Todd Wiltgen is running for re-election to the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners.
“My parents owned a small business … Taco John's franchises. My great uncle, my mom’s uncle, was one of the founders. When they were married he gave them a store.”
Wiltgen’s parents eventually had multiple stores, in Kearney, where he grew up, and in Grand Island, Kansas City and Michigan.
Wiltgen is the youngest of four children. His parents divorced, and he has a younger half-brother. “He’s 10 years younger than I am. But I am very close to him. He was the best man in my wedding.
“I know my way around a Taco John’s kitchen. I remember going to work on Saturdays with my dad, count change from the registers. I would cut corn shells for nacho chips. I would cut tomatoes, lettuce, mop floors. I did everything.”
Wiltgen started working at Taco John's when he was 12. “The wage and hour, OSHA and labor laws didn’t apply to owners' children."
Some things have changed in the stores since he was a kid. He would shred lettuce. Now it comes in bags already shredded. But, “it’s still a treat to go back to Kearney and have a Taco Burger.”
Interest in politics
His interest and his career in politics were the result of a mistake.
Wiltgen was attending the University of Nebraska at Kearney, working toward a bachelor's degree in business with an emphasis in accounting. He planned on going into the family business and someday having his own chain of Taco John's restaurants.
But there was a mix-up in the registrar's office, and he had been planning his four years based on the wrong course catalog.
Before he was to graduate in the fall of 1998, Wiltgen discovered he was missing two electives, a social science class and a literature class.
“I didn’t know until they did a senior check.” So he signed up for sports literature (“It was hard”) and political science (“I thought it would be an interesting class").
“I went to the first day of class and they announced there was an internship in Sen. (Chuck) Hagel’s office, working 30 hours a week.
“I had some time on my hands. It sounded interesting. Hagel had just gotten elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996. I walked into the office and applied for an internship.
“It was a one-person office. When I was there, I answered phones, helped with constituent services, clipped newspapers.”
Wiltgen worked for Hagel for 10 years, and eventually became Hagel’s state director. He also worked on the 2010 Census and then for U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry.
Initially, Wiltgen handled constituent services for Hagel. “When the federal government started going to 800 numbers and to the internet, it was really difficult to talk to someone. It is beneficial to call a congressional office and get a response. We were able to get answers. Sometimes it was just a matter of getting them an answer and they may not like it. A lot of times there were mistakes and we were able to help resolve them.
"One day, there was a call in the late afternoon, from someone who could not get ahold of an elderly mother in France. I called the American citizens office, identified the address. They contacted the French authorities. They went to the woman's apartment. She had fallen and broke her hip.
"I really enjoyed helping people."
“I went to a Catholic high school and graduated with 24 people, 16 girls and eight boys. So I played football, basketball and track.”
His junior year, his school, Kearney Catholic, played Wood River, where Scott Frost was a senior. “ESPN profiled Frost. They videotaped the game. It was not good. I think the final score was 54-7.”
Wiltgen thought about playing football in college. “But I survived high school without any major knee or ankle issues. I played four years and that was enough. Now I’m just a fan.”
Interest in county government
“I always had an interest in local government. I do believe the government closest to the people have the most responsibility. I always liked the issues the county dealt with."
Wiltgen planned to run for the Lancaster County board when Larry Hudkins retired. “He never did," Wiltgen joked. (Hudkins did retire two years ago, after 30 years in office.)
The district boundaries changed and four years ago, Wiltgen ran and won in an open race.
Wiltgen worked in Congress both before and after partisanship created the current dysfunction, he said.
"When I came back in December of 2011 (for Fortenberry) you could definitely see a change; a lot more partisanship; a lot more dysfunction; a lot more paralysis."
"My perspective is that after the 2010 census, state legislators drew safe Democratic and safe Republican districts in the House. Now you have permanent Republican and permanent Democratic seats. There is no incentive for compromise."
On county government
At the county level, very few decisions are made behind the scenes, he said: “It’s kind of like having five mayors, and all you need is a majority."
Wiltgen said he's proud of revamping the budget process, moving to a service-based budget and creating the Justice Council, where every department and agency involved with the criminal justice system meet. "We are able to identify problems and make improvements."