Thursday, March 31, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth

Jean Kies is working hardest to  take 
 Branch 45 from Walker appointee
There are only two combative Milwaukee circuit court contests April 5. One is an easy call and the other has split the progressive and grassroots community.

The easier call is Jean Kies, a private practice lawyer who has done strong work in general law and specifically in attacking sex trafficking. Now that her children are grown she is listening to friends who have long seen her personality and judgment fitting the bench.  Lawyer Lew Wasserman, who ran for the DA’s job in 2006, is not only handling her campaign but is married to her.  

Her opponent was appointed to Branch 45 by Gov. Scott Walker. Perhaps not surprisingly, Michelle Ackerman Havas is hugging close to GOP leaders in her campaign, but because she served more than a decade as assistant district attorney in Milwaukee, focusing on parental rights and termination at children’s court, she also has a following in the general legal community. Her appointment made her a sitting judge, which brings some fairly automatic endorsements.

But in Milwaukee right now, being appointed to the bench by Walker is a negative. Historically that has been true whichever party had the governor’s office.  Circuit court positions are curious things hereabouts.  Once the public elects you it is almost a lifelong tenure since you are seldom opposed or attacked unless you step headlong into controversy. The voters like to make the choice, and appointees from both parties are most vulnerable in their first run for office, as Havas is facing now.

She is also openly close to Rebecca Bradley, which right now is an even bigger negative that being associated with Walker.

That is why her open embrace of Republican leaders may be particularly harmful in Milwaukee. Particularly if voters remember she was appointed to the bench because Walker elevated the previous occupant to the appeals court – yup, Rebecca Bradley who within months he elevated again to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where she has already engaged in political maneuvering.  If you haven’t read her abusive and  rash writings published when she was in college or followed her evasive responses to the press while pretending to be objective, you can’t possible understand what a travesty it would be if she edged ahead April 5 of a respected opponent, JoAnne Kloppenburg.

Bradley did win her first test with voters in Milwaukee – but it took $167,000 from Club for Growth channels to clear the way with ads, mailers and the like.  Other appointees by this governor, even some respected lawyers, have faced hard roads in their first election, and so have appointees by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.  The public likes to decide these things for a six year term. Then it sort of lets the renewals slide by.

That’s why the other circuit court race has become a distressing decision.  For the first time in my memory the Milwaukee Area Labor Council has endorsed a Walker appointee to the bench – Paul Rifelj (the “j” I’m told is silent).  Apparently he gave a strong interview, suggesting he is not a Walker conservative or ideologically tainted as a judge.

He also served as a Wisconsin State Public Defender while working as a private defense attorney and was a Waukesha public defender before that, mostly involving children’s court according to resumes.  Simultaneously April 5, his wife, Kelly K. Rifelj, is running for a seat on the Wauwatosa Common Council.

So Paul Rifelj has taken pains to separate himself from Walker while Havas seems happy to embrace party support even into her campaign operations and funding.  That has thrown into hard question her objectivity. Circuit court judges meander from first assignment to many others so once you are a judge the impartiality or the damage you can spread are enormous.

Interestingly, giving outsiders a sense of the depth of issues involving children’s court, Kies did a lot of work there as private attorney but says she and Havas never met.

“He makes a great presentation,” people both in and out of the Rifelj camp tell me.  I recall hearing the same thing four years ago when his April 5 opponent for Branch 31, Hannah Dugan, was endorsed by the  labor council for another judgeship (which she lost to Lindsey Grady who also had strong Democratic  Party roots).

Hannah Dugan working to take
Branch 31 from Walker appointee.
And that is why Branch 31 seems to have split the community.  Dugan has earned a reputation as “a tough cookie,” as one of her admirers said, and a strong champion of union rights.  But in 28 years as lawyer – and past president of the Milwaukee Bar Association — she has taken on the sort of assignments that can make enemies and also prove competence, breadth and ethical integrity – in other words, public service that reaches way past the surface of endorsements.

She served for a few years as head of Catholic Charities, but she was also chosen as key part of the Milwaukee County Ethics Board and the City of Milwaukee Ethics Board, helping revise both organizations’ code of conduct. She chaired the Wisconsin Judicial Commission and conducted attorney discipline hearings as a Wisconsin Supreme Court referee. 

These are difficult areas of legal service, requiring steel as well as fairness. If there is a knock against her it is that she long has been eager for a judicial post.

In fact, there is some confusion about this candidacy for Branch 31.  Originally she announced as the lone candidate for Branch 44 after Daniel Konkol announced his retirement.  But then a friend, Gwen Connolly, stepped into the race, and Dugan switched to Branch 31, where another Daniel – Noonan that is — had decided to retire from judgment. 

