Primary election is Tuesday, Feb. 16
By Shepherd Express Staff
Feb. 9, 2016
Chris Larson should be county executive, and he would win the election if there were real campaign spending limits or public financing of elections. If the general election comes down to Chris Larson vs. Chris Abele, the incumbent, as the polls clearly predict, it will be Larson’s solid record of public service vs. a ton of Abele’s family’s money.
The Shepherd editorial board has watched Larson’s public service career over the past eight years, since he was first elected to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. Two years later, in 2010, with strong support from his constituents in his supervisor district, he took on longtime state Sen. Jeffrey Plale in a primary and easily defeated him, and in 2013 Larson rose to be the Democratic leader in the state Senate.
A senator does not become his party’s leader without gaining the respect of his colleagues by showing strong leadership and having the ability to bring all sides together to move forward. Now, with the encouragement of a wide variety of civic organizations, small business owners, labor organizations and members of the general public in Milwaukee County, Larson dove into the race for county executive.
We respect Sen. Larson because we have seen him function in the various positions he has held, and we saw a dedicated, honest, very hard-working and very capable public servant who has consistently fought hard for the average working people of Milwaukee county in a very tough political climate.
In contrast, the current county executive has consistently cut backroom deals on behalf of private special interest groups and on behalf of his fellow millionaire cronies at the expense of the average Milwaukee County taxpayers. He has also worked hard to impress and win favor from his mentor, Gov. Scott Walker. A classic example was when Walker had proposed to fund the Milwaukee Bucks arena with bonds repaid by all the citizens of the state, since the entire state benefits from having a national sports franchise. Abele stepped into the negotiations and offered to have the Milwaukee County taxpayers cover $80 million of the arena’s costs. For the next 20 years, Milwaukee County property taxpayers will pay $4 million per year to retire the bonds.
Using Republican strategist Karl Rove’s approach of attacking someone on their strengths, Abele has tried to paint the county supervisors and anyone who opposed him as some kind of special interest group or “cronies” who are not listening to the people. Virtually every county supervisor, for example, got elected by working hard going door to door, listening to their neighbors and understanding their issues. Has Chris Abele ever knocked on your door? How does the son of a Boston billionaire have any idea what the issues and challenges are for an average Milwaukee County voter trying to make a living and raise a family in an ever-changing world economy? If he cared, he would be knocking on your door and listening.
Since taking office in 2011, Abele has consistently worked to strip our local democratic institutions of their power and consolidate power in his own office, shutting out the public from debates and decisions.
Because of Chris Abele’s private deals with Republican legislators, in the past five years Milwaukee County residents have been disenfranchised and lost the power of their voice in the following ways:
The Milwaukee County Board has been stripped of much of its power to provide checks and balances on the executive branch, an un-American weakening of the legislative branch, the branch of government that’s closest to the people.
The county executive has virtually unilateral power to sell off in private backroom deals many landmark county assets, including the zoo, the airport, the Milwaukee Public Museum and many parks.
There is no public vetting of or vote on major land deals, including the $1 giveaway of valuable Downtown Park East land worth millions of dollars to the majority Bucks owners.
A backroom deal among political insiders—including Abele—put county taxpayers on the hook for $80 million in costs for the Bucks arena for the next 20 years.
The county’s mental health services are overseen by an all-appointee board that is totally unaccountable to the public.
The county executive presides over his own school district, diminishing the Milwaukee Public Schools, and appointed a school commissioner who is unaccountable to voters.
The Abele era in Milwaukee County must end for the sake of our future.
That’s why we’re endorsing Chris Larson for Milwaukee County executive in the nonpartisan primary on Tuesday, Feb. 16, and in the general election on Tuesday, April 5.
This isn’t a decision made because we don’t like Chris Abele for whatever reason; we endorsed Abele for county executive in previous elections. Like many Democrats and progressives, we had believed Abele’s promises to be fair, open and transparent in office. Unfortunately, after being elected, Abele went back on almost all of his promises and has worked with Republican legislators to disenfranchise Milwaukee voters and rule the county like an emperor.
Larson said Abele’s power grabs spurred him to run for county executive this spring.
“If you had asked me six months ago if I was interested in running for county executive, I would have said no,” Larson told the Shepherd. “But I looked at the situation in my community and realized there was a problem that we had helped to create by helping to elect Chris Abele and allowing him unchecked power to run our county. He had gotten out of control and was asking for more and more power. After talking to my neighbors I realized there was a desire for an alternative vision of the county so that everyone has a voice. That’s why I’m running.”
