Wednesday, March 25, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

While angry platoons of Milwaukee residents testified for hours March 20 at Alverno College before the legislature’s joint finance committee, pleading not to let the new two-year state budget take Milwaukee to the cleaners, they were quietly being taken to the cleaners that same morning by their own elected county executive, Chris Abele.

When Sandy Pasch joined Spencer Coggs (left) and MPS
 board chair Michael Bonds in 212 to speak against
Glenn Grothman’s bill seeking more control for his region
 over the MATC board, little did she realize that her
own county exec, Chris Abele, would reach over time to
 do a Grothman and lock her out of a seat on the board.
This was a separate meeting of the new selection committee for the nine-member controlling board of the Milwaukee Area Technical College, which still draws more than 90% of its student population from Milwaukee County but now faces a Madison imposed hurdle -- 50% of the choosers are the executives of Washington County (though it has only 1% of MATC students) and Ozaukee County (8% of students). 

The intended balancing wheel on this mandated appointment committee was Milwaukee’s  county exec, Abele, and its chairman of the county board, Marina Dimitrijevic, who promptly nominated (and fully expected Abele to agree)  the most highly regarded and legislatively experienced  health expert in the state,  Sandy Pasch, also a nurse and former professor. 

Instead he went out of the way to go with the Oz-Wash choice --  a previously rejected manufacturer, Mary Isbister, whose Gen-Met company in Mequon  had been written up in the New York Times Sunday magazine as the poster child of ignorance about the “skills gap” in workforce training and whose past interest in MATC was locked to the needs and wage limitations of her metal fabrication company ahead of  the diverse needs, rounded humanistic education and creation of good working citizens demonstrated by MATC over a century.  Gen-Met hasn’t changed much in its attitudes since that 2012 story. They are currently seeking 2nd and 3rd shift welders in the $9-$18 range.

There are heavy political undertones in Abele’s decision which we’ll get into, but the runaway criticism is administrative blindness – turning his back on the constituency and ideals of public service of the county that elected him, while refusing to hear anyone who disagrees.  Or in my case, giving justifications that don’t stand up to journalistic investigation. 

Community leaders not directly connected with the MATC issue are troubled if not aghast.  Influential attorney and public defender Peter Goldberg commented: “In the best of all worlds, an appointment such as this should not be measured by partisanship, though his role as Milwaukee County Exec would seem to favor his filling his slots with county people, or why else give him those appointments?”

“Inferentially,” Goldberg added, “Abele is following in the steps of his predecessor, Scott Walker, hoping to move on to higher office by using his constituents quite literally as stepping stones.”

“It’s a tragic situation,” commented Candice Owley, a national vice president of AFT and a leading education voice in the nursing profession. “Not just for nurses but for health technologists of all kinds.  MATC has added thousands of success stories from all walks of life and corners of the community in these fields.  Future achievers are being denied the guidance and understanding Pasch could have brought to the board.”

Curiously, Abele’s penchant for secrecy and refusal to listen to the community at large was taken to task in a recent Journal Sentinel editorial concentrating on the enormous 39% wage increase he gave his health chief Hector Colon while other county workers are fighting for any bump.  But to this date the JS has ignored this MATC story though it is an  even more telling example of Abele’s stealth technique.  

If he had supported Pasch for the MATC board  and the Oz-Wash crew had still resisted, insiders on the law tell me,  there would have been a public fight. The final decision might have been dominated by GOP legislators but  many of them respect Pasch’s worth from six years in the Assembly despite being in opposite political camps. It certainly would not have been a story that crept under the media radar as it has now.

In an interview with me March 24, Abele defended at great length his social record at the county despite what he characterized as opposition from the county board and his support of programs like Family Care, where he is forceful in opposing any state cuts. He accused his opponents of the same secret dealings he has been accused of, asking why the media didn’t criticize the county board for the secrecy of its planning --  seeing little difference between their legislative process and his executive authority.

Well there are certainly no saints in government, but Abele’s defense of why he kicked Pasch to the curb (“I genuinely admire her,” he told me) fits a vindictive pattern that the media until recently has not noticed or at least not much written about.

He’s even been protected by a media assumption that it is the county board, pension protection and greedy county workers that are standing in the way of Abele’s goals. Turns out his  manner and methods have lots to do with the resistance.  Treat people like drek and don’t be surprised if you get drek back.