She was alone in that race as well until Walker stepped in and appointed Rifelj who now has the advantage of running against Dugan as the incumbent, trusting many voters   won’t know that, like Havas, he was the governor’s pick and not the voters.

Several liberals and court observers have contacted me about this race, encouraging me to not decide based on Walker but on merits. Indeed, I have discovered nothing to fault Rifelj qualities as a judge, though I have less knowledge to work with since many of the cases he was involved in are closed to public inquiry. 

Part of that knowledge about him includes negatives --- he was recruited for Walker and then early endorsed by Rebecca Bradley.  Given what I know about her behavior and bias, that remains a strike against him.

As for Dugan, I have long known her and appreciate how her decision process would transfer to the bench.  So Kies obviously gets my nod, and Dugan has earned an edge over Rifelj.

WHERE do you live and WHO are you voting for April 5? 

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 original 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 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth

Two-thirds of  Milwaukee County live in the city of Milwaukee, including me. So while everyone has heard of the presidential primary April 5 and  there are interesting contests unfolding in many suburbs,  let’s focus here on the Milwaukee Common Council and then the suburban-inclusive Milwaukee County Board final races. (The statewide supreme court race and the contest for county exec have already been dealt with.)

Normally even just the Common Council would require a ton of coverage from a one-man band.  But fortunately it’s not quite that daunting. There are 14 out of 15 seats being “contested” (Ald. Jim Bohl of District 5 is, surprisingly to me,  unopposed) but  I can pass on several sure things for the incumbents, including Ashanti Hamilton (District 1); Milele Coggs who still capably represents District 6 and is outspoken on issues important to the African American community;  Michael Murphy of District 10 who is also Common Council president and its longest serving member; even newer Ald. Jose Perez of District 12, who must feel like he’s running against zombies from the district’s past life  since his opponent is one-term alderman (2000-2004) Angel Sanchez, and assuredly a well connected incumbent, Russell Stamper II of District 15.

Bob Bauman should shake off
District 4 flies.
Even Downtown alderman Bob Bauman of District 4 has not been damaged a bit by the anti-streetcar forces that have put their money on an interloper  (she doesn’t even live in the district and is known by several names), since Bauman’s concerns and efforts  reach way past what citizens tend to think of as “downtown.” He’s spread the   bustle  of new developments toward the 34th  St. border.

I could readily add to my “no worries list”  Ald. Nik Kovac,  because I live within his District 3, which includes the UWM campus where I taught, Lake Park where my family played, North Avenue area where I still see movies and many Oakland Ave. rooming houses where I thankfully never lived. It is arguably the whitest district in the city yet I hope one of the most welcoming to minorities. It has a reputation for leading the parade of Milwaukee liberals.

However true those generalities are, I am mighty familiar with the 3rd  where at the county board  a good friend, longtime supervisor Gerry Broderick, announced his retirement more than a year ago and will be replaced, without opposition on the April 5 ballot, by former state representative Sheldon Wasserman, actually an obstetrician who has worked with many families I know.

Ald. Nik Kovac
Kovac,  whom I haven’t always supported, has become  a powerhouse in  progressive motion on the Common Council, touted by many as a future mayor.  He is best known as  a bike trail and Packers enthusiast, but he’s actually ahead of the curve on how important the Common Council is to business development. Yet he hasn’t abandoned empathy for educational needs, for those less fortunate and with neighborhoods’ desire for individuality. He is argumentative but has earned his opinions.

Describing him, warts and all,  gives me a chance to emphasize the broader role in economic and community development that aldermen now engage in and should be held responsible for,  quite different than the old-fashioned  view that they were only good if your street wasn’t plowed, your trash wasn’t picked up or you wanted police to investigate a rash of burglaries.  The good ones do far more, and that has trapped some antiquated officials into not leaning forward as far as they could in offering legislation or reaching deeper than licensing taverns. Those are the traits I looked at in this story.

This also makes  Kovac an easy choice against Shannan Hayden who wound up being the sacrificial goat for the angry anti-streetcar and anti-Barrett financial forces that have beaten their heads bloody trying to get the public to pay attention to their ranting. Indeed the anti-streetcar folks are a pattern of largely empty attacks  in this election.  

Over at District 13, the only reason Chris Wiken is challenging Terry Witkowski is the anti-streetcar crusade, which is what Wiken admits led him to run while managing the Packing House restaurant near the airport. Apparently he is anti his own business, since Witkowski not only supports the streetcar but is working to extend it to the airport.

Looking good for re-election -- Mayor Tom Barrett
This is good place to insert my presumption that the incumbent mayor -- and main force in using  federal dollars to move the streetcar  forward --  Tom Barrett will easily sweep the floor with his opponent. Not that Barrett can’t be criticized for slowness on  the trigger of his beliefs – as one friend put it, you throw him a pitch down the middle and he tends to foul it off.

