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Local woman enters Assembly race

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news River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Though fall elections are far ahead, River Falls resident Diane Odeen told the Journal Friday, Jan. 6, that she will seek election to Wisconsin's 30th Assembly district as a Democrat.

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Rep. Dean Knudson of Hudson, a Republican, now holds the seat.

Odeen said at this early stage, she's gathering resources, working with the Government Accountability Board to officially declare candidacy, setting up a committee, and building a website. She'll collect signatures from April 15 to June 1.

The 51-year-old native Wisconsinite has never sought public office before. Prior to January, she had only announced her candidacy to friends and via Facebook.

People at both counties' Democrat party offices have been encouraging citizens to run. A friend had also urged her to enter the Assembly race.

Odeen said there wasn't necessarily a "light bulb" moment in which she decided to seek the seat. It resulted from a culmination of things that she says starts with a deep caring for the state.

The candidate acknowledges her service-minded parents and grandparents, "I was taught that you get involved in the community," she said, "you give back."

Making a match

Odeen said she and husband of 25 years, Michael Kahlow, a UW-River Falls chemistry professor, both lived in Oregon for a few years before settling here 20 years ago.

She is the oldest of four children and grew up on an active Black River Falls dairy farm that had been in the family since the 1850s.

Odeen got her first job feeding calves at age 11.

"My grandfather was interested in the best conservation on the farm," recalls Odeen, who said her 4th-grade class took a field trip there to see its contour plowing and sodded gullies.

She recalls her parents and grandparents joining what seemed like everything -- president of the school board, on the Tri-State cooperative board, 4-H leadership and others, as well as school and music-oriented activities. Her mother worked as a teacher, her grandmother as a nurse.

Odeen followed the precedent of service, holding positions as president of the River Falls Rotary Club and sitting on its district board; as a member of the newly formed Forward foundation that supports River Falls schools; as a long-time volunteer serving the River Falls-based United Methodist Church in many capacities, such as at national conferences and on the committee that assigns bishops to their locations.

She calls herself and husband Kahlow, a Mayville native, "typical Wisconsinites" who got married in an American Legion hall and had a polka band play at the wedding.

Experience, concern, lead to politics

Since considering a run at the Assembly, Odeen attended Emerge sessions, which is a nationwide program that trains Democratic women to run for elected-official positions from town board to state office.

She said the program offers lessons on best practices and access to people who have done it before.

Odeen reflected on the 'state of the state' and realized she feels as if Wisconsin's most important values are being threatened.

"I think the fairness and civility are eroding," she said, referring to the polarizing and divisive politics of the past year.

In her current job, the candidate helps people resolve conflict and reach compromise, and it seems as though Wisconsinites need to meet in the middle.

Odeen sees a lack of fairness, the highest-ever budget balanced at vulnerable people's expense, an increasing percentage of corporations paying no or fewer taxes, and less money getting spent in local communities.

She refers to UWRF, both counties and area school districts as the region's largest employers.

She said the workers there are also taxpayers, business patrons and community members -- all impacting the economy with fewer dollars to spend.

The Assembly candidate perceives a need for people to work toward the common good, to realize all Wisconsinites are in "this" together and live here together. She says it may sound cliché, but she wants to be part of the solution.

Odeen said, "If we want a prosperous Wisconsin, we have to talk to each other."

Candidate characteristics

Odeen said she laughed aloud the first time someone suggested she run for Assembly.

With the younger of two daughters going to college, she and Kahlow had discussed getting generally more involved in the community. She was forced to ask herself the questions, "Why not me, why not now?"

She practices law and is a partner with the firm Lommen, Abdo, Cole, King and Stageberg, a Minneapolis-based firm with an office in Hudson.

Odeen works from both locations. Her focus is mostly in employment law, but she's also a litigator.

In 1988 Odeen graduated from Hamline University School of Law in Minnesota.

She worked a yearlong internship with now-retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Edward C. Stringer during one of the years that Jesse Ventura was governor. She says that was an interesting year.

The first law firm that she worked specialized in discrimination law. In 2003, she joined Lommen Abdo, which offers many types of civil-law legal services.

Before Odeen became a non-traditional law student, she earned a Ph.D. in theater. She worked in the field when she had young children at home. Odeen said she's proud to proclaim that she and local woman Robin Murray are the "founding mothers" of the River Falls Community Theatre.

Odeen says she's often asked what caused her to go from theater to legal work.

One influence was a job she had in an equal-employment opportunity office that required her to read legal briefs. They were interesting, related to justice and helped Odeen identify a new career path.

She said about deciding on law school, "I think things should be fair, that's what got me interested in it."

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