by Sara Woelfel

 

At age 7, Stephanie Findley, ’07, faithfully watched “Meet the Press” every Sunday. To this day, she remembers quite well the emotions she felt at that young age as the presidential campaign between President Jimmy Carter and Governor Ronald Reagan progressed, compelling her to get involved. A supporter of President Carter, whose background as a peanut farmer resonated with her own family history, Findley took the initiative to design a campaign piece outlining all his attributes.

 

“I went door to door in the neighborhood, giving out that lit piece,” said Findley, crediting her grandfather and father for inspiring her early passion for politics, world issues and history.

 

A few decades later, Findley’s focus on politics is as intense as ever. She now plays a role central in every election in the City of Milwaukee as chair of the Election Commission. The three-person team of commissioners is elected through their respective political parties, with the majority decided by the party that receives more votes for governor within the City of Milwaukee. The final slate is then chosen by the mayor.

 

“I ended up as chair because my two colleagues on the commission respect how I run the meetings with an iron fist,” Findley said, noting she is the sole female on the team. “Before I came on the commission, they used to have long meetings if a candidate would challenge another candidate. Sometimes they were there for hours. Now, once you state the facts, we make our decision. I’ve gotten tremendous praise for how I navigate meetings, even when they become quite contentious.”

 

In addition to hearing challenges, the Election Commission meets quarterly and oversees the people, machines, data and processes essential to successful elections. That involves making sure machines are functioning, workers are trained, nomination papers are intact, finance reports are scrutinized, poll books are accurate, rosters are purged and candidates are certified.

 

On Election Day, the Milwaukee commissioners observe and monitor election activities at 327 polling sites, partnering with the chief inspectors and more than 2,000 poll workers to keep lines moving and troubleshoot any issues that arise.

 

The 2011 State Supreme Court race presented unexpected challenges for Findley and election officials throughout Milwaukee County. A statewide recount meant the 19 municipalities in the county needed to work together to determine a final count, but all used different machines and systems to tally votes. The headaches and trials that ensued convinced officials that all 19 municipalities needed to upgrade to a common machine and process.

 

“There were some learning curves we had to weather through this storm, but in the end, we did very well in adding those security measures that make our residents and voters comfortable with our process,” Findley said.

 

Findley said her concern for making voting transparent and accessible to all people led her to create a speakers bureau of trained volunteers through the election commission who went out into the community to provide education on Wisconsin’s new voter ID law so people understood the expectations and requirements before Election Day. She also petitioned the Government Accountability Board to allow voters to present electronic documents on laptops, tablets or cell phones as their proof of residency for same-day voter registration.

 

“I pay most of my bills online and many citizens do these days,” Findley said. “A lot of people don’t get statements in the mail anymore. It’s all paperless. So if you have your WE Energies bill sent to you online, you now can show proof of residency via your email at the polling location.”

 

FROM INTEREST TO ACTION

 

Findley’s interest in politics simmered for years prior to joining the election commission. At one point, she started a political consulting business, running and volunteering for a number of local campaigns. In addition, she remained a dedicated voter and volunteered as a poll worker. Throughout those years, she gradually began building a network of well-connected and politically savvy people who not only helped her as she advocated for other people, but then also supported her first run for office in 2007.

 

“For years, I knew the talking points and issues, but I didn’t feel I had the credentials and was afraid to speak up,” said Findley, who earned her bachelor’s in criminal justice from Concordia University in 2001 and her master’s degree in management from Stritch in 2007. “Once I had my degrees, I felt I earned the right to speak.”

 

She holds a deep appreciation for education, especially after being slighted by a teacher early in life who refused to allow Findley into a higher reading group. When a student teacher recognized the slight and challenged the classroom teacher to promote the young girl, Findley viscerally understood the empowerment and status that comes with knowledge and education.

 

“From that moment on, I said to myself no one will ever take for granted the knowledge that I have,” Findley said. “I’m going to continue to pursue to become the best I can be so that no one can ever take from me what I know that I know. That’s what I live by every day when it comes to my education.”

 

Pregnant during her senior year of high school, Findley faced another challenge in her education when she became a parent at such a critical stage in her life. While she graduated from high school, she delayed her dreams of going to college. Instead, her high marks in school and a successful interview led to a highly-prized internship with Johnson Controls right after graduation and that kicked off a series of work experiences that eventually led to her enrolling in college and starting her political consulting business.

 

Once she found her voice through her education, Findley decided to throw her hat in the ring for the Milwaukee Public Schools Board in 2007 and the State Assembly in 2010. While the experiences did not result in victories, she took away some life lessons.

 

“I know what to do and what not to do,” said Findley, who isn’t planning any future runs, but now holds valuable firsthand information that she shares with other candidates she supports. “I learned that I really enjoy door-to-door canvassing, and I enjoy meeting people. I also learned politics is not for me with the number of lobbyists and groups pulling at me to support this issue or that issue.”

 

She also gained an appreciation for her knowledge of statistics, which she honed in her master’s program and she’s perfecting in her doctoral program through Grand Canyon University.

 

“I have such a math head and can pick up vital information about issues simply by looking at the numbers and research,” Findley said. “That has helped me navigate as I go in different board rooms and committee meetings.”

 

Her skill with numbers is especially important in her role as owner and CEO of Midwest Construction and Management Services LLC, a commercial construction firm that she started in 2012. She thoroughly enjoys being a vital part of new development throughout the region and feels a special satisfaction at the end of each completed job.

 

“I’ve been in male-dominated industries for so long, and construction is no different,” Findley said. “It can be very trying and sometimes I have to ask myself if I really want to keep doing this. But then I get confirmation that I’m doing something right and need to stick it out a little longer. Prayer keeps me going, along with the knowledge that I’m able to employ a crew, give them work and help them take care of their families.”

 

As she looks ahead, Findley believes the most important way she can continue to stay involved in politics is not only through her work on the election commission, but also as a supporter of women running for office.

 

“As a single mother, it’s tough,” Findley said. “And women tend to think differently than men, especially when they vote on particular issues. Women today simply need more encouragement to run.”

 

As for Findley, she requires no nudges or encouragement to work in the political realm.

 

“I enjoy it. It’s just part of my DNA.”