Thursday, February 15, 2018


By Dominique Paul Noth

Shortly before he left early from the Domes  hearing on parking fees,
Chris Abele dodged a question from AFSCME retired leader Patty Yunk,
photo from her Facebook page.
When Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele backed off Tuesday (Feb. 13) from putting parking meters in the parks to raise revenue, he said he was just bowing to the public’s resistance.

He didn’t say he was bowing to the hundreds who spoke against such fees at a Domes public hearing forced upon him by the County Board.  If the board  hadn’t insisted, meters would have gone through without public input.

Nor did he cite the complaints and resolutions peppering him from those supervisors who each represent about 55,000 persons.

Nor did he mention how the day before at a meeting of the ICC (Intergovernmental Cooperation Council)  he was hammered by the influential leaders of the 19 municipalities who all have parks in their backyards.

It remains an open question which factors really led Abele to abandon an idea no one liked.  He has often stuck to his guns regardless of public opinion. And here comes another bill he’s pushing in Madison mainly designed to increase his powers and stick it to the county board. Under that bill (Senate 777 and Assembly 923) he could do everything he just said he wouldn’t.

As writer Virginia Small reported, when Abele was asked why he wanted more power, he told Channel 58 that the bill would let executives run government “more efficiently,” to which Supervisor John Weishan responded: “I’m sure that Mussolini and Hitler said the same thing.”

Many in the public are fooled into thinking this is a personality dispute – supervisors led by board chair Theo Lipscomb to oppose imperious Abele rather than serve their own constituents.

It’s a simple-minded view that  the media --  newspaper and many radio and  TV stations  (except for a few good interviews) --  have also adopted. It’s always easier to sell news or minimize the controversy if you make it about people not liking each other rather than real issues.  

Supervisor Jason Haas
“It’s all the newspaper,” said Supervisor Jason Haas, first elected in 2011. “There is no meat to those bones. Whoever is in the board chair will have conflicts with this county exec (as Marina Dimitrijevic did before Theodore Lipscomb).  It’s a policy dispute. We (the board) demanded a plan for parking revenue  and insisted on a public hearing.” That, he believes,  was not mentioned in stories about the Abele withdrawal.

Across town, Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman – new to the board but a veteran state legislator - added,  “Oh, there is always  a little personal animus.  The policies have started to turn them on each other. But the real problem is the bill. It goes too far.”

It’s an Abele power play and  violates “my  ideal of both sides working together,” Wasserman said. 

Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman
Working together is clearly mandated  in the largest city in Wisconsin with a $1.5 billion budget (now reduced in negotiations) that requires county board input under federal and state law.  This 18-headed Hydra with some  districts of frequent turnover has actually pulled together on key issues over the last decade – and likely will again after  the April election.  Many supervisors  are resentful at the media treating this as a personality disorder on their end.

Abele is an odd duck on many fronts.  He has used his father’s wealth (Boston Scientific and Argosy Foundation) and his own for many philanthropic or progressive causes  to  support national women’s rights and local LBGTQ efforts, individual national candidates  and so forth. 

But he also spends money that swamps local competitors  and puts his own candidates in the field. He  produces aggressive flyers and TV-radio campaigns against the county board.  His methods have angered many politicians who previously got his support. That money and his willingness to use it leads to the general feeling that “he doesn’t  play well with others,” as one former supervisor put it. 

Said Lipscomb in an interview, “He’s working with you if he gets his own way.”

Abele  not only has the money to do it, he has the methods. Sometimes he seems to deliberately beat the board to the punch on reversals of his own  policy – not just the parking thing but when Lipscomb was unveiling a board  plan to save bus routes,   Abele slipped in ahead of him to take the savior position.

The parking-in-parks  issue strikes many as that sort of backhanded back-down – now suggesting using the contingency fund instead,  an idea stolen from a Weishan proposal.

Yet he was  still lobbying February 14 in Madison for a bill violently opposed by the public that gives him the power to impose ideas he just abandoned.  In fact, when asked in Madison  who is paying the expensive lobbyists for the bill, he said,  “I am.”  

And that bill allows  him  a wheel tax of whatever size despite the public voting 72% against the  $60 he was seeking. It also allows him any fiscal debt he wants to acquire, amend or impose without public input.

Many see the bill as the coronation of King Abele and were unhappy when they  heard that other county executives also wanted it. Not Wasserman. “County execs want to be buddies with each other,” he chuckled.

Wasserman noted the bill expands their power to match Abele’s, though some in the press believe it brings him up to them, so cleverly was this sold.

