Joe Maldonado has always been the political type.
“I’ve always had an interest in civic engagement,” he says. “I’ve voted in every election since I was 18. First one, I voted for Al Gore in 2000 and I had literally just turned 18 at that moment.”
Now 37, he’s jumping into the fray himself, running for Fitchburg City Council to represent District 1, which straddles Verona Road on the city’s northwest corner. Incumbent Anne Scott is not seeking another term.
The district encompasses the Allied – Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood on the east side of Verona Road and Jamestown on the west. It’s a majority minority district, meaning most of its residents are people of color — and representing those people was one of Maldonado’s motivations for running.
“I’ve always known that there is power in having our voice heard at the local level,” he says. “And I know that in my district in particular we have a high representation amongst communities of color and we’ve got historically low voter turnout. And a lot of the decisions that really affect folks that have the most need are often not decided by them. And I wanted to change that. I want to be able to serve everybody in my district. I also know if everybody at the table doesn’t have a voice, the decisions that are made aren’t going to include everybody, and they’re not going to positively affect everybody.”
Maldonado says his campaign will focus on options for young people. The Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, where Maldonado worked from 2010 to 2015, has a youth center in the neighborhood.
“Kids need a good place to go after school. Kids need good programming to be able to develop their leadership skills. When kids have a safe place to go after school, that eases the burden on parents,” he says. “I’ve seen that in my neighborhood. My son’s been going to the Boys and Girls Club since he was seven years old and I’ve volunteered there with youth. I’ve worked there before and I’ve seen the impact that it has on kids to be able to have leadership opportunities, to be able to do fun things, to be able to have adults in their lives that they’re able to spend time with that are going to complement their school day.”
That Boys and Girls Club has been the subject of contention in recent years, as former Mayor Jason Gonzalez cut an annual $50,000 contract from the city budget and the city council opened that money to a competitive grant funding process.
The City of Fitchburg bridges three school districts — Madison, Oregon and Verona — and Maldonado says the relationships between the city and those districts is key.
“Really the big things that I want to see out of my campaign are I want to see options for our young people, particularly when they leave school. I want to see strong partnerships with our local school districts, our businesses and our municipal government,” he says.
Another priority for Maldonado will be business development, especially as business in the district have been hit hard by a major construction project on Verona Road restricting access to storefronts. In fact, that and other factors led to the area being a food desert for nearly 10 years, until Maldonado’s wife Mariam Maldonado opened Luna’s Groceries on Red Arrow Trail last year.
“The fact that my wife opened her own business in our neighborhood providing food access and giving people job opportunities, it’s literally transformed the neighborhood,” he says. “I want to see that done on the other side of my district,” west of Verona Road, where several storefronts stand empty.
He says the grocery has deepened his and Mariam’s connection to the neighborhood, and the neighborhood’s conception of itself.
“When you have that type of relationship between the neighborhood and the businesses that operate there, you’re able to have really good outcomes for the neighborhood as a whole,” he says. “You have people that feel like they have a home. People that feel like they have a place where they can be who they are. You just have a good rapport and relationship with the community and it becomes a place that’s safe. It becomes a place where people thrive. It becomes a place where people feel comfortable and I would like to see in all of our neighborhoods, places that are run by people that are a part of those neighborhoods or people that are able to quickly build good relationships with neighbors.”
Maldonado, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Afro American Studies from the University of Wisconsin, was born and raised in Milwaukee. The family has lived in Fitchburg since 2009, and in District 1 since 2012.
He will take on engineer Dave Herbst in the general election on April 7.
“I want to be able to explore the possibilities of what we can do with our youth in district one and across the city of Fitchburg,” he says. “I want to really focus on building. I want to be able to focus on creating opportunities for my residents, for folks in Fitchburg, and that’s going to be really the strength of my campaign.”