Posts Tagged: local politics

Electing for Change: Kurt Friese

electing_kurtfrieseKurt Friese

Iowa City activist, writer, and restaurateur Kurt Friese got his first taste of politics (literally!) when he was a mere eight years old.

“My older sister dragooned me into licking envelopes for George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic Presidential candidate,” he says with a laugh.

McGovern may not have won the election, but Friese most certainly caught the political bug. He went on to study political science (and photography) at Coe College in Cedar Rapids and, in 1984, caucused enthusiastically for former U.S. Senator John Glenn’s presidential campaign. After decades of supporting other candidates for political office, he decided to throw his own hat into the ring in November 2015 when he announced his candidacy for one of five seats on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.

The lawmaking body of the county, the Board of Supervisors meets weekly year-round in Iowa City (the county seat) and has a wide range of duties, from approving the budget proposals of county offices and levying property tax to managing all county buildings and grounds and establishing building zones for unincorporated areas of the county.

“I’m concerned about many issues, but my main motivation for running for supervisor now is that the county’s decennial [ten-year] land use plan will be changed or renewed in 2018,” says Friese, who advanced in the June primaries by just a few hundred votes. “Our current land use plan allows for pouring far too much concrete on farm land, and it’s hard to grow local food from concrete.”

electingforchange_logoA talented chef who honed his cooking skills at the New England Culinary Institute, Friese has long been one of Iowa City’s most vocal advocates of local, sustainable agriculture. In 1996, he and his wife, Kim, opened the popular tapas restaurant and wine bar Devotay, named after their son, Devon (who now manages the restaurant’s bar), and daughter, Taylor. The intimate eatery has served globally inspired dishes prepared from locally sourced sustainable foods from the start. “Very few other restaurants in the area were even talking about using local, organic, sustainable foods in the mid-1990s,” Friese recalls. “Fewer still were actually partnering with local organic farmers.”

It proved a winning combination, and in 2006 Friese took the entrepreneurial plunge once again when he launched the quarterly magazine “Edible Iowa River Valley” to promote (you guessed it!) the area’s best sustainably produced food and drink. Also an avid proponent of “slow food” – which he describes as “food raised with care, prepared with passion, and served with love” – Friese joined the national board of Slow Food USA in 1999 and spearheaded Slow Food Iowa City, which helped build a 12,000-square-foot garden and orchard at a local high school.

As he takes his fight for local organic food and regenerative land use to the ballot box, Friese admits he has been surprised by how well his candidacy has been received throughout Iowa City and the rest of Johnson County. “I thought people might question why a chef was running for political office,” he says, “but those I have met have been pretty excited about it.”

And that’s an encouraging sign for Friese, who, despite a career spent educating others through palate and print, recognizes that politics is the ultimate way to effect positive change. “You can’t just write about or talk about or scream about or cry about things you want to change – you actually have to get your hands dirty and work to make the change you want to see,” he says. “There are policies in the way of making this place the way I and so many others think it should be, and I’m ready to do something to change that.”

Electing for Change: Alicia Leinberger

electing_alicialeinbergerAlicia Leinberger

The words – uttered on public radio the fall of 2015 – stopped Alicia Leinberger in her tracks.

They also changed the trajectory of her life.

“A Bernie Sanders supporter was talking about how the campaign was all about creating a political revolution,” recalls Leinberger, founder of Ethos Green Power, a renewable energy business in Viroqua, Wisconsin. “When she said that, I was like, ‘Wait! What?! Someone actually said that out loud?’ Those words set me on fire.”

Leinberger immediately threw herself into the local Sanders campaign, joining a couple dozen other tireless supporters who canvassed door-to-door in Viroqua to educate voters about the Vermont Senator’s platform. Their efforts met with success last April, when Sanders tallied more votes than rival Hillary Clinton both in Viroqua and statewide in the Wisconsin primary.

“It felt great,” says Leinberger, who attended the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July as a Sanders delegate. “But then my thoughts turned to, ‘Now what?’”

