In city council district 3, Jeff Koch speaks out | Slag Heap
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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

In city council district 3, Jeff Koch speaks out

Posted By on Wed, Mar 2, 2011 at 9:22 PM

Let's get right to it. If you live in city council district 3 and you love politics -- which you probably do, or else you wouldn't have read past the headline -- you've heard the rumor about Jeff Koch.

That rumor, for those who love politics but don't live in district 3, is this: Koch is supposedly running for the seat only because if he doesn't ... Mayor Luke Ravenstahl will fire him from his job as program supervisor in the city's Public Works Department.

Koch's heard the rumor too. And he says there is "absolutely no truth at all" to it.

For one thing, although Koch is a non-union employee, he says he'd still be protected by civil-service laws -- and such laws typically frown on punishing employees for failing to engage in political campaigns. 

And Koch is proud of the work he's been doing. In the wake of last year's "Snowmageddon," he helped devise the city's "snow route" system, which designates and marks top-priority roads for snow clearance. He's also enhanced road-salting efforts even as the number of drivers has shrunk. It's safe to say the results have clearly not pleased everybody. But Koch says that even when people complain to him, "No one says it isn't better than it used to be." 

In any case, Koch wants to be in this race. He served an abbreviated council term after winning a 2006 special election, but was replaced by Bruce Kraus, the current incumbent, the following year. But being a councilor, Koch says, "was fun. I enjoyed getting stuff done for people." 

His highest-profile initiative was passing a zoning measure to restrict the number of bars that could open in the South Side and neighborhoods like it. The measure was a point of contention between Koch and Kraus back in 2007, and clearly it didn't clear up the wretched excess of the Carson Street scene. If it had, the South Side bar scene wouldn't be an issue in this campaign.

By the same logic, of course, nothing Bruce Kraus has done has solved the problem either. And Koch, like fellow challengers Jason Phillips and Gavin Robb, says a big part of the problem now is Kraus' "style," which he says is divisive. 

Koch says part of the reason he got into the race, in fact, was because "I could barely walk down Carson Street without people approaching me and saying 'something's wrong.'"

And there's no doubt that Koch has a vastly different style. He is a disarmingly plain-spoken guy. Ask him about the losing 2007 campaign, for example, and he says, "I wouldn't even have voted for myself that time, with all the shit that came out."

Indeed, Koch was faulted for a variety of sins back in 2007. City employees were seen wearing pro-Koch T-shirts on the job, a Koch staffer was caught making political phone calls from an office phone, and Koch's campaign accepted political donations from local businesses.

Koch is quick to point out that those contributions came from neighborhood businesses: "I wasn't taking money from US Steel," he says. (Koch did return offending contributions -- and in at least one case the business owner pointedly contributed an even larger sum to Koch -- this time from his own pockets.)

As for those phone calls made from his office -- the goings-on were revealed by another candidate running in this year's race, Jason Phillips. But Koch genially waves aside questions about hard feelings: "Jason's got great intentions," he says. "It's water under the bridge."

Still, Koch has learned some lessons from 2007. When we set up my interview, he made a show of pulling out a personal cell phone, and giving me the number from it.

What would Koch do if he regained his council seat? 

Among other things, he supports creativing more flexible parking solutions for the South Side. Those plans, which he says he began working on during his previous council term, include special parking rates at publicly owned garages at the SouthSideWorks development, and using parking near a now-idle school building on Carson Street. He'd also press for a portion of the county's drink tax money to be earmarked for the South Side -- where a lot of the revenue is being created in the first place. 

In any case, Koch is unimpressed by Kraus' record since taking office. Kraus frequently touts his support of a bill to limit the size of campaign-contributions, for example. But Koch notes that Kraus won his office with contributions in amounts that would have run afoul of those rules. "It's do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do," Koch says. (Koch adds, however, that he wouldn't try to remove the rules. For one thing, he says, "They never affected me -- no one was throwing 5 grand at my campaign.") 

Koch also questions Kraus' support of an off-leash dog park slated for the South Side. Spending money "on a dog park in the South Side doesn't resonate well in the hilltop communities," Koch says. 

If that sounds like Koch, who lives in Arlington, is playing on district resentment of the glamorous Flats ... it's not a bad strategy. District 3's hilltop communities include neighborhoods like Beltzhoover, Arlington, and Knoxville -- where blight is a real problem and crime fears go beyond puking frat boys. And as noted in this space before, Koch is the only candidate in district 3 who doesn't live on the Flats. It's no accident that when you ask him what the election is about, Koch says, "I'm hoping it's about representation for the entire district."

But for the next few days, at least, the main part of Koch's strategy involves winning the Democratic Party endorsement.

The endorsement vote takes place March 6. And winning the backing of party leaders, says Koch, is "my sole intention right now." Koch has been a member of the Democratic committee for more than two decades, and he currently chairs the city's 16th ward.

Does that mean Koch will drop out if he doesn't get the endorsement, as candidates in other council races have pledged to do? Koch pauses for a moment.

"Not 100 percent, no. It's something I kick around every day. It's going to be a difficult decision, I can guarantee that." 

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