It’s safe to say that Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele won’t get a Valentine’s Day card from state Sen. Chris Larson.
In 2011, Larson stood behind Abele in his first campaign to lead the county. But whatever affection existed between the two Democrats has long since faded. Now one of Abele’s fiercest critics, Larson is gunning for his job this spring, alarming Democratic officials.
Larson says he feels “betrayed” by Abele, whom he characterizes as a power-crazed closet conservative who sold his soul to Republicans in order to establish political domination.
Abele critics point to three broad areas of divergence: the county board, his management style and his collaboration with Republicans.
THE ANTI-ABELE ARGUMENT
The county board’s battle with Abele began with the parks. In 2012, Abele abruptly fired Milwaukee County Parks director Sue Black without consultation or explanation.
Abele continued to anger supervisors by allegedly asking Republican leaders in Madison to enact laws allowing him to go around the board. For instance, critics say Abele got the Legislature to grant him the authority to sell off county buildings and public spaces without board approval — a move that led Larson to dub him “King Abele” and exacerbated his rift with public park supporters.
The battle between Abele and the county board went nuclear when he allegedly persuaded the Legislature to create a binding referendum asking voters to approve making county supervisors part-time employees and reducing their pay from $50,679 to $24,051.
County voters approved the measure by a vote of 71 percent in April 2014 (the changes go into effect following this year’s April elections). Since that vote, county supervisors, along with their friends, allies and those folks who oppose any cuts to government on general principle, have been out to get Abele out of office.
It was probably that referendum more than anything that lit a fire under Larson. A former supervisor himself, Larson feels strongly about the board’s significance. He’s close to many of its members, some of whom are his former colleagues and political supporters.
Another beef concerns Abele’s management style. Larson maintains that the firing of Black exemplifies Abele’s greatest leadership flaw — an inability to get along with other people. He says that trait has resulted in the loss of valuable personnel.
“Half a dozen department heads have gotten the ax (from Abele) without explanation,” Larson says.
But it’s Abele’s collaboration with Republican leaders that most infuriates his critics in today’s hyper-partisan political environment. And indeed, Abele has worked with Republicans to make changes in the structure of county government. He’s cultivated a working relationship with Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, which is something akin to a capital crime in Wisconsin’s Democratic circles.
Abele’s relationships with GOP leaders such as Sen. Alberta Darling and Reps. Dale Kooyenga and Joe Sanfelippo have led to charges that he’s a Democrat in name only. Critics are livid over his adoption of such GOP ideas as privatizing governmental services. In the progressive cosmology, that’s a sin leading to the lower circles of hell.
THE PRO-ABELE REBUTTAL
Abele replies that he knew working with the “enemy” would hurt his image among fellow progressives. But, he says, it’s his duty to do everything he can to get things done on behalf of the people he represents, which means dealing with those who call the shots in the capital.
“I have a friendly relationship with Walker,” he acknowledges, even though he heavily supported Mary Burke in her challenge against Walker. “When you keep a good relationship with someone who wears a different letter, you’re sometimes able to talk to them and, at minimum, prevent something you think is a really bad idea from going forward.”
Milwaukee County residents have benefited from Abele’s bipartisan efforts. His lobbying of the Legislature yielded funding for the county to hire a much-needed comptroller — a financial overseer who, he notes, does not report to him. The county also has received additional money from the state as a result of Abele’s outreach.
According to Abele, “My decisions are informed by what I think is right, not politically expedient.”
He says he refuses to be a part of what he calls the “tea party left” — progressives who define themselves by whom and what they’re against. He compares his plight with that of former House Speaker John Boehner, who was essentially ousted from his job for cooperating with the White House.
Regarding what critics consider his most Republican-inspired power grab — the so-called “takeover” of Milwaukee Public Schools, Abele has a ready explanation.
According to Abele, Republican leaders in the Legislature wanted an elected official in Milwaukee to take responsibility for turning around the city’s public schools, many of which are failing. They first offered the role to Mayor Tom Barrett, who turned it down, probably because it was such a political hot potato. Next it was offered to Abele, who took it. His critics claim he sought it out, but Abele denies that charge.
“They offered it to me, and I thought, ‘I can make this into something good,’” Abele counters. “Anyone who thinks I could have stopped (Republican leaders) from putting someone in charge of the schools is wrong. They have a majority. It was going to go through.”
