Jason Fields’ second act success
After a few bleak years threatened his career and life, a happier and healthier Jason Fields marks one year as MadREP’s CEO.
A decade ago, it all went wrong for Jason Fields.
It felt like somebody had sabotaged the script. Fields, a Milwaukee native, had been a high school sports star, then an up-and-comer in the financial services industry and finally, in 2005, a new member of the Wisconsin Legislature, where he represented his Milwaukee district in the Assembly at only 30 years old.
Fields won reelection three times. In April 2012, at Lambeau Field, Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a bill Fields had sponsored to help protect young football players from brain injuries.
But one year later, Fields was out of office, depressed and drinking too much.
He’d gotten some bad breaks, but the person who altered the script? It was Fields.
“I forgot who I was,” he says. “I stopped relying on my faith. For a few years, it was like living in hell.”
He had help, but it was also Fields who pulled himself back from the abyss, regaining his faith and his focus. He won election to the Assembly again in 2016.
Feeling he’d accomplished what he could in the Legislature, Fields voluntarily stepped away in 2020. This past January, he accepted a position as president and CEO of the Madison Region Economic Partnership, or MadREP — the economic development agency for an eight-county region in south-central Wisconsin.
Now a year into the new job, he feels he’s hit the ground running.
“We’re having fun,” Fields says. “There’s a new excitement. We just moved into a new office, cutting our expenses by 50%. We’re launching a venture debt fund, a revolving loan fund and a housing fund. We’re cranking.”
Fields thinks his Milwaukee roots will help MadREP maximize the potential of what he calls the “Madwaukee Corridor” that connects the state’s two biggest cities.
“We’ve been operating in silos thinking we don’t have anything to offer one another,” he says. “That’s not true.”
Fields left Milwaukee after graduating from Milwaukee Lutheran High School but was back after a year at Valparaiso University in Indiana.
“It gave me independence,” he says of the year away. “It reinvigorated my self-image. At the same time, I wasn’t quite ready to make a real commitment academically.” (He’d later earn a bachelor’s degree from Cardinal Stritch University.)
In Milwaukee, Fields got his first insurance license before he was 20. “In order to compensate for my youth,” he says, “I kept getting licenses and increasing my knowledge.” He became licensed to sell stocks and bonds and other securities.
Fields says “the political bug” got him in 2002 when he managed the unsuccessful campaign of Tyrone Dumas for county executive in Milwaukee.
“We didn’t have any money,” Fields says. “But we worked hard and had a nice showing.”
Two years later, Fields was the candidate — for state Assembly. “People were complaining about what was wrong with Milwaukee,” he says. “You can complain — or leave the state — or you can step up and do something.”
Fields was elected. He eventually had bills signed by three different governors but found himself disillusioned by much of what happened in the Capitol.
“If you’re not careful, you can get lost in the showmanship of politics,” he says. “People make careers of jumping up and yelling at the top of their lungs — but nothing ever happens.”
In his fourth Assembly campaign, Fields faced a formidable primary opponent: current Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.
When Barnes won handily, Fields was defeated more than literally. “I felt like the community was telling me, ‘All the stuff you did wasn’t good enough,’ ” he says.
As his downward slide began, Fields met the woman who would help in his recovery — though not immediately.
He’d connected on LinkedIn with Milwaukee educator La Tasha Hodge and suggested a meeting. It wasn’t a date exactly — they were networking — but in any case, it didn’t go well.
“I had every intention of paying for dinner,” Fields says. “But I forgot my wallet. I had to tell her I didn’t have any money. In the end I didn’t even walk her to her car. She didn’t like me.”
They met again a few years later. Fields was in a better place. There were long walks along the lake, good conversation. “Within a month,” Fields says, “I knew I was going to ask her to marry me.” When he did, she said yes.
Fields was invited to speak to Madison Downtown Rotary last April about MadREP. He began with a sobering story about the couple driving to Madison to look at a home.
La Tasha Fields was on the phone about the showing. Her look darkened when the agent began tossing in qualifiers: There would be a background check, a credit check and more. Race, they feared, had intruded.
“We all know what it is, right?” Fields asked the Rotarians. “Let’s just be clear and candid about it.”
They like Madison, Fields says. But no place is perfect, and he sees a mission for MadREP beyond how economic development is generally defined. He talks about expanding access to capital and broadband, and bringing people together.
Of broadband internet, Fields says, “Most people don’t know there are many urban and rural areas that either can’t afford it or don’t have it at all.”
The pandemic, Fields says, “exposed our weaknesses. You saw kids going to McDonald’s to do their homework. That’s not a rural or urban thing. That’s an ‘us’ thing.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” at madisonmagazine.com/dougmoe.
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