But Milwaukee is not the Wild West nor a baseball game. Barrett’s undeniably friendly and open manner is one of the few candor  realities left in politics and his caution (perhaps not my style nor those of many troubled by Milwaukee’s poverty rate)  reflects his measured approach to changing things step by step.

Look at the downtown landscape and some developments spreading into diverse communities. He is making progress on police community relations and sensible pressure on crime, so overall he has  served  the city well, especially given the lousy hands being dealt him by the Madison legislature.  How often does he attack problems like foreclosures and aid for economically distressed districts and have Madison politicians shoot him down?

I expect him to easily win the mayor’s race against violently conservative Ald. Bob Donovan of District 8, who has spent the debates denying his own words that paint him as either a racist or a racist dupe -- hardly a healthy leader for a community that is nearly 40% African American. And I have not even touched on his simplistic insecurities about the police and community violence, which is rather an insult to  the true conservative community. There are several politicians who claim to be conservative but really expect  a big mouth to camouflage a tiny brain.

But the most interesting aspect of Donovan on April 5 is that he is trying to retain his seat as alderman even as he runs for mayor.  Now I didn’t pay much attention to this race last February and was rightly called out on my shoddy  thinking that Rep. Josh Zepnick’s better name recognition and inroads in the growing Latino community would carry him through, despite a drunken driving arrest. What I’ve since learned is he didn’t work the trenches very hard and was easily beaten by someone whose energy and desires are completely focused on District 8, which extends south of Menomonee Valley to much of the near  south side.

Justin Bielinski -- far better choice
than Ald. Donovan
I knew little about Justin Bielinski, beyond his background as a teacher and energetic supporter of progressive issues. But  I applied myself to find out more.  I listened to his friends and foes and his campaign promises – and to the growing Latino community. Now I’m convinced he is the aldermanic fit for the community, which lags other near downtown districts  in economic advances.

It is rather astonishing that Donovan has held on so long with his tired vision of service and his role as a gadfly without a stinger. That  community should be screaming for an alderman who actually makes a difference, not just noise on Donovan’s favorite issue of crime.

I was also struck by how Bielinski’s platform of economic development and service fits both his   personality and the needs of District 8 to return to the 21st century.  

Chantia Lewis merits  win over Puentes.
The need to move forward should also be the key motivation in ousting Robert Puentes from District 9.  This could be a thriving northwest community of the city with more attention and cultivation than Puentes has been offering for too many years.  His challenger helped lead 9to5 but she is also a business operator, mother and veteran, Chantia Lewis, who came out of nowhere with a strong campaign to modernize and fix District 9.  Puentes is entrenched and probably better known, but change is in the air and Lewis is riding the breeze.

Time seems ripe for Chevy Johnson
Some other council races are totally open or problematical. One such is District 2, which Joe Davis abandoned to run for mayor, finishing third.  The choices left are an aide to Davis, Sheldon Morton, and a former aide to Barrett whose time for public office has arrived in my opinion, Cavalier (Chevy) Johnson. He made a good impression in previous races and reflects a devotion to youth-related services and workplace development. 

For near west side District 7, veteran Willie Wade abandoned this seat and is trying to pass the mantle along to a former Gwen Moore aide and departing county board member, Khalif Rainey. Rainey, given his background and lifelong public service interests,  would normally be a shoo-in, but he is being opposed by someone with name recognition --  the chair of the Milwaukee School Board, Michael Bonds, also a UWM professor and in past life  a senior fiscal review analyst for the city. Bonds has also promised to quit the MPS board if he wins.

Khalif Rainey seems more natural for District 7.
Still he is  a mystifying candidate since it sounds like he’s giving up on MPS, though he himself says there’s a lot more to be done.  He once promised to be a mediating presence on the board while several now on the board find him a difficult chairman. I would have to know more about his motives before I abandon Rainey. 

There are two other aldermanic races that merit close attention. One involves the newest alderman, Mark Borkowski, and why he squeaked by liberal state Sen. Tim Carpenter in last year’s special election. Borkowski has some name recognition as longtime supervisor in an overlapping county district but I also feel he sold himself to District 11 by wrapping himself in the fond memories of Joe Dudzik, the popular alderman who died while inebriated in a motorcycle accident.

Dudzik was quite a character. He was known to support family values and needy children.  He was a  member of AFSCME as manager for city workers when I visited his neighborhood to do a profile during his first run – a story for the union’s newsletter. I took a photo of him sitting on a swing in Euclid Park and he grabbed it for his campaign literature. Afterwards he told me that photo won him the election. “I looked like a young Alan Ladd,” he joked.