Still, Larson faults Abele for going along with Republican legislators. He believes Abele should have turned down the offer, and he charges that his opponent couldn’t resist the allure of more power.
Abele, on the other hand, says he accepted the position to help. Education, he says, has long been one of the primary areas in which he’s focused his interest and philanthropy. As chair of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Milwaukee, for instance, Abele partnered with 36 MPS schools to win a federal grant for $7 million — $125,000 per school. He says he accepted MPS oversight in order to use the same sorts of innovations on a wider scale.
Ultimately, Abele appointed Demond Means — superintendent of the Mequon-Thiensville school district and himself a respected graduate of the Milwaukee Public Schools — as commissioner of the turnaround program, called the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program.
That decision was widely praised but Larson remains skeptical about how it will play out in the long run. He accuses Abele of a deathbed conversion on the issue just in time for the upcoming election.
THE HORSE RACE
Larson and his supporters face long odds in the race to unseat Abele.
First, they will have to amass a large and motivated grassroots army of volunteers to overcome Abele’s personal wealth and name recognition. The latest campaign finance report indicates what an uphill battle that’s going to be. In the second half of 2015, Larson raised about $66,000, according to the report he filed in January. He ended the year with $53,518 on hand.
In contrast, Abele had spent $500,000 on advertising by last December.
In order to win, Larson and his allies must turn his campaign into a grassroots movement that generates very high turnout for him in what’s certain to be a very low-turnout race. That’s the strategy conservatives used to elect Scott Walker as Milwaukee County executive three times, even though Barack Obama received 67 percent of the Milwaukee County vote in 2012.
Another problem to overcome is the low profile of the county board and the fact that Abele has such a stellar record that WisPolitics named him “Democrat of the Year” for 2015. Voters outside of Milwaukee’s progressive strongholds are more likely to praise Abele for cutting the county board than to damn him for it. And the charges against Abele’s management style are likely to matter less to voters than the fact that he put the county’s finances in order without raising taxes.
Democratic Party officials are mostly steering clear of this race. They fear that Larson’s challenge is a lose-lose for them. It pits their top individual donor (Abele) against one of their rising stars (Larson). Party insiders further worry that the race could fatigue grassroots volunteers and create divisions in the state’s largest Democratic stronghold going into a landmark election cycle in November.
With the odds stacked against him, Larson has resorted to rhetoric and stunts that have only increased party officials’ jitters. An event staged by Larson in early January no doubt had them reaching for their Xanax.
On a bitingly cold day, Larson held a news conference in front of the Moderne, a posh downtown high-rise where Abele owns two condos (not one, but two, Larson emphasizes). In a bone-chilling wind, he condemned Abele for ignoring the needs of homeless residents while indulging in a life of excessive luxury. The only prop missing was a guillotine.
Democratic strategists winced at the personal nature of the attack, as well as the suggestion that rich equals evil. Democrats and progressive nonprofits rely heavily on wealthy contributors like Abele. Moreover, trying to capitalize on class resentment played into one of conservatives’ worst stereotypes of progressives.
The stunt even managed to offend the far left: Pirate Party candidate Joseph Klein slammed Larson for trying to score political points on the backs of the homeless.
Abele’s budgets have included $418,000 in funding for the homeless each year from 2012 through 2016. The funding to which Larson alluded was $300,000 in federal money for Milwaukee that was not renewed this year and not included in Abele’s budget. The county board, however, amended the budget to include the lost dollars, just as it had the year before, and Abele accepted it.
Homelessness is not a problem Abele has neglected. Abele and Mayor Tom Barrett teamed up to launch a plan that the two say will end chronic homelessness in Milwaukee. The plan relies on $1.8 million in funding to place homeless individuals directly into permanent housing, thus leaving fewer people to rely on overnight shelters.
Still, Larson and his allies point out the plan does nothing to protect those who are not yet in permanent housing from the risks of below-zero nights.
This sort of back-and-forth will undoubtedly continue right up to April 5. In the meantime, Democratic leaders will be watching silently, but with bated breath.
Chris Larson and Chris Abele are the heavy-hitters in a race that includes Steve Hogan and Pirate Party candidate Joseph Thomas Klein, who unsuccessfully campaigned twice to represent the 19th Assembly District. After a Feb. 16 primary, Larson and Abele are likely to square off in a runoff election on April 5.
For more, read WiG's candidate profiles.