Tuesday, July 22, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

Configured to hug the lake shore, District 19 is an influential combination of Bay View and Milwaukee’s East Side. There are people in Madison and other regions that may disagree with the common assessment by politicos that this is the most politically attuned and electorally engaged collection of residents in the state.  But it sure comes close – and  highly educated to boot with university types, business figures  and corporate connected lawyers among middle class families, students and retirees dotting its houses, apartments and condos north and south.

I have lived and worked within its current borders since I had to sneak past Mayor Henry Maier’s police forces to cover the 1967 “urban riot” for The Milwaukee Journal.  So it’s no surprise that I know most of the candidates, their backers and several generations of their relatives and supporters and have watched a lot of changing moods and evolving family and social links, which play a big part in this assembly election August 12, an important primary too many are overlooking.

The best known candidate in a strong Aug. 12 field
 for  Assembly District 19,  Marina Dimitrijevic  is surviving
 considerable media sniveling
and strong door to door tests of her resolve and professionalism.
Since the candidates know I write on local politics and culture, they have been asking for months when and what I was going to say, in between their multiple visits to my door as lawn signs sprouted around my neighborhood, mainly for the two most likely candidates out of four running. Those are dynamic Milwaukee county board chair Marina Dimitrijevic and popular Democratic activist  Jonathan Brostoff, on leave from directing State Sen. Chris Larson’s office. (Senate minority leader Larson, friendly to both, is staying publicly out of this one.)

There are two other candidates -- one of whom, Dan Adams, is clearly on a snipe attack against the two leaders. But from the start this was going to be a tough choice for me as a voter.

Let’s talk first about a candidate I hope will continue in politics though this is not her race. That’s Sara Geenen, a young mother, union lawyer and outspoken believer (as are Dimitrijevic and Brostoff) in collective bargaining, transparently funded public education, living wage and better transit. In an election sea of handsome multiple flyers (important in such local elections), though financially outgunned, her opening mailer was the most attractive.  

Her father is a big deal in the US Steelworkers. Her work at Previant law firm and her positions have generated such active Steelworkers support that the Milwaukee Area Labor Council could not reach a recommendation in the 19th to forward to the State AFL-CIO.  (On their own many unions have endorsed Dimitrijevic while other educators and groups support Brostoff – both are piling up notable approvals, though Dimitrijevic certainly leads the parade.)

Geenen is so interesting a candidate that many wish she lived in another district so they could keep her around or they wish she would go through extensive candidate polishing.  In forums against more experienced and articulate opponents, she proved not quite ready for this sort of prime time trial of fire.

Jonathan Brostoff for a long time was running
 neck and neck with Dimitrijevic in district
 respect of his progressive ability.
I remained torn for a long time between Dimitrijevic and Brostoff, as I suspect are many others in District 19. Avid supporters for these candidates argue – I think they are being partisanly outrageous -- that if the votes split between the two that would open the door for Adams.  I suspect there are more than enough self-identified progressives in this community to allow votes for both with one still succeeding. Adams also was shooting himself in the foot abandoning his original neighborly family appeal and using the money and campaign advice of County Executive Chris Abele to go hard and long against his established and accomplished opponents, which was robbing him of authenticity and opening the door to dismissal as an Abele heeled clone.  This is not a naïve district and these residents sniff out orchestration.

Ten years ago, I interviewed Marina (it’s easier for just about everyone to use her first name without assuming familiarity) when -- she now embarrassingly remembers – her hair was highlighted red and close-cropped. She was trying and succeeding in becoming the youngest woman elected to the county board, intensely expressing her views but heavily in the minority on the board with such new concerns as the environment, living wage and dedicated funding for public transit.  Her liberal status was further clouded as new county executive Scott Walker shed his “white knight to the rescue” image to reveal his extremist and rather ruthless right-wing motors.

It’s a testament to her political instincts that she kept her cool, raised intelligent ideas and persevered to become chair and respectful but unifying force on the county board, which has adopted her Green Print construction standards among other initiatives. Even under Walker and Abele she argued differing viewpoints that led to some effective compromises on policy and budgetary issues. A big part of this was standing by her beliefs but refusing to get down in the gutter as Abele openly opposed any resistance to his bidding and strived with GOP legislative support to limit her authority. 

I once described in print her approach as board chair toward Abele as offering an olive branch that came back as a stick in the eye. But she didn’t back away from her values and that alone has won appreciation even from some opponents, though the local press has been slow to understand her measured pragmatic approach. They much prefer to cover a public feud and couldn’t understand why they couldn’t stir a big one up from a politically ambitious woman.

