The county's executive

Joe Parisi says he may have been an unlikely candidate years ago, but as politics go, he may be living the American dream.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Savvy politicians know that it pays to tell the truth, because if they don’t, it will come out eventually.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, 57, never hid the fact that he dropped out from Middleton High School, but he later earned his GED, enrolled at MATC, and graduated with a sociology degree from UW–Madison.

There’s no need to hide the fact that in 7th grade, the young music aficionado bought his first drum set after seeing an ad posted — unbeknownst to him — by Clyde Stubblefield. “That was cool,” Parisi laughs. “I wish I still had it!”

He fed that passion for years, and for almost a decade was the drummer for local blues-rock band Honor Among Thieves. “It was great at the time,” he states.

Parisi entered politics in 1996 — by his own admission as an unlikely candidate — and he’s never looked back. He served as Dane County Clerk for eight years, in the State Assembly for six, and was elected to his current post in 2011. Last November, Parisi received another four-year vote of confidence from Dane County voters.

IB: What compelledyou to go into politics?
Parisi: I certainly never planned or aspired to be in politics, but I’ve always been passionate on issues. Local government is very satisfying because you can identify a problem, come up with a solution, and see results.

IB: In your opinion, what are Dane County’s biggest issues?
Ensuring that everyone has equal access to opportunities. It’s hard for me to see individual potential not being realized. I’ve spent a lot of time volunteering with Operation Fresh Start and have watched kids born into challenging situations thrive when encouraged by others to succeed.

Also, the growing gap between the haves and have-nots is a big problem, and intergenerational poverty is another.

IB: Are there solutions?
It’s all about priorities. No single entity can do it, but we also can’t let the barriers become excuses. We need to learn from them and build partnerships. I can’t change the world, but I can change what I can change.

IB: Finish this sentence: In regards to Dane County — if money were no object — I’d like to see…
Parisi: A community center in every neighborhood. Kids need a place to go and communities need a focal point to help foster a sense of community. I’d also like to see our schools fully and equally funded.



IB: What’s the latest on a future run for governor?
I love what I do and can’t think of another job where I can have such an impact. I’ve never looked at one job being a steppingstone for another. If this someday leads to something else in my life, so be it, but I honestly don’t think that way. I got into politics the same way. It just happened.

IB: Any advice for someone contemplating politics?
Do it for reasons that feed your soul. Personally, there’s a lot I don’t like about politics. I hate calling people and asking for money, for example. So I put up with what I don’t like because of all the things I love about politics, which is helping people in so many ways.

IB: First paying job?
Washing dishes at the Country Kitchen on University Avenue.

IB: First car?
A $50 Pontiac-something. It didn’t last long. The engine blew up.

IB: Hobbies?
I enjoy gardening, but when you have a job like mine, there’s not much separation between your job and your life. I’m county exec whether I’m at the grocery store or at work, but it’s a lifestyle I’ve chosen.

IB: Who most influenced your career?
Parisi: My parents were wonderful role models and instilled in me the importance of helping others. The last thing my dad said to me as he lay dying was, ‘Do what you can to help other people.’ It was the only time he ever mentioned that, yet he spent his life helping others and volunteering for Special Olympics.

I was first elected as Dane County Executive on his birthday. He was so happy that night.

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