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Taxes, Water Define Waukesha Mayor's Race

Voters in the city of Waukesha will decide Tuesday, whom they want as their mayor.

Incumbent Jeff Scrima wants voters to give him a second term. Political newcomer Shawn Reilly isn’t making it easy.

Reilly was the top vote-getter in a four-way primary in February, while Scrima placed second.

Waukesha residents seem passionate about the race. Hundreds have stuck campaign signs in their yards – for one candidate or the other.

Incumbent Mayor Jeff Scrima is preparing to enter a restaurant downtown, where dozens of supporters have gathered. He’ll tell them how he’s overseen road improvements and expanded outdoor community events, plus, addressed the big issues of jobs and taxes.

“For the first time ever in the city of Waukesha, we’ve been able to tighten our belts and keep the taxes under the inflation rate. We’ve created over 700 new family supporting jobs in Waukesha and this was a collaborative effort between our private sector and in many cases with city assistance,” Scrima says.

Scrima promises to create 400 more jobs, if he wins another four-year term. And he says he’s not concerned that he didn’t finish first, in February’s primary.

“I did come in second by approximately 80 or 90 votes, so it was extremely marginal. Similar to the Olympics, the primary is the first time trial to see who qualifies for the real race, and the real race has been after the primary,” Scrima says.

Scrima points out that he’s won the endorsement of the Waukesha County Taxpayer Association and many business owners. One of them is Jim Taylor. He owns the People’s Park, a restaurant downtown. He says Scrima was instrumental in bringing a huge Woodman’s Food Market to Waukesha.

“The mayor personally (sought) out Mr. Woodman and to me that’s a quality of a mayor, to find an up and coming business and direct them toward the city of Waukesha. He called the private investor, got the investor to invest tens of millions of dollars into Waukesha which created 200 new jobs,” Taylor says.

The incumbent was a political newcomer when he upset Mayor Larry Nelson in 2010. Now Scrima faces a political novice, Shawn Reilly. He’s an attorney and represents the villages of Mukwonago and Eagle.

Reilly’s campaign slogan is “No Drama. Just Work.” He says the mayor’s poor communication skills have been legendary.

“The mayor has vetoed budgets adopted by the Common Council three different times. Each time it was a surprise. They had done all their work and in some cases, they even found out in the newspaper that the mayor was vetoing their budget so they then had to scramble to have special meetings to modify the budget,” Reilly says.

Reilly also criticizes the mayor for often being a no-show and for delaying Waukesha’s application for Lake Michigan water. Waukesha’s underground source is running dry and contains increasing levels of cancer-causing radium. Reilly says his negotiating skills would help the city complete the process.

“We have an intergenerational issue. If we don’t get Lake Michigan water, we will find a temporary solution, it would likely be the wells on the west side of Waukesha, but I don’t think that’s a long term solution,” Reilly says.

I caught up with Reilly at the Waukesha County Courthouse. He was there to attend a meeting about ways to address heroin problems. Reilly says he’s been visiting with a variety of groups, to learn about the challenges that Waukesha faces.

Another person at the courthouse today is former Mayor Larry Nelson, the one Scrima ousted, four years ago. Nelson says he supports Reilly for mayor, and it’s not the result of sour grapes.

“I have kept quiet up until now because I want the city to succeed, but now with the election upon us I think people need to know that Jeff Scrima has not been representing us well for the four years and we need a change,” Nelson says.

Whichever candidate wins Tuesday’s mayoral vote, Jeff Scrima or Shawn Reilly, Waukesha voters will have chosen a native son.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.