Thursday, July 10, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

After the Republicans took the legislature and governor’s office in the election of 2010 and in the wake of the US Census, they went on an orgy of gerrymandering that continues to have profound consequences for the Wisconsin electorate.

None  more so than Milwaukee Assembly District 10, long associated with Annette (Polly) Williams, the prideful representative for the central city area whose concerns for poor black children led her to be deemed “the mother of school choice” – until conservatives took over the movement, raised the income levels and lowered the fairness  she sought through means now proved misguided. 

The gerrymandering removed the historic makeup of the district, taking effect in the 2012 election after Williams had retired, which did not prevent her from joining the call of her successor, Elizabeth Coggs (defeated in her run for state senate by Nikiya Harris), echoed by state Sen. Lena Taylor,  for constituents to choose someone who “looked like them” – that is, African American. It was interpreted as a blatant racist appeal that brought other more famous black leaders (MICAH pastor Willie Brisco, labor leader Sheila Cochran, retired Rep. Tamara Grigsby and US Rep. Gwen Moore) out in anger over preferring the color of skin to the content of character.  “We should focus on who has the heartful understanding  and negotiating insight  in addressing our problems,” Brisco told me in an interview when in 2012 he supported the lone white candidate in the all-female field, tested representative and firm negotiator Sandy Pasch who through gerrymandering was losing her own district.

Young and proven effective he may be, but by August 12
 voters will have to decide if David Bowen's persuasive energy
 and liberal credentials are too strong or just right for District 10.
Vestiges of 2012 underlie a curious Aug. 12  battle in the redone District 10 (with a vital North Shore suburban voting bloc  added). It has become  a fight for the district’s progressive soul – a time to look beyond race and gender for the proven figure beholden to principle over patronage.

This is a contest among  a successful young progressive legislator, county supervisor  David Bowen (who is African American); a  longtime backstage Democratic operative and consigliera for County Executive Chris Abele,  Tia Torhorst (white and a Shorewood resident), and Democratic activist Bria Grant (also African American) who claims planning for Milwaukee’s future has been overlooked by the Democratic minority in Madison (a view that angers many of them). She is being pushed forward by Lena Taylor and shares the senator’s desires to expand school choice and belief that the legislature needs more black women, almost regardless. 

No candidate is promoting the blunt racial text of 2012 – not this time.  But there is a subliminal racial  hangover that all the candidates admit in interviews they sense -- and dislike.  It’s there in the whisper tactics, mainly in Shorewood and mainly against Bowen.

Given the extraordinary high turnout in Shorewood for Pasch and given Bowen’s history as a strong, young black male leader willing to shake the status quo with streetwise instincts and humanity, Shorewood residents are being challenged to understand why he not only has the support of Pasch but also leading progressive voices in the Democratic Party who normally stay out of choosing among Democrats in a primary.  (Most unusually, Bowen was the only man US Rep. Moore gave a favorable shout-out to June 4 when Emerge Wisconsin honored her as woman of the year and held a banquet to promote more female candidates).
“I don’t care about the county board or county politics,” commented Rep. Evan Goyke in a nearby central city district. “I’m supporting David and came out early for him before anyone else was in the race because I’ve never seen an elected official have such a genuine connection  to a younger generation and instinctively know how to move the ball forward. I wish I had such an inspirational appeal.”

Do these progressives also sense something of a hangover from 2012? Or do they simply realize that the guard is changing in American politics and Bowen is the voice for the near future?

Popular Sandy Pasch, the district's hard-working
 departing representative, has come out
 four-square behind Bowen as her replacement.
His choice would certainly thwart the ugly thinking behind gerrymandering in this area. The GOP thought they had successfully eliminated Pasch along with directly increasing Democrats’ control of central city Milwaukee and Shorewood, a suburb that the GOP had given up hope of ever winning. Gerrypolitics allowed them to strengthen the Republican hold on Sen. Alberta Darling’s territory, which Pasch’s popularity was threatening (in a recall contest in 2011, she came within 8% and led much of election night). It played into the idea that all Democrats were as interchangeable as all Republicans have lately become.

One Republican operative -- in blatantly racist off-the-record remarks referring to Shorewood residents  as “riffraff” and District 10 as “the ghetto” --   explained to me the strategy behind this gerrymandering, moving Pasch’s Assembly District 22 wholesale to Menomonee Falls to assure that Pasch could never again challenge Darling and then inserting Shorewood within District 10 (part of the senate constituent holdings of Taylor) conceding the suburb to the Democrats for the foreseeable future.

(Nationwide as well as in Wisconsin, demographics and devotion to the idea of unchangeable voters seem to be backfiring on the GerryGOP.)  

What they had not anticipated is that Pasch would simply move over to District 10 and win handily. She successfully bridged the different problems of the Milwaukee and Shorewood sections, proving the strongest champion for both.  They still don’t understand that younger voters are making their voting power felt in large numbers and that older voters are hardly as arthritic in attitudes as the GOP thinks or frankly as many traditional black Democrats think.

