Tag Archives: chris larson

Shameless anti-Abele partisans try to obstruct Colón reappointment

Earlier this year, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele decisively won a bitter re-election battle against state Sen. Chris Larson and his coalition of backers with animus toward Abele. With that divisive experience in the rearview mirror, we had hoped that county supervisors would move the interests of their constituents to the top of their agenda, where they belong. Instead, many supervisors seem mired in scorched-earth political mode. They appear far more interested in outmaneuvering Abele than serving the county’s residents.

Their latest shenanigan is an effort to obstruct Abele’s reappointment of Héctor Colón as director of the Department of Health and Human Services.

By a vote of 3–2, the Milwaukee County Board Health and Human Needs Committee rejected Colón. A definitive vote by the entire board is scheduled for Sept. 22.

Whatever the outcome, the three committee members who rejected Colón show how destructive they’re willing to go just to thwart Abele at the county’s expense.

By any reasonable measure, Colón’s six-year tenure in the position has been exceptional. Among the many community organizations calling for his reappointment are the Milwaukee Urban League, Disability Rights Wisconsin, the American Public Human Services Association, the United Community Center, and the Combined Community Services Board.

Colón’s supporters cite a number of achievements on his part, including:

• Success in securing a $2.4 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to help end chronic homelessness.

• A 70 percent decrease in chronic homelessness. (Colón’s foes dispute this figure, using twisted reasoning to justify their aim of discrediting it.)

• Ending a 12-year waiting list for Section 8 housing.

• The transition of hundreds of mentally challenged people into community-living arrangements.

• Implementation of more than $20 million dollars of new or enhanced community-based services that have led to a 34 percent decrease in emergency detentions and a 20 percent decrease in emergency room visits.

• Numerous awards from national, state and community groups.

The list goes on, towering over the objections — most of them dubious — to Colón’s performance in office. Looked at side by side, it’s obvious that the real motive for opposing Colón is politics. Just consider the three supervisors who voted against his reappointment.

Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic seems to oppose Abele with every breath she takes. She heads the Working Families Party of Wisconsin, a left-wing tea party-style group that was Larson’s leading donor.

Also rejecting Colón was Sequanna Taylor, who was endorsed and backed by Dimitrijevic’s group. The third vote against Colón came from Supreme Moore Omokunde, who was also a Larson backer. He cited Colón’s lack of transparency as a reason for opposing him, which was hypocritical to say the least: Omokunde was one of seven supervisors who defeated a transparency measure that would have allowed the public to see budget amendments prior to final committee votes.

Colón has earned reappointment. And the residents of Milwaukee County deserve representatives who make decisions based on merit rather than personal grudges.

We’d like to remind Colón’s  detractors that the AbeleLarson race is over and their horse lost. Get over it.

Analysis: County board out for revenge against Abele 

Three times in 40 years — in the 1950s, in the ’70s and in the ’90s — the Township and the Borough of Princeton, New Jersey, tried unsuccessfully to merge. The two finally combined into the new Municipality of Princeton a few years ago, allowing them to cut out redundant services and save millions on policing, snow removal and trash pickup.

But the Municipality of Princeton, formed in 2013, is an exception. Consolidations have often been discussed and studied, but the mergers rarely take place. And, based on the politics of the Milwaukee County Executive race, they’re very unlikely to occur in Wisconsin any time soon.

There are 3,069 counties in the country, and many of them provide redundant services in areas such as policing, snow removal and trash pickup. Across the country, advocates of consolidation, including governors like New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Illinois’ Bruce Rauner, both Republicans, say combining county and municipal governments will streamline services and save taxpayers money. But according to the National Association of Counties, cities and counties have only combined 42 times since the 19th century, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.

An Illinois report released in December sparked a conversation in that state and in others. It found that living in an area with too many layers of government increases property taxes on residents (the report didn’t break out business taxes) and makes it all but impossible to remember which governmental entity governs what.

