COLUMBIA — Four days after Karl Skala lost his Third Ward City Council seat to Gary Kespohl in the 2010 election, he walked into The Coffee Ground on Broadway at 9 a.m. to hold his civic office hours, the same way he had on many Saturdays for the past three years.
Today, the man in the black turtleneck can still be found every other Saturday morning, now at Coffee Zone, ready to talk to Columbia residents. People continue to stop by — he says two or three each time — to engage with him at length about Columbia issues.
On a Saturday in March, during his campaign, the coffee shop was buzzing with customers. Skala sat in the front, with his back to the window. On the table he had his laptop and a cup of coffee. A campaign button on his vest read "Re-elect Karl Skala."
Skala isn't one to let go of traditions, whether in his political or private life. He has sung in the church choir for more than 25 years, he makes his grandmother's pastry recipes on Christmas, and he sticks with his office hours, even outside the council.
"I've learned over a number of years that the only way to accomplish anything, outside of having good ideas, is to be persistent," Skala said. "You can't quit."
In a way, Skala never really left the council. He regularly attends meetings and offers public commentary on issues such as those regarding roads. Just last week, he spoke as a representative of the Infrastructure Task Force, on which he has served for two years, to advocate for a user-based fee structure rather than an increase in sales tax to pay for streets and sidewalks.
Skala has shown he isn't hesitant to speak his mind, even when presenting a minority opinion.
With his public appearances, his time on the council, and his current work on the Planning and Zoning and the Environment and Energy commissions, Skala has certainly made a name for himself in city government. When he campaigns door-to-door, many people know who he is. At one house, the resident was on the phone with Skala's wife, Mahree, when he came knocking.
This time around, running for office hasn't been about Skala introducing himself to the public; it's about reaffirming his commitment to Columbia.
Skala got his start in city government in 1998, when a property owner near his home on the northeast side of town wanted land rezoned to commercial property. There was no neighborhood association at the time, so Skala began going door to door to speak with neighbors about the issue and, in doing so, helped establish the Hominy Branch Neighborhood Alliance.
A compromise was reached that kept all parties happy, and Skala was appointed to the Planning and Zoning Commission the next year. He served there until 2005 and was re-appointed to the commission in 2012.
In the 2007 Third Ward race, Skala defeated his current opponent, incumbent Third Ward councilman Gary Kespohl. He's been at City Hall ever since, in different capacities: as a citizen, councilman and commissioner.
In 2010, he lost a close and combative race to Kespohl. The campaign still haunts Skala, who refers to it as the "nastiest campaign in Columbia history." An advertisement from Kespohl accused Skala of excessive travel expenses by eating luxury meals on the taxpayers' money. Skala notes that his food costs were always within his allotted budget for meals and says the meal Kespohl refers to was a one-time occurrence in a hotel restaurant.
"Gary put that in one of his mailers as if I did that on a regular basis," Skala said.
That accusation still affects Skala politically and personally. During door-to-door canvassing, one resident said bluntly that he wouldn’t vote for Skala even if he could “walk on water.”
“What's the issue?” Skala asked.
“Eighty-three-dollar lunches,” the man said, refusing to accept Skala's campaign flier.
The rumor from 2010 had reared up again. Skala wanted to explain that the accusation was unfounded, but he didn't get the chance.
"You can deny things all you want, but some people just won't believe it. There's only so much you can do," Skala said before quickly returning to his clipboard of voter addresses.
If Skala was upset by the exchange, he didn't show it. He doesn't raise his voice, and he doesn't let his emotions get in the way of his work.
"You've got to have a pretty thick skin to be doing this stuff," Skala said. "You can't take some of this too personally."
Despite the lingering effect of the last race, Skala doesn't want a grudge match with Kespohl on their third go-around. What he wants now is to fix what he sees as inadequate leadership for his ward. He believes his ward doesn’t receive as much attention or as many city resources as others, such as the Fifth Ward.
Skala said it has been common in the last few years for road projects in his ward to take a back seat to projects in other areas, such as the Sixth Ward LeMone Industrial Boulevard bridge project..