When this April Pasch made the surprising decision to retire, the search for a new voice went on the decision block for August 12 -- someone truly progressive and also a bridge based on proven ability and familiarity with the full range of problems. Not just Shorewood’s problems, though the suburb has an outsized hold on the results.

Shorewood is only about 14,000 members of the 50,000 member district, but in 2012 it reflected the best organized and decisive voting record – 35% of the total.  Shorewood has its own important and tightly orchestrated village leaders to handle the local municipal issues from sewage to public safety to TIFs while realizing its Madison delegate must work with like-minded colleagues on the larger ideological and financial concerns for Wisconsin as well as the district.  As Pasch herself emphasizes, “Shorewood’s fate relies on a strong Milwaukee,” so success for both parts of the district is interlocked.

Though at the county he represented a portion of District 10, Bowen knows he has to work to introduce himself to the entire community. “My original race for the county board was not this  intense,” he admitted in an interview,  “and I should have come out of the gate faster.  In my defense, I had to focus so much on fund-raising, which was not my past priority.” That was just proving he could legislate effectively for the community.  Now, said a Madison veteran in a personal email,   “He has to learn to do more doors and let people see up close how his abilities help all generations.”

Bowen  came out of Bradley Tech and then demonstrated  organizing skills at Urban Underground, which  builds a new generation of leaders through community service. This is a street savvy organization within the black community and its worth is unfamiliar to many voting residents of Shorewood.   In person Bowen is articulate on issues, prone to listen and weigh. The effectiveness of his energetic proposals and personality at the county board given his youth – or perhaps because of it -- took many of his colleagues by surprise, they told me.
But Bowen readily concedes that his has not been the most professional polished campaign so far and the most knowledgeable of all the insider ropes. “Tia has far more experience and more connections from working with Abele and his supporters,” he points out.  (A friend and well-known political consultant, Thad Nation, is serving as Torhorst’s campaign treasurer.)

The bulk of District 10 including  Rufus King High School faces problems that Shorewood residents can empathize with but don’t directly suffer – high levels of unemployment, daily concerns about safety and security, distressingly big numbers of male black incarceration for minor offenses, housing issues and so forth.   Candidate Grant worried in an interview that such differences could be crippling:  “Milwaukee has so many needs that Shorewood residents can’t connect the dots.”  Clearly Pasch, Bowen and others disagree.

Bria Grant is backed
 by Sen. Lena Taylor
But the original district was also a hotbed of the voucher school movement for poorer black children, and today that history is part of the hangover.  Residents are  confused after nearly  a quarter of a century that such schools do not perform better or even as well as public schools though they get public money.  The voucher surge has been on the whole less responsible even if more sales savvy in their operations and test results and have been prone to scam artists seeking a profit more than lasting academic gains.
While such failures distress early believers, they haven’t abandoned the concept even as they recognize how “school choice” talking points have become dominant -- despite contrary reliable evidence -- for the GOP and the right-wing American Federation for Children, which funds many accepting Democratic candidates such as Taylor.

Candidate Tia Torhorst emphasizes
 her Shorewood residence and political
 experience more than her connection to Abele.
It’s understandable that all the candidates are wary of the press coverage, which simplifies the issues when it pays attention. Torhorst handles it smoothly since she has a long record as a political player raising money for many causes (“I’m not ashamed of that fund-raising ability,” she told me). But she objects to how the media describes her as a tool of County Executive Chris Abele.  She served for two years as his county legislative director and then as his campaign director.

Her insistence is better understood by insiders than the public (one voter commented that “it is hard to make a great sound-bite out of the preference for compromise”). Established political hires point out that championing your boss’ views and style is different than the paths chosen on your own. Though, of course, they concede “in case of deep divisions with your boss’ policies, you can always resign.”

In this case, the realities won’t become clearer until official campaign finance reports come out in late July and August, addressing the rumors about how much money and/or  staffing help Abele has given her. That will be too late for most of the press.

Torhorst concedes that “running for public office was not on my bucket list” since she was best known as background political insider. Many friends say they were openly surprised when  she decided late to get into the race --  after Bowen announced. But she said it was out of   “concern that I brought the right talents for working with the other side.”  (Many progressives take that as code for expecting the  “other side” to remain in control of more than one Madison chamber while they expect to win back the Senate.)

Her literature points out that she is the only candidate living in the district and is the best spokesperson for public education, knowing how highly regarded public schools are in Shorewood and that MPS’ Rufus King is one of the nation’s highest rated high schools.

Such campaign statements  raise eyebrows, particularly “the only candidate with a child in a public school in the district.”  That has to be parsed carefully.  By “district” she means Shorewood, which doesn’t yet have the voucher schools and diverse options and confusions the city part of the district contends with. And the hint that the other candidates are “carpetbagging”?  Bowen represented part of the district on the Milwaukee board and is moving into a house in the community.  Grant says she does her main work in the district. Since Bowen is a bachelor he doesn’t have a child in any school. Grant has a child entering an MPS school in the fall.

Bowen has also been attacked by political gossipers  that his campaign treasurer is a closet voucher school advocate. It is actually his sister, who did attend a Howard Fuller convention event but has children going to an MPS school.

