When Republicans launched an effort last year to overhaul the state income tax code, they enlisted the expertise of a towering freshman legislator from Brookfield with a knack for crunching numbers.
Rep. Dale Kooyenga may have been an unlikely source: a political unknown seeking office for the first time in 2010 and without party backing, he emerged from a six-person Republican primary with 61 percent of the vote. Now in his second term, Kooyenga, 34, has emerged as a rising conservative star at the Capitol.
He not only led the charge on a proposal to cut taxes by $650 million, but also was part of the “CPA Caucus” that unearthed the University of Wisconsin System’s $650 million surplus, resulting in a two-year tuition tax freeze.
“He is a prime example of where the Legislature is lucky to have people who have a combination of smarts, savvy and tenacity,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Dale has a bright future.”
But Kooyenga (pronounced “COIN-ga”) might never have gotten into politics if a co-worker hadn’t encouraged him to leave a high-paying job to join the U.S. Army, which eventually led to him going to Iraq.
“She said, ‘What do you really want to do with your life?’” Kooyenga recounted last week in an interview. “One of the things I said I wanted to do but would never work out was to join the Army. ... I gave her a laundry list of excuses and this woman who I just met said, ‘That’s a great way to go through life: To really want to do something and never do it.’ ”
That struck a chord. The next day, Kooyenga took leave from his job at KPMG in Milwaukee to sign up.
“This was in 2004,” Kooyenga said. “The economy is going really well and the war is not going well. I walked into the recruiting station and said, ‘Put me where I’m most needed.’ ”
His experience building roads and schools in Iraq during the 2008 surge, including the death of a close friend at the hand of a suicide bomber while helping to build a hospital in Sadr City, inspired his interest in politics.
“I felt like every level of government could use someone that understood the cost of what we fought for but also understood the financial situations we are in and be able to come in with the expertise in order to make some changes to make our government more solvent,” Kooyenga said.
Big win in 6-way primary
Kooyenga joined a six-way Republican primary in 2010 for the Assembly seat previously held by Sen. Leah Vukmir and by Gov. Scott Walker before her. In a landslide victory, he beat out two Republican Party activists.
That year, he was one of four certified public accountants elected to the Assembly who began examining state finances. Last year, he was assigned to the Legislature’s powerful budget committee.
He also was appointed vice chairman of a committee Vos led that reviewed the state income tax code.
During this year’s budget debate, he took center stage on a proposal to cut tax rates, eliminate several tax credits and simplify the tax form. One of his major goals has been to lift Wisconsin out of the bottom 10 states for taxation, as rated by the Tax Foundation.
Earlier this month, the vast majority of his tax proposal was adopted by the budget committee, nearly doubling the size of what the governor had proposed.
Vos said Kooyenga’s exhaustively researched proposal made it easier for lawmakers to adopt it.
Kooyenga deserves “all of the credit,” Vos said. “We passed three-quarters of what was proposed only because of how hard he worked on it.”
Democrats have been largely critical of his plan to cut tax rates for the wealthiest income earners. The majority of the cut would benefit those making $100,000 a year.
Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, who served on Joint Finance with Kooyenga, described him as “bright and sincere but sometimes a little misguided in policy.”
“He could use a little more long-term thinking,” Richards said. “What he’s building is a $500 million structural deficit. That’s something that’s going to haunt us for many, many years down the road.”
In response, Kooyenga argues the tax cut is proportional to who pays the taxes.
He acknowledged cutting top rates is meant to move Wisconsin out of the bottom 10 states for taxation, which he believes will attract more employers to the state. His goal in future budgets is to push all tax rates below 5 percent.
“He’s shown with this tax package that he’s interested in being a bold reformer,” said Scott Manley, vice president of government relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s business lobby. “He has all the factors working in his favor. If he’s interested in elevating his profile at the Capitol, a lot of people believe he’s got the ability to do it.”
Kooyenga hasn’t always enjoyed all-star status. Though notably tall at 6-foot-7, he rode the bench on the high school basketball team at Chicago Christian School in Palos Heights, Ill., a southwest Chicago suburb.
After Kooyenga graduated, his father, a Teamsters garbage collector and Reagan Republican, said he would need to figure out college on his own, so he enrolled at nearby Moraine Valley Community College.
That summer, while working on a carpentry team building condos on the South Side of Chicago, he fell two and a half stories through a temporary floor. He spent a few months in a wheelchair with two broken ankles but said the experience turned him from a B/C student into an avid reader focused on excelling academically.
Midway through his freshman year, Kooyenga walked on to the basketball team, and after playing one of the best games of his career, was recruited to play NCAA Division III hoops for Lakeland College in Sheboygan. Once again, he rode the bench.
After college, Kooyenga landed a job with KPMG, the fourth-largest accounting company in the world. There, he met Jennifer Smith, the co-worker who challenged him to follow his dream of joining the Army.
Though they weren’t dating at that time, Kooyenga and Smith got engaged about a year later and married in 2006. They are expecting their fourth child in October.
The 2010 election was Kooyenga’s first. He recalled attending some Republican events and being patted on the back by party insiders who told him, “you’re supposed to do your time with the party first.”
But his profile fit what conservative voters were seeking during the tea party wave that swept elections across the country that year.
Mary Jo Baas, a Waukesha County GOP activist who worked on Kooyenga’s campaign, said he also benefited from having built a substantial network of professional, community and church connections.
“The diplomatic skills were amazing,” Baas said. “He talked to people, he met people, he remembered people, he caught on to their issues.”
Kooyenga said he prefers policy to politics. He missed the state Republican Party convention this year to attend to military duties. He continues to serve as a captain for the U.S. Army Reserves.
He also has co-sponsored legislation with Democrats, including a bill last session that legalized temporary foster care, an arrangement meant to help drug addicts as they recover and deployed military families.
He doesn’t reject speculation that he might one day run for higher office, including Congress once Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner retires. But for now, he’s content in the Assembly.
“I could see myself doing no politics and running a business, I could see myself being on orders full time because I’m still in the Reserves, and I could see myself being in different political office,” Kooyenga said. “I could see myself doing a lot of things.”