Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Bizarre Politics of Ald. Tony Zielinski

Once a hard core conservative, he’s now a Bay View liberal. Except when opposing things like the streetcar.

By - Dec 4th, 2014 10:58 am
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Tony Zielinski

Tony Zielinski

As members of the Milwaukee Common Council move toward a vote on the streetcar, most of their positions, pro or con, are predictable. And then there is Ald. Tony Zielinski, who is both for and against it. Three years ago he voted in favor of the streetcar. Now he emphatically opposes it.

Why the flip-flop? That’s a long, strange story about an unusually flexible fellow who was once a law-and-order conservative and has in latter years became the darling of liberal publications like the Shepherd Express and Wisconsin Gazette.

Zielinski is a Chicago native who attended St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield (it taught him “discipline and dedication to hard work,” he once said) and in his biography makes note that he graduated with a “student rank of Second Lieutenant.” He then attended UW-Milwaukee, where he got a bachelor’s degree in political science and once shared a dorm with today’s Common Council President Michael Murphy. (Today these two have an “arm’s length relationship,” Ald. Bob Bauman observes.)

T. Anthony Zielinski, as he dubbed himself for years, was elected county supervisor in 1988, at age 27, and soon became known as a fan of Mark Belling and someone who “consistently and constantly urges the board to adopt tougher law and order measures,” as a 1995 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story observed.

For instance, in 1990, he proposed that the county sell the organs of dead welfare recipients. When told by a county lawyer this would be unconstitutional, Zielinski said he would call on the state to legalize this. Making his feelings clear about welfare recipients, he declared: “If they can’t help society while they are alive, maybe they can help it while they’re dead.”

Zielinski also proposed cremating deceased welfare recipients rather than burying them, to save money.

The ensuing controversy got Zielinski national attention — none of it positive — from the New York Times,  Chicago Tribune  and other newspapers, as well as from scholarly books like Faces of Poverty: Portraits of Women and Children on Welfare. In Milwaukee, the county was inundated with telephone calls attacking his views, with one caller demanding to know why Zielinski was allowed to have an office at the courthouse.

The chastened supervisor said he was unable to do his daily run of several miles because “I ran out of strength. I was just shocked at the reaction.” Zielinski apologized for his proposal and withdrew it, but not before his colleagues had nicknamed him “Bones.”

But Zielinski soon found a new group of unfortunates to attack: prisoners. In 1990 he proposed banning nicotine in the County Jail and House of Correction, but the ordinance didn’t pass. In 1998, he proposed banning coffee for inmates but that, too, was turned down.

But in 1994, he succeeded with his proposal to ban any prisoners’ use of weight lifting equipment. His proposal came after Congresswoman Deborah Pryce, a Republican Congresswoman from Ohio, attached an amendment to a crime bill to ban weightlifting equipment in federal prisons. “I don’t think the government should be in the business of taking criminals and making them bigger, stronger, more dangerous, and then releasing them upon society,” Zielinski declared.

The idea that muscular ex-cons are more likely to commit crimes was laughed off by Sgt. Andrew Lammers, a guard at the House of Corrections. “The majority of offenses are committed with a weapon,” he noted. “They don’t walk in a store, pop out their biceps and say, `Give me your money.’ ”

But the board approved the proposal by a 13-10 vote and Zielinski once again won national press from the Chicago Tribune and Associated Press.

In 2000, Zielinski passed an ordinance requiring former County Jail and House of Correction inmates to repay the county for the cost of their room and board while in prison. He had pushed the proposal for two years, with board members initially resisting it and finally passing a measure that would hire a collection agency to seek payment from any former inmates earning at least 125 percent of the poverty level. Then-Supervisor Lee Holloway condemned the measure, saying the fees would “take away their ability to provide food and shelter and clothing for their families.”

His colleagues considered Zielinski a part-time supervisor though he drew a full time salary. Zielinski went to school and earned a master degree from Cardinal Stritch and law degree from Marquette University while working for the county. He told me, however, that he was a part-time student who took four years rather than the usual three to get his law degree.

Zielinski was also among 20 supervisors who voted for the infamous county pension plan of 2000 and 2001, whose lucrative payments have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Numerous top county officials were forced to resign and seven supervisors were recalled, but Zielinski pleaded ignorance and outrage over the proposal he had voted for — and he survived.

In 2004, he switched governments, winning a position as alderman representing Bay View and around that time began to opt for just “Tony” Zielinski. He also began refashioning his political views, championing worker rights and bashing “corporate greed.” As Bauman observes, “when Bay View started listening to public radio, he became a liberal.”

By the time Zielinski made a short-lived bid for Lt. Governor as a Democrat in 2010, he favored all sorts of liberal and artsy positions, as he told the Bay View Compass. He opposed corporate “sweat shops” and wanted to expand financial incentives for solar panels throughout the state, cut back the “regressive” property tax and rely more on income taxes, and provide “big” incentives (“the more the better”) to film companies to work in this state.

