Political newcomer Vance Skinner handily beat a six-term incumbent April 6 in a hard-fought race for the Waukesha Common Council.
A family man who is active in his church as well as local civic life, the clean-cut Skinner, 40, fits the Waukesha stereotype in every way but one: He’s openly gay. That makes his election in Wisconsin’s most politically conservative county one for the history books.
In a victory statement, Skinner thanked his opponent, Ald. Emanuele Vitale, 74, for his many years of service to the residents of the city’s 8th aldermanic district and vowed to begin work immediately on “the issues impacting our district as well as the larger community.”
Signaling a shift in style from his predecessor, Skinner assured voters that he would seek out “constituent input at every avenue.”
“My Web site will remain up and running as a means of communicating with the district,” he stated.
Skinner’s bid for a low-profile office attracted relatively high voter turnout. The last time Vitale faced a challenger, in 2004, fewer than 400 votes were cast. Nearly twice that number participated in this year’s race, with Skinner winning by 10 percent.
Vitale was the only incumbent aldermen to lose a seat in Waukesha’s April 6 municipal races, although voters also turned out first-term mayor Larry Nelson.
An information technology manager for M&I Bank, Skinner ran on a theme of change and competent leadership. He positioned himself as a fresh alternative to Vitale’s outspoken personality and lack of understanding – according to Skinner – on key issues facing the city, such as its notoriously dwindling water supply.
Although Skinner’s sexual orientation never became a serious issue in the campaign, he was attacked during its final days for campaigning against the state’s 2006 anti-gay marriage referendum. He also was accused of lying about his academic credentials, to which he responded by posting pdfs of his degrees on his Web site.
Skinner is well known in his district for his work on the Waukesha Landmarks Commission, which oversees development in the city’s historic area, and for his involvement in a group to repurpose local schools facing closure.
In addition to his civic activism, Skinner has been an activist for LGBT inclusion. He played a key role with M&I’s diversity and inclusion council in gaining domestic partner benefits for the bank’s employees. He, husband Brendan Barrett and their two young daughters participated in “Shall Not Be Recognized,” a traveling exhibit of portraits of same-sex couples.
As director of Wisconsin Rainbow Families, Skinner helped to build the group’s membership to include 300 LGBT families. The group offers peer support as well as family activities and events.
Skinner treated his sexual orientation as a non-issue during the campaign, neither shying away from it nor touting it as a reason to vote for him.
Waukesha’s 8th district is one of the most diverse in the county. It includes Carroll University, blue-collar areas and affluent historic neighborhoods. “As I was going door-to-door (campaigning), it reinforced what I already knew – that this district is very balanced,” Skinner said. “There’s all walks of life here.”
Skinner and Barrett, who married in Toronto in September 2003, moved to the area after deciding to have children. “We wanted to build a home … in an urban environment with a walk-able, lively neighborhood that was near schools and parks,” he said.
That search ended a few blocks from downtown Waukesha, where they built a new Craftsman-style home, complete with a picket fence. Although the picket fence isn’t white, the house conforms to another stereotype – the gay one: It won an award for historic design from the Milwaukee Builders Association.
Skinner and Barrett pursued adoption, but after running into numerous roadblocks due to their sexual orientation, they had twin girls through a surrogate. Together, they became the first “non-traditional” family to join St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Skinner said.
When it came time to baptize the kids, Skinner and Barrett told the church’s leaders that they didn’t want “to disrupt anything.”
But, “they were very reassuring,” he said. “They said, ‘You’re part of our congregation.’”
Still it was a tense moment for the parents.
“That was the most nervous we’ve ever been,” Skinner remembered. “It was our family in front of everyone for the first time.”
Fortunately, he said, “The ceiling didn’t cave in.”
Since then, the couple has “bonded with quite a few families from our church and school,” Skinner said. “We share baby-sitters. We’re closer now to families from our daughters’ school than we were with our old friends.”
Some of their new friends have even accompanied Skinner, Barrett and the twins to PrideFest.
“We couldn’t be happier with the choice to move to Waukesha,” Skinner said. “Our liberal friends said we were crazy, but we could not be happier. We call (our neighborhood) the ‘mini-East Side.’ We’re five minutes from the university, two blocks from our school and five minutes from downtown.”