Time to Represent: Emerson humbled to serve Eau Claire in Assembly

Tom Giffey

FEMALE FIRST. Jodi Emerson is the first woman to represent the south side of the city of Eau Claire in the state Assembly. She was elected in November in the 91st District, which covers most of the city.
FEMALE FIRST. Jodi Emerson is the first woman to represent the south side of the city of Eau Claire in the state Assembly. She was elected in November in the 91st District, which covers most of the city.

Jodi Emerson, Eau Claire’s newly elected state representative, says she wants to bring some of Eau Claire’s resiliency to the State Capitol. “I think resiliency really is the story of Eau Claire, and it took us awhile to get there,” Emerson said in an interview on Jan. 4, the day of her ceremonial swearing-in. “There were some really hard years, decades really, where our city wasn’t really sure where we were going to go. But we’re definitely on this path now of excitement and energy.”

Emerson was elected in November to represent the 91st District – which encompasses most of the city of Eau Claire – in the state Assembly. Emerson is a lifelong Eau Claire resident, Memorial High School graduate, and former director of public policy for Fierce Freedom, a nonprofit group that combats human trafficking. She replaced fellow Democratic Dana Wachs, who held the seat for six years and didn’t seek re-election. Volume One talked to Emerson, 46, about the excitement of taking office, what she hopes to accomplish as a member of the minority party, and the value of a Legislature that reflects the many faces of Wisconsin.

Volume One: What are you most excited about now that you are actually going to be taking office?

Jodi Emerson: The privilege and the honor of it and also the enormity of it are kind of hitting me in the last day or two. I am looking at this as another role of community service. That’s what I’ve always done: Whether it’s the small things for the neighborhood association, the PTA, everything for both me and my husband (Julian) has always been about serving the community. And this is just a different step in it, but it’s a big step, and it’s more about what can I do for the people of Eau Claire, not what I can do for Jodi. … It’s about how can I help the city that I know and love be a better place. How can I take some of the great things that are happening in this city and spread them around the state.

What do you think the rest of the state can learn from us?

One of the big messages from Eau Claire is our resilience. … Growing up in Eau Claire, (we’d be asked), “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I don’t know, but not here!” was kind of my answer. I want to be out of my hometown. I saw the tire factory close. My dad was a Uniroyal worker. We saw a lot of our friends and family leave the area after that closed. … It was a really tough time. And there was a citywide mourning almost, of what do we do. We’ve lost this large employer that had these great jobs, and how do we come back from this? How do we change our identity? ...

There’s some problems in our state, and if I can take the resiliency of Eau Claire, and help spread that to the state, I think that’s important. … Eau Claire’s not the only place that’s lost manufacturing jobs. … How can we reinvent ourselves a little bit? Maybe it’s the Green New Deal. Maybe it’s taking sustainable energy and creating good-paying jobs with that. Eau Claire’s got this cool, artistic, fun vibe. … How can we be helping other communities find their identity as well?

In your previous career as an advocate on human trafficking issues, you were able to help bills pass with bipartisan support. Does that give you hope that, even through you are in the minority party, you may be able to get some traction?

I think this is also the piece of trying to figure out the new job, too. Because one day I’m very hopeful that yes, we can work together, and then another day it’s nope, it’s just going to be we’re butting heads, it’s going to be the same-old. And maybe even worse, because now there’s a Democratic governor that the majority party will be fighting in the Assembly and the Senate, so maybe it’s even going to be worse than what it was.

But I think it really comes down to personal relationships, and when I talk to (other legislators) down there one on one … we get along very well on a personal level. ... I just hope in the end (the fact that) we’re working together for the good of the Chippewa Valley will outweigh some of the partisan politics.

What’s the best advice you’ve gotten about your new job?

Be yourself. And that’s some of the advice that I’ve given my freshman colleagues, because we’re trying to navigate this new world together. And in the end, it’s my name on the door, it’s my name on the vote. I’m the one who’s going to be going back to the community in two years and asking them to vote for me again. And if I can’t look at myself in the mirror about what I’m doing down there and feel comfortable with where I’m at, how can I ask people to support me in the end?

Is there legislation you worked on in your previous career that you would still like to get passed?

One bill, we call it the safe harbor bill. We got really close this last time. I’ve been involved in it being proposed in three different sessions, and it never got passed, and so I’m hoping that this next session we’ll be able to get it passed. It’s a bill that Rep. Jill Billings from La Crosse has been instrumental in. … (The bill) makes it so that anybody under the age of 18 cannot be charge with a prostitution-related offense. By state and federal definition, somebody who’s under the age of 18 is a victim of sex trafficking if they’re involved in that process. … Two sessions ago, we made it that prostitution of a child is child abuse. However, under the state statutes, that child can still be convicted of the abuse that is happening to them. Most counties don’t actually charge that, but some of them still do.

Half of the Democrats in the state Assembly are now women. How is that significant?

When I first sat down (with my colleagues) … I looked around: 50 percent men and women. We have got such a diversity of ethnicity, of sexual orientation, of race, of everything. I looked at our caucus, and I said, “This looks like the state.” And I was really proud of that. … We are the representatives, so shouldn’t we represent the communities that we are serving? With that, there is a magnitude that is hitting me in the last few days, of being the first woman to represent … the south side of Eau Claire in the Assembly. … I’ve had moms introduce me to their daughters and say, “She’s the first person to ever do this.” It’s humbling, and it’s huge. It’s amazing, and that honor is not lost on me right now.

What are you bringing with you to put in that office to make it like Eau Claire?

I already brought some Blugold Roast coffee down there. I’ve got some mugs from Visit Eau Claire. The coffee will always be on in my office, so I did want to extend the invitation that when people are in Madison, that they do need to stop by and have a cup of coffee and chat. … I need to rely on the community to tell me what they’re seeing, problems that they’re experiencing, ways that we can make our state better. And in true Scandinavian hospitality, the coffee pot will always be on in order to have a good conversation over a good cup of coffee. … I’ll caffeinate my way through this thing. (laughs)

You can contact state Rep. Jodi Emerson at Rep.Emerson@legis.wisconsin.gov, (888) 534-0091, or find her in Room 15 West of the State Capitol in Madison. If you’re not sure who your state representatives are, visit maps.legis.wisconsin.gov.


In addition to Jodi Emerson, the Chippewa Valley will see new faces in several other legislative seats as a result of the fall elections:

• 23rd Senate District: Former state Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, was elected to replace retiring state Sen. Terry Moulton, also a Republican.

• 31st Senate District: Former state Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, was elected to replace fellow Democrat Kathleen Vinehout, who retired after three terms in the Senate.

• 68th Assembly District: Jesse James, R-Altoona, who most recently was Altoona’s police chief, will replace Bernier.

• In other local districts, incumbents were re-elected: Rep. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, in the 29th; Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, in the 67th; and Rep. Warren Petryk, R-Eleva, in the 93rd.