The Troubled Legacy of Tom Ament
Former county exec’s lucrative pension plan caused scandal, transformed Milwaukee politics, and led way for Scott Walker.
The news that former Milwaukee County Executive F. Thomas Ament died finally put to rest his role in what is arguably the biggest political scandal in the city’s history. No other controversy took such a toll on public officials. Ament demanded the resignations of several members of his administration, he eventually resigned rather than face a recall election and seven county supervisors — all of whom voted for the 2001 pension plan — were recalled. Two other supervisors survived recall attempts.
Ament was the consummate insider, who may have known more about the inner workings of county government than just about any other official. He served as county board member from 1968 on, becoming board chair in 1976 and winning election as county executive in 1992. His style was low key unto dull, and he could be self-deprecating about this, once chuckling about a newspaper story where an observer called him “as interesting as a brown paper bag.”
As county executive, Ament supported the building of Miller Park and the Calatrava wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum and funded a new jail, but mostly oversaw a decline of county services, the closing of Doyne Hospital and a decrease in the number of county employees. Yet the 2001 pension plan he championed was supposedly crafted to attract more job seekers at the county.
The pension gave county veterans like Ament a 25 percent bonus in their pension plan. Prior to that retirees could collect up to 80 percent of their final average salary for life, but this gave them the opportunity to collect an unheard of 100 percent of their final average salary. On top of that, they could collect a special lump sum or “backdrop” payment, which was lucrative indeed. To date, more than 1,700 county employees have collected this benefit. Some 740 people have gotten at least a $100,000 lump sum benefit, 255 have gotten at least $250,000 and 40 received at least $500,000.
To date the pension plan has cost county taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, with the total still rising.
Ament’s resignation provided a huge opportunity for a little-known state legislator from Wauwatosa named Scott Walker, who had never been an insider with establishment Republicans and then appeared to have little chance to pursue higher office. Backed by conservative talk radio hosts Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling, Walker won election, and ultimately portrayed himself as the reformer who cleaned up county government to win election as governor. Should he run for president, as appears likely, Walker may privately give thanks to Tom Ament.
The county pension scandal was among several examples of excessive government benefits that helped lay the groundwork for Act 10, which Walker championed as a way to end public union power. And in heavily Democratic Milwaukee County, where most county supervisors are liberals, the pension scandal has assured the election of fiscally conservative county executives, easing the reelection efforts of Walker and the election of Chris Abele.
As the reporter who broke the county pension scandal, first for Milwaukeeworld.com, and later for Milwaukee Magazine (which then prompted a months-long frenzy of Journal Sentinel front page stories and broadcast media attention), I interviewed Ament many times. Having been so accustomed to scanty coverage of county government, he was stunned by the amount of attention the issue received. Ament seemed like a deer caught in the headlights, never able to react in a timely or effective manner. (He assigned staffers to re-research my stories on the pension scandal and they concluded they were accurate.)
For years afterward, Ament talked of running again, and did not disband his campaign fund. But he became a near-pariah at Democratic events, blamed by some for the party’s declining fortunes. For someone who had always been faithful to the Democratic party and supportive of its candidates, that must have been a bitter pill to swallow. To the end, Ament believed he had been a good public servant who had simply made that one mistake.
Update 5:25 p.m. March 11: Marcus White of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation called to note that in 2012 Ament used his remaining campaign funds to establish a charitable fund of about $340,000 in his name. The focus of the fund is health, social service, education and hunger programs. To the end Ament was a liberal.