The 25 Most Influential People in Greater Madison

When we undertook our Most Influential project, our staff wanted to identify people in the community who fly under the radar, in addition to those whose influence is rather obvious.

For this, our inaugural Most Influential presentation, we focused on more recent impact. A variety of nominees have demonstrated influence, in a variety of endeavors, over the past decade, or during the course of their entire lifetimes. But at the risk of sounding crass, this year’s approach is more about the following question: What have you done for us lately?

We thank the people who came forward with dozens of nominations. We chose only 25 people, but in truth you could make a strong case for virtually every person who was nominated. Nominations for next year’s Most Influential class will be accepted via email at joe@ibmadison.com.

With that, here is our first look at the Most Influential People in Greater Madison.

Ellen Barnard: Eatables Enabler

Ellen Barnard looks like the type of person who would (lovingly) admonish people to eat their fruits and vegetables, and she’s doing just that through the FEED Kitchens, a community resource that’s part commercial kitchen site, part food-business incubator.

The list of organizations, businesses, and food-service apprentices that stand to benefit from FEED (Food Enterprise and Economic Development) is long and growing, especially now that the incubator has moved into a larger facility in the Northgate Shopping Center.

Before establishing this foodie foundation, Barnard started her own business, A Woman’s Touch Sexuality Resource Center, in 1996 (it’s still going strong) and served as the co-chair of the Northside Planning Council. Barnard and the council championed the FEED Kitchens to support local food entrepreneurs and others. The facility features five industrial kitchens, available on a rent-by-the-hour basis.

Armed with a degree in social work from UW-Madison, Barnard can be confident that her contributions to society are only growing. Among those who are feeding off the new kitchen are local food pantries, schools interested in serving fresh fruits and vegetables to students, and others looking to serve healthy meals to disadvantaged populations.

Shannon Barry: Transformer

Shannon Barry is leading a transformation. Barry, executive director of Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, has made it possible for DAIS to deliver on a new facility that will not only result in a sizable expansion, but also represent a new day for local domestic violence services.

Barry now runs the smallest domestic violence center per capita in the state of Wisconsin, but she doesn’t serve the smallest city. Her fundraising prowess was put to the test by DAIS’s new $5.6 million Fordem Avenue facility, but she passed with flying colors. When completed, the 35,000-square-foot facility will allow DAIS to nearly double its 24-member workforce, expand its services, and provide twice as many beds for domestic violence victims.

The current facility has 25 beds, but the number of people on a nightly waiting list who are in imminent danger of being seriously harmed or killed by their batterers is nearly three times as large. Barry believes six other core programs — including help-line support groups, legal advocacy services, and face-to-face crisis response — can reduce the need for shelter.

By helping to make this new public space a reality, she demonstrated the kind of creativity and pragmatic leadership that serves her staff, the community, and people in abusive relationships.

Zach Brandon: Business Advocate

Throughout his career in the public and private sectors, former Madison alder Zach Brandon has noted the link between sustainable progressivity and strong business activity. And now Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, is building on the growth foundation of his predecessor, Jennifer Alexander.

In Brandon’s case, past is economic development prologue. As a former director of the Wisconsin Angel Network, an early-stage investment organization, he helped build the state’s network of angel investor groups. As a former deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, now the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., his focus was on global trade and business development.

With the GMCC, he’s applying his past experience as part owner of three business startups to advocate for 1,300 chamber members. When an energy-benchmarking proposal was introduced last year, the chamber was a leading voice in pointing out the business impacts of a mandated approach, and its sponsoring alders have gone back to the drawing board. The result could be a program based on education and incentives.

More recently, the chamber joined forces with Accelerate Madison to further develop a vital business cluster — information technology. Partnering with an organization dedicated to advancing the role of digital technology in economic development is perfectly aligned with Brandon’s focus on entrepreneurship and innovation.

Kaleem Caire: Reformer

He’s no longer president and CEO of the local Urban League, but anyone who doubts Kaleem Caire’s lingering influence should take note of a pledge. That pledge, made by the Madison Metropolitan School District, is to improve educational outcomes of African American students and economically disadvantaged students in general.

Caire had tried to advance the ball through the Urban League’s Madison Preparatory Academy proposal, but Madison Prep was shot down by the Madison School Board. The idea behind Madison Prep was to bring the kind of transformative change that its supporters believe is needed, but it was too much change for Madisonians to embrace.

But the board’s controversial decision didn’t take the school district off the hook; it ratcheted up the pressure to close the educational attainment gap between white and non-white students. The tenure of Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham will be judged on that and other goals.

