The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

‘I just can’t sit back’: One UWEC student’s journey to political activism

Matthew Lehner gained national attention for his advocacy work during the spring 2023 election
“This was nearly unbearable to sit through,” Matthew Lehner said before the State Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities. (Photo from WisconsinEye)

This story was written by Mohr for class credit for CJ 427 Advanced Reporting and Editing at UW-Eau Claire.

Matthew Lehner sat in the Wisconsin State Capitol waiting for his turn to speak. Across the polished floor, the 15 representatives of the State Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities faced him in a half-circle.

“This was nearly unbearable to sit through,” Lehner said. “When you see your rights being debated by a committee of people who are out of touch with their constituents, that is very hard to listen to.”

The debate was over item Assembly Bill 378, one of three LGBTQ+ related bills in the state legislature open for public comment on Oct. 4. This particular bill would designate sports and athletic teams at Wisconsin universities and technical colleges based on participants’ assigned sex at birth, barring transgender athletes from participating in the sports that align with their gender identity.

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Lehner woke up at 4 a.m. to drive from Eau Claire to Madison, then waited in the committee hearing for five hours before he could make his voice heard.

“We need people who are going to speak up for others,” Lehner said. “We need young people in the conversation.”

This was not Lehner’s first time speaking in the statehouse, and it wasn’t his first time getting involved in politics. A UW-Eau Claire student senator, president of the university’s College Democrats student organization and an activist in state and the Eau Claire community, Lehner has become an active political figure from a young age.

“I think you can trace my involvement in leadership and politics back to the time I was in fifth grade,” he said.

Lehner said he was bullied every day on the bus to and from school because he was “an awkward kid who was very nerdy.” But rather than take their abuse, an 11-year-old Lehner decided to use the experience to help others.

“It was a traumatizing experience at the time and I’m very glad I had school administrators who stood up for me,” Lehner said. “I made it my mission after that experience to transform it into something positive.”

Lehner started an anti-bullying club with other students who shared similar experiences, which started his life in leadership.

But it was a few more years before his interest in politics sparked. Lehner traces his political involvement back to November 2016, with the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

“I think a lot of people thought we were going to wake up to our first woman president, and instead I woke up to my mother and my sister crying,” Lehner said. “In my view Donald Trump was a bully, and he reminded me of my bully in elementary school. In that moment I knew that it was my civic duty to get involved and stand up for others in this country just as those friends and school administrators had stood up for me when I was bullied.”

Lehner became class president in high school. He also started volunteering for the Democratic Party in his home of Waukesha County. Then he packed his bags and moved across the state to start school at UW-Eau Claire, where his political career took off.

As a freshman in college, Lehner ran for a seat on the Eau Claire County Board to represent District 18, which includes part of the UW-Eau Claire campus. Lehner would go on to lose the general election to incumbent Jim Dunning.

He later was appointed to serve on the UW-Eau Claire Student Senate. Then he became president of UW-Eau Claire’s chapter of College Democrats, a group that before Lehner’s leadership had been mostly inactive on campus. That changed in 2022.

“One of my main focuses was to rebuild the organization from what it had become,” Lehner said. “The progressive movement on this campus was not dead. It just needed somebody with the time, dedication and the willingness to organize it.”

Lehner speaks at a campaign event ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. (Photo by Toby Mohr)

Lehner and the College Democrats campaigned frequently on campus leading up to the 2022 midterm elections in November, then again for the Wisconsin State Supreme Court election in April 2023. They handed out fliers with information on how to vote and held events in support of the liberal candidates in each race.

The State Supreme Court election recorded unusually high voter turnout among UW-Eau Claire students. According to Eau Claire County’s unofficial election results, votes cast in Eau Claire’s Ward 20, which includes all upper-campus residence halls, increased 11 times compared to the previous spring election in 2022. 882 ballots were cast in Ward 20 alone, with about 87% in support of liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz.

“We shocked a lot of people in the general election for Supreme Court,” Lehner said. “We had lines waiting for hours of people to vote. It was such a humbling sight for me to see.”

Lehner said there were a lot of other organizations that contributed to the turnout, but his work with the College Democrats did not go unnoticed.

After the election, Lehner appeared in the international newspaper, The Guardian. He was featured in a live interview on local news station WQOW-18 in Eau Claire and received local and national recognition for his work during the campaign.

“It wasn’t UW-Madison, it wasn’t a big campus, this was a small campus in a medium sized city,” Lehner said. “We proved that issues such as climate change, abortion, and fair maps were important to young people.”

Now, Lehner is still the leader of College Democrats, but he also works as an activist for liberal issues in the state and meets with elected officials, including Rep. Jodi Emerson, a Democrat who represents Eau Claire in the State Assembly.

“Matthew is good for having a person who has the pulse of UW-Eau Claire,” Emerson said. “The work that we do directly impacts not only what’s happening ten years from now, but what’s happening next semester for students.”

Lehner also continues working on UW-Eau Claire’s Student Senate. He was elected to a second term and was named Senator of the Year in the spring.

“Matthew has been one of the most intentional, active and passionate student senators I have seen throughout my time in this body,” Student Body President Brett Farmer said. “He is never afraid to take charge and take action when student issues arise.”

Emerson said she is excited to see college-aged people like Lehner get more involved in politics, and hopes it inspires more to pay attention to the government on every level.

“One day I hope someone like Matthew and his passion isn’t going to be an anomaly,” Emerson said. “I’m hoping someday his story isn’t that unusual.”

Lehner plans to continue his work advocating for young adults and being a voice in the Eau Claire community and across the state. He said he has no plans for slowing down.

“I just can’t sit back,” he said. “I just can’t not get involved and lend my voice and speak my mind and speak my opinion. I get so sick and tired of the people we’ve put in power ignoring the issues that so many people face; that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning, the drive and the desire just to help others.”

Mohr can be reached at [email protected].

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