By Shereen Siewert
A Wausau mayoral candidate was escorted from a city council meeting Tuesday after demanding an apology from a newly appointed council member who in 2003 made racially charged statements about black men “breeding” with vulnerable women and dealing drugs in the area.
About a dozen protesters demonstrated before the Nov. 26 council meeting, several of whom spoke publicly questioning the council’s selection of Linda Lawrence to represent Dist. 8. Lawrence was appointed in October to replace longtime representative Karen Kellbach, who stepped down from the post days before her death. Lawrence, Wausau’s first and only female mayor to date, received votes from Dennis Smith, Lisa Rasmussen, Tom Neal, David Nutting and Gary Gisselman and Dawn Herbst. She won a special election in April 1998 to replace former Mayor John Hess and was re-elected to a full term in 2000.
Chris Norfleet, who is running for mayor in Wausau, was one of several people who spoke during Tuesday’s meeting who opposed Lawrence’s appointment. In an impassioned statement, Norfleet questioned the accountability of all council members who voted in favor of Lawrence’s appointment.
“All of you, we are not just people you talk nasty about,” Norfleet said. “We’re citizens. We’re human beings. And we pay your bills. Now, if you want to be a real leader, apologize to our community…we have to make sure our black community is respected, included and heard.”
“Your moral compass must be bigger,” Norfleet said.
Following his comments, Norfleet sat down. But when Mayor Rob Mielke attempted to move ahead with the consent agenda, Norfleet stood and demanded an apology from Lawrence.
“Mayor, you should give her the opportunity to apologize…to my black children,” Norfleet said. “Apologize now. Stand up for your apology.”
Lawrence, with Mielke’s approval and despite the lack of a correlating agenda item, was allowed to address her previous comments, saying she was getting “pressure” in 2003 from residents who were upset over drug activity in their neighborhoods. At that time, Lawrence said, she was taken into what the Wausau Police Department then called a “war room” with about “40 or so faces, predominantly African American men in their 20s…drug dealers who came to this community to make money” from a willing market of people.
Lawrence also said her comments were additionally influenced by observations from her sister, a neonatal intensive care unit nurse who told her about a patient, a white woman who had premature twins with a black “baby daddy” who was not there to help raise the child.
“He was off to another woman already,” Lawrence said.
At that point, Norfleet stood, addressed Mielke and said, “What she said is not respectful and you are not respectful.”
Lawrence turned to Mielke and said, “Would you please do something?”
As Mielke called for order, Lawrence spoke further.
“I’ll summarize by saying the issue had more to do with people’s behavior that was consuming resources and was upsetting law-abiding citizens,” Lawrence said, as Wausau Police Deputy Chief Matt Barnes escorted Norfleet from the room. “Skin color had nothing to do with it.”
Norfleet, along with Marathon County Dist. 1 Supervisor Katie Rosenberg, are challenging Mielke for the mayoral seat in the 2020 election.