Caire not only offered a solution, he also shined a bright spotlight on the achievement gap and inspired a legion of advocates who won’t let it be dimmed anytime soon, especially now that he’s reportedly considering another try at a minority charter school.

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Diane Endres Ballweg: Benefactor

Porchlight, the Safe House housing project, the Madison Children’s Museum … it’s hard for Diane Endres Ballweg to turn down a worthy cause. As president of the Endres Manufacturing Co. Foundation, perhaps her most cherished role, Endres Ballweg helps direct $75,000 or more to nonprofits each year. The foundation has now surpassed the $1 million mark in giving.

A recent beneficiary of her personal generosity is The Stream, Edgewood College’s new visual and theater arts center. As a lead donor to a facility that became In Business magazine’s 2013 “Project of the Year,” Endres Ballweg was simply giving back to a cherished place. She earned a degree in special education from Edgewood College in 1975 and a master’s degree in education administration from Edgewood in 2007.
Edgewood might be a special place for Endres Ballweg, but the arts are a special passion. An accomplished musician — piano, flute, and guitar — and the proud owner of a music education degree from

UW-Madison, she sits on the National Committee of the Performing Arts in support of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.On occasion, friends and acquaintances reprimand Endres Ballweg for her inability to say no, but she’s driven by the need to become a person of value, not simply a person of means. Saying yes, she notes, has always opened new doors.

Kevin Conroy: Cancer Fighter

Exact Sciences CEO Kevin Conroy is already an IB Executive Hall of Famer, but events of the past year could bring him notoriety beyond Dane County’s borders. When a Food and Drug Administration panel unanimously approved the company’s non-invasive, stool-based colorectal cancer test known as Cologuard, it was put on track toward potential market approval.

Conroy believes a successful launch of Cologuard could have the same impact on the early detection of colorectal cancer that the Pap smear has had on the early detection of cervical cancer. In the United States, both the incidence rates and death rates of cervical cancer have been dramatically reduced over the past several decades.

After a recent study showed that Cologuard detected 92.3% of colorectal cancer in average-risk patients and 42% of advanced precancerous lesions, The New England Journal of Medicine published an online report claiming the test was found to detect early-stage colorectal cancer better than other non-invasive approaches.

Conroy’s leadership extends beyond company walls. He was active in supporting the state’s new fund-of-funds venture capital program because of a strange dichotomy: Wisconsin is near the top in terms of new idea formation and fundamental research, but it’s near the bottom in translating those ideas into new company formation. The hoped-for infusion of private capital should improve the state’s rate of technology transfer.

Robert Dunn: Visionary

The primary reason Robert Dunn was deemed one of Madison’s most influential is unfolding on the shores of Lake Mendota. By the time the renovated Edgewater Hotel is ready for its “soft opening” next month, the hassle he experienced in getting this visionary project approved will have largely faded, but its contributions as a character-defining structure will be just beginning.

The character he’s trying to define is Madison’s status as a destination. The $100 million development will not only add high-end hotel space, it will also be the site of special events, occasions, and community happenings. “We set a vision for the project very early on, and I had the highest of high expectations,” Dunn said. “As I’ve watched the project come together and as I’m able to take people through there, while it’s not done yet, you can understand all the moving parts now. Generally, from my own perspective and that of others that are beginning to see what we are going to have there, it’s going to be everything I hoped for and more.”

The same can be said for Dunn’s national leadership with Hammes Co. Sports Development, his ability to maximize the economic development potential of new stadium projects (one case in point is Lambeau Field), and his contributions to the Wisconsin Alumni Association, the Clean Lakes Alliance, and Aaron’s House, a supportive living environment for young men ages 18-26 who are recovering from chemical dependency.

Judith Faulkner: Self-Made Maverick

Judith Faulkner is responsible for a lot of things, starting with Epic, an electronic medical records company that in 20 years went from a small startup venture to Dane County’s largest employer, 6,800 workers strong and counting.

With all those employees, many of them young up-and-comers, she’s also largely responsible for a multifamily building boom in Madison.

She’s also a self-made woman with a list of customers that includes medical luminaries like Cleveland Clinic, Geisinger Health System, and Johns Hopkins, all of which use her software products to enable clinical or business transformation.

By the time Epic is through installing digital medical records at U.S. hospitals, almost half of the American population will have its medical data stored on the company’s record systems. Not bad, considering its chief competitors — Cerner, McKesson, and GE Healthcare — aren’t exactly slouches themselves.