Though it already has sufficient manufacturing representatives,
 Abele helped put on the MATC board Mary Isbister,
a forceful proponent for her vision of vanity welding shops 
When he told me in a phone chat that Isbister was active in MATC affairs and had given equipment to the MATC Mequon campus’ $3 million welding program, experts there said not so, though she is an experienced advocate for her company view of employment. What Abele saw in her compared to what she is doesn’t match, but this also fits a pattern of defense beyond facts that other elected officials shared with me off the record.

“He’s a nonstop defender of everything he does  so when he says you agree with him, all you remember is you couldn’t get a word in edgewise,” one told me.  “He’s doesn’t know how to handle a no,” said another.

I told Abele the only possible justification I could see for his embrace of Isbister over the better qualified and more needed Pasch (there are plenty of manufacturers but no health experts on the MATC board though the School for Health Sciences is one of the major attractions for 47,000 students) was an excess of weird goodwill to surrounding right-wing counties or a desire to oppose the contentious political climate by embracing its contentious attitudes. 

None of that, he said. “I checked  Mary out and talked to others.  I will hold her accountable to build the strongest most robust workforce.“ 

Leaving Isbister’s sincerity aside, none of his defenses of her activities checked out with the Mequon campus, where he claimed Isbister had provided equipment and supported its programs. 

He sounded surprised when I informed him of legions of public evidence running counter to his evaluation of Isbister. 

That much quoted Sunday Times story revealed in 2012 that Eric and Mary Isbister (he CEO, she president) are proud that out of more than 1,000 applicants they only accepted  25 and then quickly reduced that to 15 to start as welders at $10 an hour, rising to $15 after mastering the company machines and “ethics.” Their selection  process happily eliminated anyone with experience or sympathy for a “union type job.”  Perhaps the same attitude is now in store for the MATC board.

The NY Times story on the myths around workforce development concludes with ridicule aimed directly at Gen-Met and its ilk, for concocting a skills gap and pretending that $10 an hour would solve it. Stung by the national ridicule, Mary Isbister took to forums to offer a defiant rebuttal. Now that she’s on the board, Abele despite his statement to me has no power to hold her accountable. 

Given the money he inherited and his willingness to wield it against opposition, given his readiness to go to Republicans in Madison to get his way when opposed by the county board, few outside that angry board are willing to speak openly about how they really feel – except the county unions who are immediately blasted as biased.

“If you want to get something done, why pick a fight with Abele?” I heard this from many elected leaders, community activists and Democratic and Republican powerhouses in interviews, few willing to be quoted by name but eager to share opinions.

“He’s sitting pretty,” one told me.  “Just enough support on the left for his social programs and just enough belief on the right for  his tax cuts.”

““What does wining a fight with Chris Abele get you?” asked a municipal leader. “Just a target on your back. He’s a leader who can’t handle no. If you want to get things done, don’t give him a reason to get in your way.”

His defenses of Isbister also failed  because he had just abandoned all of  Milwaukee County and its diversity to tilt the balance on the  MATC board toward the right-wing ideologues who have long been part of the state power base. Their attitudes toward depressed wages put  Wisconsin near the bottom of states in job creation, even before March 11’s “right to work for less” law as it has been branded. But pretending to create more low paying jobs rather than raising up wages – the false purpose behind RTW – is certainly not the vision the electorate chose Abele to represent, though it is the vision Isbister embodies.

This welding wage scale is not a casual debate to young people interested in a tech future. The Gen-Met procedure has an odor of cultural conservative judgment day.  No one knows how many of the applicants truly had the smarts or interests as 98% were rejected and hence no reasons are specified in public databases.  How many minorities?  How many women? How many were rejected for smoking weed at age 16 or having a child out of wedlock?

In the deeply troubled economy of the recent past, welders were often the first let go, so it is hard to attract them to a career that seems unreliable, unstable  or low paying as they mature. 

Yet today in even lagging Wisconsin,  the economy is stronger and those proficient at combining welding with new technologies can now quickly earn more than $36,000 a year as a median wage ($30 an hour in nearby West Bend). The profession has advanced in sophistication past burning two metal pieces together in the garage or on basement pipes. The aim of MATC education is to provide in effect a chauffeur’s license for welding processes, not an excuse for individual companies to expect the taxpayer to absorb specialized house training methods for specific low wages and customized  machinery.

Meanwhile the courses at MATC without partisanship have been benefiting both union and non-union companies alike, startups in new technology and businesses both big and small, concentrating on training not inbred extremist attitudes.

