Mary Kolar

Mary Kolar says she wants to work with Republican lawmakers on finding sustainable revenue for veterans programs.

Wisconsin’s new Department of Veterans Affairs secretary is counting on a bipartisan affinity for military veterans to be her battle buddy as she appeals to the Republican Legislature for budget help.

Mary Kolar, a Madison Democrat chosen for the post by Gov. Tony Evers, said Tuesday she plans to ask for increased tax support to break the longtime practice of depleting the department’s veterans homes in order to pay for other agency programs.

The budget has been strained at the state’s largest veterans home complex at King. The previous administration’s efforts to manage the finances amid persistent complaints about poor conditions left the facility with declining revenue due to 150 unoccupied beds, Kolar said.

So far, several Republican state senators she has spoken with have been willing to talk about solutions, Kolar said in an interview Tuesday with the Wisconsin State Journal in the department’s offices on Rimrock Road.

“I have felt incredible support,” Kolar said. “I believe we will have the support we need.”

She said she and one GOP senator even took a selfie together after a joint speaking engagement arranged by a veterans group in Kansasville one cold January evening not long after she assumed her new job.

“The word Republican or Democrat has not come up,” Kolar said. “It’s been more, ‘You had 28 years in the Navy?’ Yes I did. That was much more the focus.”

Kolar was elected to the Dane County Board three times by residents of a district that covers a section of Madison’s liberal Isthmus. In 2015, she and other members of the county zoning board were at odds with GOP lawmakers who squelched county efforts to force Enbridge Energy to purchase insurance that would have paid for a cleanup if its pipeline broke open and spilled oil.

But Kolar says legislators should know that before and after she was first elected to the county board in 2013, veterans issues have been her overriding concern.

Since retiring from the Navy with the rank of captain in 2008, Kolar has been a member and leader of several veterans organizations. She has worked extensively with the county Veterans Service Office and was vice-president of the state veterans museum foundation’s board of directors.

Kolar replaced Daniel Zimmeran, a veterans affair secretary with strong Republican credentials who was appointed in 2017 by former GOP Gov. Scott Walker.

Zimmerman, a retired Army officer, had worked with state and national GOP organizations as leader of an effort to build a National Republican Party History Museum in his hometown of Ripon.

Apology and better behavior

Kolar grew up in Wilton, about 100 miles northwest of Madison, in a family of seven children. Military service was a family tradition, but Kolar said there were other factors that also influenced her career choice.

Her mother provided a role model of hard work and resolve, working a variety of jobs to raise seven children alone. Kolar was 2 years old in 1960 when her father died in a car crash that injured her and several other members of the family.

“I saw a woman who did whatever she had to do,” Kolar said. “I remember a very good childhood.”

She said the Navy recruiting slogan — “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure” — spoke to her. She signed up for service in 1980 after graduating from UW-La Crosse.

Officer candidate school was tough, in part because it was such a dramatic change in surroundings, Kolar said. But it helped that she was physically fit — she ran 6 miles a day.

There weren’t many other women, and she had to learn to take care of herself.

When a commanding officer slapped her across the rear end with a cloth cap, Kolar immediately reported the incident. The officer apologized and didn’t do it again.

“I won’t tell you everything that happened over 28 years, but I found it was important to address it immediately,” Kolar said. “When I became a commanding officer, I made it clear it was unacceptable.”

Problems of sexual abuse and harassment in the military have been widely publicized, but Kolar said today it may be a better environment than many other workplaces because the issue is addressed forthrightly and there is a system for complaints to be heard.

She served as North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) liaison officer at the Naval Space Surveillance System in Dahlgren, Virginia, working a 24-hour shift monitoring the flight of the first space shuttle. Other postings included a helicopter anti-submarine squadron in Jacksonville, Florida.

Kolar said she developed expertise in the human resources field and spent much of her career recruiting, training, educating and leading other personnel.

Problems at King

The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs she is taking over has faced repeated criticism about conditions at the King homes.

Kolar declined to comment on what has happened previously. She said she was focused on making sure the state’s veterans programs are properly supported in the future.

Kolar said she wasn’t able to specify Tuesday how much tax revenue it would take to steady the department. But things need to change, she said.

“We reduced our revenue sources but didn’t reduce expenses,” Kolar said. “We can’t keep doing it this way.”

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.