New job is close to former senator’s heart

State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf

Sheila Harsdorf reflects, looks forward to her new title as state Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection

Gary King | Editor

MADISON – It could be successfully argued that no other state legislator in this area has become better known by the people she represents than Sheila Harsdorf, the longtime state senator who stepped away from creating laws this past week to take a new role in state government as secretary of the Department of Agriculture,Trade and Consumer Protection.

Her seemingly tireless presence at countless events throughout the 10th Senate District she represented for the past 16 years gave nearly every resident in Burnett, Polk and St. Croix counties an opportunity to meet her personally and express their concerns eye-to-eye.

Harsdorf’s new job – one once held by her older brother, James, may not involve as many public appearances but it’s one she says she’ll eagerly embrace.

“It’s a position that is near and dear to my heart as a dairy farmer,” Harsdorf, 61, said in an interview with the Leader on Friday, Nov. 10, shortly after her official appointment by Gov. Scott Walker.

She said she grew up on a dairy farm in Lake Elmo, Minn. and her family moved the farm to Beldenville, Wis., near River Falls, in 1970.  She graduated high school in River Falls and went on to enroll in the University of Minnesota, where she studied animal science.

Her career included a brief stint as a loan officer before a foray into state politics with a victory in an election to represent residents of the 30th Assembly District in 1988 where she served until 1998. After a brief hiatus from politics, Harsdorf was elected to the state senate in 2000, succeeding her brother, James, and retained that seat with convincing victories in the following four elections.  She was halfway through her fifth term.

A special election could take place as soon as January or as late as the regular general election a year from now, in November of 2018.  Harsdorf’s fellow Republican legislator, 28th Assembly District Rep. Adam Jarchow, has already announced his intention to run for her vacated seat and Sharon Zimmerman, a Democrat from River Falls, is expected to be Jarchow’s opponent.

Battling meth

Harsdorf said there is one piece of legislation she sponsored that she is particularly proud of, that being the law that began the battle against meth.

“It was earlier on in my time in the Senate,” she noted.  “I was contacted by a local district attorney and law enforcement officials who were concerned about meth labs and how it had become such a huge problem.  When I asked them what I could do they shared with us what Oklahoma had done in their state Legislature.”

Harsdorf pushed through legislation to increase penalties for the possession of meth and for the theft of anhydrous ammonia, a common agricultural fertlizer used in meth production.  More legislation followed, aimed at limiting access to pseudoephendrine, one single ingredient needed to make meth.

“It has been very effective in cutting back prevalence in meth labs,” she noted, noting there is still a problem to address.

Harsdorf also worked on issues to address the heroin epidemic.

“It was all about working together with others to make a change that really does impact peoples’ lives,” she said of her time as a state legislator.

Harsdorf succeeds Ben Brancel, who stepped down from the job in August.

Harsdorf was scheduled to be in her new office in Madison on Monday, Nov. 12, getting to know the staff and operations, in somewhat of a whirlwind transition, one that came as a surprise to the general public.

She said the development wasn’t that long in the making, noting she took the job with encouragement from friends and colleagues. She’s had to quickly delegate her career as a legislator to the rear view mirror but said she hopes to be back in the area in he new role.

“It will involve traveling around the state to speaking engagements.”