Taught by an American Federation of Teachers faculty, many with practical work experience, it features courses and divisions in such areas as liberal arts, culinary skills, health fields, green, water and solar technologies plus various manufacturing certifications. It retains a remarkable 95% of its graduates in Wisconsin. It emphasizes a collaborative integrated education model not just in work skills but the whole human being.  One result are thousands of alumni and an aggressive faculty determined to defend MATC’s methods.

Those who speak with or about their conversations with Abele say things like “He doesn’t know how to deal with middle class people.” 

As one department head in the courthouse put it (“off the record otherwise I’d be fired”), “In both social and political allegiances, his true colors are now  fully showing.”

In our interview, Abele blamed such views as criticism from those who dislike his policies and he argued he knew  they were good policies “so I no longer care about groups with name  tags.  I only talk to real people.”

Those unhappy with the MATC decision say it is far deeper than Pasch and more about Abele’s hidden motives and bull-rush manner. There were other candidates waiting in the halls who, as one observer said to me, “should even have been acceptable to the other counties who might balk because Pasch once ran against their own Darling (Sen. Alberta Darling).”

She was referring among others to Wauwatosa’s Joyce Harms of Veolia, the waste water treatment company that already works with MATC, MPS, WRTP and other major community worker development organizations.

“If we look to the future, MATC needs more than another ‘we need more welder types for our profit plantation,’” the angry observer said.

People at MATC have other fears.  It’s little noticed but the  RTW law eliminated some $35 million in annual training from union security deals where employers rely on workers to give up some of their pay to elevate their expertise. The legislature refused to consider more money for tech colleges, but someone is going to have to pick up the slack – tech colleges at taxpayer expense?  Also, the board to this point has resisted getting into the toxic charter school approval environment. Isbister as well as Abele have indicated support for the voucher charter privatization movement. 

Dimitrijevic and others are too respectful of civility to engage in calling Abele’s choice  deceit. When contacted for comment, all Dimitrijevic would say for the record:

“I was proud to nominate an exemplary, female leader, Sandy Pasch. She would have brought much-needed healthcare experience to the MATC Board, leadership critical to help train the next generation of healthcare professionals.”

But let’s add a political reality. If anyone were to hold a political grudge against Pasch, it would be Dimitrijevic since the influential  Pasch supported her winning opponent in last August’s District 19 primary, now Rep.  Jonathan Brostoff.  She didn’t hold a grudge.

But Abele also had a candidate in that race who lagged far behind. He then ran his own campaign manager against the Pasch backed candidate for her own seat as she retired, then supervisor and now Rep. David Bowen.  As a leader in the Assembly, Pasch also opposed his power grab against the county board. And she  opposed that sneaky legislative hiccup in 2012 about endangering the MATC board with a selection process that eliminated school district leaders. 

This was a bad law led by then state Sen. Glenn Grothman who has now been sent by his right-wing base to lead the Republican joker deck in the US House, which apparently needed more extremist card-handlers given the defeat or absence of such dealers in the ridiculous as Allen West and Michelle Bachman.

On the MATC bill in 2012, massive negotiations and protests ensued and resulted in a modified statute that seemed to keep Milwaukee secure with a protective half representation.  Few anticipated that Abele would abandon his own constituency.

The good news may be that if it took three years to nibble away at a core of Milwaukee’s strength, progressive defenders can chomp right back in future elections.  But for now the right-wing element is biting harder.

2011 – Obviously happier times when new County Executive
 Chris Abele supported Sandy Pasch in her campaign and
 used her to help make his bones with progressive Democrats.
  The friendship and the bones have eroded.
Carrying a grudge against Pasch is not only in Abele’s playhouse – it fits a long pattern of not playing well with others.  He has taken to surrounding himself with sycophants since he has become infamous for his inability to work with strong knowledgeable personalities who may disagree with him around the edges – as Pasch did in offering improvements to his county mental health bill.

The talented innovative Sue Black, now hired by a Republican governor to run Arizona’s parks, was fired by Abele without explanation.  Frank Busalacchi, who used to work well and combatively for years with Gov. Doyle as head of state DOT, left the county because he couldn’t work with Abele. There have been many such departures. There was hope for a while that Abele would open both drawers on his desk, liberal and conservative, and bring fresh air and balance to county issues.  No longer.

On Facebook he is two-faced or even three-faced given the nature of social media.  On his personal page he features photos with friends and the famous and references to his charitable works.  On  his two county exec pages he promotes his public appearances and takes credit for parks and skating rink activities as if there were no county board or municipal governments involved.