Without serving in elected office, Brostoff has also accomplished political and community acumen and friends. My interest in him from the start was far more than about his going to school with my kids and the family being constantly recruited by his unofficial campaign manager, his mom.  I knew that in her role on the board, Marina had made enemies (how can you not?) and made deals that could be interpreted as retreat though she would argue there were good reasons. But perhaps there were genuine weaknesses I failed to see in her behavior that the campaign would reveal.  How people behave when running for office is often more revealing than resumes, so I wanted to watch, listen and wait (which proved rewarding to see how politically sensitive people confront realities over income -- as Marina did belatedly when she announced she could not hold two elected positions simultaneously and as Brostoff did early in officially taking a leave from Larson’s employment). 

Brostoff is an unusual candidate. Soft-spoken, persistent, usually thoughtful and devoted to public service, he has attracted a young cadre of voters though he is not much younger than Marina (she’s 31).  He worked tirelessly in 2012 to help elect to the legislature what were then the neglected underdogs – Nikiya Harris for senate and Mandela Barnes, Sandy Pasch and Daniel Riemer for the Assembly (Evan Goyke has stayed neutral) -- so it is hardly a surprise that  they publicly say they want him as their new colleague.  There is an amiability of style and mutual belief in approach and goals among them. 

Sara Geenen proved the novice
 candidate Milwaukee hopes
 to see more of in the future.
So while Marina is clearly in the lead with more money and official support, she is also seen as a strong personality who would require some adjustments in that legislative clubhouse. Brostoff has conducted some innovative fund-raisers and events, trying to challenge her dominant strength in Bay View (her home turf) with inroads on the East Side.

Abele lives in the district (Lake Drive mansion) and is supporting Adams with money and political connections, particularly among lawyers and business types connected with his campaign co-chair Sheldon Lubar, MMAC and the more influential operatives who can arrange lucrative get-togethers for Adams.  His political advisers are also experienced to the point of farcical underestimating these voters.  That produced chuckles when Adams started his slick campaign with a video attack on potholes, raising that obvious silly question:  Just which of his opponents supports potholes? Obviously none. What could he do in the Assembly pothole that they could not? Obviously nothing. 

Adams, a former assistant DA currently in private practice, told me early on that he hoped whatever I write would emphasize the broad nature of the Democratic Party since his chief arguments were that he will do better in Madison than the others because he knows how to “work with” the other side.  He also said he supported “quality schools” whatever their source of origination. 

Dan Adams is riding Chris Abele's money
 and methods in a district that doesn't
-- outside of Lake Drive --  seem to be buying the tactics.
This is not the district to trot out that argument as he soon learned from open snarls at candidate events even when he brought along his own squad of supporters. There is a line between cooperation and appeasement and that was the mood at one recent candidate forum inside a church. It was run fairly by Urban Milwaukee editor Bruce Murphy who in print judged Marina the winner and in the same column questioned her ambition and then had to backtrack.

Murphy asked all candidates to speak on the same issues and confessed afterward to being as amazed as I was how a near rumble erupted when Adams expressed his views on public education – that he “would move heaven and earth” to support   “quality schools” whatever the funding sources – private with taxpayer money (vouchers) or public run by private for-profit and non-profit entities.

It was not union teachers that pounced on this.   It was parents aware of new studies about how “quality” and “accountability” have become simplistic dirty words in education. They can be used to mask funding sources by profit seekers (who may soon skip to another source of revenue) or become a tax base camouflage for Walker’s rationale for taking money away from teachers.  Commented one angry grandmother afterward, who added she had not made up her mind on a candidate before the forum, “He sounds like he expects Walker to win and that we’d all better suck it up.”

At several events where he also openly criticized other candidates, hearing Adams’ spiel that the problem was Democrats who didn’t know how to negotiate effectively led to further rumbles in the crowd. So did his belief that he represented a more mature approach to the problems Milwaukee faces from a Madison legislature that clearly disrespects Milwaukee’s importance in the state. That dismay was brought out in the open in talks after the events -- the concerns about when cooperation becomes appeasement.  

Another once uncommitted citizen, who quickly committed away from Adams, told friends Adams was “using the Putin analogy” – that is, be nice to the dictators and maybe you can change them.