It extends authority to other county executives (about 10 others in the state) to put them on a par with Milwaukee but  has a section devoted all to Milwaukee – “a wish list for someone who wants dictatorial powers,” said Supervisor James (Luigi) Schmitt, who has represented the Wauwatosa area on the board since 1998 and has seen his share of would-be dictators come and go. (Scott Walker preceded Abele.)

Non-lawyers may not realize all the wrinkles Abele is seeking in a bill introduced by GOP lawmakers and two Democrats now being regarded as turncoats, Sen. Lena Taylor and Rep. Jason Fields.  It has  a powerful lobbying component pretending to be  County Leaders for Modernization whose announced members tilt to firms long associated with the Republicans. It would take away from the board approving contracts and leases;  setting compensation rates including retirement; reviewing an interim appointment and much more.
Board chairman Theodore Lipscomb

The state’s neutral Legislative Reference Bureau stated the consequences clearly and simply in its fiscal analysis:  “To the extent that a conflict exists between county board action and county executive the bill provides that the action of the executive shall prevail. The bill also allows a county executive of a populous county to exercise some of the authority that would otherwise be exercised by the county board for matters regarding property.”

Abele may also have stepped over his skies in TV interviews saying  all the state’s other 10  county executives are behind the bill.  No, they are behind its idea of a two-year budget cycle that creates efficiencies in management, and so are members of the Milwaukee  board I interviewed.

But while initial news stories and Abele’s own statements put the other county execs full scale behind the bill, that’s  simply false.  Other county execs indicate, as one said off the record, that it was supported “to the extent we didn’t publicly oppose.”

There are expanded powers for them as a sweetener in the bill but there’s an entire section that clearly applies just to Abele and not to them – presented to a legislature notorious for wrapping around Milwaukee like  a python.

Outagamie County's Tom Nelson
One of the more notable county execs with a statewide reputation as a solid Democrat, Tom Nelson of Outagamie County, is a strong supporter of Abele’s idea  but even he suggests his county is in a different situation.  For instance, asked if he would ever seek a wheel tax, he said no.

Nelson now suggests he wants to introduce amendments since some of the language in the bill sounds so toxic toward  county boards. “There are a number of provisions that appeal to me including two year budgeting and establishing a commission to set elected-official pay,” Nelson told me in an interview. But “I have come to appreciate our unique board-executive relationship. It’s a partnership grounded in mutual respect and understanding.”

Portage County Executive Patty Dreier also called the language and details  “toxic.” Such  execs  also have close relationships to their citizen board of legislators who generally represent fewer citizens and less demographic complexity than in  Milwaukee.  Nelson points out that his board only took 15 minutes to approve his budget.

Many execs  also quietly say they have more experience in the give-and-take of democracy than Abele does. 

It was  state legislation (Act 14 morphing into Act 55) a few years ago that first gave Abele more power after  running to Madison. Those bills  shut county board members out  of land deals (the Bucks arena and environs) and department leadership choices while also reducing them to part-time hours and pay though many continue to work full time.

Because of those reductions, this April all the board seats are again up for vote, though only a few are contested.  Only one requires a Feb. 20 primary.  That’s the Oak Creek 8th District where incumbent David Sartori is being challenged by Abele-backed James Davies and Working Families Party-backed Scott Shea. 

Two years is the average board service length  around the state, but note that the Outagamie board only meets twice a month and Nelson says it is fully involved – attending “all executive budget meetings,” while in Milwaukee Abele is known  for secrecy.

Fond du Lac County Executive Allen Buechel says bluntly “I will not take a public position on the current legislation. If it does not pass, the issues will not go away. At that point I would recommend that a group of County Executives and County Board Chairs sit down and work through the issues.”

Buechel has been county exec for 25 years and was  for 17 years before that  on the Fond du Lac board.   “I have a great relationship with my board,” he said. “I recognize that this is not the situation in some of the other 10 counties with an elected executive.”

Doubts about the bill have spread.  Dane County is actually registered in opposition; its  budget is only a third the size of Milwaukee’s. The new bill, Schmitt points out, overrides fiscal controls even past  the point of independent judicial review.  

Under Act 55 Abele already had wrested control of non-parkland, which allowed him to unilaterally make the deal for the new Bucks arena and 10 acres around it.  But he also forced county taxpayers to  absorb a hefty  chunk. At the same time as President Obama was advising no public money should go to private sports palaces,  Walker and the GOP agreed to spend $250 million in taxpayer money  -- and $80 million of that over 20 years from county taxpayers under the Abele concession.  