The epic story of Epic is primarily due to Faulkner, who might be the most private, media-shy person on Forbes’ billionaires list. She’d much rather engage in business and software development than talk about herself, but the remarkable success of her company does the talking for her.

Jerry Frautschi: Community Builder

Count the soon-to-be unveiled Edgewater renovation among the many ways Jerry Frautschi has come to Madison’s rescue. The new Edgewater, which is likely to become a local landmark, was once viewed as completely inappropriate for the Mansion Hill Neighborhood, but it would not have been possible without philanthropists like Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland, who led a group of investors that saved the controversial project.

Thanks to this group, Developer Robert Dunn did not need public money to proceed with the $100 million renovation, which will be unveiled in late August. They helped close a $16 million gap, and they were willing to take a lower rate of return, if necessary.

The Frautschis, who have also championed an $11.6 million redevelopment of the 100 block of State Street, probably could have their influence measured each year by the hundreds of arts events that unfold at the Overture Center. They donated $205 million to build the arts facility, but that was only the beginning of their philanthropic power.

Among other worthy projects, Frautschi also pledged $500,000 to the Madison Central Library fundraising campaign. As is the case with Pleasant, literacy is a prime beneficiary of their generosity.

Otto Gebhardt: Star Developer

The Constellation is more than a stunningly attractive building that interacts well with its neighborhood, it’s an economic development driver that’s rejuvenating a venerable Madison street. That street happens to be East Washingon Avenue, and the efforts of Otto Gebhardt and others to redevelop vacant properties have sparked a renaissance.

Gebhardt, owner of Gebhardt Development, is not only leading the way in making “East Wash” more vibrant again, he’s not quite done. Across from the 220-unit Constellation, in the 800 block of East Washington, Gebhardt is developing another mixed-use project that will include a Festival Foods grocery and more residential units.

It’s a classic case of choosing “urban infill” over suburban sprawl. Over the next few years, we’ll see additional developments like the Archipelago Village, a new technology campus developed by the Mullins Group, and the Gorman Co.’s Union Corners, all designed to transform what was an underutilized industrial corridor into an entrepreneurial and employment hub.

Thanks to Gebhardt, that transformation has gained considerable momentum. The Constellation quickly filled with tenants, and its commercial occupants, including the Madison office of Google, are welcome additions to the neighborhood.

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Michael Johnson: Payback Man

Michael Johnson, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County, was humbled by this “Most Influential” recognition, and he was reluctant to accept it because he wants the focus to be on the children he’s trying to help and other nonprofit leaders and volunteers who do tremendous work on behalf of children and families.

When you come from humble beginnings (the projects in Chicago) humility carries over, but as someone whose life was transformed by education — including an MBA from the University of Phoenix and a bachelor’s degree from Chicago State University — Johnson is devoting himself to improving the educational attainment of others.

Toward that end, he’s established partnerships with local businesses and organizations. He’s launched a drive to raise $15 million to expand tutoring and mentoring programs in public schools, and he’s led the Boys & Girls Clubs’ AVID/TOPS program, which has produced high graduation rates for four consecutive years. More than 85% of participating students are currently enrolled in local colleges and universities.
The Boys & Girls Clubs were Johnson’s sanctuary growing up, and now he’s paying the organization back by “paying it forward.”

Brenda Konkel: Tireless Progressive

You might find her solutions compassionate but unworkable, but there is no doubting the local influence of a woman who didn’t let an electoral defeat stop her. Since leaving office five years ago, former Madison alder Brenda Konkel has reminded us (in both word and deed) that she’s not going anywhere, and she’s remained true to that vow, serving as both community advocate and critic of any insufficiently forward institution.

Konkel’s recent homeless advocacy is the latest example of her influence. While the thought of compact homes for the homeless strikes many as bizarre, Konkel sees a sheltering solution that offers the homeless some measure of dignity. In a community of such tiny homes, separate shared buildings offer things the individual homes don’t (electricity, water, bathrooms, and showers).  

Her critics accuse her of championing victimhood, and her acerbic style sometimes causes even her admirers to cringe, but her progressive bona fides are unassailable. Her blog, Forward Lookout, chronicles the goings-on at City Hall, and with her time split between organizations like the Social Justice Center, Progressive Dane, and the Tenant Resource Center, Konkel demonstrates that you don’t have to be an elected official to be a difference-maker.

Erica Laughlin: Diversifier

As another Madisonian who works on behalf of disadvantaged populations, Erica Laughlin understands the value of diversity. Laughlin, director of the UW-Madison IT Academy, is diversifying the largely white male technology industry by providing technological career directions to pre-college minority students.