Using his GOP contacts in Madison who are happy to stick it to Milwaukee, he has successfully reduced the power of the county board in appointments and oversights, a treatment of the legislative arm that would not be dared in any other county.  It is no wonder that fellow politicians are skeptical of his methods and purpose.

Early support for LBGT causes, for international women’s rights and financial largesse from his inheritance for many Democratic candidates have kept him in some good graces. (Interestingly enough he early leaned on Pasch to introduce him to Democratic movers and shakers.)

But don’t ask past beneficiaries how they feel about his current policies and methods.  I did and they either punted or said harsh things off the record. After all,  they have to work with the guy. 

As one Democratic Party wag put it, “He may not be a good Democrat but his bankbook still is.” 

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 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 and movies at domsdomain.

Friday, March 13, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

Ann Walsh Bradley is the name on the ballot to
re-elect, but there is more to April 7 election.
As John Lewis spoke March 7 at the bridge in Selma where 50 years ago  he shed blood for voting rights . . . as President Obama that same day same place criticized feeble US  election turnout despite the history of citizens who risked death to secure the ballot rights  . . .  as media praised 2,000 Madison protesters for peacefully demanding legal change after  the death at police hands of another unarmed black youth. . . as thousands more Wisconsin citizens took to the streets March 10 for the Wisconsin Jobs Now call for action on economic and political dysfunction,  there were NO media reports that tied any of this to the natural next event in Wisconsin – how about an election where voters can start to focus such feelings into actual change?  

But there is such a statewide election April 7, one of the few ballot chances this year that speak to the land’s hottest fever for effective democratic action that elected officials will hear loud and clear. This election  if you dig deep directly combats the partisanship that has so severely gridlocked and eroded faith in our court system. So voters right and left could use this April 7 to rise up and say “Enough!” If they stop the court shenanigans emanating from political bigwigs, Madison will have to reconsider much that is on their playing table. The vote can restack the deck. 

But it takes work and subtleties not popular in the mass media. I  spoke to two dozen people yesterday who didn’t even know there was an election April 7. Sure enough the contests sound pretty mundane, judicial issues and many uncontested regional races.   The majority of voters probably won’t bother because of that  – election insiders predict less than 15% turnout.  Amazing. Despite recent history the citizens don’t seem to realize they are about to be outmaneuvered again by a handful of political insiders who do pay attention. 

But one question on the ballot requires voter consent to any change in the constitution. That’s something even some  liberal media doesn’t seem to realize when they say Scott Walker has pulled off another supreme court coup April 7. No he hasn’t.  That coup  vanishes if the voters speak out. They can confound expectations by opposing Joint Resolution 1.  

This resolution is disguised for all sides as a house cleaning technical change to the state constitution. It is actually an unsavory legislative attempt to overrule previous voter choice and abandon a proven 126-year-old method of choosing the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court by tenure.  It is clearly aimed at sidelining Wisconsin’s most respected justice and proven court administrator (the duty of the chief justice), Shirley Abrahamson,  four years before voters get a say about her at the polls.

Once voters realize the real goal and halt this resolution, they can then pivot in the same election and re-elect a proven justice, Ann Walsh Bradley. Though labeled by the GOP  as part of the liberal wing, they must mean the integrity wing. In her  20 years on the high court I have never seen her be about political camps as much as legal research and  reasoning. 

The political insiders are hoping we’re dumb enough to give their side a  twofer. They hope through the camouflage of house cleaning they can manipulate enough voters who think eliminating tradition in the state constitution is some sort of progress. And second, while the thinking vote is clearly in  Bradley’s corner, the GOP hopes that if they yell liberal loud enough they can find  enough rabid partisans to bounce her as well. You know who tends to turn out in such races when the majority voters aren't paying attention. There is a presumption at work here  that is universally insulting for a nonpartisan race -- that justice is simply another appendage of political power, not something that benefits from experience, judgment and balance. 

Her name isn't on the ballot but Chief Justice
Shirley Abrahamson is the real target.
State voters knew Abrahamson was chief justice when they roundly preferred her in 2009 for a 10 year term, so this maneuver in the middle of her term is a slap in the voters’ face.  Even then she was recognized as more than the leading progressive voice on the court.  In nearly 40 years on the highest state  court as both political camps seesawed in the legislature and the governor’s mansion, she never stooped to fit any party’s political cloth.  Her measured opinions protecting citizens and eloquent dissents continue to survive the bully tactics of whatever party briefly controls Madison.   That’s why good justices relish nonpartisanship.