The issue is of particular signficance in Wisconsin, which has the most bloated county governments of any state in the nation. In fact 10 percent of all county-level legislators in the United States reside in the state.

While Los Angeles County has five supervisors, Dane County has 37. Milwaukee County has 17 supervisors, compared to 18 in Cook County. And, unlike Cook County, every resident of Milwaukee County also lives within the jurisdiction of a city, town or village government. No part of the county is unincorporated.

But realigning county government is a political hot potato that few leaders in the state appear willing to address. Just consider the backlash against Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele over Act 14, even though it was passed by the Legislature and the voters.  That law placed a binding referendum on the county ballot asking voters if Milwaukee County supervisors should be made part-time as opposed to full-time employees.

More than 70 percent of county voters chose part-time status. Voters also approved eliminating supervisors’ pension and health benefits. The changes brought the county’s pay more in line with others in the state and made money available for services rather than bureaucrats.

Even though Act 14 didn’t merge city and county functions, it still incurred the wrath of county supervisors against Abele. They’ve piled on him in every way possible, waging what’s seemed like a permanent campaign against him in the media.

Former Milwaukee County Supervisor and now state Sen. Chris Larson is running a no-holds-barred campaign to unseat Abele on April 5, and at least some of the board’s supervisors are playing roles in Larson’s effort.

County board chair Theo Lipscomb is part of Larson’s campaign, but the challenger’s top board ally is former county board chair Marina Dimitrijevic, who stepped down from that position last year after realizing that her new part-time status would reduce her salary from $71,412 to $36,076, when it takes effect on April 18.

Dimitrijevic is now executive director of Wisconsin Working Families Party, which is not a party at all. Its emphasis is on an affiliated dark-money PAC that funds challenges against Democrats who are not considered liberal enough. It’s the left-wing version of the tea party: It works to knock out candidates who don’t pass an ideological litmus test or who negotiate compromises with members of the other party, as Abele has done in his efforts to improve Milwaukee’s relationship with the state’s majority Republican leadership.

Working Families has spewed hundreds of thousands of mostly anonymous dollars into Larson’s effort to defeat Abele. What they say about paybacks is true.

On its website, Working Families lists a slate of candidates and vows, “We’re going to work hard to elect these champions for working families into office.”

But only a small handful of those named candidates has received any cash, and one of the group’s recipients, who’s running for school board in Racine, isn’t even listed on the slate. Since January the group has leveled nearly all of its considerable resources against Abele, while all but ignoring everyone else — and completely overlooking right-wing Republicans who face challenges in races where the outcome would make siginicant differences for progressives.

It’s no wonder that insiders see Larson’s race as a grudge match by disgruntled county board members, whose pay dropped from $50,679 to $24,051.

Larson says he’ll restore the county board to its former status and undo what he calls other Abele “power grabs.” But as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pointed out in an editorial this morning, he simply doesn’t have the power to do that.

“It would require changing the minds of Republican legislators who control the Assembly and the Senate,” the Journal Sentinel opined. “Larson was in the Legislature when those changes were approved and he could not affect them. How would he change things as county executive?”

Next in Working Families’ sites is state Sen. Lena Taylor, the only Democrat in the Legislature to vote for Act 14. Working Families is said to be lining up support for state Rep. Mandela Barnes in his likely bid to unseat Taylor.

Faced with this sort of political fallout, counties and cities in Wisconsin will likely continue to operate separately, no matter how much combining them would streamline services or benefit taxpayers.

Information included in this story came from Stateline, a news service of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

 

 

 

Supreme Court election, contentious county race drive turnout in Milwaukee

Voter turnout for the Feb. 16 primary elections in Milwaukee was nearly double that of the last municipal primary in 2012. Hotly contested races for the state Supreme Court, Milwaukee County Executive, Milwaukee mayor and seven Milwaukee aldermanic districts helped spur participation.

Neil Albrecht, executive director of the city of Milwaukee Election Commission, said turnout this year was 21 percent, compared to 12 percent in 2012.