Why We Support Chris Larson
State Sen. Chris Larson may not be as well-known as Abele, but we think he is more in touch with real Milwaukeeans than is Abele, the son of a Boston billionaire who has already put $1.75 million of his own money into his campaign for re-election plus well over another $1 million to nonprofit organizations to essentially buy their support.
“I know Chris Abele has a ton of money but I know that we have the power of the people,” Larson said. “I want to restore balance at the county so that everyone has a voice. Everyone should have a voice—not just the rich.”
Chris Larson is a lifelong Milwaukeean who is married to Jessica Brumm-Larson, an assistant psychology professor. They’re raising their two young children in Bay View.
Larson was born in Greenfield, attended Thomas More High School and graduated from UW-Milwaukee with a degree in finance. After managing a sporting goods store, he was elected in 2008 to the Milwaukee County Board to represent Bay View. His primary focus was protecting parks and transit, helping working families and saving the Hoan Bridge.
While on the county board, Larson helped to launch the successful county-wide referendum to create a dedicated funding source for transit, parks and other county services so that they could be taken off the county tax levy and supported by a half-cent sales tax, a significant portion of which would be paid by non-Milwaukee County residents. It wasn’t an easy sell, but 52% of county voters approved the referendum in 2008. Unfortunately, the voters’ voice was stifled in Madison as the state government refused to allow the county to find a much-needed solution to our county’s financial problems.
In 2010, Larson ran for state Senate, taking on conservative Democratic Sen. Jeff Plale, who often voted with Republicans to destroy progressive legislation.
Many thought that Larson was crazy for taking on a well-financed and powerful Democrat, but he defeated Plale in the 2010 Democratic primary and won the general election that fall. Plale then took a job in the Walker administration, showing just where his sympathies lay.
In the state Senate, Larson has pushed back on Gov. Scott Walker and tea party Republicans’ agenda for the state. Of course, Democrats are in the minority, but Larson has championed public schools, the environment, women’s reproductive freedom, health care reform and progressive taxation that benefits working families, not the rich.
We’re seeing history repeat as Larson is taking on Abele, a conservative Democrat who works with tea party Republicans to benefit the wealthy and well-connected.
“For us, it’s about making sure that we have a community voice in the county’s highest office,” Larson said.
The Bucks Deal
Although both Larson and Abele are Democrats, they are almost polar opposites on the issues facing Milwaukee County, from the Bucks arena financing deal to who should run our schools.
Take, for example, the Bucks deal. Originally, Walker wanted the state to bond $220 million for the Bucks arena and Milwaukee County taxpayers didn’t need to pay anything extra for it. But when Abele got into the negotiating room in private, he put the county taxpayers on the hook for $80 million over 20 years. To cover that $80 million, Abele wanted to go after delinquent property taxpayers in the suburbs, even though he never consulted the independently elected county comptroller to find out if the county had enough bad debt to cover the $80 million. (It doesn’t in the long run.)
“When I speak to people in the community, I’m hearing that people are upset because Abele wasn’t listening to the public,” Larson said.
Even worse, Abele threw in nine acres of Park East land for $1, without putting it up for a vote before the county board.
“He sold that land for $1 without a public bid but the taxpayers are going to have to pick up the tab for the underlying cost to clean up the land so that it’s ready for development, which is contrary to what Abele claimed,” Larson said. “So they got it for $1 and then some. Abele gave it away at a loss. This is a clear example of Abele’s poor negotiating skills.”
Since there weren’t enough votes in the Legislature to pass the deal, Democratic lawmakers were brought in at the last minute to try to make it better. Larson was one of those lawmakers. Although the county is still forced to pay the $80 million thanks to Abele, Larson made sure that Abele’s “bad debt” scheme was removed and added a fee to tickets so that those attending the arena would have to defray some of the costs.
In a side agreement, Larson made sure that the jobs to be created are living wage jobs, employ county residents and assured employees the right to unionize. Abele has tried to take credit for this agreement but he wasn’t part of it at all.
“I want to make sure that Milwaukeeans benefit from this deal,” Larson said.
On the Issues
The two candidates are also on opposite ends of the spectrum regarding open government, the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) takeover and the living wage.
