Sunday, March 23, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

I spoke during the week to several citizens I regard as knowledgeable and attuned to public affairs. Not a one knew there was a statewide spring election April 1.

It’s also amazing how little attention has been paid to this quiet contest in Milwaukee County  except  for one horrible sentence – a partisan GOP invasion from Madison appealing to the voters’ crassest instincts. Otherwise,  April 1 is just the sort of benign election the citizens say they want . . . and then ignore.

To make people aware of the least typical part of the ballot --  that one sentence and its siren call to their Silas Marner instincts --  Sheldon Lubar and other business allies of County Executive Chris Abele are spending more than $100,000 to pump up attention, ignoring the central purpose of this nonpartisan spring affair.  Many other notable local figures deride Lubar’s fund-raising plea as a sham but aren’t similarly spending money on TV and radio ads to encourage a campaign for a more responsible no vote.  “We believe the Madison GOP and their allies have wasted enough money to buy the voters,” one city elected official told me.

Despite the big money push, the sensible public should vote “no” on this sentence  -- but is that likely to happen? Most people simplistically believe that any cut in salary and benefits to public workers, even their own elected representatives, has to be a good thing. They don’t get it.  (Could the Greater Milwaukee Committee be wrong?, they ask.  Could MMAC’s hired guns be motivated by something less noble that what’s good for the people?) They haven’t grasped that voting “yes” will probably cost taxpayers far more in wasted money and lost services than any puny short-term pretense of savings.

Attention to this  ballot sentence has also pulled  April 1 away from its nonpartisan purpose. The spring election should remain built around dedicated local service, normal turnover in office and essential judicial and neighborhood oversight.

Granted, in the years when the spring elections drew high turnout, even the judicial races  could swim in ideological dog whistles. But this year the choices are fortunately  based on civic duty not Pavlovian howls. It’s what we say we want from elections – decent committed public servants without personality bickering, Neanderthal attitudes and partisan gridlock. Yet we only go to the polls in big numbers when there’s lots of that bickering and insulting sound-bites.  That’s why everyone expects the turnout this April 1 to be dismal, just as they regard the only salvation for the state in November to be presidential-year-like high turnout to restore Wisconsin to long-lost comity.

The countywide people races involve a couple of respectable judicial newcomers. There’s also a couple of suburban mayoral contests (Franklin and South Milwaukee) and something residents of city District 15 in the heart of Milwaukee don’t even know – April 1 is their primary to choose among the five names on the ballot and a couple of more write-in hopefuls to come down to the two runoff survivors to replace Willie Hines on the Common Council April 18.

My next article will expose in depth the horrors of that lousy  ballot sentence -- and I mean lousy, both in intention and grammatical construction; I doubt even Meryl Streep could read it aloud intelligently  (check it out yourself at the end of the article).  It’s time the public explored the underlying realities of Act 14 that are not on the ballot and that voters can only correct in November with a new Madison legislature and governor.

But for now let’s deal with the nicer stuff, rather than wallow in the shameful intrusion.

All county voters should be happy they have two mature nonpartisan candidates to pick from for Milwaukee Circuit Court Branch 32. Both have served as court commissioners, sort of mini-judges for small claims and family disputes. 

Laura Gramling Perez,
preferred candidate for judge
My personal nod goes to the most experienced (senior commissioner) and personable candidate, Laura Gramling Perez, and not just because my kids went to the same high school, Rufus King; her sister played soccer with my daughter; her brother is a good friend of one of my sons, and her parents, retired municipal judge Jim Gramling and lawyer Susan Gramling, are longtime acquaintances.  (Though that knowledge of the family commitment to public service sure helps.)

But, as strangers now meeting her can attest, she is also proving the most approachable and articulate candidate (both competitors keep crossing paths at public gatherings).  Laura Gramling Perez has also been endorsed by the broadest coalition of legal minds I respect.  The clincher is her casual act of conscience that too much of the media has been using as a negative. She signed a recall petition against Gov. Scott Walker for all the right reasons of concern for good government and more money for education.   A simple act of citizenship is being used against her.

Her opponent is also respected and quite likeable with a similar philosophical bent. I’ve met Cedric Cornwall several times.  In their forums and literature they share similar legal values and concern for an honest rounded voice for the community. No matter who becomes the new judge, no one has reason to throw a snit fit.

Unopposed Janet Protasiewicz destined
for county bench
The other new judge will fill a seat vacated by the early retirement of Charles Kahn – and I wrote about how the county dodged a partisan bullet in the race for Milwaukee County Circuit Court Branch 24 and why the new judge will be the unopposed Janet Protasiewicz.

Protasiewicz is actually a highly regarded middle of the road prosecutor who lives in Franklin. None of the other candidates solicited last November-December to face her this time by the Scott Walker money machine could find any reason to take her on. 

None of these contests will inspire high turnout, though involved citizenship should. Perhaps the emerging advertising blitz will fool more of the public to participate for the wrong reasons. But let’s not confuse slick marketing with intelligent government. Just start asking why the establishment business community is so eager to get the voters to ignore the civic purpose of April 1 and focus on one sentence -- and the one resolution that allows them greater speed in getting their hands on county land such as parks, on county contracts with private companies and on quicker dispersal of county-owned assets. 

Car dealers call it “looking under the hood.” If voters do, pundit applecarts will be overturned by the sound of a resounding “no.”

More next column, but for now just weigh the sentence no one knows and why voters should oppose its blatant attempt to unbalance representative democracy.

“Shall that portion of 2013 Wisconsin Act 14 which limits the compensation of members of the board of supervisors of Milwaukee County other than the chairperson of the board and chairperson of the finance committee to receipt of an annual salary of not more than the annual per capita income of this county, which in 2012 was $24,051, and which limits the compensation of the chairperson of the board to  not more than 150 percent of that amount and the chairperson of the finance committee to not more than 125 percent of that amount, subject to limitations and adjustments specified by law; and which prohibits supervisors from receiving any compensation or benefits not specifically authorized or required by law become effective in this county on April 18, 2016?”

For 10 years the author, Dominique Paul Noth, served as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press until its demise in 2013 and continues to freelance to many publications as well as write for his own websites. A professional journalist since the 1960s he has won multiple cultural and political journalism awards and for nearly two decades was film and drama critic before serving as senior editor at the Milwaukee Journal.

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