But it’s partisan interference in campaigns and hostile ideological attitudes that  bring shame to our judicial system, almost forcing the federal courts to step in as much as they don’t want to.   One thing the feds have respected is Abrahamson, once considered for the US Supreme Court. She  has been a firm rudder of independence and higher ideals of how state courts should operate. Yet these novice GOPers would prefer a revolving door of changing chief justices of their choice to control what issues come through the court system.  She’s been quite effective despite all that sensationalism from the right in encouraging education programs and modernized justice operations. She has kept her wits and stability despite the arrows, attacks on her age and anti-intellectual arrogance thrown out by  back benchers pretending to belong in the front row. 

Knowing her reputation, the GOP has cunningly made sure her name is not on the ballot.  That hasn’t hidden she is the target. A broad swath of the media and respected legal authorities have  joined citizens around the state in calling  Joint Resolution 1 what it is --    the “vendetta resolution” or, more nakedly from veteran watchdog Bill Lueders, the “we hate Shirley amendment.” 

Geske outspoken about real target.
The only reason it’s there, Janine Geske said, “is because there is a dislike by some for our current chief justice, Shirley S. Abrahamson.”  Geske, the former state justice appointed by Gov. Thompson and now  highly regarded as professor of law and Restorative Justice programs at Marquette University, is a leading centrist on social issues recently elevated to Marquette’s board of trustees.  She recognizes Joint Resolution 1 as too partisan ugly to stand scrutiny. “For us to amend that constitution because some are unhappy with the style of a particular justice is a terrible mistake,” she said.

Abrahamson’s commitment to the law and independence grow in importance for a Wisconsin suffering the “bought side” of the state justices who received $8.3 million in campaign support over seven years from the Koch related groups that frequently have business with the court -- Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Wisconsin Club for Growth and other ancillary groups that have given their chosen candidates much more than twice the money their own campaigns raised.  We’re talking mainly in order of money Michael Gableman,  Annette Ziegler, David Prosser and Patricia Roggensack, who once was not dismissed as a  partisan go-along but now  seems to have changed from  right-of-middle to gung-ho protector of her most extreme flank. 

Obviously these justices expect something other than a handshake for all that opinionated big money reliant on sympathetic court opinion. Bradley has never been that way and she has sat on the high court for 20 years.  A high school teacher, then private lawyer, then circuit judge before 1995 election to the top court, she boasts bipartisan support, powerful backing from elected judges and law enforcement officials and a steady record highly preferred to Republican opponent James Daley, a Rock County circuit judge who has fumbled media interviews.

The fumbles came when he ducked a key issue of this campaign while Bradley hasn’t. She is an outspoken opponent of the “increasing role of partisan and special-interest groups in shaping and influencing the high court. “  Bradley, unlike the GOP partisans trying referenda trickery aimed at Abrahamson, believes that open votes on the ballot are the way to restore fairness and comity to the high court. 

Daley instead is playing a duplicitous game, pretending bipartisanship on the trail while catering on social media to the extreme right and taking the equivalent of $7,000 in staff and consulting from the state Republican Party. Bradley has called him out for so openly relying on one side while pretending he will be neutral on the bench. Meanwhile he has been caught in interviews admitting that large outside contributions could look corrupting yet refusing to criticize his conservative colleagues for doing just that.

Bradley has had some advertising fun of her own pushing back with the opposition’s own methods.  Usually it’s the right-wing that goes after candidates as soft on crime, but on the Internet she let them hang one of their own, using a rant by conservative talk radio’s  Mark Belling slamming  Daley for letting a vicious child abuser off lightly.  Her point is simple – if even the right-wing mouths don’t trust his  record, why should their voters?

However, Bradley is not campaigning on the main issue that brought her headlines in 2011.  This was the case when conservative darling Prosser put his hands around her neck, she has said, in an attempt to strangle her, which fits his reputation for temper. He said he was trying to restrain her passion as they argued a case.  

That resulted in probes of the “chokehold incident” but Prosser has the one-vote conservative majority on the court and his buddies proclaimed ignorance of what happened.  When the designated state agency on judicial conduct, the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, charged Prosser with violating judicial ethics of conduct in 2012, any further action by them was blocked by his ideological buddies.   

