Five years into Debra Amesqua's tenure as Madison fire chief, Joe Conway, president of the local firefighters' union, publicly called for former Mayor Sue Bauman to seek her resignation "to prevent further damage to the department." His statement in May 2001 was part of the steady stream of scathing criticism that started as soon as Amesqua's selection was announced.
Fast-forward to June 2011. Amesqua celebrated her 60th birthday by announcing she would retire at the end of the year. The same Joe Conway, still Local 311 president, said he was sorry to see her go and wished she would stay on.
The current relationship between the chief and the union is remarkable, given the solid wall of opposition she faced during her early years here. Amesqua credits her close family and her love of music for her perseverance in the face of criticism.
"There are members of my family who would never have dreamed of having a position like this," she says. "I always believed that I'm on a mission, that I was destined to do this. So when I got criticism, it was hard to derail me because I felt so privileged."
When Amesqua took over as chief in 1996, she was criticized for being an outsider to the department, for having only 13 years of firefighting experience and for lacking a college degree. Her critics dismissed her as an affirmative action hire and claimed the other finalists for the job were more qualified. At her swearing-in, one of her most vocal critics, firefighter, fundamentalist preacher and anti-gay activist Ron Greer, sat at the back of the room holding a sign with Amesqua's name and a line crossing it out.
It got worse. Greer launched a smear campaign against the chief. He outed her as a lesbian and claimed she gave preferential treatment to other lesbians in the department. He circulated anti-gay literature while he was on duty in the firehouses. In 1997, after she had suspended Greer, Amesqua recommended the Police and Fire Commission fire him because of his string of disciplinary problems. Greer was fired in 1998, but his appeals lasted four more years and went as far as the state Supreme Court. He lost.
In 1998, firefighters took a "no confidence" vote on Amesqua. The result was 171 to 18 against the chief.
The situation hit rock bottom when 24 armed state and local police and federal agents stormed Jocko's Rocket Ship, a bar suspected of being a hub for drug trafficking in downtown Madison, on Dec. 11, 1999. Two Madison firefighters were among the patrons in the bar that night. Both pleaded guilty to misdemeanor cocaine charges. Police questioned a number of other firefighters during the ongoing Jocko's investigation. As many as 12 were under suspicion; Amesqua suspended four of them.
The suspensions brought more criticism from the union. And the intensive press coverage of the Jocko's scandal put the department in the public spotlight as a dysfunctional workplace.
Then, gradually and almost inexplicably, things started to get better.
"They realized I wasn't going anywhere, and we [management and labor] needed to start to work together," Amesqua says.
Conway says the negative press surrounding the no-confidence vote and the Jocko's scandal convinced both sides that they needed to create changes in the department's culture.
"We learned a lesson from that," he explains. "It served no purpose to get in the papers. We could resolve our problems if we all sat in the same room to deal with issues in an appropriate fashion."
How did Debra Amesqua manage to survive those first years, when a less determined person would have thrown in the towel?
First, she expected it.
"I came into fire service when there were very few women, and I knew there would be controversy," she says. "But I knew a lot about this department and felt it was a good fit. I knew I'd have to earn my wings, but I also understood that I had the skill to deal with difficult situations. That's not to say it wasn't hard, of course. It was very hard."
Second, she found solace in music.
"I picked up piano. I bought a 1923 baby grand piano and had it rebuilt from the ground up. I'd played in school, but not seriously. Then I started to play the mandolin and got into construction of mandolins. So all the controversy was in one part of my life, then I'd go home and play or get into my workshop, and that was a completely different part of my life. I think that when you're in a stressful situation, you have to figure out what can take you out of the stress. And for me, that's music."
Carolyn Hogg, an assistant city attorney and Amesqua's friend, believes the chief's focus on doing what was best for the department gave her the strength to carry on.
"Her goals for the fire department helped her keep her center," Hogg says. "She doesn't see those goals as responsibilities, but as a journey that gives her energy. She is the consummate professional."
Hogg adds that she's not really surprised by the complete turnaround in the relationship between the union and the chief.
"I think the chief had such a strong commitment to the department. And her opponents had the same commitment. I always thought that once they could start to communicate, they would realize they had the same goal."
Debra Amesqua was born Debra Jane Hernandez in 1951 in tiny Wells, Minn. She was the oldest of three children. Her parents were migrant farm workers with roots in Jalisco, Mexico. Eventually, the family settled in Tallahassee, Fla., where her father worked as a civil engineer. If her family was poor or if traveling with migrant workers was hard, she never noticed. Instead, she recalls the pleasures of growing up in a large extended family. Her mother came from a family of 13, and her father's family numbered nine.
"I always had lots of cousins and aunts and uncles around," Amesqua says. "I never suffered as a child because we had such a close family and still do today. You realize in your life what's important, and for me that's my family."
Hers was a family of musicians. "My father played guitar and trumpet. I always had a guitar in my hand from as early as I can remember. My brothers played drums and trumpet. I remember parties and family gatherings when there would be poker, drinking and lots of music-making and dancing."
Amesqua enrolled at Florida State University with a major in clarinet and minor in guitar, intending to earn a degree in music. She was the first in her family to go to college, but she left before graduating. She married, and she and her husband had a daughter, Isabelle. The couple divorced after 12 years.
She became a firefighter in Tallahassee in 1983 and served as a training officer in that department before she was hired for the chief's job in Madison.
"I absolutely loved fighting fires and getting dirty," Amesqua laughs. "I liked it because it's all about working in teams, and I'm a team player. The task of firefighting is a group of four people working together. It's pretty complex. It's not just putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. You have to consider ventilation and where the steam will go. You have to know that the person on the other side of the building is in a safe place."