Within a few years I told him to stop embarrassing me with that story, since I found many of his attitudes and votes on the Common Council disturbing – and unexpected.  Dudzik remained  strong in supporting public unions, his AFSCME region boss reminded me,  even taking the floor whenever Donovan went on a diatribe about how dangerous crime was for the police. Dudzik would point out that more public road workers were dying or injured than police offices, a true statistic. 

Yet he also joined Donovan in a particularly broad attack on blacks after the youth misbehavior at State Fair and in more recent actions, and he resisted many modernizing ideas for a district that really hasn’t grown with its own demographic changes. I thought many of his views  close-minded.

So Dudzik was a mixed bag well liked in his neighborhood. It disturbed me how Borkowski wrapped himself in mourner weeds, using Dudzik’s family and friends to win election.

This is a newer era, and this time Borkowski is opposed by Tim Kenney, a longtime Jackson Park resident and Little League coach who has served some 17 years for the Department of Defense, what neighbors regard as a solid citizen.

Kenney has been endorsed by Carpenter, lives and breathes the district but has to overcome lack of name recognition and getting attention for the ideas more than the ideology he offers the community. He also fits more neatly than Borkowski into the forward-looking wing of the Common Council, which Borkowski keeps managing to offend.

Common Council seems ready
to listen to Meagan Holmon.
In the Bay View area former school board member Meagan Holmon is tackling incumbent Tony Zielinski, District 14. Zielinski served as county supervisor before switching in 2004 and has been a big spokesman about Fair Trade, public education and other hot-button liberal issues. But he has  something of a different reputation when you talk to people in Bay View about licensing and small business favoritism. 

I do know Holmon as personable, progressive and somewhat unfairly tarred by public education forces for steering a middle ground at MPS on respectable charters and MTEA policies. She fits the upwardly mobile “soccer mom” image of Bay View, though her platform is really built around her reputation to get things done – short on details, long on personality.  

Zielinksi’s is built around years of public statements though mixed reputation on the council itself.  I keep sensing a hidden persona behind the public one. I actually think she would be smarter on issues of city charter schools and gain more support for her proposals than Zielinski has. 

The county board also features compelling races, though not as many as you would think given publicity about how the office reduces to  part-time pay April 5 -- while still demanding full time commitment. Yet again, there is not as much motion as advertised.  In competitive races I expect Michael Mayo to retain his incumbency, Stephen Taylor in District 9, Jason Haas in District 14, John Weishan Jr. in District 16 and Tony Stakunas in District 17.  Sequanna Taylor is running unopposed (which means she’s in) for the District 2  seat Rainey has abandoned to run for Common Council.

She would be new to the board, but amazing how many incumbents are going unchallenged: Theodore Lipscomb Sr. of northern District 1 and  the current board chair; Marina Dimitrijevic of Bay View neighborhood District 4,   James (Luigi) Schmitt of western District 6, Supreme Moore Omokunde of District 10,  Peggy Romo West of District 12, Willie Johnson Jr. of District 13 and Eddie Cullen of District 15. 

Marcelia Nicholson, touted
as rising progressive star.
A move to citywide full time pay was attempted by the newest supervisor, Martin Weddle – and that was way too fast.  He came in third. Competing to replace Weddle in District 5 are two public school teachers – Michael Glabere, a veteran of such contests, and Marcelia Nicholson whose reputation as a progressive star of the future  surpasses his. So do her endorsements and examples of community leadership.

While I deeply regret the decision of Pat Jursik to retire from District 8 (she has been a smart legislator on the board), I simply don’t know enough about the two candidates to replace her in this far south terrain, Tony Bloom and David Sartori, though on resume I would lean to Sartori.

But I have strong opinions, and worries, involving District 11, a deep south district from Oklahoma Ave. to Ryan Rd. (between 27th and 76th). It has a conservative reputation, which helped Borkowski win, but I am not sure the residents are ready for one of the candidates if they know anything about him – Dan Sebrig who is in bankruptcy and running an auto repair shop. He is best publicized as a county board pest whose heyday as leader  for Citizens for Responsible Government disappeared as CRG flailed  around for issues after the recall scandal. 

Patricia Najera the intelligent choice.
If the district wants to go extremely right, Sebrig is their kind of inciter.  If they want to go for real community development, which she has done for years at UWM and on the city planning commission, the intelligent choice is obviously Patricia Najera.

