Brad Firkus is the alderperson for Appleton’s third district. Firkus chairs the Finance Committee and serves on the Municipal Services and Utilities Committees.
Firkus was born in Appleton and grew up between Appleton and Sherwood, Wis. He recalls his parents not being incredibly political, but he got excited about politics when Obama was elected, after he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a degree in computer information systems and a minor in public administration and policy analysis.
In 2010, Firkus became interested in state and local politics, and he had his first experience volunteering for a candidate in 2016. In 2018, he ran for an open seat on the Outagamie County Board of Supervisors against his alderperson to the Common Council at the time and ultimately lost that election. Before the incumbent was sworn in, he announced he was stepping down from his Common Council seat, and Firkus ran for the seat and won. It was not clear that his predecessor would step down since he would have been allowed to serve in both bodies. Firkus was re-elected in 2021.
Because of council turnover, Firkus is already a senior member of council, which allows him to serve as chair of the Finance Committee. According to Firkus, living in a district with old water mains that have broken, which can cause sewage backups and property damage, has informed his work on the Utilities Committee.
Firkus’s top issue is land use. He sees it as a topic that intersects with so many other issues, including taxes, transit, the environment and public health. He elaborated on how housing affordability is a land use issue.
“Car dependency is a huge burden on people…if you have communities that are more walkable and more bikeable and have more mass transit, you’re making a more affordable place for people to live where they don’t have to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt just to get to work or get groceries,” Firkus said.
According to Firkus, some of the difficulties with getting more public transit include driver shortages and funding. Firkus has served on the Valley Transit Commission for two years, and from his experience, feels that the will for better public transit is here, but that funding is an issue. He added that transit systems own a lot of land, and that they make decisions over how it is used. Currently, a project to remake the downtown transit center to make it mixed-use is in the works.
Firkus also wants to see better bike infrastructure, because it’s not safe for pedestrians to ride bikes and Bird Scooters on sidewalks, but it’s also not safe for riders to ride in the streets. He feels that the city is moving towards being more friendly towards non-vehicle transit. He wants to see better pedestrian safety, which he says can be addressed through street design. When roads are narrower, people drive slower, according to Firkus.
“You shouldn’t have to get in a car to go to Woodman’s,” said Firkus.
Firkus is concerned about climate change, as a parent. He sees it as a difficult problem to solve because of its long-term nature. He said that if we don’t start taking care of things, we won’t be able to control the rise in temperature. He sees climate change as an issue that can be addressed by local decisions, such as allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to be built. ADUs are additional properties built on already-existing properties. By increasing density, reliance on cars goes down. Firkus pointed out that if you live in a suburb, you might find yourself driving to places that are a half mile away “as the crow flies.”
Biodiversity is another part of the environmental crisis that Firkus cares about. He wants to make sure that environmentally friendly policies are more focused on encouraging good behavior rather than punishing people for bad behavior. He said that he worries that the framing of No Mow May can come off as punishing even though it’s not. He added that people feel like their right to take care of their lawn is being taken away, even though it’s just allowing people to take care of their lawn in a different way.
“I think some of the best-looking yards are the ones that have a lot of vegetation on it.” said Firkus.
He added that he’s learned a lot from the conversations around No Mow May and mows less frequently because of it.
Firkus is also proud of the effort to ban conversion therapy in Appleton. He said that abuse is not just physical abuse and agrees with Council President Katie Van Zeeland that it is child abuse.
Firkus recalls Appleton being monolithic growing up, and he feels that it’s easier to accept stereotypes when you don’t have diversity in your life. He feels that it’s important to continually practice keeping your mind open.
“Because of your life experiences, you’re going to have knee-jerk reactions…one thing I’ve learned is to take time to listen to people,” Firkus said.
He talked about his wife, who is Menominee, and the experience of going to family gatherings with people who are different. He also mentioned having a gay cousin and gay friends. He feels that diversity has become an integral part of his life, even though he is a straight, white, cisgender man.
Firkus added that people are still experiencing threats, discrimination and intimidation in Appleton today. He recalled times in which he had to remove racist and sexist propaganda left on the porches of Black and brown families in the area and seeing stickers in his district advertising those same messages. He mentioned that the white nationalist group Patriot Front has a presence in Wisconsin. Firkus represents a fairly diverse district, and as someone with Black, Latino and Hmong constituents and a diverse family, he sees this behavior as intolerable.
Firkus added that some changes at the local level are difficult to make because of state policies and statutes.
“If you want to see changes at the local level, you have to have a state government that’s willing to listen…and support those communities,” Firkus said.