When State Representative Gordon Hintz called Oshkosh Mayor Lori Palmeri to let her know he wouldn’t be running for a ninth term, she didn’t quite understand what he was getting at.
“I thought he was asking me if I knew someone,” Palmeri said. “He said, ‘I feel the responsibility to explore who might also be a candidate.’ I thought he was asking me if I could make some recommendations. And he said, ‘You’ve earned your battle armor, I’m talking about you.’”
Palmeri has served on the Oshkosh City Council for six years and was elected to her second term as mayor last year.
She was giving it some thought, wondering whether it’d fit into her family life when the decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade was leaked from the Supreme Court of the United States.
“That really kind of lit a fire under me,” she said. “As I understand it, if there are four or five Assembly seats that were to change to Republican, it would endanger the governor’s ability to veto. (Republicans) could potentially have a supermajority.”
And with that supermajority, Republicans could significantly curtail reproductive rights in Wisconsin, among other policy changes.
A law passed in 1849 already outlaws abortion in Wisconsin, though a lawsuit challenging its validity is currently making its way through court. Palmeri said she favors repealing that law.
Palmeri will face Oshkosh small business owner and Republican Donnie Herman on November 8.
Palmeri is the daughter of a Colombian immigrant father and a white mother, but didn’t even know she’s Latina until later in life.
“My mother referred to me as her brown little monkey baby,” she said. “I looked a lot different than her and my sisters. Wasn’t sure why that was. Felt like the little alien, the brown little monkey baby. But I’m not a victim.”
It was a tumultuous childhood.
“I ended up in the foster system, coming out of the foster system pregnant at 15 with not even a 10th grade education,” she said. “I ended up in some abusive relationships. I ended up having some situations where I had to make tough decisions. And as a single parent, I often worked two jobs, you know, administrative during the day, and usually some kind of waitressing several nights a week. Not an unusual story.”
She married an Army soldier and spent several years moving quite a lot, ultimately landing in Wisconsin in the late 1990s and Fox Valley in the early 2000s. Now in her early 30s, she had a few setbacks: a returned check from years earlier led to a misdemeanor charge, and a state program that revoked licenses of anyone with 12 speeding tickets in five years – with no chance to get an occupational license – led to her spending a few days in jail.
As her children grew up, with a GED in hand, she decided it was time to go back to college – her first year at UW-Fox Valley was the same year her son started at UW-Stevens Point. After two years at UW-FV she finished her degree in urban planning at UW-Oshkosh, then went on to earn a master’s degree from UW-Milwaukee’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning in 2013.
“I would have never imagined being able to go and get my master’s degree,” she said. “I never would have thought that. You know, growing up, we had periods of not having an address, living in cars, buses, tents, abandoned buildings, sometimes trailers.”
Solving problems for people
Palmeri said she ran for mayor against incumbent Steve Cummings in 2019 mostly due to his opposition to building a new shelter for homeless people.
“I was serving as the deputy mayor and I had been on the homeless shelter board. He was dead set against us building a homeless shelter in downtown Oshkosh,” Palmeri said. “Having lived with homelessness numerous times as a young person, I felt that it was my opportunity to help this community achieve safe shelter for those in need. And I needed to do that in a very public way.”
She won by just over 300 votes and was re-elected by a similarly slim margin in 2021.
She is the first woman elected and first Latina to serve as Oshkosh mayor. She was the first Latina elected to the Common Council. She’s leaned into diversity and inclusion as mayor.
“I’m most proud of opening up our boards and commissions, and providing seats at the table for people who traditionally had not had the opportunity to participate in our advisory boards and commissions advising the council,” she said, noting specifically the creation of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.
She also said she’s especially proud of a partnership the City has formed with the school district to provide free public transportation to students.
She also said her priorities as a legislator will include health care – including reproductive rights – and strong schools, which includes “fully funding public education up through higher ed. Higher education saved my life,” she said.
She said that even beyond policy positions, her priority is to remain available and accessible to constituents – which will be mostly the same folks she’s been representing as an at-large member of the Council and as mayor. The 54th District encompasses most of the CIty of Oshkosh, and not much else.
She said she’s tried to be a responsive leader.
“That responsiveness has earned a reputation of being reliable and responsible to folks,” she said. “I think that translates over as an Assembly Rep because you’re not just down in Madison all the time. Your (spending) time between your district and listening and trying to address problems for real people.”
She said Hintz has also developed a reputation as an accessible representative.
“I would continue (Hintz’s) tradition of having open office hours and regular constituent meetings here in the district,” she said. “I am not as interested in some of the political gamesmanship that goes on, I’m more interested in solving problems for people. And so, I think that relatable, regular person representation is necessary and certainly a fresh look at things. I may not necessarily, you know, go down with the same youthful ambition because I have had this experience of these six years (on Oshkosh City Council). I do have some realistic expectations. But, more importantly, we have to protect the governor’s veto. We have to repeal the 1849 law with regards to reproductive freedom. We need legal, private access to abortion care. We have to continue working very diligently on the affordable housing crisis. And that is a combination of city, county and state resources to address that problem for Wisconsinites.”
And, she said, while opponents might use her past against her, she said those difficult experiences made her who she is today.
“I’m a grandmother with grit,” she said. “I’m a problem solver and I don’t give up.”