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Get To Know Ashok Kumar

Coffee with...Ashok Kumar

by Nathan J. Comp of

Around this time last year, UW-Madison student Ashok Kumar was pleading with the mayor to bump the Mifflin Street Block Party up a week. Students - responsible creatures they are - worried that too much partying the day before finals might adversely affect their performance. But the mayor, concerned the switch would be too costly for the city, was resistant.

Police overtime had already been budgeted for that day. Formalities prevented the mayor from changing this, but the mayor's hands were tied. Students were going to party a week ahead of schedule whether or not the mayor liked it. In the end, the city conceded, thanks in large part to student leaders like Kumar.

"The mayor was really just ignoring the students," recalled Kumar. "We proved that pressure tactics work. Now I want to cut out the middle man."

This is just one of many examples Kumar, 21, likes to toss around when speaking of the unrealized political muscle students - as an entity - have. Having paid his dues on the student activist circuit, Kumar has followed the lead of other student activists-turned-politicians by seeking the Dane County Board of Supervisors' District 5 seat. UW-Madison student and Kumar campaign treasurer, Echnaton Vedder, is vacating the seat.

In last month's primary, Kumar blew away his competition, in part because of the reputation he cultivated as a student activist and as a protege of Ald. Austin King (District 8). King was just 22 when elected to the City Council in 2003 and has since played a central role in crafting and passing several controversial ordinances, like Inclusionary Zoning and the Minimum Wage Increase. But whereas King is now an established talking head, Kumar still exhibits the very idealism that makes student activists so endearing. He is, at heart, a Socialist-Progressive.

If there were an activist gene, Kumar would be a likely carrier for it. His grandparents fought in India's independence movement and were active labor leaders. Kumar's causes follow this tradition. He won an election for Freshmen Class Representative and quickly took up tuition issues as they related to class and racial inequality.

He continued working on this issue his sophomore year when he chaired the Academic Affairs Committee. But he also took on other causes. He spoke out against the university contracting with companies that use sweatshop labor. In 2004, he went to India to study labor movements and spent time in Finland as part of a community involvement program. He laments the title of politician, stressing that he's running as an activist. The Dane County Board, he suggests, needs an adrenaline shot.

County government is arguably the most boring level of government, but Kumar hopes to change that. His socialist agenda focuses on labor issues, government efficiency, relaxing drug laws and beefing up the county's health and human services budget, an idea which the board's current yokel's surely clenched their dentures at.

Kumar sat recently with Dane101 to discuss why county government matters, why students deserve representation at the county level and how he would increase services without raising taxes.

Dane101: Why did you fare so well in the primaries?

AK: Most of the people helping out on the campaign are people I've worked with on different issues. I've worked on the campus for the last few years and I was running against people who might have great ideas, but people didn't know whom they were. My politics and the things I want to do are what students want to see. Also, the district has a record of electing activists. They want movers and shakers, they're not about the old-boys club sitting around and making eloquent speeches and not doing anything.

Dane101: Do you find that young politicians are taken seriously or dismissed as self-righteous idealists?

AK: Inside the district they're taken pretty seriously, because we've seen what other students have done, like Todd, Vedder and King. That has set the model; there's an institutional memory there. Outside the district they're dismissed mostly because people don't agree with their politics. A lot of people are asking why we even have a student district. The machine left has even asked why we have a student district, because they can't control it. They can't pick and choose whom they want. The right doesn't like it, because it always goes left. The only people who like the student district are the independent-minded left-wingers, who are the Greens, Progressive Daners and the Progressive Dems, too. There's 42,000 people on campus. We need some representation.

Dane101: How does county government affect students?

AK: It's in charge of the sheriff's department, jail budget and that affects students because there are students of color on this campus who are systemically taken advantage of by law enforcement. Drug enforcement, that's huge. That affects students when the sheriff's department enforces this ridiculous war on drugs that should be eliminated. Also, funding issues. Read the Cardinal today. Right at the top it says, "Rape Crisis Center being Defunded." I mean, we have a lot of backward-ass thinking folks on the county board who are like, 'Why is rape crisis or domestic abuse intervention services or Women's Transit Authority important to me? I live out in no-man's land and I don't see the importance of it.' Well, the importance of these programs to UW students is a lot.

Dane101: Much of your campaign platform relates to social issues. Where do you stand on more technical issues like zoning or budget matters?

AK: My highest budgetary priority is funding social services like the Rape Crisis Center and the Women's Transit Authority. These are things I think are very important. Ultimately the health and human services budget should be about providing more services. As for zoning issues, we should build up, not out. Building up we can provide more affordable housing for people of color and low-income residents.

Dane101: Can you maintain or increase the level of services without making cuts or raising taxes?

AK: Like I said, reducing administrative costs... people always cry, 'More taxes,' but there are things you can do to have more services by putting people into rehab programs instead of incarceration for non-violent drug offenses, that would save taxpayers tons of money. We spend $1.9 million transporting prisoners from here to other counties because our jails are so full. We need smart growth policies, because as soon as we build out other municipalities are affected, and we have to provide services like plumbing, cops... building infrastructure outward costs lots of money. We need to plan well and provide more services without the inefficiencies we have.

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