“Abele has continued to gather so much power for himself and he has shut out the public and he refuses to explain why he’s doing things in our community,” Larson said. “And it’s getting worse. There are more plans in the Legislature for him to take more power, especially over the county budget.”
If elected, Larson would lobby the Legislature to roll back these new powers but if that doesn’t happen, he said he wouldn’t use them as county executive.
“We will have checks and balances,” Larson said. “No one should have that much power. I will ask the Legislature to call a special session to restore American-style checks and balances to Milwaukee County government.”
Taking power from the board: Abele has worked with tea party Republicans (who accept his political donations) to gut representative government in Milwaukee. Power was taken away from the Milwaukee County board to provide real oversight of the executive branch while more power was given to Abele.
“The public’s opinion doesn’t matter to him,” Larson said.
An unaccountable Mental Health Board: Abele supported legislation in 2014 to create an unelected Mental Health Board, which now oversees the $188 million budget of the county’s Behavioral Health Division. The appointed board rarely takes testimony from the public—it even had a union rep arrested for speaking peacefully during a recent board meeting about dangers posed by some of the psychiatric hospital’s patients—and is totally unaccountable to Milwaukee voters. That means that Milwaukee County residents have no say in important issues such as the potential privatization of the psychiatric hospital, placement of mentally ill sex offenders in neighborhoods, out-patient care in community settings and the use of federal, state and local tax dollars. And Milwaukeeans can’t vote anyone off the board, since the board members are appointed.
“Every week I hear from families who are affected by these changes but they can’t be heard,” Larson said.
MPS takeover: Abele agreed to a tea party Republican scheme to take over struggling Milwaukee Public Schools and preside over his own school district, the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program. Abele, who lacks a college degree, has appointed a commissioner who has the power to seize public schools and property, fire teachers and give taxpayer-funded contracts to unaccountable charter and voucher school operators.
In public, Abele says he has no plans to take over schools, but in private state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) was caught on tape promising that Abele would get going on “our initiative” after he wins re-election. Since this was inserted into the state budget, Milwaukee voters had no say on this new school district.
“This legislation was designed to hurt the public schools,” Larson said.
Living wage: Abele vetoed a living wage resolution that would ensure county workers and those who work for county contractors are paid a living wage, currently $11.66 an hour. Supervisors overrode his veto 12-6. In contrast, Larson proposed a bill raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 by 2020 and ties the minimum wage to the inflation index, and he’s consistently advocated for a living wage for workers, arguing that higher wages keep workers out of poverty, ease the burden on the state’s safety net and stimulate the local economy.
Land sales: Abele got his allied Republicans to slip into the budget a last-minute amendment that would have given him unchecked power to sell off county land and assets, as well as a “super veto” would have given him total authority over county government. The Legislature whittled back Abele’s request and gave him near-unilateral power to sell off land not zoned as park land, including the zoo, the airport and the Milwaukee County Museum.
“I will not sell the airport, the zoo, the museum or the parks, period,” Larson promised.
Last November, county supervisors requested a study on non-park land from the Parks Department, which revealed two weeks ago that that 43 county parks lost their protection from privatization thanks to Abele’s power grab. Abele only needs the signature of one other person to sell off these assets that our parents, grandparents and great grandparents built and cherished. Abele has said he wouldn’t sell off parks, but his administration had tried to lease Kulwicki Park to Greenfield and also sell O’Donnell Park to Northwestern Mutual Life in a lowball no-bid contract, showing that he is open to unraveling the county’s “emerald necklace.” He has also made dozens of promises in his first campaign and did virtually the exact opposite once he got elected.
Following that revelation, Larson and state Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) introduced a bill in the state Legislature, the County Parkland and Heritage Protection Act, which would require a county board vote on any land sale.
“I was born here and I was raised here and I have lived here my whole life,” Larson said. “I ran and biked on our Oak Leaf Trail. I spent my summers in Greenfield Park and McCarty Park. I ran cross-country in Greene Park. And this is where I go with my kids. I have a small house so when we need to escape we go to our community parks and let them unwind. I want to make sure that the parks remain for them. It’s part of our community. It’s part of who we are.”
Larson said he was offended that Abele would seek so much power to sell off county land and assets in private but hasn’t explained why he wanted this power.
“He asked for this authority and never explained why and it could put our heritage at risk,” Larson said. “And he continues to ask for more power. I realize this is our community and if we don’t stand up to a bully now we could lose all of that and it would take generations to fix it.”