Along similar lines, District 18 on the far northwest side of the county may have thought electing a nasty  conservative maverick was what they wanted, but how about now?  Deanna Alexander goes around making fun of Black  Lives Matter and addressing a presidential candidate as Ovary  Clinton.  But frankly she hasn’t done much for the economic development and social magnanimity of her district,  which I am familiar with. It is disjointed on planning and growth. It deserves far better – and has the chance since Martha Collins-De La Rosa is challenging. She  is executive director of Wisconsin Jobs Now and former leader of 9to5. A longtime resident of the district she is disturbed by the tone Alexander presents while ignoring key issues.

“The current county supervisor does not reflect or represent this district, or me, or my children or the next generation of children,” Collins-De La Rosa told the Shepherd Express. “She has made racially derogatory comments and statements. This next generation doesn’t have time for that kind of divisive, fear-mongering racism. This supervisor has said a lot of hurtful things and hateful things and that’s not right. It’s not acceptable at all.”

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 original 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 

Monday, March 14, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth

Rep. Gwen Moore (left) was on hand when Chris Larson with his family
announced he was running. In front is Moore aide Shirley Ellis.
Months ago, I told colleagues that the race for Milwaukee County executive would be one of nuances – and I frankly doubted the intelligence of the county voters to handle the intricacies of counterclaims and  separate facts from political maneuvers in this era of  ifs. 

I was wrong.  In the first primary warm-up in February, challenger Chris Larson amazed pundits by edging incumbent Chris Abele despite facing overwhelming superiority in dollars, campaign staffing  and name familiarity. That alone was astounding, particularly considering how many of Larson’s current supporters heavily favored Abele in a previous contest, believing him an ideal mix of social responsibility and wealth. That was the aftermath of Scott Walker as county executive. Could Milwaukeeans admit at the polls April 5 how wrong they had been the last time?

It seems so. The public has caught on to original error, or rather outsized expectations of what a billionaire’s son with expressed progressive leanings would actually do.  Abele, accustomed to corporate methodology in his ventures and upbringing and well aware of the respect, even obsequiousness, shown him by those seeking his enormous largesse, is  a big giver to LBGT causes (perhaps that explains the otherwise against-the-grain endorsement from  the Wisconsin Gazette), international women’s rights and classical performing arts as well as Democratic candidates and causes.

But recently he has also given the max to his Republican “friends” and run his own slate of candidates against Democrats in the state Assembly.

He first  campaigned promising a broad approach to what’s best for the county, not left or right, not beholden to any one party (sound familiar?). So he participated in union Act 10 protests in Madison while listening closely to the MMAC and such business giants as Sheldon Lubar. Even normally cautious county budget watchers believed he was sincere in his dualistic  approach, as retired supervisor and noted budget guru Richard Nyklewicz -- a self-described “conservative South Side guy” -- told me in 2012. Just don’t ask Nyklewicz for his sentiments today – they are laced with disappointment.

One heightened cause of distrust is Act 14, sold to the public as a money saver but requiring working with the GOP in Madison in a manner that scooted past cooperation into mutual fawning.  Act 14,  proposed and pushed by Abele,  has had minimal financial impact but gives him more ways to thwart the county’s  elected  board, which also sits well in Madison for political reasons.

Making  supervisors part time weakens  the Democrats’ voting clout. These spring races may be nonpartisan but most supervisors are either liberal or moderate left, and people who get used to voting in these districts also show up at the November polling places. 

Contrast Act 14 with the original hope of many, including a  new state senator named Chris Larson, that Abele would  simultaneously open the business drawer on his desk and the labor drawer, co-mingling the contents  – particularly on issues of  income parity and quality of life  for working families that the county’s $1.2 billion budget and the executive’s bully pulpit can directly influence. 

But Abele  never made the link between the two drawers and, until this election, had been closing up that labor drawer. In speeches he justified voting against the living wage though he agrees in principle. He claims the money would come from “the frail and elderly” – something of an exaggeration that begs the question of his priorities and willingness to develop new sources of funding.

When he now boasts he has a staff he trusts – far larger than Walker’s – it comes at the cost of dynamic sometime contrarian ideas. Insiders at the Courthouse say he expects his hires to tread cautiously in criticizing his concepts.  Remember the fates of a rotating door of hires at several agencies along with some powerhouse names once eager to work with him (including Sue Black, now in charge of Arizona’s state parks, and former head of transportation for the state  Frank Busalacchi). Both were let go in mysterious circumstances after being promised support. All those departures came after Abele won election in 2012 – an ominous reminder that what  Abele says now may not hold true after April 5.

Chris Abele (left) and Chris Larson during Gousha TV debate.
In the  sole scheduled TV debate conducted ably by Mike Gousha, Abele said his approach was to leave every door open. He  squirmed around or smiled when Gousha’s questions got too close or Larson’s rejoinders were too cutting.   What might have once been regarded as the cute naiveté of a nonpolitician was unsettling from a five year veteran of the office who had enforced  a modern version of noblesse oblige. 

