Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, February 11, 2013

Pfaff seeks to make people's lives better


Shawn Pfaff

Public service

  • Member, Fitchburg Lions Club (2005 – present)
  • Director, University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire Alumni Board (2008 – present)
  • Member, Bethel Lutheran Church (2007–present)
  • Wisconsin FFA Foundation Board of Sponsors (2009–12)

New public library: $14 million.

Quantitative public finance skills: priceless.

Alum Shawn Pfaff got into the Fitchburg mayor's race because he wanted his city to open its first library after more than 30 years of discussion.

Now running for his second term for the city just south of Madison, Pfaff finds that he uses every day what he learned at the La Follette School more than 10 years ago. "I am deeply immersed in communicating about the intricacies of tax incremental financing, a major economic reinvestment tool that local leaders use," says Pfaff, who was first elected in 2011. "As mayor, I am looking at capital and operating budgets. I am asked to make difficult decisions based on revenue projections and cost-benefit analysis of city programs, and I have to find balance with the real-life impacts on the more than 25,000 residents of Fitchburg."

At a time when the national economy is fragile, Pfaff is proud of keeping Fitchburg's core functions such as the police and fire departments fully funded and of investing in Fitchburg's infrastructure.

At the state level, Pfaff applies his La Follette skills as a senior consultant with Capitol Consultants, a bipartisan firm specializing in government relations, public affairs and issue-based grassroots advocacy. "Every day I use the analytical, verbal and written skills that I learned at La Follette. Specifically, I use policy analysis to go through complex legislation and rules at the state level."

Pfaff's focus is representing the firm's agriculture clients. "Since I grew up on a dairy farm in western Wisconsin and studied rural policy at La Follette and worked as an agriculture aide on Capitol Hill in Washington and for Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, I am versed in the complexities of agricultural policy at both the federal and state government," says Pfaff, who joined Doyle's office as external relations manager after graduating from La Follette in 2002 with a Master of Public Affairs degree.

The accomplishment at Capitol Consulting Pfaff is most proud of was working with the state's $26.5 billion dairy industry and the state's medical community to convince Doyle to veto legislation that would have legalized the sale of raw milk in Wisconsin. "We had to work very hard for the veto after the legislation passed both houses of the state Legislature by overwhelming margins," Pfaff says. "We felt justified for our advocacy efforts because in the end, raw milk is an unsafe product that could have caused devastating economic and health impacts to our state's robust dairy industry."

When Pfaff started at La Follette in 2000, he knew he wanted to be involved in the political-policy side of government. "I wanted to work for an elected official and/or be one," he says, "and I am fortunate that I have been able to do both. Most importantly, though, I am very pleased that, thanks to La Follette, I have had the public policy and administration experience and confidence to be able to aspire to and achieve my career goals."

Pfaff also values friendships he made at La Follette, including alumni Tim Casper, who is public affairs and government relations manager for Madison Area Technical College, and Gordon Hintz, who represents Oshkosh in the Wisconsin Assembly.

While at La Follette, Pfaff built on his background in agriculture through a project assistantship with the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, working closely with internationally known dairy policy expert Bob Cropp. "We analyzed the impacts of Wisconsin farmers joining cooperatives to sell their products," Pfaff says. "The experience was invaluable because it taught me the economic side of public policy decision-making."

That kind of real-life experience is invaluable training, Pfaff says. "The La Follette School is a great way for students to get firsthand policy experience in an array of ways that can assist government, non-profits, for-profits and non-governmental organizations to make difficult decisions that aim to improve people's livelihoods."

Students share costs, benefits of consolidated fire departments, EMS

La Follette School students shared their analysis of the costs and benefits for four municipalities to merge their fire departments and emergency medical services with officials. Read more ...

In fall 2012, Pfaff helped to provide a real-life opportunity to La Follette students in David Weimer's cost-benefit analysis class. A group examined the costs and benefits for Fitchburg and three other municipalities to merge their fire departments and emergency medical services. "I had been talking with the mayors of Verona and Oregon about possibly merging the fire services of our three very similar communities," says Pfaff, who earlier served on Fitchburg's Police and Fire Commission. "However, to get the conversation moving further, we needed a thorough cost-benefit analysis, so I asked my city manager to contact La Follette."

The team of six students presented in December to a group of about 75 people, including fire chiefs, city and town administrators, firefighters, council and town board members, and other policymakers.

Pfaff supports the school financially and has helped with speed-networking sessions with La Follette students and advised prospective students on their applications to La Follette. Beyond La Follette, Pfaff served on the Wisconsin Future Farmers of America Sponsors Board, and he received the Wisconsin FFA Foundation's lifetime achievement award in 2012 for his efforts to help Wisconsin's rural youth. In 2004 he was named legislative aide of the year by the Wisconsin Counties Association for his work with local governments when he was Doyle's aide.

"I am very blessed to have a career that I enjoy in the state where I grew up and where my family has roots of more than 125 years," Pfaff says. "Also, I feel that in a time when Wisconsin is very polarized, I hope I can work to find consensus and collaboration to help make people's lives better."