Thursday, July 30, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

Lipscomb seems to have the votes
My educated guess is that, a few hours after I write this,  Theodore Lipscomb  will be elected new Milwaukee County board chair. On July 30 he seems to have the votes locked up against announced opponents and fellow supervisors Willie Johnson and Michael Mayo.

There are many reasons for my advance guesswork, but I go further.  This changing of the guard as Marina Dimitrijevic steps aside  is hardly a retreat in the face of money and GOP influence but the first salvo in winnable small ball,  girding for political and government battle to take Wisconsin district by district toward  progressive ideals in jobs, pay, equanimity and public education. 

That’s putting a lot of tea leaves and brave hopes  on a simple torch passing of internal leadership from one veteran supervisor to another in a technically nonpartisan situation.  Especially since it  will be largely interpreted in mainstream media  as a victory for the political gamesmanship of County Executive Chris Abele.

But it may actually herald a growing coalition against  him as well as conviction that,  in Milwaukee and around the state,  energy and ideas now must do more than ever against  bullying money – and brace yourself for some deep tactical surprises.

What prompted this speedy election on the board was that Dimitrijevic, while retaining her role as 4th District supervisor, announced that she was stepping down from the chair. This came after news she was being courted to be state chapter president of the Working Families Party.

Though often described as a minor “third party,” Working Families actually functions in many regions as a fusion party, pushing larger progressive principles but open to run its  own candidates or goad Democratic candidates and even the occasional Republican on social concerns.  Its growth has been as dynamic as the concerns:  higher minimum wage, public education, higher taxes on and less escape loopholes for the rich, jobs, health care, student debt crisis, universal paid leave,  smarter energy policies and environmental reform – you choose the order depending on locale and need. A popular agenda with teeth and a determination not to be distracted by personality sideshows.  

The party was founded in New York State in the late 1990s, and has now expanded to several other states, hoping to add a vibrant Wisconsin chapter at just the appropriate time, which seems right now.  It has sometimes run its own folks but often cross-pollinates.  It has not been without turmoil since like the civil rights movement it believes in pushing complacent citizenry into mass action. It seeks to apply pressure for candidates to honor their commitment to working families (often claimed but only sometimes followed through).  That determination sometimes creates conflicts with more cautious public figures.

Among the successes of its campaign methods are Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy and US  Sen. Chris Murphy, Oregon’s US  Sen. Jeff Merkley, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (who seems to now balk on some commitments),  New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio  and, in a famous case of bucking Democratic establishment politics,   feisty New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, who won in a landslide.

Jennifer Epps-Addison, already a familiar activist.
So their power in state elections should not be underestimated and in this state their prime movers include the new president of the Milwaukee teachers union, Kim Schroeder, and the ardent leader of Wisconsin Jobs Now, Jennifer Epps-Addison.

Dimitrijevic has not yet accepted the position as state leader, and that may affect the timing of how long she stays in her District 4 job. But it is clearly a sign that rather than turning to the most flamethrower progressive out there the Working Families has set its sights on a proven conciliator.

In earlier interviews, Dimitrijevic laughingly recalled that when she was first elected supervisor more than a decade ago as its youngest woman member ever, only she and Gerry Broderick could be categorized as leaning left.  Yet as chairman she has herded and often united a diverse crowd that defies the simplistic right and left labels into uniform advances on green technology, repaired finances, better health care, aging and transit initiatives – and frankly, a lot of developments including downtown construction that Abele likes to take credit for.  Yet Abele seems to have spread the myth of the board as interfering with what he calls progress and what many observers call his autocracy. 

Come April the state legislature will use Act 14 to cut the pay of county supervisors in half to $24,000 a year. The theory was that only rich conservatives could afford to take a full time job at part-time pay.  The opposite is proving true. So far vacancies on the board have been filled from the left and active middle, not the right. That may say something about who is willing to work hard for little money at public service.

It may also explain why Lipscomb is the obvious choice. He is regarded on the board as fierce for the people’s rights in county government, supportive of special hiring efforts for the inner city, aggressive on the board’s legislative power, stubborn on projects and prudent on finances, so he is likely to draw votes right and left, black and white.  

Lipscomb has troubled some progressives over his commitment to keeping the Estrabook Dam, which many believe is almost a family heirloom. Others see his support as listening to his district or opposing Abele’s love of vetoes. But his stand is opposed by major ecologists and groups like the Riverkeepers who frankly want to see the Dam blown out of the Milwaukee River. Today many supervisors who will vote for him say he should not expect their continued protection on this particular fetish. 

