Birthplace: Columbus, Ohio
Experience: Deputy secretary, Wisconsin Department of Commerce, in Doyle administration; Madison Common Council, 2003-2009; executive management with three start-up companies, including Laundry 101; former skateboarder.
For Zach Brandon, the political center isn't a place of conciliation and compromise; it's a vital battleground of ideas.
"I do believe in governing from the middle - not the squishy middle, but a bold middle," he says. "People believe passion belongs to the extremes, but I disagree. There can be a passionate middle - not only one that takes a little from both sides, but one that pushes back on both sides."
As a member of Madison Common Council for six years, Brandon gained a reputation as a fiscal hawk, pushing to hold the line on an ever-growing budget. He's been called a "penny pincher" but prefers the term "penny counter."
As Dane County executive, Brandon would rethink the budgeting process to enable innovation. He says government departments are usually told to cut their budget by 5% or 10% each year. So they often propose cutting vital services and popular programs, knowing the money will be restored.
Brandon believes it would be better to cut a percentage across the board to create an "innovation fund." All county departments would compete for this fund by developing innovative ideas that save money.
But some say Brandon's belt-tightening comes at the expense of needed services. McDonell notes that as a Madison alder, Brandon proposed cutting funding for the AIDS Network and Project Respect, a program that works with prostitutes. McDonell calls this approach "intellectually lazy."
Brandon says focusing on economic development would grow the tax base, providing more money for social services. "We have this fantastic safety net, that does have holes in it, but there are no ladders out of it," Brandon says. "What's the point of a safety net if we're just collecting people?"
A former small business owner and deputy secretary of the state Department of Commerce, Brandon cites economic development as his main reason for running. "Kathleen [Falk] has proven that when you're passionate about what you're pushing, you can have a huge impact," he says. "For me, that would be economic development."
Brandon vows to "send a clear message that the Dane County executive is the chief economic officer." He sees opportunities for economic growth, with existing industries like biotech, alternative fuels, clean energy technology, software and information technology. He'd like the UW-Madison to lead not just in research funding but in job creation.
The loss of jobs happens all the time, Brandon says; his solution is to create new ones. This includes finding "a landing place for public employees who might lose their jobs." (Brandon himself is in this predicament, but says he's already been offered lucrative private-sector jobs.)
Brandon cites his successes at Commerce, including helping bring Italian packaging company Seda to Racine and making sure Harley-Davidson kept its plant in Milwaukee. "If I can do it Racine, if I can do it in Brown County, I can do it for Dane County," he says. "Dane County shouldn't think it's powerless."