Waunakee Village Trustee Sam Kaufmann may be the youngest person to be elected to public office in Wisconsin.
Or it could be Justin Nickels, who in 2005 was elected to the Manitowoc common council at age 18, and later mayor at age 22.
According to Jerry Deschane, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, no official records of elected officials’ ages are kept, so no one knows for sure.
But both Kaufmann and Nickels were still in high school when they were sworn into office.
Kaufmann was just 14 when a controversial building proposal piqued his interest in Waunakee civic life, he said. At the time, T. Wall Enterprises had proposed razing several commercial buildings along the 200 block of Main Street and homes just south on Second Street.
“At that point, I didn’t even know who was on the board, and I thought if I went to meetings, they were going to make me talk,” Kaufmann said.
As public debate became more contentious, Kaufmann began attending the meetings and would bring a parent with him because he was nervous about going alone, he said.
The idea of actually serving on the board never crossed his mind until Erin Moran, a college student at the time, was elected in 2018 at age 21.
“By that time, I had already been attending meetings for a couple of months,” Kaufmann said.
Kaufmann became engaged with other community projects, documenting gravesites and organizing Six Mile Creek cleanups.
Kaufmann also served on Waunakee’s nine-month Housing Task Force committee to examine housing issues in the community. He took advantage of opportunities to learn more about other governmental structures, too, first in the Dane County Youth Governance Program.
County Supervisor Dave Ripp served as Kaufmann’s mentor in 2020 on the Dane County Parks Commission. Ripp said Kaufmann first applied for the program in 2019, and with a large number of applicants that year, the younger ones “didn’t quite make it.”
When Kaufmann reapplied a year later, he aced the interview and scored high on the list, according to Ripp.
Ripp characterized Kaufmann as “like a sponge,” adding, “He absorbs everything.”
Kaufmann showed interest in the goings on while learning meeting protocols and Robert’s Rules of Order.
“It gave him more background. He had gone to a lot of village meetings. But it also involved him seeing it closer up. It’s all learning experience,” Ripp said.
This spring, Kaufmann served in the Senate Scholar Program in Sen. Jon Erpenbach’s office, an experience Kaufmann said was abbreviated as the result of COVID-19 precautions.
“I just went down there for a day and paged,” he said, adding the rest was virtual.
His years of attending village meetings, reading meeting packets and staff memos beforehand, along with the other experiences, have helped him quickly settle into his trustee position since he took office in April.
“The biggest transition was sitting on the other side of the room at the table and doing more talking at meetings,” Kaufmann said. “I thought it was going to be a bigger shift than it was.”
Kaufmann was one of six running for three trustee seats. He finished second in the race, winning with two other incumbents, each of whom have served on the board for more than a decade.
Kaufmann said he has a reputation for bringing people together, both Democrats and Republicans, and finding common-sense solutions.
“The support I had was broad,” he said. “I was not part of a specific party or organization.”
In addition to his volunteer work, he helps elderly individuals in the community, mowing lawns, taking them shopping and in one case to a funeral visitation, he added.
Serving in public office seems to be a family tradition. Kaufmann’s great-grandfather, Gerald Raemisch, served on the Waunakee school board of education. Great-great-grandfather J.H. Koltes was a Waunakee Village President. And his grandfather, Bruce Kaufmann, served on the Dane County Board for many years and as the Middleton city attorney.
As for Kaufmann’s initial impetus for running, he said he wasn’t fond of the T. Wall Enterprises controversy.
But, he said, those hot-button issues can bring people together, as was the case with Waunakee neighbors downtown.
“People know one another that didn’t otherwise, and it created a stronger, more resilient neighborhood,” Kaufmann said.