When progressive philanthropist and businessman Chris Abele took over Scott Walker’s former job as Milwaukee County Executive, he inherited a fiscal nightmare. The interest on the county’s debt was so high that it was eating up money that should have been funding services for residents.
Politically, Abele was in a no-win situation. Ignoring the deficit would have hurt the county and made him vulnerable to attacks from the right. Walker won three terms touting a false record of fiscal prudence.
On the other hand, reducing the deficit would require budget cuts harmful to the county’s most vulnerable populations, leaving Abele open to attacks from the left.
Abele is not a politician, and he rose above the political noise and simply did the right thing: tackle the deficit while employing creative strategies to minimize the sting. Showing strong, pragmatic leadership, he reduced an inherited county debt service payment of about $112 million to $62 million, which he says is still “way too much.” He passed five consecutive budgets that increased services without raising taxes, while at the same time whittling away at the county’s structural debt.
That’s quite an impressive record to run on for re-election.
Abele also identified new funding sources from both the federal and state governments. To secure the latter, he had to reach across the aisle and cultivate relationships with GOP lawmakers. Now Abele’s being attacked by his opponents as a closet Republican for forging those productive relationships on behalf of the people he serves.
A group headed by former County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic (who will lose half her salary this year due to Abele’s success in reducing the board to part-time) suggests with a straight face that Abele and Walker are political bedmates. That’s absurd. Abele is the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s largest single donor and a major contributor to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and Fair Wisconsin.
Abele also has sat on the board of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. On June 6, 2014, when a federal court ruled that Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, he personally paid to keep the Milwaukee County Courthouse open late and over the weekend to accommodate the state’s first gay and lesbian marriages. He served as a witness for several couples.
Abele’s progressive bona fides are unassailable. So is his executive skill. Although some people say they’ve found him difficult to get along with, that’s a petty personal complaint considering his achievements in an important job. Despite the implications one might draw from the current presidential election cycle, running for political office should not be confused with American Idol.
Chris Larson’s disappointing challenge
Abele’s main challenger is state Sen. Chris Larson, a former county board supervisor. In the past, we’ve supported Larson, a committed progressive. But the divisive and misleading campaign he’s running against Abele has disappointed us. It’s built more on what he’s against than what he’s for, and he’s playing the lowest kind of political game in promising voters all sorts of things he can’t deliver, particularly in light of his assaults on Abele for working across party lines. That’s how you get things done in a state where the other party is in power.
Larson has had little leadership experience. When the Democratic Party of Wisconsin tapped him as senate minority leader, whose job is to help elect Democratic senators, he failed to pick up a single seat. To be fair, the political headwinds were against him. Still, working against the advice of party leaders, he threw away an opportunity to win Senate District 17, which was held by the retiring moderate Republican Dale Schultz.
Larson complains about the six turnovers in county administrators under Abele over the past five years. But he refuses to offer plausible explanations for the departure of three of his top campaign aides in the past three months.
Larson claims the major difference between Abele and him is that he is for the middle class and the poor. But he’s short on specifics.
Abele not only has a plan to help the poor, but also a track record. A longtime donor to — and former chair of — the Boys and Girls Clubs, he helped partner that organization with MPS superintendents to get more kids into after-school programs. He assisted in crafting the successful Race to the Top grant proposal that brought $7 million of federal funding to MPS schools. He’s involved in Schools That Can Milwaukee, which seeks to get 20,000 Milwaukee students into high-quality urban schools by 2020.
MPS has been a thorny issue in the county executive race. The Republican-led Legislature offered Abele the job to head a turnaround program for MPS, called the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program. (Abele later appointed Mequon-Thiensville superintendent and respected MPS graduate Demond Means to steer the program.)
Larson and other Abele critics contend that Abele should have turned down the offer, which they deride as a personal takeover of the MPS system. It’s a hollow criticism, the kind the tea party throws at President Barack Obama.
Abele contends that if he had turned down the job, GOP leaders would then have given it to someone else, someone perhaps not as passionate about and familiar with the issues.
But Abele’s opponents have positioned his acceptance of the job as one of many alleged “power grabs.” In fact, their major complaint with Abele is that he’s used his position to amass power for himself.
Why would a man like Abele — a millionaire many times over, who has committed his life to public service — want control over schools, mental health care and corrections system just for the thrill of holding such obscure and difficult responsibilities? Most people of Abele’s means are yachting around the world with the jet set, not trying to turn around troubled schools in Milwaukee.
Larson’s campaign on the whole is shamelessly disingenuous. At a Feb. 6 candidates’ forum, Larson several times accused Abele of trying to eliminate funding for the homeless — an accusation that PolitiFact rated “false.” In fact, Abele worked with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to secure federal funding that will be used to end chronic homelessness in the county.
Larson says he would give away the responsibilities Abele has taken on. He also suggests he would do all sorts of wonderful things, including lowering the cost of public transit and offering free college. In order to carry out his agenda, he’d need far greater powers than Abele holds. He’d need supernatural powers to deliver on all of his promises without Republican support.