I doubt whether that was what Adams intended or that he wanted to sound like an Abele stooge, but other candidates noted that it directly contradicts what they all are hearing at the doors.  “This district wants legislators who are fighters,” said Brostoff.  “Be personable yes, but speak up for what you won’t give up,” Geenen told me at a Brady St. meeting near where she lives. “People expect us to stand up and dig in on our core beliefs,” said Dimitrijevic.

Abele, claiming it is nothing personal against
 the county board chair, is making no secret in ads
 and mailers how strongly he prefers Adams.
In a conversation, Abele assured me he was supporting Adams because he liked the cut of his jib and not because of any animosity toward Dimitrijevic or the county board. Any belief in his argument evaporated when he supported his campaign director, Tia Torhorst, to run in next door District 10 against another supervisor who thwarted him by winning approval of a livable wage for county contractors, David Bowen. 

After saying he was above politics even in his op-ed pieces, Abele was indeed playing politics -- even with his behavior with the new mental health board -- to deepen his control by removing elements of local representation that usually it is Republicans eager to see eliminated. (Supporters of county supervisors have proven the bulwark of Democratic Party grassroots voting power.)

Abele lives in the one district where his efforts to succeed by accommodating the GOP majority is deeply disliked and that is now working against Adams. From what I heard firsthand at these forums and public meetings, District 19 voters are in the mood to battle for principles and they knew even before the media reported it that Abele was using Republican support to cripple his political enemies in his own party.

Fair or not, many residents link Adams to that quisling image. (The dictionary defines quisling as “person who helps an enemy that has taken control of his or her country” – in this case state.)

While Adams quickly soured many in the district, I still felt it important to wait and measure behavior for this secure Democratic seat (occasioned by the decision of shoo-in Jon Richards to run for state attorney general, facing two opponents in the same Aug. 12 primary).  Temperament and how you choose to attack would say a lot. Politics, in that old saw, “ain’t bean bags” and the daily pressure of the spotlight could generate unseemly games.

It did, and that’s mainly why I am giving the edge to Dimitrijevic.

Sure, in private she may have said some things that sound petty. (Her backers were outraged that Sandy Pasch, an assistant party leader in the assembly, came out early and strongly for Brostoff though Pasch is a free agent – she is retiring from the Assembly and he was a strong worker for her election.) But Dimitrijevic told me in an interview July 22, “Actually, even if some supporters did, I have not said anything negative about Sandy whom I respect, though I was surprised and disappointed by her choice.” So the public Dimitrijevic knows how to stay cool. She has been attacked by Adams, blogs and the printed media but proved too experienced to display public exasperation and react to the shells from the peanut gallery. Cleverly her style in not running against anyone but FOR her values.

But Brostoff did take the bait --  or at least take to press  releases in an eagerness to make inroads.  Dan Bice, usually an interesting muckraker for JS, wrote his  most ridiculous column attacking how hard Dimitrijevic works by measuring key card parking entries at the courthouse to say she was treating her job cavalierly, ignoring how frequently Dimitrijevic commutes with husband, or takes the bus, or works at home between running meetings and is campaigning double-duty for another office. He was also tipped off to the idea by a frequent Dimitrijevic critic.

Democrats including some dedicated Brostoff supporters rallied to her defense since they know she is a tireless worker with intense work ethic even when they disagree with her.  They sheepishly blamed bad campaign advice from the Brostoff team for timing his press release to that Bice column – subtly contrasting his sense of commitment to hers.

But this was not the only time. In trying to cut into her progressive image, Brostoff has joined the chorus suggesting her vote to keep parks patrols under Sheriff David Clarke’s duties reflected an animus toward Abele and a preference to protect Clarke the dunce. That was quite  a stretch even in campaign heat. The record is clear that she and other supervisors who rejected the idea of turning over parks patrols from sheriff’s deputies to the city were defending the turf out of belief that a better sheriff was on the horizon.

Christopher Moews
And one is – Christopher Moews who stands a good chance of ousting Clarke Aug. 12 and restoring credibility and parks responsibility to the department. Ironically, Moews is supported by Dimitrijevic, Abele and pretty much every respected figure in Wisconsin – and he wants to patrol the parks.

Misfiring with  innuendo during a campaign has an aftermath, particularly in attuned District 19. So while I still think Brostoff would be a good fit for the district, he made sure that Dimitrijevic is going to get my vote based on her temperament in times of difficulty,  her experience and progressive capability.

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 famous entertainment 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 its still operative archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  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 urbanmilwaukee.com

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