Amesqua misses that excitement a little now that her typical day might include a staff meeting with assistant chiefs, a budget meeting in the mayor's office and an all-afternoon session discussing protocols for emergency medical services for Dane County communities.
As you trail her through her rounds, you realize that she has won the respect of her staff and colleagues. She greets everyone with a warm smile, a question about their lives. She listens intently and asks thoughtful questions.
"I focus on being caring and compassionate," Amesqua says of her management style. "I'm complimentary. I like being nice because it makes me feel good. And when I feel good, I know other people feel good. So I'm as likely to give someone a hug and ask about their family as I am to ask what they are doing or give an order."
A sense of humor is another of her management tools.
"I really think that humor is one of the most underrated tools a leader can have. The sense that you can look at things a little bit quirky can break the tension."
Being gay and female in a fire department is no longer an issue for the chief. She was out in Tallahassee, but she decided not to speak publicly about her sexual orientation right away in Madison. She'd been assured that Madison was accepting of gays, but adds that she'd seen anti-gay discrimination while living in San Francisco, "one of the most liberal cities in the country."
"I expected controversy, so I didn't feel comfortable speaking out about my sexual orientation at the time. I waited and watched. It wasn't long before we started the Ron Greer disciplinary actions. At that point, I felt it was more important to deal with Ron Greer and the discipline process. Once I felt that was resolved, I publicly came out."
She's pleased that society is now more accepting of homosexuality.
"In my day, people didn't come out as young people. Now you see gays all the time on TV and in movies. I didn't grow up with that. A lot has changed. Young people are a lot more comfortable about coming out."
One-time critic Joe Conway is now an avid Amesqua fan.
"As a leader, she is one who takes input from staff and the union and makes a decision based on that input," he says. "She's not authoritarian. She doesn't say, 'I'm the boss so get it done.' Instead she says, 'How can we get it done?' She's a very open-management type of leader."
Conway credits Amesqua with putting together an effective management team and working consistently to make Madison's fire department one of the best in the country. He's pleased that she was open to an idea he says he first scribbled on a tavern napkin.
"The Creative Staffing Program is probably the most cost-efficient idea we have put in place. What it does is staff to the same level every day, which offsets or eliminates overtime. This was negotiated as part of the 1998 contract and is saving a half a million dollars a year in operating expenses. It would have gone nowhere if she hadn't been receptive to it and helped to get it approved by both the union and the city council."
Conway was also impressed by Amesqua's support for the firefighters who inspired demonstrators with their presence - and pipes and drums - at the Capitol protests against the loss of public workers' collective bargaining rights.
"A lot of chiefs wouldn't have allowed their firefighters to wear their helmets and uniforms and march in support of the unions. She not only allowed it, she marched with us. When there were complaints, she handled them beautifully."
Another fan is Dave Cieslewicz, who became mayor in 2003, at the height of tensions between Amesqua and the union. Early on, he recalls, he invited all the managers of city departments to meet with him.
"When it was Debra's turn, she walked in and said: 'There's a rumor around the fire stations that you're going to find a way to get rid of me.' I was taken aback and told her I was going to give her a fair shot."
For Cieslewicz, that initial meeting sums up Amesqua's approach to dealing with problems.
"There was an 800-pound gorilla in the room, and she just confronted it - no subterfuge, no plotting," he says. "She's very genuine and direct, and there's no doubt about where she stands on any issue. She doesn't sweep problems under the rug."
About a year later, when the assistant chiefs came to discuss an issue that concerned them, the mayor recalls he heard them out before he asked where the chief was. She was on vacation, he learned, and didn't know the assistant chiefs were meeting with him.
"I told them, 'Guys, don't come to my office without telling the chief and without her permission.' I think that set the tone that we were going to back up Chief Amesqua. I believed that, given a chance, she could earn their respect."
Cieslewicz ticks off the accomplishments of the fire service during Amesqua's tenure with pride. All the equipment has been replaced. Two new fire stations, the first in 25 years, were built. Two Emergency Medical Service units were added. And the city went for a record two years without a fire fatality.
"All Madisonians benefit," he adds. "Our property tax rates are lower because of our excellent fire record."
Cieslewicz also notes that the chief is extremely thoughtful.
"When I left office, I stopped in at my favorite wine shop, and there was a very nice bottle of red wine waiting for me with an inscription on the label from the chief."
Looking back on her tenure as fire chief, Amesqua says her proudest achievement is the people she's hired.
"We have done a very good job of creating a system that can evaluate [candidates] consistently and reliably. I'm very proud of that. The greatest legacy I'll have is the people I've hired who will take us decades into the future."
She is also proud of her firefighters for their support of other public-sector unions, even though their union was unaffected by the loss of collective bargaining.
"They took on a fight when they could have said 'it's not our problem.' They were very respectful and professional."
The search for Amesqua's replacement is just getting under way. The Police and Fire Commission, a five-member body appointed by the mayor, will meet Aug. 18 to establish a timeline for the search process. Scott Herrick, an attorney who works with the PFC, says he anticipates it will start receiving applications in October.
When Amesqua leaves the department next January, she will return to Tallahassee, where her mother, daughter and two grandchildren live.
"My mother is 84, and she asked me to come home," she says. "There are very few times in your life when you can do what your mama asks you to do. So I'm going back. I'll be setting up my shop and building mandolins. And I look forward to being part of my grandbabies' daily lives."
To quote Joe Conway: "You'll be missed."