Beth Gehred is one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. She’s also a Strong Towns member, and a resident of my home state, Wisconsin. She recently ran for city council in her town of Fort Atkinson (which you may remember hearing about in March during our Strongest Town contest), incorporating many Strong Towns principles in her platform. We’re pleased to congratulate her on her recent win!
I recently had the chance to talk to Beth about the process of running for office and what she hopes to accomplish during her term as a city councilor.
Rachel: When did you decide to run for office?
Beth: Well, I decided to run for office and then undecided a few times. Two thing ultimately put me in the frame of mind to run: One was that the woman who decided not to run for her seat really encouraged me to got for it, saying she thought I’d be very good. The second is that I have been on the front lines of placemaking discussion in my town. […] It really bothered me that I was constantly asking permission to give my ideas and to be heard, and then I thought, I guess you have to make a position for yourself where you get to be heard. And that means running for office.
Rachel: How has Strong Towns influenced your thinking and your campaign?
Beth: Finding Strong Towns has given me a clarity of thought. It has given me this language and this confidence that there are other people who see things exactly the way I am seeing them.
I have had 20 years of doing this kind of work, but I was always coming from this perspective of, “my children deserve better, my family deserves better, I think this doesn’t build community, I love the environment and so on.” I was always being brushed off for that. When Strong Towns came along, that made it very easy to feel connected to this body of research, literature, engineering and technology that is backing my thoughts. Now I have the utter confidence that I deserve to be heard and that these ideas deserve to be heard.
Rachel: What has the process of running for office been like?
Beth: In our town, you need to get 100 names on a form to be nominated. So, in mid-December, I went out in some of the coldest snowstorms and collected my 100 signatures. My background in organizing, running nonprofits, and event planning helped me tremendously.
I decided through my Strong Towns training that I was going to let content be my calling card. I’ve made every piece of literature a strong piece as opposed to a fluff piece. I didn’t focus on my children or my background. I decided, I’m going to try to present a fresh idea, a fresh tool, as an alternative to the gridlock of old ideas that we’ve had, and I’m going to tie it to a value statement. I got help on all of these things from the material that I read and listen to at Strong Towns.
Rachel: What has been your biggest success so far?
Beth: Well, I won! Another success was my process: I decided not to follow the wisdom of only knocking on the doors of people who customarily vote, because I felt that those are the people we already hear from, and I’m not going to learn anything new from them. I would go to a neighborhood and knock on every door. Even the doors where I could sense people would not vote for someone like me.
I have made a pledge publicly and to myself that I’m not stopping knocking on doors now that I’m in office. We keep inviting people to give comment at the city council, but no one comes. If there’s a problem we truly want to solve, I think we have to go further. I’ve found the whole process of knocking on doors to be invigorating.
Rachel: What are your major goals for your time in office?
Beth: One is to bring the Incremental Development Alliance to Fort Atkinson. The second thing is, we have a transportation committee that has been basically inactive. I want to get them activated again with an eye toward increasing access to downtown local businesses without doing the usual—just adding parking. We have a little transit service (brown cabs) here, which is the equivalent to a bus line. These cabs are a public-private partnership, meant to be used by everybody. Let’s get more people using this service. I'd also like to work on diversity and community building.
Beth is candid that Fort Atkinson has a long way to go before it is truly a Strong Town. Most Fort Atkinson residents get everywhere by car, obesity rates are high and the downtown is dominated by highways. But Beth is working hard to make her community stronger and she believes in her town: "I want to tell Fort Atkinson, you deserve better than this. All I can do is keep coming back to Strong Towns concepts, and appealing to peoples' better nature."
Read Beth's member testimonial, where she explains how Strong Towns "invites us to trust ourselves, to think, and to solve, and to share."
(Top photo of Fort Atkinson downtown, by Jib)
Curious to learn more about running for public office? Join us Friday
Sign up for our webcast on Deciding to Run for Public Office, this Friday at 11am CT.
During the webcast, panelists will explore some of the factors that go into that decision and the role of elected officials in making our communities strong. This webcast is available exclusively to members. If you’re not a member, sign up and we’ll send you the webcast link. If you’re a member but did not receive an invitation in your inbox, please contact Jason Schaefer and he'll make sure you get it.