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A North-Sider is elected mayor: It only took 128 years
[April 09, 2009]

A North-Sider is elected mayor: It only took 128 years

Apr 09, 2009 (La Crosse Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Matt Harter will be the first La Crosse mayor to live on the city's North Side when he takes office April 21.

Thirty men have held the office in the 128 years since the city annexed the former village of North La Crosse. It's not clear where they grew up, but city directories show none lived on the North Side when elected, said Bill Petersen of the La Crosse Public Library Archives. Peter Gilbertson, who served two terms in the early 1970s, did move to the North Side while in office.

Why did it take so long for a North-Sider to get the nod? "I have no explanation for that," said Pat Zielke, La Crosse's mayor from 1975 to 1997. "I really don't." Zielke notes he served with a lot of good aldermen from the North Side. But none became mayor.

"It might be just a game of numbers," said John Medinger, mayor from 1997 to 2005. Only 3-- of the city's 17 wards are on the North Side.

South La Crosse tends to have more money and power than the historically blue-collar north.

"Your power base has traditionally been on the south side," Medinger said. "The people who have money and influence were on the south." Census data show that hasn't entirely changed: in 1999, the median household income in the 54603 zip code was about $3,000 less than in 54601.

North Side residents seem more likely to self-identify as such than their southern counterparts, said University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political science professor Joe Heim. "People don't say, --I'm a South Sider.'" Heim thinks that self-identification helped Harter pull in two-thirds of the North Side vote.

"There's an old saying, --If you can't get the North Side vote, you aren't going to win,'" Zielke said.

Jerry Besl, a lifelong North Side resident and retired barber, said he never thought much of the north-south rivalry.

"I figure we're all La Crosse," he said.

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