The turnout “really isn’t attributable to anything other than who’s on the ballot and how contentious the races are,” Albrecht said, noting the 2012 municipal primary had much lower-profile contests.

SUPREME COURT

At the top of the ballot was a three-way race for the state’s Supreme Court. The two highest vote getters will face off in a general election on April 5.

Winning one of the places on that ballot was Rebecca Bradley, a controversial Supreme Court justice who was appointed by Scott Walker months ago. She received 45 percent of the statewide vote.

Close behind, JoAnne Kloppenburg won the other spot on the April ballot. She took second place with 43 percent of the vote. In 2011, she came close to unseating right-wing Justice David Prosser.

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald came in third. Conventional wisdom is that Donald’s voters will give their support to Kloppenburg in April, which suggests a tough race ahead for Bradley.

Adding to her difficulty, Bradley is closely tied to Walker, whose approval rating stands at just 38 percent. On the other hand, she has strong Republican support and can expect massive contributions from Koch-backed groups as well as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, another right-wing group.

LARSON VICTORY

Another big draw on the Feb. 16 ballot was a spirited race for Milwaukee County Executive between incumbent Chris Abele and challenger Chris Larson, a state senator. Larson eked out a slim but impressive 700-vote victory in the primary, which also included long-shot candidates Joseph T. Klein, a member of the Wisconsin Pirate Party, and carpenter Steve Hogan.

Abele and Larson are both political progressives. Nonetheless, Larson ran a negative campaign that attacked Abele as a power-hungry oligarch indifferent to the middle class and the poor. Larson’s supportive PAC tried to tie Abele to Scott Walker, depicting the two political opposites as flip sides of the same coin in one campaign mailer.

Abele ran a positive campaign touting his success in increasing county services while restoring fiscal balance to the county after inheriting a massive structural debt from his predecessor, Walker.

VOTER ID STILL MOSTLY UNTESTED

The first-time implementation of the state’s new voter ID law went relatively smoothly in this primary, but the law has yet to face its most challenging test.

Conservatives were quick to seize on higher turnout in Milwaukee and throughout much of the state yesterday as proof the new voter ID law failed to stifle participation, as liberal groups had predicted. But Albrecht said the real test of the law’s impact will come with the elections in April and especially in November, when there will be presidential, senatorial and other high-profile races on the ballot.

Although voting went smoothly for the most part, Albrecht said “there was a fair amount of confusion and frustration for voters.”

In addition to dealing with their first election using the voter ID law, poll workers had to implement other changes that state GOP leaders have made to the electoral process. Since taking office in 2011, Walker has enacted 33 laws that impact the electoral process in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Legislative Council.

“I don’t think lawmakers or the pubic necessarily recognize that election workers only perform their duties four times a year at the most and (the laws) have become so complex that it really is a struggle for the workers and for the voters,” Albrecht said.

He added that voters in February primaries are usually the most dedicated and experienced voters, so they tend to be more knowledgeable and aware of voter requirements.

“The February primary (draws) the frequent voters, the people who come out and vote in probably every election,” Albrecht explained. “The real test of how the ID law affects voters will be this April and November. You can’t gauge the effect of photo ID by a primary.” 

Improving mental health services

Two encounters, two outcomes: On April 30, 2014, Dontre Hamilton, a man with paranoid schizophrenia who was asleep in a public park, was approached by a Milwaukee police officer. A scuffle ensued and the officer shot and killed Hamilton.

On Jan. 25, a man threatening to kill himself and any officer who came to his house surrendered without incident after hours of police negotiation.

Clearly, encounters between police and people in mental health crises can result in very different outcomes.

Since the death of Hamilton, actions to implement crisis intervention team training — although used, inconsistently, by Milwaukee area police departments since 2006 — have increased.

Yet, even though such training can be helpful for officers dealing with people in mental health crises, the police are not social service professionals. For that reason, law enforcement should not be the primary resource to help people in these situations.