Larson has yet to put forth a specific agenda and explain how he would fund it. Instead, his campaign is focused on character assassination and overwrought bromides: “I want to take Milwaukee County back for the middle class” is his basic come-on to voters. It’s eerily similar to the tea party’s divisive vow to “take back America.” The rhetoric is polarizing the Democratic Party in a tough election year.
Larson promises that he would work more closely with and empower other county officials (as long as they’re not Republicans, apparently). His support for increasing the budget and powers of loose-canon Sheriff David Clarke is frightening.
Among Clarke’s many bizarre actions was his refusal to provide adequate security for Abele and Obama, when the president visited Milwaukee. Clarke publicly called for Milwaukee citizens to arm themselves so they can help his deputies enforce the law, even though the sheriff’s deputies mostly patrol the highways. He spends money on undercover officers to entrap gay men in public parks.
And he publicly charged that Abele suffers from “penis envy.”
We think it’s to Abele’s credit that he’s taken the Department of Corrections away from Clarke and turned its mission toward being a rehabilitative rather than a punitive one. He’s taken away the Bibles that Clarke was handing out and instead he’s helping inmates get GEDs, job training, resumes and health care. Under Abele’s so-called “takeover,” inmates leave jail already enrolled in Obamacare, something that would have been unthinkable under Clarke.
We can see many parallels between Larson’s campaign and that of the tea party, particularly the shrill scare tactics. Larson has his followers terrified that Abele is going to sell General Mitchell Airport, public transportation and public parks to private, for-profit owners. Their basis for these accusations is not only weak, but also denied by Abele.
During the Feb. 6 forum, the senator repeatedly baited Abele over his inherited wealth. Larson’s implication that it’s a sin to be rich will not win over many Wisconsinites to the Democratic Party. Hypocritically, Larson has shown no compunction about seeking donations from rich people.
At the debate, Larson continued his disproven accusation that Abele had eliminated $300,000 from the county budget for homeless shelters in order to pay for his personal security. Given the way funds are allocated, that’s not possible. Three times Abele clarified that he’s paying for his own security and Larson ignored him.
In a recent mailer, Larson’s supporting PAC, which is headed by Dimitrijevic, raised the security figure to $400,000. The mailer also suggested that the county bought Abele a more expensive car than the one he uses — one that, for the record, is owned by the county and not Abele.
County board’s revenge
Looked at as a whole, Larson’s campaign of disgruntlement and negativity — and his prioritizing of ideological “purity” over getting things done — closely parallels this year’s Republican campaign. Larson defines himself by whom he hates and what he’s against more than what he’ll do.
It’s worth noting that many of Larson’s most ardent followers have personal axes to grind with Abele, including county board supervisors.
Abele arranged to have a binding referendum put on the ballot in Milwaukee County asking voters if they wanted to reduce county board supervisors to part-time positions (state lawmakers are part-timers) and reduce the board’s bloated support staff of 58 positions, which cost taxpayers over $6.5 million annually.
County voters supported the measure by 71 percent.
Larson says he’d restore his supervisor friends to full-time status, despite voters’ overwhelming rejection of that plan and despite the fact that the county executive doesn’t have the power to do that.
Wisconsin has more county-level board members than any state in the country. In fact, the state accounts for 10 percent of all county-level legislators in the nation.
Milwaukee has 18 supervisors, for example, while Cook County (the nation’s fifth largest county, which includes the City of Chicago) has 17 committee members, and Los Angeles County has only five. Dane County has 37.
Milwaukee County is unique, moreover, in that it contains no unincorporated areas. A primary duty of county boards is to fill in the gaps of government for unincorporated areas, but Milwaukee County doesn’t have any.
Since their change in status, Milwaukee County supervisors have devolved into an argumentative, obstructionist group whose members waste a lot of time trying to discredit Abele and garner press for themselves.
While supervisors accuse Abele of refusing to work with them, he vetoed only two of the 64 amendments they added to his most recent budget. The average number of such amendments is normally in from the single digits.
Milwaukee County Board Chair Theo Lipscomb packaged Abele’s two vetoes into one bill. One was to give $4 million to Clarke and the other was a resolution to leave standing Estabrook Dam, a pet project of Lipscomb’s that is opposed by environmental groups. The courts have ordered the dam’s removal. Supervisors overrode the veto, giving more money to Clarke and defying court orders regarding the dam. That’s how far they’ll go to damage the county to extract revenge.
Such shenanigans are one of the many reasons we need a strong, no-nonsense, qualified executive like Abele. The Wisconsin Gazette strongly endorses Chris Abele for another term and we appreciate his willingness to do a job he doesn’t need in such a difficult and thankless environment.
The primary is Feb. 16. Besides Abele and Larson, the race includes Pirate Party candidate Joseph Thomas Klein and Steve Hogan. The two top vote-getters square off in the general election on April 5.
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