“That’s not the kind of representation that a lot of people in the Third Ward appreciate,” he said.
With that in mind, Skala didn't quit after the last election. He found his way back onto the Planning and Zoning Commission and decided pretty quickly that he would run again for City Council.
Persistence and resiliency in rain or shine
Mahree Skala said her husband is great at keeping his cool in crisis situations. She thinks maybe his military training — Karl Skala is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps — has something to do with it.
He was even patient when, while packing for a trip, Mahree Skala accidentally ran over his laptop. Twice.
“He was so patient about the whole thing," Mahree Skala said. "I don’t know what I would’ve done. I probably would have been screaming. But he just said, 'There’s nothing we can do about it. Let’s take what we can salvage from the hard drive and move on.’”
Karl Skala was able to recover most of the data from the computer.
The laptop incident parallels the aftermath of his 2010 election defeat.
“Karl is very resilient," Mahree Skala said. "He takes disappointments with a grain of salt. I was disappointed when he wasn’t elected last time, but I really admire his ability to bounce back and continue to contribute to the community.”
This time around, Karl Skala, who retired from his medical research position at MU during his last council term, has completely devoted himself to campaigning, from the time he wakes up to the time he goes to sleep.
"If you have a full-time job and are working on City Council, it's almost impossible — I mean, if you're doing it right," he said.
He's out door-to-door about four times a week, rain or shine. The weather doesn't hold him back, such as the time he spent a rainy Sunday afternoon on William Street.
Dressed in a blue rain jacket, Karl Skala parked his Mercury sedan filled with campaign signs and set off in the rain to talk to potential voters.
"Bless your heart for being out in this weather," one resident said after he'd introduced himself and handed over a flier. Others conveyed the same sentiment.
"You gotta do what you gotta do," he'd respond. "I like that this neighborhood has porches to keep you dry."
To him, it was just another day on the campaign trail. He never tires of getting out into the community. For example, Mahree Skala said that when a zoning issue comes before him, he will often travel to the site to see it firsthand rather than relying on diagrams that are included with meeting agendas and staff reports.
That dedication is one reason why Kurt Albert, a campaign worker, calls Karl Skala “the hardest working man in Columbia.”
The February snow storms didn't stop Skala's campaign efforts, either. He trudged from house to house to reach voters.
"It took a very long time to get around then," he said. "The streets were clear, but the sidewalks were impossible. You just do what you can."
After struggling with snowy sidewalks, he's been talking to potential voters about his ideas for restructuring the city's plowing system.
"They could put plows on the garbage trucks and other city vehicles they have at Water and Light and Public Works," Karl Skala suggested to one resident who expressed concerns. "They also could contract with other folks who have four-wheel vehicles."
Outside election season, Karl Skala and his wife prefer a different type of trail. They love to hike and enjoy the outdoors together. Mahree Skala reads under a tree while Karl Skala goes fly-fishing.
When he's not poring over zoning proposals, Karl Skala loves to read biographies and political books. The couple travels frequently, and they always try to work in some time for their first love: music.
Skala met his wife of 21 years when they were singing in the choir of Columbia's First Presbyterian Church. They still sing in choir together at their new church, the Columbia United Church of Christ. The Skalas also sing in the MU Choral Union, although Karl Skala has been unable to recently due to conflicts with Planning and Zoning Commission meetings.
Mahree Skala said music brought them together. They love classical, jazz and blues. The couple now frequents the Roots 'N' Blues 'N' BBQ Festival, the jazz series at Murry's Restaurant and other concerts whenever they find the time.
A city of memories
Skala moved to Columbia in 1980 for graduate school at MU and has lived here, near the Ballenger Lane area, ever since. At one point while campaigning on William Street, he passed a familiar house.
"My kids used to go to day care here," he casually observed.
Now it was on his list of doors to knock on.
The children are out of the house now — his youngest son is 26 — and the day care has since moved. But Skala is still in the neighborhood, and he's isn't going to stop working to represent it.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.