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Antigo Daily Journal

August 31, 2013 

By Lisa Haefs


For Mary Czaja, elected to the state legislature 10 months ago, Wisconsin’s seat of government is surprisingly similar to the communities that sprawl across her 35th Assembly District.

“The Capitol is just like a small town,” Czaja, back home in Tomahawk after a productive spring legislative session, says. “There are relationships to be made, connections that form, and countless stories to be told.”

Czaja, owner of C.I.S. Insurance Group in Tomahawk and Rhinelander, was elected to the Assembly in November, 2012 in a tight race over Democrat Kevin Koth and Independent Patrick Tjugum. The seat was open due to the decision by incumbent Tom Tiffany to run for the 12th Senate District position, a job he won.

Czaja was no stranger to Madison, having served on a variety of state and national insurance boards. But she admits that her first days in Madison were “overwhelming and numbing” even with the help of more experienced colleagues who worked to ease the abrupt transition from private citizen to public lawmaker.

“The Republican and Democratic parties do a good job with their new members,” she says. “They don’t just throw you to the wolves. They have bipartisan orientations and they team you up with senior lawmakers when they are on the floor to show them how things are done.”

Those first few months were a juggernaut, she says, with work on the state’s budget occupying most waking hours. Everyone, it sees, had a plan or an idea to push, literally overwhelming lawmakers through the sheer volume and diversity of requests.

“We’d like to be able to say yes to all the good ideas, but it just isn’t possible,” Czaja says.

Now, comfortable in her role after completion of that first session, Czaja continues to juggling home, her continuing insurance business, and constituents, but at a slightly less intense pace.

“It’s all about finding balance,” she says.

Along with the small town coziness, Madison brought other surprises as well.

“The facts are important but passions also influence the issues,” she says, adding that debates, especially between the parties, can get ugly. “We know we are different and we have different beliefs, but that attitude can get rough.”

And there’s also the very different mindsets between downstate lawmakers, often representing urban and inner-city areas, and their more rural counterparts.

“I have a passion for rural Wisconsin and northern Wisconsin,” she says. “I want to work to educate my southern counterparts to help them understand the issues that affect us up north.”

A consensus builder in her professional life, the lawmaker says she enjoys bringing that mentality to Madison.

“It’s like a good sales project,” she says. “That’s fun.”

She has worked across the aisle on a number of issues, most recently as lead author of a bill to allow crossbow hunting by any licensed hunter. Currently, the equipment’s use is limited to those with disabilities.

A Czaja-sponsored bill to allow electronic proof of insurance through technology such as a smart phone app, was signed into law and she is working on a plan that would allow out-of-area workers to bypass state licensing requirements in the event of an emergency such as a tornado or blizzard.

Another Czaja-backed initiative would let school districts form pools for the purchase of certain types of property and liability insurance as a way to lower their premiums.

As will everything in Madison, little happens in black and white. Nothing is as simple or straightforward as it might first seem.

“With everything you propose, or gets proposed, you must always look at the unintended consequences,” she says.

Czaja also remains devoted to spending as much time with the residents of the 35th Assembly District as possible, with an open-door policy

“A lot of my time is spent monitoring bills and on constituent services, trying to get them answers,” she says. “Unfortunately it’s not always what they want to hear.”

Growing up, Czaja says she never seriously envisioned a political career, and only expressed interest in the position as she studied the issues and what she felt was the appropriate responses.

“We all want the same things, jobs, a healthy environment and good communities,” she says. “The difference is in how we go about getting those things.”

And she says that, in the back of her mind, always, is the realization that no one gets pulled out of Rolodex or off a speed dial faster than an out-of-office lawmaker.

“You make a lot of acquaintances in Madison, but don’t concentrate on them to the detriment of your true friendships and home,” she says. “Take care of your friends and family first, and Madison second. Long after this is over, I’ll still have my family and be selling insurance in Tomahawk.”

Czaja says her first few months in office have been a one-of-a-kind experience and she would encourage anyone with an interest in politics and governing to seek office.

“Ninety percent of the people who seek office do it for the right reasons. The other 10 percent are in it for ambition and power,” she says. “That 10 percent who are doing it for the wrong reasons cause 95 percent of the problems. Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.”