Chad Kemp has seen quite a bit of change in his hometown of Verona. Where he graduated from high school is now Badger Ridge Middle School. The population has grown from 5,374 in his childhood to more than 13,000 today. He’s pretty sure he was the only Black student in the graduating class of 1997; today, the district is 38 percent students of color, according to state data.
This year, Kemp is running to represent the area in the State Assembly. If elected, he’d be the first person of color to represent the 80th District, which includes Fitchburg, Verona, Mount Horeb, New Glarus, Belleville and rural portions of Western Dane and Eastern Iowa Counties.
The district has been represented by Sondy Pope of Mount Horeb for 20 years.
Appointed to the Verona City Council in 2018, Kemp has served as council president for two years, as well as chairing the Finance and Personnel Committee.
“I always think that government can actually be an instrument of good despite what a lot of people think. I think that it can do a lot to help individuals and help families … With respect to public service, I want to do the best that I can for the most people every day that I wake up,” he told Madison365 in an interview Monday. “And sometimes you have to make some difficult choices. It’s not always easy, but you have to do the most for the greater good. So that’s the one thing that I try to focus on is trying to do the best that I can for the most people.”
Kemp graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School in 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis – “I graduated probably the worst time except for maybe May of 1929,” he said – and unable to find any firms hiring, started his own, representing people in personal injury, civil rights and employment cases.
“I like to think of myself as David often going up against Goliath,” he said. “Each day, I wake up, and I’m trying to find a way to seek justice for people that really don’t have a lot of alternatives. They’re often going up against large corporations, insurance companies and things of that nature. It’s a fight I’m always willing to wake up and take on.”
He has recently merged his practice with the law firm Gingras, Thomsen & Wachs, which has offices across the state.
Kemp’s parents grew up in urban Milwaukee and moved to the Madison area when his father came to UW-Madison for medical school. Kemp said he’s learned to move seamlessly between, and understand the needs of, the mostly-white rural populations and communities of color.
“I try and be a person that bridges gaps. Always,” he said. “I mean, that’s what I have to do with my work. I have three kids. I’m constantly doing that with Elliot and Kellen and Noel. I try to be a person that brings people together, if at all possible.”
Kemp said a top priority, if he’s elected, will be supporting education. He said he returned to Verona in part for the high quality schools there, and wants to ensure the schools remain supported. He said being the son of a physician helped solidify that priority.
“I saw at an early age that you can do a lot for yourself if you have an education, and no one can take that. That will be a priority,” he said. “First, making sure that schools are properly funded, that schools have the programs they need to make sure kids can achieve at a high level so that they can have the same opportunity that I had.”
Health care access is another priority for Kemp, especially after seeing his father, former Dean Health System CEO Dr. Allen Kemp, spend 23 days on a ventilator with COVID-19 early in 2020. Both of Kemp’s parents contracted the virus on a visit to their younger son Jason, who was then a basketball coach at William and Mary; both have since recovered. Kemp said access to health insurance as well as Medicare made adequate treatment possible for his parents.
“Not everyone has that option,” Kemp said. “The fact that in our state right now we have continued to refuse to accept the expansion of Medicaid is really hurting people. Daily, people sometimes are choosing between whether or not they’re going to eat, whether or not they can purchase their medication, whether or not they can keep a roof over their head. And I don’t think that that’s an acceptable standard in our state or in our country, for that matter.”
Kemp also identified voting access as a priority, noting Republican efforts to reduce access to mail-in voting and cut back on early voting.
“It’s important that people have the right to exercise their right to vote, legally and safely, period,” he said. “There should not be severe impingement on that. And we all know it disproportionately affects people in lower economic brackets and affects people of color and affects people with disabilities.”
Kemp said he intends to remain on the Verona City Council during the campaign, but would resign that seat if elected to the Assembly.
“We’re about to go into the budget process,” he said. “And since I’m the Chairman of the Finance Committee, I’m not going to walk away from my commitment there. I’ve learned at an early age you finish what you start.”
He said it’d be important to be the first Black person elected to represent the district, and only the third to represent any portion of Dane County after Shelia Stubbs and Samba Baldeh. But it’s not necessarily the most important thing.
“I think diverse opinions and diverse thought is always a good thing because it brings hopefully good ideas,” he said. “I think that the people here are looking for substance, I think they’re looking for someone that’s willing to work with people and actually get things done and are going to represent them I don’t know, or I don’t think that they really care so much about the color of someone’s skin, which is good. It would mean a lot to get elected, not because of who I am or who I represent, (but) because it will be an opportunity for me to help and do as much as I can for the people in this community.”
Kemp is one of five Democrats running in the primary, including retired teacher Anna Halverson, Dane County Supervisor Mike Bare, engineer Douglas Steinberg, and Belleville Council President Dale Yurs. Nathan Graewin and Jacob Luginbuhl are running in the Republican primary. The primary will take place August 9 and the general election November 8.