Of course, law enforcement must always be involved when the public’s safety is endangered. 

As a member of the Wisconsin Assembly Mental Health Reform Committee, I’ve heard questions and comments from many citizens concerned about mental health services in Milwaukee. Among these concerns are reports of individuals with mental illness who inappropriately end up in the Milwaukee County Jail. Unfortunately, crisis resource centers that were established to partner with crisis intervention team officers as an alternative to jails have been underfunded and often are unavailable during night hours. 

To remedy that problem, the Milwaukee County Mental Health Board was created with the intent of having experts to recommend polices. They’ve suggested expanded hours.

Unfortunately, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele decided not to implement that recommendation.

People who must rely on county mental services continue to face challenges due to poor county standards of care and inadequate discharge planning, according to the mental health board’s quality subcommittee.

In order to address these and related issues, I held a Feb. 6 community listening session on the state of mental health in Milwaukee at the Washington Park Senior Center. The goal was to gather information from family members, community leaders, professionals, advocates and others with a vested interest in mental health care. I am taking their suggestions back to the Capitol and I’ll be using them next session to create a legislative package to improve mental health care in Milwaukee. 

More than a year has passed since the Milwaukee County Mental Health overhaul legislation (Act 203) was enacted. It is time to look at what is working, what needs improvement, and what else we can do to make improvements.

State Rep. Jonathan Brostoff represents Assembly District 19. He supports state Sen. Chris Larson for Milwaukee County Executive.

WiG welcomes opinions. Please email

Endorsement: Chris Abele’s successful record as Milwaukee County Executive easily merits another term

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’s agenda

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.

Wisconsin Gazette’s mission is to help build a strong, informed community; promote social equality and justice; support immigration and electoral reform; expose government secrets and call out political corruption; celebrate and support the arts; and foster appreciation and respect for the state’s extraordinary natural resources.

Chris vs. Chris: Meet the candidates

Chris Larson

State Sen. Chris Larson says he’s running against Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele to represent the middle class and workers, people he says Abele has neglected. He vows to be more accessible and responsive to the county board of supervisors and the public, accusing Abele of ignoring them and operating in secrecy. 

“I want to take the office and turn it back to the middle class and make it responsive to everyone in the county,” Larson says. “The county needs someone who’s responsive and in touch.”

But Larson is short on specifics about his own vision for the county and how he would handle differently many of the challenges Abele has faced.

Larson and other Abele critics frequently attack Abele on the grounds that his wealth makes it impossible for him to relate to ordinary Wisconsinites. Larson refers to Abele as an “oligarch” and depicts him as a spoiled child.

“He’s not used to having anybody question his authority,” Larson says. 

Larson says Abele’s dictatorial management style has made it difficult for the county to maintain quality workers. He especially faults Abele for what he calls “power grabs.”

Larson says Abele has changed his stance on several issues now that election time is approaching: “He vetoed the living wage publicly,” Larson says. “Now he’s out there saying it’s a good idea.”

After serving two and a half years as a county supervisor, Larson, then 29, became the youngest Wisconsin senator in 2010. He was quickly promoted to the position of senate minority leader, but stepped down after the 2014 elections in order to spend more time with his young family.

“For two and a half years, I worked very hard in recruiting candidates and raising money and traveling the state to beef up support for progressive ideals and (point out) the horrible things that (Gov. Scott) Walker was doing to our state,” Larson says.

In 2011, the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County named Larson the elected official of the year. One of the Legislature’s most committed environmentalists, Larson has been named an environmental champion by the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, which also named him to its honor roll. Planned Parenthood and People for the American Way have honored him.

One of the greatest areas of difference between the two candidates involves taxes. Larson acknowledges that Abele inherited a burdensome structural debt from Walker, but he says Abele unnecessarily put the county on an austerity diet that resulted in cutting programs that hurt the poor. As a supervisor, Larson sponsored a referendum to raise sales taxes to support county services.