Bradley is putting partisan bias center stage April 7 – for solid judicial reasons. After all, it was a conservative US Supreme Court in 2009 that went after a West Virginia justice for not recusing himself when he took nearly $3 million in campaign money from a coal mine owner before ruling in the donor’s favor. After that clear expression of outrage from the highest court in the land, other states took steps to strengthen their recusal rules in cases of flagrantly large and result-pointed financial donations.

 Not Wisconsin right-wingers.  In 2010 in a resolution WMC helped write, the high court said size of financial contributions should not be the sole reason for recusal. The rationale was curious. What if to embarrass conservative justices, someone in the other camp – oh, say, like wealthy George Soros -- gave them a lot of money to force them to recuse? Frankly it’s doubtful that the left is as eager as the right to waste millions of dollars on a blocking move rather than an issue of conscience.  But the “what if” was a tacit admission that no one gives such enormous money without expecting special favors. Not surprisingly Bradley issued an outraged dissent.  

Today after months of trying to dodge any case involving hefty campaign money and possible instructions from those same rich backers whose largesse they enjoyed, the state high court has been forced to take up three John Doe cases with exactly that conundrum. Imagine their dilemma! They know their masters in Madison and in the Koch world are expecting them to halt all such John Does yet they also know the US Supremes, who have the bigger whip, are also watching.   To make it tougher, both the John Doe special prosecutor, a known Republican, and many major law professors have gone to court to say the conservative justices should recuse themselves.  

To know how ethics ought to work, the conservatives on the court and in the voting booth could just ask Bradley.  She has recused herself from the John Doe cases because of a narrow reason -- her son once practiced law with an attorney in the case. That is a sensitivity Wisconsin desperately needs to keep.

Contrast that with the GOP legislative majority bile. They are not waiting on the courts or frankly the voters. The GOP in March introduced a bill that would curb John Doe powers ahead of any court decision. And, with some of the same sponsors, a  companion bill to Joint Resolution 1 is moving through the legislature– a blatant example of ageism by attempting  to remove Abrahamson midterm from office because her age, 81,  is the same as Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s.  Apparently the GOP did not notice that their right-wing Supreme hero, Antonin Scalia, is 79 and the attempt to equate age with sharpness is not a winning argument with the older voters the conservatives have long counted on. 

Our system of checks and balances has been turned into a system of big checks and big imbalances. Wisconsin voters  shouldn’t need the lessons of Selma to understand how only consistent voting can reverse this mess.  

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 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 and movies at domsdomain.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth 

John Gurda receiving honors in 2013
The growing community anger over Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to delete conservation and architectural protection for Downer Woods -- a beloved nature haven and historical beacon of the UWM campus--   could quickly radiate statewide. 

Legislators in 71 counties outside Milwaukee are only now becoming aware of serpents within the thousand or more deletions and adjustments in Walker’s two year budget proposal. But their own residents are already there in blogs and bothersome questions to local editors and officials. They are worried about their own backyard, from absence of regulation on frac sand mining to manure dumped directly into nearby rivers.

That search for their own hidden  “Downer Woods” problem is engaging citizen researchers, the everyday citizens who more quickly uncovered the assault on Downer Woods.

Their exposure of how Walker was trying to delete laws on the books under Gov. Tommy Thompson stirred noted historian and influential writer John Gurda to comment even ahead of local media, local politicians and UWM’s denial of any involvement.  

"For well over a century, Downer Woods has survived threats from developers, overzealous university administrators and invasive species,” Gurda wrote me.  “It would be a tragedy if this remnant of our ecological past fell victim to a governor who's entirely willing to sacrifice long-term beauty for short-term gain. Scott Walker literally can't see the forest for the trees."

Minutes later on March 3, UWM spoke out to the state citizens.

Tom Luljak speaks for UWM
“UWM did not ask for the changes to state law that remove the legislative protection for the Downer Woods property and buildings,” said Tom Luljak, the vice chancellor of university relations and communications and also a popular moderator on WUWM radio, Milwaukee’s home for NPR. “The University has no plans to develop or sell the Downer property or buildings and is presuming that the current protections for Downer Woods would be maintained by the Public Authority that is being proposed for the UW System.” 

But Walker would appoint the majority of the “Public Authority” under his budget proposal. So the UWM hands are technically tied. Madison holds the purse strings that affect the fate of the “distinguished survivor” -- as Gurda calls the Downer Woods.

