absence of several people who are in the formative stages of making significant contributions. One example is the Rev. Alex Gee, who has been instrumental in organizing a response to the racial disparities that undermine our civic process. His efforts will take more time to produce results, and a number of 2016 nominees are in the same situation.

Rest assured that we’re tracking their progress for future Most Influential lists, which acknowledge influence in the past year. With those ground rules, here is our third annual look at the Most Influential people in Greater Madison.

Editor’s note: Nominations for the 2017 Most Influential list should be submitted to Editorial Director Joe Vanden Plas at

John Behling: Tenure Transformer

For their controversial rewrite of faculty tenure policies, this entry could go to the entire University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, but the person who led the way is John Behling, vice president of the board, who guided the rewrite throughout the drafting process.

Needless to say, the changes haven’t met with the approval of UW–Madison faculty, which passed a resolution of no confidence in the regents and UW System President Ray Cross. Some faculty have left the system, and critics say the changes make the board subservient to the GOP-dominated Wisconsin Legislature, which mandated the review.

While acknowledging that tenure is important to higher education because faculty must be free to express their views, especially controversial ones, Behling contends the previous policy lacked accountability and did not reward performance. The revised policy includes a requirement that tenured faculty be reviewed once every five years and includes a process chancellors must follow in the event a campus program has to be closed for economic reasons.

“I think once people actually read the policy and understand how it is going to be implemented,” he says, “they will agree with the Board’s decisions.”

Shiva Bidar: Instant Impact

Shiva Bidar is one of the freshest faces on the Madison leadership scene, and she hasn’t wasted any time making an impact.Bidar joined the Madison College Board of Trustees in the summer of 2015 and was immediately elected secretary of the board. As the only Madison resident on the board, she was instrumental in the vote to move forward with the South Madison Comprehensive Campus. Supporters of the controversial proposal, especially MATC President Jack E. Daniels III, believe it’s essential for people of color to have better access to a technical college education and an economic development spark for the south side.

Also a city alder, the 2016 Athena Award winner led the effort to create an Ad Hoc Citizen Committee charged with reviewing the policies, training, and culture of the Madison Police Department. Bidar and others want to determine whether there are areas for improvement, especially in racial disparity, use of force, and serving people with mental health or drug problems.

As the director of community partnerships at UW Health, her work in these areas is synergistic with her efforts to promote diversity and inclusion for UW Health and her work as co-chair of the Madison Area Diversity Roundtable.

Michael Gay: Grant Gainer

Michael Gay is the first to say the Madison Region Economic Partnership’s participation in the federal Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership is a team effort, but he’s the person who wrote the grant application that helped the Madison region become one of 12 designees in the federal IMCP. The grant award, announced last July, will help 30 local projects in the agriculture, food, and beverage sector and eventually bring to the region a combined $1.2 billion in economic development.

Gay, the senior vice president of economic development for MadREP, has helped the area tap into a multiagency program led by the U.S. Department of Commerce to accelerate the resurgence of manufacturing nationwide. It does so by supporting the development of long-term economic development strategies, boosting designated areas with branding and promotion, and attracting more private investment and partnerships to those areas.

Among the initial high-impact projects slated for funding are the UW Center for Dairy Research’s quest for a state and federal Center of Excellence designation, which could bring more grant money, the proposed Madison Public Market, and the Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen in Mineral Point. Gay, however, expects the best of IMCP “is truly yet to come.”

Otto Gebhardt: Space Traveler

For his never-ending work to develop the East Washington Avenue corridor, Otto Gebhardt of Gebhardt Development is a returning member of our Most Influential group, and we’re wondering what galactic contribution he’ll make next.

First he developed the 220-unit Constellation high rise in the 700 block of East Washington. Then came the mixed-use Galaxie and its Festival Foods grocery store right across the street. And now under development is the Cosmos, the name given for the 140,000-square-foot, mixed-use development directly south of the Galaxie. Taken together they constitute a Milky Way of welcome new development, and Madison has been in need of this kind of space exploration. The $69 million Cosmos redevelopment not only will be the home of the entrepreneurial hub known as StartingBlock, it will feature much-needed professional offices, education and retail spaces, and a 1,500-seat performing venue.

We’re not the only ones who have noticed Gebhardt’s work. The Daily Reporter, a Milwaukee-based construction newspaper, named Gebhardt its 2015 Developer of the Year.

The East Washington corridor is considered a gateway to Madison, but without modern development that gateway looked rusty. Gebhardt is in the process of giving the avenue some real polish.

Valerie Kazamias: Symphonic Fundraiser

Valerie Kazamias is enjoying the summer in Greece, but not before prolific fundraising on behalf of the Madison Symphony Orchestra that would impress a Greek god. Kazamias has been volunteering her time and talents on behalf of the arts in Madison for more than 50 years, and the Madison area has benefitted greatly from her dedication on the MSO’s development, marketing, and nominating committees.

From leading the implementation of the Arts Ball, a fundraiser for both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of Contemporary Art that has raised $1.5 million, including $75,000 in 2015, to securing sponsors for the MSO Gala and raising $40,000 last year, to helping generate $90,000 in 2015 for Concert on the Green, Kazamias is more than a patron of the performing and visual arts.

In addition to countless hours of volunteering and fundraising, Kazamias and her husband have personally donated more than $25,000 to the MSO. For these efforts, she received the 2015 John DeMain Award for outstanding commitment to music, but she gives much of the credit to the people of Madison. “I have been very fortunate,” she says, “that I have been afforded the opportunity to pursue this love affair in a community that appreciates the arts.”


Old to new | New to old
Jul 5, 2016 06:58 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

David and Charles Koch own the Gov. and legislature. No sign of them anywhere!

Aug 10, 2016 04:34 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Leave your political opinions at the door unless you really want to discuss how the Unions own the University and City government.

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