When Barack Obama was elected president, Steve Welcenbach recalls, he didn’t sleep for three days.
That sounds like hyperbole. No, he insists. He means it. That’s how upset he was.
"I felt like the idea of America was being dismantled,” he says. The president, he says, “is a collectivist” whereas Welcenbach says he believes in personal responsibility and the free market.
“I am a Catholic guy. I am a committed Christian. I believe God’s plan is what it is. Once I accepted that, I started thinking, ‘What’s my role?’ and the sleeping came back.”
A short time later, while watching the news about the General Motors’ bailout, Welcenbach’s wife, also upset, commented, “We need a Republicans’ Anonymous group.” And, so the nucleus for what is now the fledgling Menomonee Falls Taxpayers Association was born inside the home of a waste disposal company owner in Menomonee Falls.
The group hit the headlines this week, officially forming and announcing a petition drive to force village officials to put any capital projects of more than $1 million to binding referendum.
The group also is urging residents to come to the July 2 Village Board meeting to get more information and show their support. The galvanizing force right now: The village’s $18 million loan to the troubled Radisson Hotel, which has sparked citizen anger and talk radio segments.
Indeed, the men said they want to hold future meetings of the taxpayers’ group at the Radisson. The village confirmed in mid-June that it has filed a foreclosure action in Waukesha County Circuit Court involving the village’s mortgage on the Radisson.
Things have gotten progressively worse, with contractors saying they weren’t paid, the Waukesha County District Attorney getting involved on the contractors’ payments, and now the report that some of the money is going to payments for payroll for the hotel at at N88 W14750 Main St.
“It’s a symbol,” says Welcenbach.
Meet the men leading the effort
Patch sat down Friday with Welcenbach, the president of the new taxpayers group, and Bill Savage, the group’s treasurer, to find out who’s behind the group and why they started it.
The group has a third officer, Randy Melchert, a field director for former Rep. Mark Neumann, who is running for U.S. Senate. Melchert is a blogger and former Assembly candidate.
Both Welcenbach and Savage are small business owners, who are fairly well-known figures on the scene of local conservative activism.
“I’m just a regular guy,” insists the talkative Welcenbach, who lives in Menomonee Falls and owns a waste disposal company called Alchemical Ventures, Inc. He describes himself as part of the Tea Party movement. He has made himself known in various political controversies and is the founder of a conservative newspaper called the Reality News.
Savage, of Hartford, is a research assistant for state Rep. Don Pridemore (R-Hartford), who is running for election in a redrawn district now including a larger portion of Menomonee Falls. He’s also vice president of the Hartford School Board, and the communications director of the Hartford Area Taxpayers Association, known as HATA.
Welcenbach tapped into Savage’s organizational expertise, and he said that was the “missing piece” that allowed the Menomonee Falls group to move from informal meetings in people’s homes to a formal group on Tuesday. Savage is also the owner of Wild Bill’s Saloon in West Allis, although the tavern is closing for good on Friday because Savage said he got tired of the bar business’ demands and hours.
Savage said there was a Menomonee Falls taxpayers' group years ago, but it disbanded and the new group is filling a void.
Hard-working dads were role models
Both men were inspired by their fathers. Welcenbach’s father was an accountant who was a World War II veteran. Savage’s father worked in management for a canning company and was born in a West Virginia coal mining community.
Welcenbach said he was raised “just across the border” from Menomonee Falls and built a home on the village’s south side in 1991 with his wife, who runs elderly activity programs at the YMCA and works in lunch service. They have three children. Two are in college and one attends Divine Savior Holy Angels High School.
He started his first company in 1986 to perform environmental and other cleanup assisting health care and educational facilities dispose of waste. Waukesha Memorial Hospital was one client. The company morphed into another, which Welcenbach runs out of the Falls. It’s currently involved in waste disposal and recycling projects.
He has a degree in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and entered the waste disposal business after working part-time in a similar company early on.
But Welcenbach’s political involvement came later. “I’ve always been conservative,” he says. “I’ve never voted for a Democrat in my life. But I wasn’t part of the Republican Party until two years ago.”
He started becoming interested in 2007, after striking up political conversations with a young neighbor who was interested in conservative politics. The neighbor asked him to attend a speech Newt Gingrich gave at the Country Springs hotel. Welcenbach’s name ended up on an email list, and pretty soon he decided to go to an Americans for Prosperity event to hear state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman speak.
“I knew something was wrong with the direction the country was going, but I didn’t know how to harness it,” he says.
Due to his scientific background, he became involved in issues relating to climate change. He channeled all of those interests into the monthly Reality News and, after the Obama election, started the social group of like-minded neighbors. (In his spare time, he managed to show gladiolas at the Wisconsin State Fair).
Leaders say Falls officials are out of touch
“Most of the people in our neighborhood were like-minded,” Welcenbach said. They had noticed that Menomonee Falls politics seemed controlled by older interest groups who seemed out of touch with the political philosophies of the newer residents, he said.
“What was happening in our neighborhood was happening all over the state,” Welchenbach says. “We are part of an activist army.”
Their email list grew to several hundred people. Eventually, he met Melchert and Savage, who also navigated in conservative circles.
Welcenbach says he and others felt that the Menomonee Falls School and Village Boards were “making decisions like this was Madison.”
The Radisson hotel deal particularly concerned them. “I’m a taxpayer,” he says, and he felt the village had no business getting involved in financing a private enterprise.
Now, he wants to see the hotel work. “It’s a beautiful place.”
Savage brings organizational skills
But meeting informally and voicing opinions is one thing. Officially forming a taxpayers’ group is more involved. There are legal requirements to follow, for example. Enter Savage.
“He was the key element we needed to get to the formalized stage,” Welcenbach says.
“This is where the rubber meets the road,” says Savage. "It's the grass roots."
Savage was born in Brown Deer, and obtained a degree in economics and psychology from University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He’s been a bar owner for the last 23 years. He says he's been conservative all his life and eventually became involved in Republican politics.
In 2004, he attended the state Republican Convention in La Crosse. He was upset by a local representative’s refusal to sign a taxpayers bill of rights, and that’s when he met Pridemore, who was running for the office and a fervent supporter of it.
“You can’t have freedom without personal responsibility,” Savage says. He says he learned this from his father who “did what he could to get out of” the coal mining community where he was raised.
Eventually Savage went to work for Pridemore’s office. He also helped start the Hartford taxpayers group that he says has been successful in electing conservative candidates who are dedicated to reducing spending and taxes in that community.
Welcenbach has also been involved in local elections. He is an officer for the Republican Liberty Caucus and was behind a movement to oust the editor-in-chief of the American Chemical Society in 2009.
Aiming at local elections
The men want to replicate the Hartford efforts in Menomonee Falls by, they say, bringing elected officials closer to the philosophies of the electorate.
In April, the Menomonee Falls Taxpayers Association — then only informally operating — was credited (or blamed, depending on your perspective) for the election of Hamilton School Board member Brian Schneider. The incumbent Lynn Kristensen had signed a Gov. Scott Walker recall petition and was accused of incorrectly spelling her name on it. She accused Welcenbach of being behind the effort.
The men expect the new Menomonee Falls group to grow fast. “If there is no check valve, then government will continue to grow,” says Welcenbach.
People interested in the petition drive or taxpayers' group can contact Savage at firstname.lastname@example.org.