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.

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