Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele – millionaire, philanthropist and proud LGBT ally – is that oddest of ducks on Wisconsin’s current political scene. He’s a progressive Democrat who’s willing to deal with Republican leaders on behalf of his constituents. In fact, he actually talks to Gov. Scott Walker.
“In my current job as county executive, it’s kind of my job to have as good a relationship as I can with whoever’s in the majority, so I can get things done for the county,” he says.
Once upon a time, in an America that seems far away, Abele’s bipartisan, pragmatic approach to governance was expected and even praised. But in the most harshly divided state in a nation that’s more partisan than perhaps at any time since the Civil War, “the most corrosive thing … is the punishment that comes with deviating from the orthodoxy,” Abele says.
The Shepherd Express has been dogging him ever since he and publisher Louis Fortis became embroiled in a three-year lawsuit over the Milwaukee Film Festival (the case was dismissed last year). In frequently un-bylined stories or articles bylined by “Shepherd Express Staff,” the county executive is characterized as a wealthy heir who serves at the beck and call of his rich friends and donors. In reality, Abele is his only rich donor, and he laughs at the depiction of him as some sort of Gatsby, saying he’s never owned a yacht, doesn’t have a driver and doesn’t belong to a country club.
Ironically, the Shepherd named Abele Milwaukeean of the Year in 2002, prior to his row with Fortis.
Leftist bloggers also have been critical of Abele. Progressives were scandalized when he supported Act 14, a law passed by Republicans in Madison to slash the board’s budget while giving the county executive more power.
Opponents characterized the move as a power grab, but Abele says all the grabbing has been from the other side. The board’s size and budget have expanded over the years to the point they’re out of proportion with the county’s population and needs, he contends.
His support for Act 14 and Abele’s firing last year of popular County Parks Director Sue Black have helped fuel a level of tension between supervisors and the county executive that rivals the animus between the board and Abele’s predecessor Scott Walker. Supervisors apparently evened the score by exercising the power they have to oust County Corporation Counsel Kimberly Walker – a move that Abele blasted as petty and destructive, especially since they gave no reason for the firing.
County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic did not return two messages seeking comment, but she denied to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the firing of Walker was retributive.
When Abele announced that he’d hired John Dargle, the award-winning director of the Fairfax, Va., County Park Authority, to take over Black’s position, Dimitrijevic responded with sarcasm.
“It’s nice that the county executive is finally focusing on the management of Milwaukee County by working toward filling the many vacancies in his administration,” she said in a statement. “The people of this county value their parks. Mr. Dargle will have big shoes to fill in the eyes of this community.”
Abele says most of the controversial moves he’s made have been necessary to eliminate the long-term debt left behind by Walker. Just as he’s doing as governor, Walker “balanced” the county’s budget by postponing debt repayment into the future, when he wouldn’t have to deal with it. Abele got stuck with a budget of $1.4 billion and $1 billion in long-term debt. The debt service totaled $107 million his first year in office, he says.
Abele opted to address the debt sooner rather than later “so that the $107 million doesn’t go to debt but back into services, which is where it should go,” he says.
Abele says he’s been able to increase the parks budget and capital budget with the savings in loan payments.
Sitting at the large round conference table in the county executive’s office, Abele looks like anything but a power-hungry, backroom politico. At 46, he has a short, trim stature and boyish face that project youthfulness. In interviews with most politicians, you can see the wheels spinning in their eyes as they calculate a response. Abele responds spontaneously, smilingly and seemingly without guile.
Though he lives in a historic mega-mansion, you’d never know it from the way he dresses, which is decidedly down. He doesn’t flaunt his wealth with designer suits and $100 haircuts. His wardrobe is more Kohl’s than Kenneth Cole.
In short, the county executive is more like an Eagle Scout than a Donald Trump. His staff doesn’t even have a selection of high-res pictures of Abele for the press.
“Yes, I have wealth,” Abele acknowledges. “My father (John Abele, who founded the medical device company Boston Scientific in 1979) worked his ass off and was really successful – and I’m proud of him for that.”
Although his father is a multibillionaire now, Abele grew up in what he describes as a “small, lower-middle-class house.” He says that his family has not lost sight of their humble beginnings or the social responsibility that comes with great success.
“My dad always said, ‘This isn’t an entitlement, it’s a privilege and a responsibility,’” Abele says.
Abele also has created successful businesses on his own and headed his family’s Argosy Foundation, which has given away many millions of dollars to nonprofit groups, particularly environmental causes.
“You can’t control the circumstances in which you are born, but you can control what you do with it,” Abele says. “Some of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had have been volunteer board memberships and being in a position where I can give money away.”
But, he adds, “I still spend a lot of time asking myself, ‘Am I doing enough?’
“For what it’s worth, I understand people can be resentful of wealth,” Abele says. No doubt there are some awful behaviors (among the rich) – Wall Street bankers and predatory lenders, for example. There’s no socioeconomic class that has a monopoly on either great people or assholes.”
Proud LGBT ally
One of the most consistent recipients of Abele’s largesse has been Wisconsin’s LGBT community. He contributed heavily to the fight against the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions enacted by voters in 2006, and he’s continued to give generously. In the past year, he’s given $100,000 to Fair Wisconsin and Equality Wisconsin.
Abele also has served on the board of Planned Parenthood at both the state and national levels. He chaired Women for Women International, which provides assistance to female survivors of war. It’s one of the fastest growing women’s groups in the world.
“County Executive Abele’s commitment to advancing marriage equality in Wisconsin is inspiring, and he is truly a visionary leader in the movement to achieve full equality for LGBT Wisconsinites,” says Fair Wisconsin executive director Katie Belanger. “We at Fair Wisconsin are grateful to have his support, and I am proud to call him my friend.
“Abele’s the kind of leader who’s unafraid to ask the tough questions and envision a new way to solve old problems. It has been extremely refreshing to work with an elected leader and movement investor who is so willing to think creatively about how to advance issues we all care so much about.”
It’s not just Abele’s financial support that has inspired Belanger and other LGBT leaders in Wisconsin. He shows up at LGBT community events more frequently than any other elected official in Milwaukee – perhaps in the state. It’s quite possible that he knows by name most staff members of the city’s LGBT nonprofits and greets many of them with hugs.
While the LGBT people of Wisconsin have many straight allies, not one is better versed in the community’s issues or more genuinely committed to its equality than Abele.
The fact that he’s given so much attention to a group of constituents who are small in number and have fervent opponents on the religious right underscores Abele’s sincerity. Ultimately, the one political pigeonhole where he can be placed is that of a leader whose wealth has empowered independent thought and action, as well as the freedom to pursue an agenda that emphasizes social justice and fiscal sustainability.