Caleb Frostman’s moral compass was aligned while attending the University of Wisconsin when a distressed fraternity brother shared a story of disenfranchisement.
Frostman was in an agricultural fraternity and its members, he said, had a fairly conservative streak, along with strong family values and work ethics. He said growing up he had conservative role models, and he voted for George W. Bush in 2004 because, even though he doesn’t drink, Frostman said Bush seemed like a guy you could have a beer with.
But he was about to have an encounter that would make him question conservative values and imbue him with empathy.
“One of the new initiates came into my room,” Frostman said. “He looked on the verge of vomiting. He was quivering and crying all at the same time. I thought someone must have died. He proceeded to come out and say he was gay and hoped it wouldn’t affect our friendship or his involvement with the fraternity.”
This was in 2006, just after 59 percent of Wisconsin voters opted to ban same-sex marriage in the state.
The young man went on to tell Frostman that the message he had received since he was a child is that being gay makes you less of a person.
“He said he had contemplated suicide and showed me scars on his arm,” Frostman said. “This was a person I considered a very close friend who was so vulnerable from the shame of being gay. That was probably what turned me to paying closer attention. It wasn’t that I had a harsh outlook, I just wasn’t aware. Being a straight white dude, I had no idea what other folks had to go through. Hurtful legislation affects people. I never forgot that.”
Now he views legislation as a way to make people’s lives better. Frostman, executive director of the Door County Economic Development Corp. (DCEDC), announced last week after Gov. Walker declared a special election for the empty 1st District senate seat that he would seek that seat as a Democratic candidate.
Frostman said he really began thinking about running for the senate seat late last year because he saw its former Republican holder, Frank Lasee, as a vulnerable candidate. Then things changed when Lasee left at the end of December for a state government job and the drama of special elections unfolded, with three different judges ordering Walker to call the elections.
“I gave it literally less than one percent chance” that a special election would be called, Frostman said.
But when Walker was forced to meet the March 29 deadline to call elections, Frostman was forced to announce his intentions.
“Ideally, I would have liked to have announced after our annual meeting on April 24th,” Frostman said. “I wanted to wait as long as humanly possible to get more stuff done here, for getting it done’s sake and getting some wins on the chalkboard. But the folks deserve to be represented and I’m glad to throw my hat in the ring.”
Frostman, a Green Bay native, was hired in November 2016 as only the second leader of the DCEDC, following Bill Chaudoir who held the position for 27 years. He came to the position from banking, where he had most recently served as vice president of commercial real estate for US Bank in Minneapolis.
“I think my private sector background is really compelling for folks. I was successful in the finance world right out of college,” he said. “Went from junior-most of six analysts to vice president of lending in five years and learned a lot in that sector.”
After his work week in high finance, Frostman, who served as a Big Brother mentor, would pick up the boy he mentored in north Minneapolis, and learned to admire the work ethic of the boy’s mother, who worked 60 hours a week and continued her schooling for nursing in order to take better care of her family.
“That galvanized for me the really wide chasm we have,” he said. “I’ve got a pretty strong feeling – I’ve had this feeling for a while – that a lot of the solutions are legislative. That’s why I feel I’ve got to this point. This is the best job I’ve ever had in terms of meaning and relationships, so, obviously, it’s not a step I’ve taken lightly.”
He admits that some people might be surprised that he is a Democrat, but he answers that being for economic development and having empathy for people do not have to be mutually exclusive.
“I want business to succeed. I have been doing that my entire career,” he said. “But I can also be a role model. You can be a strong, masculine man and love your gay friends. That’s the dichotomy of being a strong business-minded person and having empathy. People have been surprised that I identify as a Democrat. I take that as a compliment in that our programming here, and my conduct has been extremely nonpartisan. I think that speaks volumes about this organization.”
Frostman said he has already assembled a strong team, including a campaign manager who has been assigned by the state Democratic party to live and work here during the campaign.
Candidates have until April 17 to file papers. Two Republicans are running – state Assemblyman Andre Jacque and 24-year-old Alex Renard, both from the southern end of the multi-county senate district. They will face off in a primary on May 15, and the election will be held June 12. In an unusual move, a group of active and retired Republican Assemblymen have endorsed Renard rather than their colleague Jacque, whose extremist views apparently have not won him many friends in Madison.
Frostman welcomes the challenge from whomever wins the Republican primary.
“I wouldn’t have jumped in if I didn’t think we have a really strong chance of winning,” he said.
The last time a Democrat was elected to serve the 1st District was in 1970 when Jerome Martin won the seat. He served until his death by heart attack on Jan. 27, 1977. The last Door County resident to hold the office was Republican Alex Meunier of Brussels, who served 1963-1971.