Downer Woods is an early crack in the mammoth Walker budget glacier creeping over the state. What precious resource or family heritage is under threat in your town?  In counties west, north and south of Milwaukee, questions are being raised that could turn “Where Is Your Downer Woods?” into an investigative mantra.

Already being discussed are  power grabs involving campus energy plants, friendly greenery suddenly opened up to unwanted retail, wetlands and grassy knolls your kids play on vanishing in shaky land deals as Walker freezes conservation purchases for 13 years, research parks closed, community zones removed from local control,  voucher and charter schools expanded with taxpayer money  regardless of what parents want or children need,  under-reported removal of fiscal oversight on private for-profit colleges.  

Few local citizens, however, have the time and resources of those well funded minions of ALEC and the Walker bureaucrats who concocted so many incursions that can’t be explained away as “drafting errors.”

Artist Terese Agnew
“Small towns and suburbs that relish their independence and thought that voting Republican would secure their status are hardly sacrosanct and in for a surprise,” noted Terese Agnew from her farm workshop in La Farge. The artist who lives in Vernon County was a UWM student before her quilt art landed internationally in prestigious museums and PBS showcase events. “Every community has to now examine the hidden foundation stones that will be removed.”

That is, if Walker’s 2015-17 political platform passes.  Agnew called these monumental policy changes “a belligerent maneuver that doesn't belong in a $68 billion two-year budget.”  

While budget awareness is growing town by town, region by region, local investigations have been sidetracked, some think deliberately, by the unexpected and now dominant right to work (for less) legislation.

“Labor knows how to organize, rally and make noise across the state on RTW even if we know we’ll lose the good fight,” said John Drew, not only a leading figure in the state UAW but a recent UW system regent. “But right next comes the budget items and you’re right,” he said in a phone interview. “The issues are too diffuse and spread around for organizational focus.”

John Drew
These RTW hearings and rallies may  exhaust community fervor and  outrage ahead of the  less centralized  outrage and fervor needed district by district to deal with the radical and questionable budget that lies dead ahead for the legislature.  It’s here that many of Walker’s plans can be derailed.  So, Marathon. So, Green Bay. So, Stevens Point.  Where is your Downer Woods?

Conservation experts are no longer alone in believing Walker is nibbling away piece by piece on the grace notes that made Wisconsin feel special – local control, concern about nature and education, once untouchable elements of neighborly life, the heart and soul of the Wisconsin Idea. So far mainly the conservation insiders and a few independent journalists such as James Rowen in his popular blog have been taking apart the impact step by step, and there is far more to uncover.

Both sides (though don’t expect the Republicans to openly challenge Walker’s machine) are hostile to his budget’s reliance on borrowed money and massive cuts to education, conservation growth and health care. Outspoken Democrats and cautious Republicans in Capitol hallways and lavatories see much of this budget as proof of Walker’s hubris, carelessness with details, focus not on Wisconsin but on his national ambition to be president. It’s a bit pie in the sky to think the  wiser heads in the legislature will yank him back from a cliff of his own making.

But that could also be his game, Drew and other state leaders suggest – Walker chops off 12 inches, the legislature gives back two inches and everyone pretends that’s a good result though maybe a foot should have been added in the first place. 

For now until local communities get their act together, Downer Woods is serving as the state’s  primary teaching moment. It has become more than petty taking of trees, grass and strolling pleasure from his staunchest lefty opponents.  

UWM represents some 28,000 students from across the state and a $1.5 billion impact on the state’s economy.  Hundreds of thousands more for decades have relished Downer Woods, which represents the sanity of escape into nature for all walks of life and politics.

Such enthusiasm permeates the state. Even sportsmen who confess aloud they once supported Walker are ticked off (and if a “righty” is ticked off, imagine what’s happening on the other side, writes Dan Durbin) for shelving citizen involvement in natural resources. 

Reliance on Downer Woods among students and families is well known to UWM. “Many people tell us about their fond memories of playing in Downer Woods when they were kids,” Luljak recalled. “One told me that many years ago he and his family even buried their pet dog there.  Today, our scientists conduct research in the Woods and it is a teaching laboratory for our students.  It is indeed a special place.“

“If you want to take away the shared imagination, the understanding of how we are linked as living creatures, as problem solvers, start by taking away green spaces," said an emeritus associate professor of film studies at UWM, Rob Danielson, in an email. Recalling that a third of student films he supervised were shot in Downer Woods, Danielson pointedly noted, “Green space provides a blank canvas for the creative mind. Grocery stores, offices and dormitory towers cannot do this.“

Like many others, Danielson perceives the Downer Woods deletion as a down payment to Walker’s real estate compadres.  It is an open secret that developers have long been salivating to get their hands on the pristine acreage. In Walker’s world, it seems, woodland silence and natural elements within the bustle of a city cannot be as potent as condos, offices  and retail.  

