A referendum on Scott Walker?
While all eyes have been on Madison for the last three weeks and will follow on to 16 possible recall elections in the next few months, there is an election of importance coming up on April 5th. Milwaukee County residents will choose a new Executive.
Hopefuls Chris Abele and Jeff Stone met Friday in West Allis for a candidate forum sponsored by the WAWM Chamber Legislative Committee in partnership with the Wauwatosa, Greenfield and South Suburban Chambers of Commerce. It was mostly civil, even cordial. But below a calm surface ran tangible tensions about the budget deficit in Milwaukee county; within in the context of the tumultuous state budget battle, this is the issue in the election.
Abele is a local philanthropist (and a minority silent partner at ThirdCoast Digest). Stone is a State Representative from Greenfield. The two come from very different backgrounds, but both have strong roots in finances and budgets. Stone touted his work on a program in the Greenfield City Council that reduced the $35 million debt. Abele has balanced budgets in various Milwaukee community groups, noting that he turned the Milwaukee Symphony into a profitable organization.
Stone stands with Walker on this one; he’s said in earlier statements that he wished collective bargaining restrictions were left out of the bill, but strongly supported its passage last week.
“We’ve hit the reset button now,” said Stone of the bill’s passage. “We have to confront problems, reset it, build new ways of health care.”
Abele does not agree, and expressed his disappointment in the loss of most collective bargaining rights for state workers. Both offered solutions to fix the county’s budget shortfall.
Stone called for tough decisions, while Abele spoke on turning the county’s various departments into profit centers. He gave the Parks Department as the example to follow, as it does more with less public money and also sells its services of landscaping and park management to suburban communities.
Stone responded that Abele was ducking the big picture problems. “Let’s talk about the real issues, Chris,” said Stone. “Let’s not talk about paper clips.”
Abele responded that he will look for savings wherever he can find them, big or small.
When asked about transit issues, both candidates agreed on the importance of a good transit system to bring people to and from work.
“We can make efficient use of data-driven decisions,” Abele said, holding up the Milwaukee Police Department as an example of creative and data-driven budgetary plans meeting with success.
“I, like everyone else, share a huge concern for spending federal money, but when converting is not going to save tax payer dollars, I’m not sure we have the luxury to turn down something to make enormous jobs, revenue and development,” said Abele.
Stone responded that the new Marriott Hotel being built downtown will bring more jobs than the rail would have.
In previous events, Stone has also suggested using some of the tax dollars raised from automobile sales be diverted to transit; however, in Walker’s 2011-13 biennial budget, those dollars would be diverted to road construction.
The most heated discussion arose wehn both sides shared aspirations for reaching across party lines to bring Milwaukee back to economic prosperity. Stone challenged Abele’s commercial, where he makes a direct connection between Stone and Walker regarding the state budget and the end of collective bargaining for public employee unions.
“I would challenge Chris to not run that ad that really demonizes and divides people,” Stone said.
Abele said in his closing statement that he will work with anyone to improve Milwaukee county, regardless of party affiliation.
“I’m running, again, for one reason, and one alone” he said. “And that’s to bring back a county we can be proud of. One that works, one that’s efficient and an aggressive partner with absolutely anybody, that looks for any efficiency, any earned revenue, and any opportunity to add value to the tax payers who support it.”
“We cannot solve our problem by having a bigger, more expensive government,” Stone said in his closing statement. “I think we have a tremendous opportunity right now that we can begin to work and build a system that’s sustainable.”
This race will be watched closely since it will be the first election since Walker’s budget repair bill was passed. Will it prove to be an early referendum on the public’s feelings toward the policies enacted last week, or will it remain a low-turnout off-year race that effects only Milwaukee County? Time will tell.