“If you’re prioritizing paying off debt or pension obligations, and because of that you are cutting funds that go to homeless shelters or parks — or you’re refusing to negotiate with bus drivers to save a few pennies but it creates problems — it’s OK to hold on to some of the debt to get people services when they need it the most,” Larson says.

Go to voteforlarson.com for more information.

Chris Abele

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele says he’s running for reelection on his record. So far he’s declined to launch personal attacks against challenger Chris Larson, other than to say the senator has no executive experience beyond his unsuccessful time as senate minority leader. Abele says the rhetoric being thrown at  him is ridiculous.

During his five years in office, Abele has:

• Increased county services without raising taxes.

• Reduced the projected $86 million deficit that Scott Walker bequeathed him to $15 million. 

• Created a debt reserve of $50 million.

• Won a $10 million grant from the federal government for Milwaukee County Child Support Services to fund a program that helps fathers stabilize their financial situations and remain current with their child support.

• Taken over the Milwaukee County Department of Corrections from Sheriff David Clarke and shifted its focus from purely punitive to rehabilitative, helping inmates get degrees, job skills and resumes.

• Utilized wrap-around services from the county to provide mental health and other vital services to MPS students. The move qualifies MPS for new federal funding.

Given the almost relentless attempts to define him as a right-winger, many Milwaukeeans are surprised to learn that Abele, who led his family’s philanthropic Argosy Foundation before becoming the Milwaukee County executive, is a major contributor to groups such as Planned Parenthood, Fair Wisconsin, the ACLU and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. He personally funds scholarships for the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He gave $250,000 to the Milwaukee Area Technical College Promise program.

Abele also was a major donor to John Kerry, Barack Obama, Tammy Baldwin, Mary Burke and other prominent Democrats. 

On June 6, 2014, when a federal court ruled that Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, Abele personally paid to keep the Milwaukee County Courthouse open late and over the weekend to accommodate and celebrate the state’s first gay and lesbian marriages. He served as a witness for several couples.

Abele was sued for his efforts but the case was dismissed.

Abele’s foes say that he’s “Walker-lite” in terms of his alleged power grabs, lack of transparency and willingness to cut services rather than raise taxes or run up more debt.

The alternative newspaper Shepherd Express has helped to boost that perception with weekly stories lambasting the county executive’s every move.

Shepherd Express publisher Louis Fortis and Abele were involved in a bitter lawsuit over control of the Milwaukee International Film Festival. The case was ultimately dismissed, and Fortis says the suit has nothing to do with his coverage of Abele. He points out that he endorsed Abele in his first race.

Like Abele’s other critics, Fortis worries about Abele’s consolidation of power. 

One example often cited is what foes call his “take-over” of the county mental health board.

“I now have less direct authority than I did before,” Abele responds. “If I wanted control, I would have had this whole department report to me, but I said report to people who are mental health professionals.”

Abele says his reformation of mental health services has resulted in better care at a lower cost.

As for the charge that he refuses to cooperate with county supervisors, Abele points out that he vetoed just two of the more than 60 amendments they added to his recent budget, noting that 60 is dozens of amendments more than boards normally add.

Go to chrisabele.com for more information. 

Debate set

When: 6 p.m. Feb. 4

Where: Washington Park Senior Center, 4420 W. Vliet St., Milwaukee

The Democratic Party of Milwaukee County holds a debate in advance of the Spring Primary Election with state Sen. Chris Larson, County Executive Chris Abele and Joe Klein, all candidates for county executive. Milwaukee County Clerk Joseph J. Czarnezki will moderate. Space is limited. RSVP at www.milwaukeedems.org. 

For more, see WiG’s cover story.

 

No love lost in county exec race

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.

The frontrunners

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.

At half the national average, job growth in Wisconsin lagged again in 2015

Wisconsin ranks 37th in private-sector job growth over the past year, according to figures released today by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At the same time, figures from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages show that Wisconsin ranked dead last in the Midwest over the past four years. Wisconsin’s private-sector job growth rate during the most recent one-year period was 1.27 percent, barely half the national rate of 2.3 percent.