Strangers watching the two Chrises  would have thought the calm,  prepared,  point by point analyzer  in the debate was already the county executive, not his challenger. Look at the tape and see if you don’t agree. Larson scored heavily with his  principal concern (plus examples) that Abele was shutting out the local democratic process in favor of his own opinions.  Larson’s view of Milwaukee’s future is certainly more trusting of the people and envisions a Wisconsin undergoing change.

Some of his ideas are an uphill push – for now. Larson’s concept of a separate 1% sales tax excluding food, rent and gas (but not excluding school supplies as Abele countered, forgetting how some supplies for the poor these days are paid for by their own public school teachers) requires the stubborn Madison legislature  to listen. But Larson’s ace in the hole is that many other counties, some once quite Republican,  are also suffering under Walker’s restrictions and eager to free up the sales tax for their own needs.  

It is also clear that if Larson can’t get legislative changes to restore lost authority to the voters, he is pledging not to use these hauls. He is committed to working with the county board and voters as they expected until they were deluded into thinking Act 14 would bring big money savings. 

Abele  is clearly consumed with debt relief – which always sounds great to a segment of the community.  But do Abele’s concern to unleash his rich man’s managerial background on county policies justify asking for so much freedom from public input? Does it even work?  Does  Abele’s track record sound more “my way or the highway” than what we should expect from public  servants?

His preoccupations come across to critics as working with the side he is most comfortable with – the heirs of the wealthy. He does seem overly concerned about  the Republican majority in Madison.

That could backfire even this year.  Given how angry many Republican communities are about restrictions imposed by Walker on how they can pay for simple things like school operations, the Senate is likely to change hands  in November and the Assembly is losing an inordinate number of Republicans who came in on that 2010 tidal wave.  

Cooperation with the other side  is great – Larson promises the same. But some of Abele’s pronounced motives in deal-making seem contradictory to his methods.  A  mental health agency run by professionals seemed like a good idea to all, and Abele pushed for it.  But  now its leaders seem afraid to move sensibly without a nod from Abele’s staff – especially Hector Colon, who got a 39% raise while other county workers watched in disbelief.

The board selection process to run the Milwaukee Area Technical College needed strong roots from Milwaukee  (which provides some 90% of its students) and expansion into the health professions where the jobs are growing, Abele vetoed the  top health expert from Milwaukee, Sandy Pasch,  in favor of the MMAC welder choice from outside the county. 

The supervisors go part-time starting April 5,  no longer have any say in the sale of  county land outside the zoned  parks,  have no voice in choosing or vetting department heads  and then saw Abele acquiesce where even Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett wouldn’t (and Barrett  once toyed with controlling Milwaukee public schools!). He accepted an executive role in that  runaway rail car designed  to pollute public education, the so-called Office of Educational Opportunity (OEO). 

Abele and his aides argue that he accepted the OEO position to protect Milwaukee Public Schools and will do nothing to injure them such as opening rival charters or selling vacant MPS buildings directly to such competitors. But if he hadn’t accepted, the Darling-Kooyenga blitz had no local authority to turn to.  His aides have been telling folks that if he hadn’t agreed the governor would have stepped in, but that’s nonsense. Walker didn’t even include the Darling proposal in his budget and there was never a chance of support  when Walker was running for president and even less chance now when he’s dodging criticism about  mucking too much in local affairs.

While Abele  was  playing checkers, GOP insider Alberta Darling was playing chess.  While he and his appointed representative, Demond Means, were assuring the voters they will do nothing to interfere with MPS, along comes Darling’s former chief of staff, Gary Bennett, hired by the UW system to oversee OEO with power to bypass local school boards and establish charter schools in both Madison and Milwaukee.

That means Bennett, whose educational background from long ago is three years teaching second graders in Las Vegas, can  run rings around two school districts led by women with Harvard doctorates in education.

The  central campaign issue has become “who do you trust. “ Abele fought for  sole authority over multiple un-zoned parks, the airport and the zoo,  though he claims he will make no move to privatize them. Larson wants to change the regulations and  in any case promises to involve the community before he acts. But seriously, should any one person have that much power over public land?  And what should we think of the guy who wanted that power when he proclaims innocence of the obvious consequences?

If the  battle of the Chrises is a  chess game, both sides fudged their  opening gambits last year. Larson brought out early his queen of endorsements, Rep. Gwen Moore, whom he may need more for April 5.  Abele was more ham-handed, spending a fortune so early in TV ads that there has been plenty of time to balance his rosy claims against the facts.  (His recent ads trying to link Larson to Walker and Wall Street have been laughable on their face, a further sign of desperation. How dare Larson do so well without Abele’s money?)