Obama is proving right about how the taxpayers are underwriting enormous  private profits – the Bucks are now worth over $1 billion -  but credit the Bucks with realizing how that looks and agreeing to a $12.50 minimum wage growing to $15 and unionized local jobs. Does that lessen the sting of  $80 million?  Or will the Arena  join Foxconn as a bitter pill for the county taxpayer  to swallow?

Not all the land going through the parks has been officially zoned as parkland, and Abele has talked openly about a goal of self-sustaining park revenue by 2024. As long as that was  beer gardens or golf putting greens, no one objected.  But giving him the power to go further is worrisome and certainly weakens local control over both parks and other land use, his many critics point out.

Patricia Jursik
Local parks activists fear that if a park doesn’t pay its own way, Abele will shut it down. Noted former supervisor Pat Jursik, now on the board of Preserve Our Parks, “When leaders wanted a brand new arena they found the money in the supposedly depleted county coffers. But when citizens want to preserve the legacy of our grandparents and save public parks for our own grandchildren, we are told there is no money. This is a false narrative. This is rule by the Corporate Oligarchs who do not listen to the public.”

The timing of Abele’s new Madison power grab to the April election also struck many as no accident.  Because simultaneously a new organization funded by Abele and supporting several candidates while opposing board incumbents has emerged – LeadershipMKE.  It is targeting several races with flyers and ads – including Lipscomb in District 1, attacks on Peggy West in District  12 and defense of incumbent Deanna Alexander (Abele’s staunchest ally on the board) against an outspoken progressive opponent, Sparkle Ashley, in District 18.

LeadershipMKE  is openly backing Jim Davies with multiple flyer dumps in that Oak Creek district, trying to  muddy the progressive message of candidate Steven Shea ahead of Feb. 20.

Which raises another question of strange bedfellows. A  knowledgeable state legislator noted accurately that “Abele has been searching for someone to run against Theo for a year and promised big bucks to whoever that would be.” 

Yet Lipscomb’s opponent in District 1 Glendale area, Casey Shorts, insists he was not recruited by Abele nor has he taken money from him.  Similarly, Sylvia Ortez Velez,  opposing Peggy West in traditionally low turnout District 12, ran for the seat before and also insists she is not Abele’s candidate – “in fact, I oppose his privatization push,” she said.  And so does Shorts.

But flyers savaging the incumbents from the Abele group  are landing on the doors in these two districts and other advertising is planned.  All Velez and Shorts say they can do is shrug and ignore.  Shouldn’t something be said about disowning?

Shorts boasts endorsements from the Milwaukee Area Labor Council and Citizen Action, neither close to Abele and also past supporters of  Lipscomb, who admits to being confused by their choice.  Pam Fendt, who now leads the labor council, says “we were simply blown away by Shorts’ strong labor presentation” – Shorts is a lawyer and workers comp specialist at Previant.  Citizen Action also cites a strong interview.  His opposition to privatization was another key factor, though Lispcomb is equally opposed and has worked in the past for union compensation.

Shorts, a Glendale resident, clearly buys the newspaper attitude about the dispute. He  believes that the Abele-Lipscomb friction is a factor he can correct.  If it weren’t so “deep rooted,” if there were 97% agreement,  he speculates, why  anytime you open JS wouldn’t that  be more widely known? To him it seems personal between them.

“97% is the actual truth if you look at how his budgets go through,” ripostes Lipscomb.  “Conflict is his oversimplification.”  But he admits to getting irked “when Abele runs to Madison to get what he wants.”

The irony is that in a different place and time, you could see Shorts and Lipscomb talking policy over  beers.  Is he a decent candidate in  the wrong environment, I asked Shorts.

“I’ve heard that before – right person in the wrong race,” he smiled. “But I live in Glendale and I have local support and I think it’s insane the conflict I’m seeing.”

The media also hasn’t noticed how the American fetish for automobiles keeps moving Abele closer to Walker. It may be a mutual blind spot about raising money.

The governor,  after years of opposition, is  now dreaming about a piece of Trump’s infrastructure fancies. So suddenly he is open to two things once taboo: Creating toll roads to raise money and raising the gasoline tax.  Abele, rather than intelligent belt tightening or deeper innovation, fixates on wheel tax and parking fees.

What is it with these guys and the American love of automobiles? Joked Haas,  “They never seem to learn. Go near people’s cars and there’s outrage.”

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 Urban Milwaukee. 

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