Steve Scaffidi is an energetic private-sector refugee whose jocular demeanor could have made him a beloved high school basketball coach but instead landed him as mayor of Oak Creek, where he’s proven that being the honorable leader of a small, suburban city is the best gig in politics. Bring a few new retailers and restaurants to town and plant some lovely flowers, and you’re the next La Guardia. To be fair, Scaffidi has gone above and beyond these criteria, ushering in not just a Pizza Man restaurant but also an Ikea store, and planting not only daisies but entire new parks.
Shortly before taking office in 2012, Scaffidi left a job at the Nielsen media survey company, where he last worked on the effort to track people’s streaming behaviors using special software. In more recent times, this grown-up Air Force brat’s mayoral routine has included listening to people’s complaints eyeball-to-eyeball during bimonthly sessions where he camps out in public with a metal “Meet the Mayor” sign. In August, he passed the two hours at a Panera Bread. “Sometimes you get families and meet all of their kids,” he says. “Sometimes you get grouchy people.”
This time, Scaffidi’s first guest was a card-carrying fan, William Diehl, who wanted to know if the mayor was interested in running for a third term in 2018. “Nah,” Scaffidi says. “Other challenges await.” What, exactly, he wouldn’t say.
Scaffidi describes himself as “a reasonable Republican married to a very liberal Democrat,” and other members of his fan club have floated his name as a potential gubernatorial candidate, if Scott Walker doesn’t want to run in 2018. Scaffidi’s stock is certainly high. Oak Creek sits atop a growing property tax geyser, fed in part by the expansion of the lakefront Oak Creek Power Plant and, eventually, the Ikea store. “We’re building new parks,” Scaffidi says, referring in part to the Lake Vista Redevelopment project on the lakefront. “Who’s doing that?” And all the while, the city has maintained the lowest property tax rate in Milwaukee County, he says. It almost sounds like a campaign ad.
Scaffidi isn’t the king of Oak Creek government and makes only $16,000 a year, a figure unchanged for decades. Most of the day-to-day work of running city government falls to the city administrator. “I’m the big picture guy,” Scaffidi says, something that has included whooping up the city’s new public-private partnership at Drexel Town Square, a $162 million mixed-use development where Oak Creek erected a large new city hall and library.
As the town grows and changes, Scaffidi says he hears from some longtime residents, “‘I liked it before all the outsiders came in.’ I find that really frustrating, and the political environment is not helping at all.” Like other southern suburbs, Oak Creek has seen an influx of new Muslim and Sikh families in recent years.
A young mother and her son, Gabriel, stop by the mayor’s table at Panera, and as they’re leaving, the boy runs back to wave, “Bye-bye, mayor.”
Next, Scaffidi hopes to bring some public art and more landscaping to Oak Creek. “We want it to look nice,” he says.