Democratic legislative leaders seized on those numbers to underscore the failure of the state’s Republican majority leaders. Early this month, Dems called for an extraordinary session of the Legislature to address the state’s job crisis, but state GOP officials ignored them.

Instead “the Republicans in power chose to force through bills that shred the fabric of Wisconsin’s nationally recognized model of good, clean government,” said state Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, in a statement he released at the time.

Other job-growth measures for 2015 have been no better than the recent ones. Between June 2014 and June 2015, Wisconsin added only about 31,000 new jobs — the second lowest in the last five years for the June-to-June time span.

Another report says by the end of 2015, there will have been a total of 11,000 mass layoff notices sent out to Wisconsin workers, nearly double the 6,500 mass layoff notices that the state averaged between 2012 and 2014.

Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha vowed in a statement released today that “legislative Democrats will continue to advocate for the people’s agenda.”
“The difference between Democrats and Republicans couldn’t be clearer,” Barca said. “Democrats have called for an extraordinary session focused on creating jobs and strengthening our middle class, and we have brought forward numerous bills and ideas to help accomplish those goals. … Legislative Republicans continue to pursue an agenda focused on helping special interests and their own self-interests.

GOP erases clean gov’t in rare Friday session

Following a brutal all-night debate on Fri., Nov. 6, the Legislature’s Republican majority succeeded in moving forward a pair of bills that will pour more dark money than ever into state elections and disembowel the Government Accountability Board, which oversaw state elections.

The bills are part of a sweeping package of new GOP laws that Democrats say will erase clean government reforms enacted a century ago and usher in a return to the political corruption that dominated U.S. government in the early 20th century. Despite a lack of urgency or public demand, the package of bills has been on a fast track for several weeks.

“At a time when our state has the fastest shrinking middle class in the nation; where the economic recovery still hasn’t reached our neighbors who need it most, and where our education has been severely underfunded at every level, the priority of Wisconsin leaders should be on tackling these problems head-on; Unfortunately, instead of fixing the job crisis in our state that is truly worthy of an extraordinary session, the Republicans in power chose to force through bills that shred the fabric of Wisconsin’s nationally recognized model of good, clean government,” said Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee.

The Assembly passed the two Republican-authored bills last month but the proposals have followed a tortuous path in the Senate. Twice over the last two weeks Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald canceled floor votes on the proposals because he lacked the votes to pass them. His caucus spent days in closed-door meetings before Fitzgerald brokered a deal and scheduled a rare Friday floor session.

The Senate ultimately convened around 7:30 p.m. Friday. The body finally voted on the campaign finance bill around midnight, passing it 17–15 with Republican Sen. Rob Cowles of Green Bay joining the chamber’s 14 Democrats in voting against the bill. Debate then began on the elections board bill; it went on for two-and-a-half hours before the body passed the measure 18–14, with all 18 Republicans voting in favor.

Democrats criticized Republicans for continuing their strategy of rushing through controversial and unpopular legislation when no one is watching. In June, the GOP inserted a measure to repeal the state’s open records law into a budget amendment without prior announcement, setting off a national backlash.

“You’re doing it on a Friday when you knew most media wouldn’t be around,” Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said during debate on the campaign finance bill. “It’s happening in the dark of night. Everybody looks half-tired and beat and we’re doing legislation that will ultimately be the death of clean, open, fair government in Wisconsin.”

State Sen. Mark Miller, D-16th Senate District, wrote a mock obituary for the death of the GAB:

“The Government Accountability Board (GAB), age 8, died on November 7, 2015, after a long battle with Republican lawmakers and special interest lobbyists,” Miller wrote. “The Government Accountability Board was born Feb. 2, 2007 to a proud group of legislators focused on a fair and ethical elections process. Wisconsinites were deserving of the impartial, nonpartisan oversight of their elections and will mourn the loss of the GAB.

