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 

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