Since only a small percentage of Wisconsin minority high school graduates are considered “well prepared” for UW-Madison, it’s more difficult to build a diverse pipeline of future IT professionals. Programs like the ITA can help leverage even these low numbers, particularly now that its methodology is shared with groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Madison Urban League, which is developing its own version of the ITA.

Laughlin has steadily built the ITA, which is part of the university’s diversity initiative, to serve nearly 150 students; in the past year, the program expanded to serve disadvantaged Native Americans statewide. Of the students who have completed the program, the vast majority (98%) have gone on to attend a post-secondary institution, and many have earned degrees in fields like computer science, engineering, law, and biochemistry.

The program does require some pre-college dedication, but in building a larger pipeline for the IT sector, Laughlin also gets local high school kids to focus on academic preparation, technological literacy, leadership, and community service.

Tim Metcalfe: Festive Fundraiser

Tim Metcalfe is living proof that no good deed goes unpunished. If his World’s Largest Brat Fest isn’t lambasted for serving brats made by Johnsonville, whose CEO donated to Gov. Scott Walker, its organizers have to cancel speaking invitations to people with controversial messages. Still, an event that he’d prefer to remain blessedly nonpolitical goes on, raising money for local charities and moving a massive number of sausages (more than 3 million served).

Perhaps someday the focus will be on the $1.4 million the event has raised, but the last guy to complain is Metcalfe, the co-owner of Metcalfe Markets. From his commitment to sustainability to his promotion of locally produced food to his support of education via the Boys & Girls Clubs’ AVID/Tops program, he’s one grocer who’s always ahead of the societal curve.

The needs of Madison’s homeless population have been a more recent focus. Metcalfe is committed enough to have spent two nights during the 2013 holiday season posing as a homeless man and living on the streets of Madison. After capturing the experience on video (shared on social media) and posting a request for supplies on Facebook, he helped collect an assortment of clothing, boots, blankets, and cash donations for the community’s most vulnerable people.

Joe Parisi: Public CEO

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi has rolled up his sleeves on many issues — some fundamental, some transformative. Improving the county’s fiscal position and rebuilding local roads are only the start — it’s his problem-solving that really stands out.

Nowhere is that more vital than in keeping local lakes clean, which is crucial for business and tourism. To reduce phosphorous from storm runoff, the county capital budget includes $500,000 for the creation of a manure drop-off site on County Trunk Hwy. K. One of the biggest challenges farmers face is manure management, so instead of spreading manure when their storage runs out, farmers will truck the excess to a drop-off shed, where it will be piped into a manure digester and used to generate electricity. It’s a nuts-and-bolts solution to an urgent problem and is perfectly aligned with the adaptive management encouraged by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In addition, new multi-use pavilions under construction at the Alliant Energy Center will enable Madison to keep the World Dairy Expo, which was being courted by venues in other states. Had the county not partnered with the state and entities like the Midwest Horse Fair, and also sold naming rights to help fund construction of the pavilions, America’s Dairyland might have lost a signature event.

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Tory Miller: Chief of Chefs

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but a corollary could be the way to a community’s appreciation is through creative dining. Few people are more creative in producing dining experiences than Tory Miller, the James Beard Award-winning executive chef at L’Etoile and Graze.

He will add to Madison’s culinary destinations in July, with the opening of a new casual Asian restaurant in the Constellation Building on East Washington Avenue. The restaurant, Sujeo, is the answer to Otto Gebhardt’s prayers, for he turned down perfectly fine chain restaurants for some strictly locally owned flavor.

Sujeo will play a critical role in helping the Constellation “activate the street,” and Miller’s vision for the new Madison Area Chef’s Network could do the same for the local food system. The Network, a collaboration of local chefs such as Miller, Johnny Hunter of the Underground Food Collective, and Patrick DePula of Salvatore’s Tomato Pies, is designed to meet the community’s demand for great dining with the limited number of chefs who live here and work at Madison-owned and operated restaurants.

Miller likens such collaboration among competitive chefs to herding cats, but there is definitely enough interest in fine dining for these cats to feed on.

Pleasant Rowland: Reading Partner

Pleasant Rowland is deserving of a spot on our Most Influential list for several of the same reasons Jerry Frautschi, her husband, is: Being part of the investment group that closed a $16 million funding gap and made possible the $100 million renovation of the Edgewater Hotel.