She didn’t have to ponder that question very long. Soon members of the local Democratic Party were knocking on her door, asking if she would run for the 96th District Seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly.

Leinberger, a single mom who has never held elected office, carefully considered their pitch, consulting both her parents and her daughters (Maiela, 13, and Zirelia, 11) before announcing her candidacy in May.

electing_alicialeinberger2If elected this November, she will take her seat in early January, when the assembly convenes for the 2017–18 legislative session. Leinberger sounds poised to hit the ground running in Madison, where her responsibilities would involve working on Wisconsin’s state budget and other legislative matters, serving on standing committees, and, of course, handling constituent matters back home.

“Win or lose, I hope my daughters learn that nothing can stop them but themselves,” she says of her decision to run for office. “I hope they learn that if they have an opportunity they really want to pursue, they should let nothing hold them back.”

Leinberger has lived her life by that credo. A native of Cedarburg, Wisconsin, she moved to El Salvador with the Peace Corps in 1994 to teach sustainable agriculture to coffee farmers after earning a degree in conservation biology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Three years later, Leinberger returned to Madison to advance the fair trade movement in the Midwest. She worked first with coffee farmers, then with dairy farmers, before cofounding Seventh Generation Energy Systems – which promoted renewable, clean energy – in 2002.

In 2007 Leinberger moved to Viroqua, lured by the fresh water, clean air, and overall beauty of the Driftless Region, as well as her desire to enroll her daughters in Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School. Three years ago, she opened the doors of Ethos Green Power, a small business that offers opportunities to buy, build, and sell green power. “The two best ways to effect positive change are through business and through politics,” says Leinberger. “I don’t have a problem taking a risk if I believe in something.”

Certainly entering politics at a time when many Americans feel disenfranchised from the political process could be considered a risky proposition. But Leinberger has been inspired by “learning what the people of the 96th District hold most dear” and hopes she gets the opportunity to communicate what she has learned when the assembly convenes in Madison next January.

“I’ve always had a strong belief in the democratic process, in putting the best parts of ourselves – and the best interests of the people – first,” she says. “The only way to make the process work better is to participate.”

Electing for Change


How can I change the world?

How many of us have ever pondered that question, only to become paralyzed by the next question that (almost) inevitably follows: Can I really change the world?

Mahatma Gandhi – he of the world-changing peaceful protest – most certainly thought so.

“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing,” Gandhi once said, “would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.”

There are countless ways to effect positive change, of course – and you don’t have to be Gandhi to do them! Organizing a neighborhood get-together, for example, or donating your time to your favorite non-profit, or, just maybe – running for political office, be it on the local or state level. With the first Tuesday in November just around the corner, the timing seemed right to ask five of the Driftless Region’s own residents why they choose politics as a way to change their communities (for the better!).

electingforchange_logoThose residents include two former Iowa House members – John Beard, now a Winneshiek County supervisor, and Chuck Gipp, currently Iowa DNR director – and two longtime activists mounting their first political careers, Kurt Friese, an Iowa City restaurateur and writer, and Alicia Leinberger, a Viroqua, Wisconsin, green-energy advocate. We also spoke with Sarah Schroeder, mayor of Spring Grove, Minnesota, who will seek reelection for her seat this November.

While all five took very different paths to the political arena, they share the same can-do philosophy. “If you want to something to change, you can’t be afraid to get out and do it yourself, at whatever level is appropriate,” Friese aptly puts it. “Don’t count on someone else to do it.”

In other words, as Gandhi also once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

It’s a message these five leaders have clearly taken to heart. Read each of their stories below to learn more!

Sarah Schroeder

Alicia Leinberger

Kurt Friese

Chuck Gipp

John Beard

Bio: Sara Friedl-Putnam wishes to thank all the good people in the Driftless Region whose desire to make their communities better places to live, work, and play has inspired them to run for elected office.


Inspire(d)’s Aryn Henning Nichols encourages you to vote, friends! Read her note here!

P.S. Inspire(d) doesn’t endorse specific candidates, but we do endorse getting involved like these folks do and have done! XOX -Ary