Local Government Feature: Jake Woodford

Jake Woodford ‘13 has been the Mayor of Appleton since April 2020. He is the youngest elected official in the city. Woodford has lived in Appleton his entire life, and according to him, his family has deep roots in the community. He went to Columbus Elementary School (one of the smallest and most diverse schools in Appleton), Roosevelt Middle School (now closed) and Appleton North High School. Woodford feels that his experience going to a diverse elementary school and growing up working class in Appleton prepared him for this role because it helps him better understand the needs of ordinary people. In 2009, he enrolled at Lawrence, where he majored in government and minored in history. Woodford worked in the Admissions office, worked on Tech Crew when the Warch Campus Center first opened, and served on the judicial board. Additionally, Woodford served on the Lawrence University Community Council (LUCC) and was elected LUCC President in 2012. As president of LUCC, Woodford served on the committee that selected Mark Burstein for president of the university.  

After graduating, Woodford took a job in Burstein’s office and served as Assistant to the President. His role was eventually expanded to include Secretary to the Board of Trustees, which he held for seven years. Woodford, under Burnstein, worked to establish good ties between Appleton city government and the university, which meant quarterly meetings between former mayor Tim Hanna and Burstein; Woodford continues this tradition and meets with President Laurie Carter quarterly. 

“In a lot of ways, Lawrence was a [learning] lab for me…I learned some important lessons between my job and the university…and my student engagement,” Woodford said.  

Woodford’s experiences with leadership began in high school and continued through college; he credited Burstein as an “important mentor” for him. When Hanna stepped down in 2020 after 24 years as mayor, Woodford recalled that it opened up an 11-way primary battle for the mayorship. Woodford and his campaign knocked on doors in every ward during the primary because they realized it was critical to get their name out before the general election arrived.  

In the general election, Woodford ran alongside former alder and Council President Jim Clemons. Woodford purposefully used the term “alongside” instead of “against” and characterized his former opponent as someone who had devoted his life to serving his community. While the race was tough, Woodford believes that efforts such as reaching out to Hmong and Spanish-speaking residents enabled him to connect with and gain the support of members of the community who haven’t historically been engaged in the electoral process.  

Woodford is passionate about making city government work and said that city government is a complex operation that involves many departments and employees. He is frustrated by the fact that the State of Wisconsin has systematically defunded local governments by forcing municipalities to share revenue with the state and limiting the ability to impose levies. Local governments and employees are competent and hardworking, Woodford affirmed, but the structure of the state is a roadblock.  

Woodford discussed efforts to make Appleton more sustainable and resilient, including updating stormwater infrastructure, installing a solar array on the Municipal Services Building, adding hybrids to the city fleet, switching the city buses to diesel fuel and converting streetlights to LED. He added that switching to diesel buses reduces emissions by 92% and that LED streetlights dramatically reduce operating costs. Going forward, Woodford is interested in adding electric trolleys to the transit fleet. Woodford sees the work of sustainability as essential and said that the link between extreme weather and climate change is “undeniable.” 

“It’s not a matter of where you fall on the political spectrum,” Woodford said. “Nobody wants water backed up in their basement…and I don’t think anyone wants to willfully contribute to the degradation of the environment.”  

Positions in city government are nonpartisan, including the mayor. Woodford thinks it is important to be a proper steward of the role and to take positions on local issues, while trying to avoid the partisan polarization he’s seen in national politics. He lamented the fact that contemporary politics seeks to put people in boxes and worries that partisanship leads to a lack of respect for one another. He said that Wisconsin is a good example of the damaging effect of partisanship.  

“I don’t think anyone could argue with a straight face that politics in the State of Wisconsin are truly functional,” Woodford said. “And I think the same could be said about the United States.”  

Woodford added that he has quarterly meetings with every single member of the Common Council. He believes that regardless of differences, it is important to include everyone in the work of building community. He encourages people to avoid ignoring the opinions of those who disagree with them.  

However, Woodford made an important distinction. He does not believe that hate has a place in the community and believes it’s important to not tolerate it. He characterized Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) as “building connections across difference,” and feels that community engagement such as offering resources and shelter to the unhoused and serving breakfast to veterans is DEI work. He believes that it’s important to build connections between community DEI organizations and the city.  One of the ways in which he has tried to diversify city government is by making it easier for non-elected citizens to apply for city committees, commissions and boards.  

The first year of Woodford’s job was extraordinary, he stated, but tumultuous. He said that these days, he has more fun every day at his job and appreciates the team he works with. He also thanked the Appleton community for being supportive, strong and resilient.