Donating $205 million to build the Overture Center, a philanthropic contribution that took place more than a decade ago yet continues to pay huge dividends when it comes to local arts programming.
Contributing $11.6 million to the redevelopment of the 100 block of State Street.

But we can’t overlook the many things that set her apart, such as the business excellence that made so much of this generosity possible. She built the Pleasant Company, now American Girl, into such a success story that Mattel was willing to pay $700 million for it in 1998. Her belief that young girls would become interested in history by identifying with dolls based on historic periods was the foundation for a remarkable company.

But it was her understanding of the fundamentals of education that led to the establishment of the Rowland Reading Foundation, which concentrates on teaching children to read by the end of the second grade, when they ideally stop learning to read and start reading to learn.

Rebecca Ryan: Truth Teller

You’ve heard the term “inconvenient truth”? Well, author, futurist, and entrepreneur Rebecca Ryan has uttered some uncomfortable truths about our country and our community, and we’d be wise to take them to heart.

Ryan, the founder of Next Generation Consulting and author of ReGENERATION: A Manifesto for America’s Next Leaders, claims we’re in a winter of discontent, but a warming period might be in reach if we can face the truth. She notes that we’ve faced several winters before, especially the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression, only to emerge stronger. And she says we can do it again, but first people on the political right and left have to slaughter a few of their own sacred cows.

Those on the left must stop resisting changes to federal entitlements that threaten to bankrupt the country, she says, while those on the right should stop resisting changes in the health care system that address the transition from the “long job” era to the “gig economy” in which workers change jobs more frequently.

The city of Madison can point to growing diversity, but educationally it’s failing many of the people who make it more diverse. If Madison truly is going to be a place for all people, she notes, it has to do right by more nonwhite people.

Carole Schaeffer: Persuader

Facing a competitive disadvantage in economic development, especially in relationship to its suburban neighbors, the Madison City Council basically did what Carole Schaeffer and others had asked. They liberalized the city’s tax increment financing policy.

The advocacy of Schaeffer, executive director of Smart Growth Madison and owner and president of her own firm, Schaeffer Consulting, played a prominent role in this new direction. The city not only changed its so-called “50% rule,” which limited TIF loans to half of the new property taxes a project generates over the life of a TIF district, it also eliminated a rule mandating that the city participate in developer profits.

Schaeffer called the latter rule an “equity kicker” that resulted in the city getting paid back twice what it invested in a TIF project. It was a deal-breaker for many developers and a disincentive for growth in Madison, especially because neighboring communities had no such provision in their TIF policies.

In her current position, Schaeffer works with individual businesses and developers as a consultant and government relations professional. The city’s new TIF policy and its more streamlined process for reviewing proposed commercial developments certainly make her job easier.

Kathryn Smith: Arts Envelope Pusher

It was quite a coup for Kathryn Smith, general director of the Madison Opera, to stage two performances of Dead Man Walking, which were the highlight of the 2014 season. But possibly more impressive was the community conversation the opera created about love, forgiveness, justice, and the death penalty — all punctuated with local appearances by the opera’s composer, Jake Heggie, and Sister Helen Prejean, whose book by the same title was made into a Hollywood blockbuster.

The celebrated work, which debuted in 2000, is considered one of the most thought-provoking operas ever produced. The Guardian (London) says it makes the most concentrated impact of any piece of American musical theater since West Side Story.

During the performances, maestro John DeMain conducted Heggie’s score with dramatic flair, and a fine cast brought a searing human tragedy, based on the stark realities of capital punishment, to life. The opera would not have come to Madison, where it was well received by local audiences, without Smith’s tireless recruiting efforts.

Part love story and part issue art, Dead Man Walking leaves quite a lasting impression on both new and diehard opera connoisseurs. “I am indeed honored, as well as very happy, that our community embraced Dead Man Walking the way it did,” Smith stated. “It was an incredible experience for everyone involved.”

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Bo Ryan: Classy Coach

His Wisconsin basketball teams have qualified for 13 consecutive NCAA tournaments. They have made two “Elite Eights” and six “Sweet 16s.” But until the 2013-14 season, Bo Ryan’s Badgers had never been to a Final Four.

If not for a late three-pointer by Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison, the Badgers’ magical run would have ended with an appearance in the 2014 National Championship game. The Badgers’ season to remember not only made an endless winter more bearable, it also provided a glimpse of more winning to come, as four of five starters and several emerging young backups return next season. What else would you expect from Ryan, who has won 704 games as a college coach?