The  generic ads still showing tout Abele’s special “find work” help for black fathers, walking coeds gleeful there’s been no raise in transit fees, businesses thrilled  about a new arena and the promise of thousands of new jobs in downtown development.

But his Uplift MKE effort for families in 2014 was a direct steal and expansion of Ready to Work – a program by then Supervisor Eyon Biddle and current board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb that Abele originally vetoed.

Likewise,  his transit video totally ignores how bus drivers went on strike to halt a plan supported by Abele that increased part time workers and would slowly erode family living wages. 

And taking credit for the new arena and all the announced development around it  at $1 a parcel for county land was also a bit much and way too early.  It was, after all,  Herb Kohl who pledged $100 million from the team sale and talked hedge fund titans Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens to put up $150 million more to guarantee Milwaukee as the Bucks home with a new arena heavier on luxury boxes.

It was also Abele who broke up Walker’s plan to spread statewide the $250 million tax burden (half the cost of the new facility).  That led to fine tuning by Sen. Larson and others  to protect county taxpayers from  Abele’s concept that county  bad debtors would pay $80 million over 20 years. In the end, alas, most of that $250 million falls on Milwaukee, along with  a little noticed $5 million plus in land remediation costs not originally advertised.  Abele has even returned to the legislature to restore his funding version, though  even the county  comptroller says it will never work. 

It is too early to determine if Abele’s land gifts to the Bucks and their commercial development arm, the Herd, will pay off. It’s certainly wrong to suggest that all downtown businesses are happy with the deal. Restaurants and bars seem particularly troubled at artificial incentives being given potential competitors without proof of demand. Union workers are delighted by the vision of new jobs, except it’s just a vision aside from the new arena and parking lot itself, which involve short-term construction.

Civic leaders point out that homegrown entrepreneurship made Water Street, the Third Ward and some Riverwest areas thrive, while Abele is gambling on imports and  a hedge fund Herd notorious for making money out of distressed properties. 

The future of the Domes is now a campaign issue.
Some recent events are also putting the race in perspective –  notably the closing of the Domes.  Abele, based on his “look at all options” philosophy, early on floated the possibility of tearing them down. He puts the costs of renovation at $71 million. His own engineering consultants suggest that is inflated. They even told me that Larson’s estimate of $45 million may be inflated until further investigation.

Meanwhile some myths need to be clarified.  The Domes are hardly raining down indoor meteors. The chunk of concrete that caused all the fuss is about two and a half inches in diameter and may not even have fallen from the roof. It was tossed into a collection bucket at a facility that has long been shedding concrete  specks and is subjected to wind and rain damage. Yet one engineer reportedly said it  was so safe he would take his family inside picnicking.

Yet the Domes are closed out of an abundance of caution, political calculation (remember how Walker scooted away from any responsibility for an O’Donnell Park death in 2010) and the headline panic engendered.

Obviously there are liability issues for the county in the face of such publicity, but there also have been intensive regular engineering reports for two decades, warnings about the preventive maintenance needed yet often ignored throughout the county’s buildings and parks, even those less an historic architectural  landmark than the Domes. To put recent history in indisputable context (summer of 2015), the county board set aside $5 million from surplus funds for parks infrastructure and specified $500,000 for Domes repair. They had to restore the money to the budget after Abele vetoed it. That is why the county already has much of the corrective funding. 

Suprevisor Gerry Broderick blames neglect.
Engineers now believe that for under $800,00, their  netting and wrapping can lead to reopening all three Domes and give more time to evaluate the future.  Gerry Broderick, retiring chair of the county board’s parks committee, is convinced that failures of maintenance are a base cause.

While Abele seeks public support by announcing a committee to investigate all options, including razing the Domes and replacing them,  his group will have to play second fiddle. This is parks land and the authority rests with the board, where Broderick’s committee  has already offered  a task force committed to keep the Domes open and operating, as some 75% of the public wants in opinion polls.

After Abele floated $71 million as the cost of reconstruction and raised the idea of  the Domes being replaced with something like an amphitheater, he said during the  debate he was raising all options and would hold public hearings. But Abele did not attend that  public hearing hosted by the board which was attended by several hundred citizens. Nearly all who spoke favored preserving the Domes.

Imagine how they felt in the subsequent debate when Abele said the public has not been heard from about the Domes, implying that he believes those at the hearing and in media reports are not representative of citizen sentiment.

Larson was quick to pounce, pointing out there were no public hearings on the Arena deal or other Abele decisions about county land use.  Why now?

Larson’s implication was clear. This time there is an election. 

