Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Is Nardelli Qualified To Be County Executive?

By - Mar 6th, 2002 07:43 pm

Nothing should surprise us about county government at this point, but it does seem odd that the two favorites in the race for county executive are Scott Walker and Tom Nardelli, neither of whom has a college degree. Walker says he’s a semester short of a degree, while Nardelli, an alderman since 1986, only has a high school degree.

But Nardelli, 57, is a couple decades older than Walker and has naturally had more career experiences. He has served as an alderman since 1986 and, as chair of the program development committee for the Wisconsin Center District Board, he was the point man overseeing the construction of the Midwest Express Center. “He’s a very good manager,” says Atty. Frank Gimbel, board president. “He’s got street smart analytical skill talent. He has great perseverance.”

Before running for office, Nardelli was a radio announcer and traffic reporter for WTMJ Radio, and spent years in the army reserve, attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. “I had to manage a staff of 16 in running the 4th brigade,” Nardelli notes. One of the soldiers he supervised, by the way, was a young John Norquist, doubtless a challenge for any commander.

“He’s been a good manager here,” says one alderman. “He immerses himself in the nuts and bolts of government.”

City Hall observers paint Nardelli as someone whose word is good, who gets along well with fellow aldermen and city department heads, and is one of the hardest working and smartest aldermen. “For all of his bluster and negativism, Tom is well-respected,” says one common council member.

“He is more often critical of things then he is creative about things,” says Gimbel. “He’s not a trailblazer.” But Gimbel notes Nardelli “does have the capacity to surrender his views to the majority. He’s a team player.”

Nardelli is conservative on social issues, which puts him at odds with gay groups, minorities and many liberals. He also tries to be tough on spending. This makes him a less-than-ideal candidate for labor unions, who would prefer a classic liberal, but Nardelli is opposed to privatization of government functions. In this race, labor will probably back Nardelli as the less objectionable of the two front-runners.

Nardelli’s punchy style and fiscal conservatism allows him to portray himself as something of an outsider, even as he touts his knowledge as an insider. On unions he says, “if they think they can find somebody who’s going to be a whore for their interests, fine. I’m not going to be that.” For someone likely to get union endorsements, that’s having your cake and eat it.

The Nardelli style is reminiscent of old-time, South-Side conservative Democrats, which should go over well with the many South-Side seniors, who dominated the Ament recall movement. Nardelli is likely to do well in the city while Walker does well in the suburbs.

Nardelli can be very entertaining and gives good quotes, but his shoot-from-the-hip style could generate comments that get him in trouble. He has already backed off from statements saying he will be the last county executive, arguing that an appointed county administrator could be a problem. “If the public is upset with an administrator, how would you get at that person?” he asks. That puts Nardelli at odds with Walker, who clearly wants to move toward an appointed county manager.

Meanwhile, Nardelli is working to moderate his image. “I know I’ve got this rough exterior, but the truth is I’m more caring and compassionate than it may look like.” Translation: compared to Republicans like Walker, I’m the kinder and gentler candidate.

Walker’s Flip-Flop

As a conservative legislator, Scott Walker (R-Wauwatosa) has taken some stands that may not be as popular with the voters of the entire county. A case in point: in 1999, he co-sponsored legislation allowing people to carry a concealed weapon. But just two weeks ago, he flip-flopped, voting against such a bill, apparently recognizing that this would not go over with most Milwaukee voters.

Another example: On Mark Belling‘s show, Walker recently defended Gov. Scott McCallum‘s proposal to kill revenue sharing to cities and counties, which could have a devastating impact on local governments here and could decimate Milwaukee County. Will Walker repudiate that view? If not, expect some 30-second ads on how Walker could hurt Milwaukee.

Walker, by the way, is already making calls to state lobbyists for contributions. Walker would still be a force in Madison if he loses the race for county executive, which means lobbyists must be good to him. He is the only candidate who can tap into this lucrative source of money, and may get funding from the state Republican Party as well. Walker is likely to be the best-funded candidate for county executive, and will have the ability to respond to any negative ads, should they come.

The Illegal Executive

Janine Geske is a woman with an unblemished reputation, is a political moderate, and has agreed to work for no pay as interim county executive. So what’s not to like about her?

Just this: she is barred by law from holding this office. Article 7, Section 10 of the state constitution says “no justice of the supreme court… shall hold any other office of public trust… during the term to which elected.” Since Geske was elected to the state supreme court in 1993 and her term ends in August 2004, she cannot hold any office of public trust until then. Of course, given the citizenry’s revulsion with county government, perhaps Geske could argue that her new office is hardly one of “public trust.”

Geske suggested this constitutional prohibition did not apply to her because she resigned from the court a couple years ago, but she offered no constitutional or statutory rule to back her up. In fact, there is none and Geske cannot hold such an office. If you doubt this, talk to Judge Jeff Wagner, who reluctantly concluded he couldn’t run for county exec because of this constitutional prohibition.

There’s not much chance anyone will go to court to challenge Geske’s appointment, so this will simply stand as one more oddity by the county gang that couldn’t shoot straight. You’d think with all the talent in Milwaukee, County Board Chair Karen Ordinans could have chosen an interim executive whose appointment didn’t violate the constitution. As for board members, who approved the choice, my guess is that if you asked them about this constitutional problem, they would answer “I didn’t know.”

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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