Dimitrijevic anticipated to take new role
Dimitrijevic may certainly be seeking a family supporting job but also an even more active role to change the political landscape.  She is used to a world where internal fortitude and diplomatic maneuvers are more respected than party labels. 

But unquestionably Abele and the state GOP had to know the roots of Democratic and progressive politics have been formed around the nonpartisan support achieved by many supervisors, and that was being attacked in offering them part time pay for a job that remains full time for the dedicated.  That is why Act 14 is clearly not about more efficient government but punishing resistance.

Dimitrijevic hasn’t said, but she may want to remove herself as  a lightning rod to reveal the depth of discomfort over Abele’s methods.  She knows the media liked to pretend it was personal. Now they‘ll know differently. 

Walker has helped make the time ripe for the Working Families change in Wisconsin, many of its leaders feel,  by exposing his  ineptitude and vanity to national scrutiny,  throwing Wisconsin to the wolves in his budget as he ogles the White House. 

In that atmosphere, Abele’s behavior moves from savvy to rancid. He  was actually elected county executive in 2011  to correct the tilted ship of Walker, with deep expectations he would listen to all sides of the issues.  But then out of impatience with democracy he adopted Walker methods, leading many in the courthouse, even  his own managers,  to refer to him as Walker-Lite.

Independently well-off because of inherited money, Abele was described to me  by a Republican business associate as “brimming with ideas I wouldn’t put a farthing behind.”  To be fair, some ideas may in desperation (fear of losing the Bucks)  be worth a gamble, though without more facts I sure wouldn’t bet on his county-harming methods of funding a new Arena – including giving away $8 million in land for a dollar a parcel because the pace of natural economic development  is not fast enough to keep the 1% engaged in Milwaukee growth.

But at least the worst ideas of Abele in that funding muddle were eliminated though we are still left with a $4 million a year hole for 20 years on the very county taxpayers he was supposed to protect. The county board hasn’t been left with much room to improve his meandering, nor has the Common Council, but both are looking hard.

Abele used his largesse to endear himself to the GOP and run rough over the Democratic Party establishment while advertising himself as a Democrat at heart because of his lavish support of LBGT causes, international feminism and Shakespearean arts. At least some Democrats are now skeptical not just of Abele but what claims  their party label permits.

His imperialistic manner offends several on the county board who might be in his ideological camp on key issues. They still want respect for their role -- and as long as he denies them that,  the board will become more combative. 

And in the last weeks Madison has come  under pressure from some well heeled conservatives to rein Abele in – they fear his loose cannon  as much as more liberal factions do. Many I'm told were connected to the Milwaukee Art Museum, which is working with the county board on an O'Donnell Park deal.

Once the state conservatives seemed willing to curtail  the legislative body of Milwaukee County in a manner they would not dare attempt in any of the other 71 counties (and they sure didn’t do for Walker). Claiming expediency but really hoping to nibble away at a Democratic stronghold, they gave much of the  power on land sales and regulatory oversight to Abele, not to the county board they regard as the area’s political base of active voters.

That seemed to work when he gave away Park East parcels for the Bucks. But there’s  a backfire in his understanding of complex federal regulations and in playing favorites in who gets first crack at the deals.  His authority isn’t sitting well with members of the business community who aren’t on the inside and know some regulations are needed to level the playing field.

As legislative experts dip inside the new Act 999, they sense Madison left the county board with more powers  than Abele  wanted, and opened the door to public hearings and  court actions that affect everything from Arena funding to arts funds to  Park East land sales. So there may be some provocative moves left for the county board if they pinpoint where Abele has been given too much control. 

“The public may wake up tomorrow to see their beloved airport privatized from under them without any say – that’s how extreme has been his takeover and so willing has been the state to lift the controls” noted Supervisor Broderick, who has long indicated he will retire in 2016.

Other observers have detected a pattern of capable outspoken experts unable to work with what one privately called “Abele’s Howard Hughes side.” The list is long – Sue Black, fired from running county parks and now heading Arizona’s park system under a Republican governor; several chiefs of staff and department heads; Frank Busalacchi, who still won’t discuss why he left a key county position after working with – and arguing with – Gov. Jim Doyle as head of the state department of transportation, and the interesting tale of  Terry Slaybaugh, the Mitchell airport director who within months scrambled back to his previous Dayton  job. All he originally told an interviewer was unhappiness at being “heavily managed by his bosses” at Milwaukee County.  A later orchestration by Abele’s office to blame the county board for his unhappiness has had few takers.

No wonder some conservatives are now asking for better controls on Abele, just as more progressives and moderates in Walkerland are open to new tactics and precise goals – and maybe even new party labels.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for