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 original 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 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth
“First you must understand the times,” said a lifelong conservative Republican whose intelligence I normally respect, seeking to explain why he and other responsible elders were supporting their party’s presidential front-runner despite even their own inclinations. Primary election results March 1 vindicate his vision based on who is voting on the Republican side. 

Sipping a vodka gimlet in the posh bar of a downtown Milwaukee hotel, he described “a fever over the land, a fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes. But it was torn by elements within.”

“Above all, there was fear: Fear of today, fear of tomorrow...fear of our neighbors...and fear of ourselves. Only when you understand that can you understand what Trump meant to us.

“Because he said to us: ‘Lift your heads. Be proud to be an American. There are devils among us: Liberals, Socialists, Muslims, Mexicans.  Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.’”

Aghast, I asked: Do Republicans really believe this?  The nation has actually moved forward in jobs, the economy, military sophistication and health care. Perhaps the methods and ideology don’t meet with your approval but you can’t deny the progress, nor the fact that our standing in the world has risen by every poll measure after the years of Bush.

“What about those of us who knew better?”  he conceded.  “We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we love our country.”

“What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. Trump himself will be discarded sooner or later.”

He certainly explained one mystifying aspect of Trump’s surge in the polls. Some of it is the sheer entertainment value of the insults, absolutes and generalities he lays down without details.  Some of it is how the media is fascinated and has been for decades, refusing to give more time to rounded detailed debates and even basic fact checking. Perhaps his own self-delusion about his larger than life image catches voters up to the point that they don’t see that basic contradiction in his slogan “Make America Great Again.”  If Trump,  who is so like them in his most uncensored moments, can become a billionaire, they think, perhaps we all can and perhaps that is the real American dream. 

Yet much of his method is painting a country that has lost hope, belief in the future and the ability to appreciate that democracy requires humbling ego rather than glorifying it.

Even during the Great Depression, suffering Americans didn’t abandon the Constitution.  There were waves of violence from the poor and abandoned, but even those movements did not grab the throat of a major political party. In circumstances far worse in more than 230 years, the country never abandoned itself to fear – and it is certainly hard to imagine a President Trump telling a nation that “the only thing to fear is fear itself.” Without fear, he’s nowhere.  Why has that changed? Who besides Trump should be held responsible? 

I contemplated all this recently watching a television parade of Oscar winning hits over the decades including “The Best Years of Our Lives” (about the readjustment to civilian realities of returning World War II veterans) and particularly “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) in which Spencer Tracy in one of a trio of judges deciding the innocence or guilt of German judges who had reached their maturity far before the advent of Hitler.

Interestingly, going out of its way to set a tone above politics and centered in moral issues, Tracy in this film describes himself as “a rock-ribbed Republican who thought FDR a great man.” 

Introducing Hitler into any modern social debate is usually a no-no, disqualifying the user because it seems so extreme an example. But what if the moral problem is comparable? What if a look 16 years after the war senses that comparisons are apt?

In fact, other students of movie lore will recognize that all the words in quotations above that I credited falsely to a conservative in a bar are directly lifted from Abby Mann’s screenplay for the “Judgment at Nuremberg.”  The only changes were in proper names and in modernizing (from
Communists, Jews and Gypsies) the sacrificial lambs of that original.

Groups that overall most embrace the American ideals, such as immigrants, are apparently the lambs being burned for the gods this year.

Love Obama or  hate him (I am an admirer but in intense disagreement with his policies on education and foreign trade deals), no one except GOP candidates for president can truly disagree that he has provided a stable uplifting approach to the presidency far removed from the schoolyard insults and negative tones of the GOP presidential candidates. The truth, or at least the way I look at the world and think most Americans do, was reflected in a Facebook post by an old friend and much admired colleague, Paul Hayes, the retired environmental reporter for The Milwaukee Journal:

Reflect on this: We've had more than seven years with Barack Obama as president and there has not been a whisper of scandal -- financial, political or personal. I have lived under FDR, HST, Ike, Kennedy, Lyndon, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, both Bushes, and Clinton. Of these only Ford and Carter come close and they served half as long. No wonder the venal Republicans hate him.

It’s natural for presidential candidates in both parties, of course, to pound away at the missed opportunity and bring out the ignored needs, putting the blame that should be spread around many levels of government on the president. Campaigning to replace him in effect means caricaturing him as the tyrant that Trump envisions and hoping the uneducated voter will believe a new president can solve it all.

Have you noticed how much of the Republican attack considers us a nation in decline? Trump is not alone among those calling for voters to abandon the principles of cooperation and mutual respect that have sustained the US for centuries. Nothing between now and November can make citizens forget the sheer negativity, the ugliness, hatred and glimpses of bigotry the Republicans have seared into our brains.

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 original 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