John Steinbrink’s first brush with politics came at Pleasant Prairie Elementary School, in something called “Tiny Town.”
“We had to build a little village,” Steinbrink said, recalling a hands-on social studies activity invented by one of his teachers. “And I was the mayor.”
It was young Steinbrink’s first brush with taxes, services and unforeseen disasters. It certainly wouldn’t be his last, either, though many years went by before the Pleasant Prairie farm boy got his next bite from the political bug.
“It started with the village,” said Steinbrink, leading a reporter on a recent tour of the family homestead on Highway H — a onetime dairy farm where corn and soybeans now grow in the shadows of LakeView Corporate Park. “I was standing right there loading manure one day in the yard and Kenny Barter and Shorty Willkomm (longtime area residents) showed up and said, ‘We think you should run for the Town Board.’
“I thought, ‘I don’t know.’ Probably like most people, I never paid any attention to politics.”
While he might not have paid a whole lot of attention, Steinbrink said he always had an interest in history and politics. So he gave it a run, pushed his way through a primary and, in 1985, joined what was still the town government in Pleasant Prairie.
Eleven years later, he was approached again, urged to run for the 65th District Assembly seat that was soon to open up, because of state Sen. Joseph Andrea’s retirement and then-Rep. Robert Wirch’s ascendency to the Senate.
As in his earlier bid for the Town Board, Steinbrink said he hadn’t ever thought of doing anything like that. But he did it, and, again he was successful.
“It’s been kind of unusual,” Steinbrink said. “You go into it with no concept of what you’re looking for or doing, but it was kind of a natural fit. So it didn’t work too badly.”
Now, Steinbrink finds himself in the political fight of his life, running up against an established incumbent, Republican Samantha Kerkman, to retain a seat in a district that has recently swung markedly to the right of his Democratic Party.
That’s not to say Steinbrink considers himself an ideologue.
In fact, newspaper accounts from the day note that Steinbrink didn’t join the Democratic Party until he had to — when he first ran for the Assembly, in 1996.
“I try to be as nonpartisan as I can be on a lot of issues,” Steinbrink said. “Like I said, I’ve never had trouble working across the aisle or, generally, working with people on things.”
Farmer turned politicianThe son of a father who aligned Republican and a mother who came from a line of Democrats, Steinbrink, 63, was the third generation of a Pleasant Prairie dairy farming tradition that began in the 1920s.
As the town-turned-village grew around him, Steinbrink and his family made the decision to get out of the milk business in the mid-1990s, as finances became difficult and his three children, then young adults, pursued other careers.
It was an odd transition for a man who lived and breathed dairy farming every day of his life.
“That first morning was strange, because you would hear the milk pump go on,” Steinbrink said. “And if it didn’t, you knew something was wrong, because either I was out there or somebody else was. So, all of a sudden, you’re going, ‘What ever happened?’ But there are no cows.”
A farming business that once covered some 1,200 acres — some family owned, many more rented — shrunk to a few hundred, including a sweet corn patch that Steinbrink plants with his neighbor each year, “to feed the raccoons.”
Still, Steinbrink can stand in the yard behind the house he shares with his wife of 44 years, Bobbi, and point to the old farm house where his daughter now lives, the residence across the road that his mother and brother share and the silos that he climbed as a child.
It’s a long way from the marble corridors of the state Capitol, where Steinbrink goes — when he has to.
“I don’t spend a lot of time in Madison,” Steinbrink said. “I’m probably more home, in the district here. I see people at the grocery store, a lot of people at Menards, and they call me all hours of the day. And it’s a combination of the village and the state. Some of those problems cross gender, or whatever you want to call it.”
Credit for local focusPleasant Prairie Village Administrator Michael Pollocoff credits Steinbrink for taking to Madison an understanding of how the state government’s actions affect local governments.
Steinbrink, Pollocoff said, is an independent voice who is apt to vote with the interests of his community, rather than his party.
Among Steinbrink’s positive accomplishments for the area that Pollocoff cited:
-- An agreement among the state, Pleasant Prairie and Kenosha for future improvements on Highway 50 (struck while Steinbrink chaired the Assembly Transportation Committee).
-- A grant obtained to demolish a truck stop along Interstate 94, paving the way for Abbott Laboratories to purchase a large property for a future, unspecified development.
-- Work to obtain state funding for local road projects, including an expansion of 85th Street and the installation of roundabouts in the village.
“He’s probably one of the hardest working people I know, and does it with as little fanfare as anybody I’ve seen,” Pollocoff said.
Proud of business developmentFor his own part, Steinbrink said he has been proud of his advocacy for Wisconsin’s graduated driver’s license law for teens and numerous tax incremental financing bills aimed at spurring business development in the Kenosha area — including several that he co-sponsored with Kerkman.
The most recent such effort, Steinbrink said, aided in the expansion of Uline’s corporate headquarters in Pleasant Prairie.
Steinbrink points proudly to the diversification of Kenosha County’s economy, which he has watched evolve over the years.
“We can remember when Kenosha was a one-horse town,” Steinbrink said. “And when we sold milk — I can remember this from when I was a kid — when American Motors laid off, milk sales went down. People didn’t buy as much stuff, groceries and milk. It affected our market.
“Now we have the diversification, so if one company goes down, lays people off, there’s enough to carry it.”