“The GAB in was created upon the death of the Wisconsin Elections and Ethics Boards, ineffective partisan boards, desperately in need of reform. The Government Accountability Board is now survived by the Elections and Ethics Commissions, a new similarly ineffective, gridlocked, partisan board, reminiscent of the GAB’s predecessor.

“The Government Accountability Board reached national notoriety and accomplished a great deal in its lifetime. The GAB was at the helm of unprecedented recalls and navigated elections in a smooth and effective manner during the constantly changing laws governing it. It will be dearly missed by many.

“In lieu of flowers, please send donations to Wisconsin Club for Growth (a Koch-backed group).”

As marriage equality sweeps the Midwest, Republican domination holds back Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s neighbor Minnesota became the 12th state in the country to legalize same-sex unions, and Illinois is inching closer. In Iowa, marriage equality has been law since 2009.

But although Gov. Scott Walker has had out gay associates, including two who’ve been convicted of crimes committed while serving as part of his Milwaukee County Executive staff, he strongly opposes marriage equality. As a result, marriage equality is not on the legislative agenda in Wisconsin, and that situation is not expected to change in the near future.

“I just don’t think it’s very likely in this state anytime soon,” said Joe Heim, a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist, told Post-Crescent Media. “It’s pretty clear that public opinion in the United States is leaning toward gay marriage (but) I just don’t see Wisconsin joining that (group) anytime soon.”

Wisconsin’s constitution, unlike Minnesota’s, bans same-sex marriage.

In November 2006, nearly 60 percent of Wisconsin voters supported an amendment banning marriage equality. The effort to pass the amendment was spearheaded by Julaine Appling, director of the right-wing group Wisconsin Family Action.

Ironically, Appling is a never-married woman who has lived for decades with another never-married woman in a home the two own jointly in Watertown. Appling is currently challenging the state’s domestic partner registry in court, claiming it violates the amendment she shepherded to passage. Because Walker and Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen have refused to defend the registry law in courts, the group Fair Wisconsin has assumed the task – and the expense.

To enact marriage equality in Wisconsin, voters would have to pass an amendment undoing the 2006 amendment language before lawmakers could even consider a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. But even before that, the Legislature would have to pass the repeal amendment in two consecutive sessions.

There are more immediate obstacles to gay marriage than constitutional procedures, however. Republicans have complete control of all facets of state government in Wisconsin, including the state Supreme Court. By redrawing political boundaries following the 2010 Census to favor their party, they won a big majority in the Assembly despite garnering 200,000 fewer votes than Democrats.

In other words, Republicans will continue to rule the state Legislature at least until 2020. And the Republican Party’s 2012 national platform stated that “the union of one man and one woman must be upheld as the national standard, a goal to stand for, encourage, and promote through laws governing marriage.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, said there’s no way his party is shifting that stance.

“The Wisconsin Constitution states that marriage is between one man and one woman,” Vos said in a statement. “Two consecutive legislatures passed this resolution and the people of Wisconsin voted to amend the constitution to provide the definition of marriage in 2006.”

Heim thinks Wisconsin and Minnesota have historically similar progressive pasts, but that has changed.

“But they started going one direction, we started going another,” Heim said. “Politics here have become much more extreme left and right. The result of that is, the probability of us following Minnesota on this is pretty low.”

State Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, thinks momentum is changing on gay marriage.

“It’s obvious that this is a civil rights question of our time and I think even those Republicans who were pushing to define marriage in a very divisive way are questioning that now,” he said. “That push will come back to haunt them, as the state and the rest of the country moves forward on this topic.”

But Heim said that given Republicans’ redistricting advantage, they don’t have to pay attention to the public’s will on the issue.  And, Heim said, Republicans would be unlikely to cross their party on the issue because it would provoke Appling and other far-right Christians to run a primary opponent against them.

“It could generate opposition in your own party,” he said.