Luljak emphasizes that UWM has not yet been approached by a commercial developer. But, he concedes, if these changes are adopted, the barrier to direct orders from Madison has been removed.

If you examine the language in just this one tiny Walker’s proposal as Rowen did – and it is buried within massive changes to the University of Wisconsin system that take away $300 million in two years, some $40 million of that from UWM – it’s obvious he opened the door wide for future land grabbers. 

His 2015-2017 budget wording deliberately repudiates step by step laws passed in 1997 when GOP Tommy Thompson was governor and conservation and ecological education was a central concern of the state.

Section 32 specifically deletes any effort by the UWM chancellor “to prepare and implement a Downer Woods natural area management and restoration plan to ensure that . . . the conservation area is managed properly.”  Right now that encompasses 11.1 acres.

It also eliminates any legal provisions designating Downer Woods “as permanently reserved woodlands to set aside exclusively for the purposes of community enhancement and relaxation.” It then deletes that any portion”designated as park and woodland areas to be used by UWM as recreational and aesthetic corridors.” Those could affect 33 acres.

Last and for many most horrible given the architectural history, his law would delete provisions “specifying that the buildings of the former Downer college be preserved and may not be razed without prior approval.” 

His budget is clearing the woods for commerce.

“So short-sighted. I walked Downer Woods with joy for 17 years,” recalled Agnew, who has long been noted for the social insight within her art.  “I can’t imagine the possibility of its being gone. Did you know you can smell quince trees in the woods?  Quince trees!”

This treatment of the land primeval is not accidental. Walker’s budget also freezes land purchases for the next 13 years under the highly regarded Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program
Nor is this Walker’s first time at the nature destroying rodeo. Many recall such  land dealing  even when he was Milwaukee County Executive involving county grounds.  

Generations of families who tramped Downer Woods have long made allowances for population progress. They have fought the battle on town and gown fronts and architectural concerns, forcing UWM to balance the old “natural” building styles with the new “brutality” as some call the more modern designs.  The rolling landscapes, open spaces and walkways have been preserved to make an appealing campus.

Protecting Downer Woods even affected the 1977 building of the Klotsche Center, which is set way back and hardly visible along the Edgewood Avenue stretch of Downer Woods. Approval required special effort to maintain the woods while giving UWM some needed athletic focus. A  sense of community partnership is essential. The vast neighborhood around Downer Woods in Milwaukee and Shorewood includes not only professors and professionals (lawyers, physicians, accountants) but working class families, renters, students and highly educated and politically involved citizens.

Seeking to mesh nature with growth in the original Downer Woods borders of Edgewood and Hartford avenues north and south and Downer and Maryland avenues east and west actually helped UWM push its biggest new developments toward Kenwood Avenue and along the  west end of the campus, expand its dormitories into Riverwest,  encourage retail along North and Oakland avenues and create customers for new restaurants and retail shops running right toward Downtown. Some traffic pressure,  some disputes between partygoers and retirees remain lively,  but the balancing act has also had positive results.  

Walker has sought to deflect criticism of his reduced UW system budget by saying he’s only chopping 13% (ignoring last budget’s $66 million cut), that he is giving  UW more freedom to consolidate and maneuver – and that UW also asked him to eliminate redundancy in regulations. That became his administration’s defense when progressives went ballistic attacking his ill-timed deletion of campus sexual abuse reporting through deans of students, saying such statistical reports are still required by federal law. But by neither expanding nor maintaining how new students or parents learn the campus record of sexual misbehavior – well, that’s hardly just about redundancy. 

Much of the budget is like that – economic or bureaucratic explanations of changes while underneath there are rewards being given and controls removed.

In Downer Woods, no such defense is available. UWM didn’t ask for this.  Nor were the neighbors or the students eager for more Big Macs and Walgreens within a heartbeat of the great mansions of Lake Drive and the center of  aesthetic fever for  urban preservation.

Local officials – none of whom contacted want this – are girding for battle. But they are also waiting for other communities to find out: Where Is Your Downer Woods?

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 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 and movies at domsdomain.