Perhaps the best testimony to the kind of program Ryan runs came from John Carroll, the high school coach of highly coveted 2015 recruiting prospect Josh Sharma, a 7-foot center from Northfield, Mass. Sharma is reportedly leaning toward UW, even with schools like national champion Connecticut in the running. “The UW staff told him to take his time and compare to make sure he was comfortable with his decision,” Carroll told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, while also noting that the UW staff hit a home run during their recruiting visit.

In this age of high-pressure recruiting tactics, who wouldn’t want their son to play for a program like that?

Paul Soglin: Revitalizer

Paul Soglin is the 57th mayor of Madison. He was also the Capitol City’s 51st and 54th mayor. In between his mayoral stints, local businessmen and women could be overheard saying, “I wish he’d run for mayor again.”

That’s because a more robust period of economic development unfolds whenever he’s in charge. In this, Soglin’s third stint as mayor of Madison, his priorities include growing the city’s tax base with denser, more sustainable projects that are also notable for their design quality. An improved review process for commercial developments, combined with a more accommodating TIF policy and the addition of Steve Cover, an experienced community planner, have local developers eager to work with the city on well-designed buildings.

Development on East Washington Avenue, including a crown jewel known as the Constellation Building, reflects this approach, but recent activity isn’t only about high-end commercial buildings. Soglin has also advanced the development of bike paths, worked to improve “walkability,” and devoted his administration to eliminating gaps in food provision with public markets and food hubs.

Soglin can’t remain mayor forever, but hopefully his would-be successors can study his governing model closely enough to make businesspeople miss him a little bit less.

Kim Sponem: ‘Cents’ Maker

To Kim Sponem, financial literacy rivals the importance of English literacy, and the president and CEO of Summit Credit Union has devoted much of her professional life to making sense of dollars and cents.

Sponem is a cofounder of STAR CU, located inside the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County. It’s a hands-on financial learning credit union and the only credit union in the country chartered for children.

During her tenure, Summit spent $100,000 transforming a room near La Follette High School’s main office into a credit union. Why? The credit union wants children and young adults to have access to financial tips and information, and to establish good savings habits early in life. “Far too often,” Sponem said, “this type of information and experience comes after people get into financial trouble.”

Sponem’s concern also extends to college kids, as she is part of the UW School of Human Ecology’s effort to start a Financial Education Center.

She also has small business owners on her mind, advocating for federal legislation that would enable credit unions to increase their small-business lending. The legislation, known as the Small Business Lending Enhancement Act, would raise an existing cap on credit union business lending from 12.25% to 27.5% of total assets.

Rob Verhelst: Fired-Up Fundraiser

Do you still think one person can’t make a difference? Consider that Rob Verhelst, aka Fireman Rob, is a local firefighter, father, husband, motivational speaker, and endurance athlete. He competes in Ironman events all over the country and concludes the third leg of each triathlon in full firefighter gear, all 50 pounds of it, to raise money for his fellow firefighters.

Watching him cross the finish line, having lugged heavy equipment in a grueling event, can be inspiring to anyone who witnesses it. Imagine an event already considered one of the toughest physical tests that people can put themselves through, only to see Verhelst turn it up a notch or two in fire gear.

Verhelst became inspirational after being inspired by the firefighters who lost their lives in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. On that day, he finished a shift at his Madison firehouse and headed straight to Ground Zero in New York. There, he worked with the search and recovery effort for eight days.

Eventually, he began racing in Ironman events, and on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, he partnered with Code 3 for a Cure at the Ironman Wisconsin, and that’s when he first completed the marathon portion in his gear. Since then, he has completed nine distance events to raise money and awareness for Code 3, which provides financial assistance to firefighters who are battling cancer.

Scott Walker: Governator

The merit of our 25th and final Most Influential selection, Gov. Scott Walker, depends on your political perspective.

Is Act 10 an act of political courage that addressed the state’s fiscal woes or an abomination that will slowly but surely erode the quality of public education?

Did revamping the Department of Commerce and creating the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. lay the foundation for stronger economic growth or serve as state government’s vehicle for crony capitalism?

Will the controversial ultrasound bill Walker signed into law result in more women choosing life over abortion or set a precedent for elected officials to mandate whatever medical procedures they deem necessary?

Whatever your perspective, there is no doubting Walker’s recent influence over the entire state of Wisconsin, let alone Dane County. But whether his achievements amount to a lasting legacy or a Pyrrhic victory remains to be seen. We’ll know more on the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 4, when his supporters are shouting “Four More Years!” or he’s conceding the election to Democrat Mary Burke.

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