Bowen for his part has spoken publicly about his opposition to voucher schools and the nature of state funding of such schools along with displeasure at privateers seeking profits on the backs of children.  So education is that complicated issue that suffers from simple-sounding claims. If having a minor child in a public school became a voting requirement, there would be little turnout Aug. 12.

Torhorst dismisses assumptions that she is in the race mainly because of Abele’s displeasure at how successfully Bowen pushed his views on the county board as its new upstart member, including a higher minimum wage for companies contracting with the county. Given Abele’s considerable wealth, high profile supporting LBGT and gay marriage, and other causes associated with the left, it is a curious situation. Abele has said he supports a higher minimum wage but just disagreed – to the point of veto? -- with how Bowen did it. Since Bowen helped the county board push an advisory referendum on the November ballot for all the county to address a higher minimum and change the pitiful state law, both she and Abele back this without giving Bowen credit.

Others do – “The aim of good legislators is to look at what they can influence and take it to the edge,” said a Madison legislator who insisted that naming him would “drag me into a political situation I don’t know enough about.”  But he added, “You have to like the person who acts on principle without waiting for polls to tell them what the public thinks.”

Torhorst has credential to be considered her own person and your friendly Shorewood neighbor (campaign literature again), yet needs to find a way to embrace and separate herself from Abele.  “My husband jokes that the first thing I say at the doors is I’m not Chris Abele though I support many of his positions,” she told me.

Despite her insistence that Abele and Bowen weren’t the reasons she got into this race, she has stirred anger in painting herself as a “proven progressive”  in her county service, such as:  “I’m proud that when I was Legislative Director for Chris Abele we funded a job-training program that took 500 people who were making $8/hour and taught them new skills for jobs that pay more than $15/hour. This is a model we should expand across the 10th District and all of Wisconsin.”

That spurred a particularly virulent anti-Abele comment column but with accurate quotes from Cognitive  Dissidence  pointing out that she and  Abele didn’t propose the Ready to Work idea and actually tried to kill and veto it, mainly because two supervisors on the county board proposed and pushed it to success --  Bowen’s predecessor Eyon Biddle, who was outraged by her misstatements,  and Theodore Lipscomb who confirmed to me his deep sadness over her claim in this response:  "She is knowingly revising history and it bears no resemblance to the truth. The very thing she says that she supports and that we should replicate is what she worked hard against and what her boss energetically vetoed." 

County Executive Chris Abele's role in this race
 has become a hot topic of speculation.
Democrats who have worked with Abele and enjoyed his largesse insisted on remaining anonymous as they commented that he is a thin-skinned “my way or the highway” leader “who opposes ideas if he can’t take credit for them.” Yet they credit him with believing his vision for the county is the right one and that others should quietly heed it.  Now, with Dan Adams running with his financial support in District 19 (a future story) and Torhorst in 10, one elected official interviewed says Abele is “trying to stack the deck in Madison with his breed of compliant Democrats.” 

Bowen keeps his counsel on his opponents but other local officials believe Tia did more as an employee than serving as an echo chamber for Abele. 

There’s another issue for those attuned to county politics. Torhorst actually testified for Act 14 downsizing the county board, and she still thinks it was a nonpartisan move to better government, but her statements were unpleasant, exaggerated and extremely personal in attacking the county board as wasteful and inefficient. She criticized the turnover on the board that others regard as healthy new blood and the natural purpose of the election process. She timed her accusations of bad behavior to an Abele-led attack on a supervisor for corruption, though that failed when the supervisor was quickly acquitted on all charges by a jury. Later the Abele chosen department head who orchestrated the charges resigned.

Downsizing is yet another rift in the district. For Shorewood,  a suburb with its own strong  local leaders and local police, you might justify a part-time county board representative in normal circumstances. But for the Milwaukee portion of District 10, you could probably use three full time county supervisors to help with the issues.

The candidate who most fears press vilification is Grant, since she is accustomed to seeing  her education views twisted into political buzz words. She insists she is focused whatever the source on “quality education”  though of course “quality education” is also a buzz phrase, depending on who interprets quality.  She is also backed in this race by Taylor, who receives funding from the right-wing American Federation for Children, a conduit that may appear in Grant’s later GAB reports. 

“We’re focused on older education systems that have to be open to new ideas,” Grant says, and she is talking not just about school districts but also the voucher program funded with taxpayer money. “I simply want a wider approach” with a particular focus on early education funding. That early education emphasis puts her in direct opposition with such Republicans as Glenn Grothman who opposes all early education. But she is also unhappy with Democrats in the Assembly. “They don’t have a plan for moving Milwaukee forward,” she says.  Other Democrats in the Assembly call that naïve and misguided given how hard they work for Milwaukee and have been hitting their heads against the GOP brick wall.

There is a fourth Democrat in the race but Sara Johann is regarded as a pleasant but  perennial candidate who started out as a District 19 candidate and switched after making little inroad.

Whoever wins Aug. 12 – and you can vote in that race right now -- is assuredly the district’s next representative.

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 editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, then 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 its still operative 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

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