In his 2012 bid to win a third aldermanic term (against attorney Jan Pierce), Zielinski won the endorsement of local gay newspaper Wisconsin Gazette, which wrote that “Zielinski has certainly acted as a progressive in recent years. He spearheaded resolutions to make Milwaukee the first major U.S. city to become a “Fair Trade” city and to prohibit the city from purchasing items manufactured in sweatshops. He’s embraced urban agricultural projects and promoted green energy projects…. Zielinski has also been a dependable equality supporter who’s earned the endorsements of gay leaders and groups.”

Also endorsing him was the liberal Shepherd Shepherd Express, which offered this chatty assessment: “Most Bay View residents know “Tony,” since he’s always out and about… We like his support for workers’ rights, urban agriculture and public art.”

The fact that both papers mentioned urban agriculture shows how trendy the issue had become and why Zielinski might embrace it. Indeed, he convinced the Common Council to support giving a $250,000 loan to the Sweet Water Organics company in Bay View, calling it a “slam “dunk” that everyone should support. “He presented the moral merits of alternative, organic food production,” Bauman recalls. The result was a debacle: the company turned out be horribly mismanaged and went belly up, leaving the city with a $137,000 shortfall.

Zielinski also supported the streetcar in 2011. Why? Zielinski says he thought his district supported it: “They (streetcar supporters) had a very strong campaign making calls to my office.”

But now he opposes it. “He was savaged by the AM (talk) radio crowd,” says Pierce. But Zielinski says “I went on an extensive door-to-door canvas of my district (in the 2012 campaign) and there was strong opposition to the streetcar.”

“He probably got three more phone calls against it than he got calls in favor,” says Bauman.

Bauman considers Zielinski a friend. Both come from Chicago and both are Bears and Bulls fans, Bauman says. “He tapes all the games.”

Bauman finds Zielinski very likable on a personal basis and a “smart, well-read guy,” but says, “he’s absolutely the most political guy on the council. He’s always looking to burnish his credentials, whether its liberal or conservative credentials. The fundamental principle has always been the same: political survival.”

Indeed the old T. Anthony still lurks at times beneath the surface of liberal Tony. He pushed for years until the council passed a sex offender residency restriction. He proposed an “anti-gang loitering” ordinance that passed despite civil liberties concerns. He opposed low income housing in Bay View and opposed a plan to create transitional housing for veterans in his district. Instead the development was built on 35th and Wisconsin, in Bauman’s district.

“He talked about density and inappropriate land use (in opposing the veterans housing),” Bauman says. “He can always come up with a neutral-sounding reason to oppose it.”

Zielinski, wrote Bay View Compass reporter Michael Timm, has “earned a reputation for being hotheaded” and “storming out of various city committee meetings.” He slammed his briefcase and stormed out of meeting after there were objections to his proposal to require anyone putting up a mural to get a city permit and pay a $100 fee.

He also fulminated on Facebook regarding the streetcar, bringing in such topics as the county buses, city fire department, potholes, the U.S. trade balance, the need to buy American cars and the return of the Avalon Theater to Bay View, all to suggest he had vision. “Vision is understanding that this country is more poor and Communist China is replacing us as the dominant economic power,” Zielinski explained.

In truth, it would be difficult to determine which stance — for or against the streetcar — would be in keeping with Zielinski’s political principles. As he once wrote to a developer, “Whatever my constituents support then that is what I support.”

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

27 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Bizarre Politics of Ald. Tony Zielinski”

  1. PMD says:

    -For instance, in 1990, he proposed that the county sell the organs of dead welfare recipients. When told by a county lawyer this would be unconstitutional, Zielinski said he would call on the state to legalize this. Making his feelings clear about welfare recipients, he declared: “If they can’t help society while they are alive, maybe they can help it while they’re dead.”

    I just nearly spit my coffee. That’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever read.

  2. Casey says:

    Sounds like a responsible REPRESENTATIVE…..
    Imagine if more politicians felt like this: “Whatever my constituents support then that is what I support.”

  3. Jerad says:

    Actually sounds more like spinelessness and someone who’s easy to manipulate.

  4. Oh Please says:

    Tony has always been a political chameleon, saying whatever the person standing in front of him wants to hear. He’s also a physical magic act…hair plugs, nose job, face lift, calf job. There is nothing genuine about him. Nothing.

  5. Beer Baron says:

    OK, so compromise with Tony…We harvest and sell the organs of welfare recipients to pay for the streetcar. I guess he’ll support it then?

    Everyone start the letter writing campaign!

  6. Casey says:

    @Jared why is that? Because he changes his views according to the views of his changing district?
    I’m in neither support nor opposition to him but I’ll tell you I rather have someone who is responsive to the people he represents than someone who just views the job as a mean to a check.
    When I lived in bay view I had no problem getting into contact and receiving feedback from Tony whether he agreed or not, I now live in district 6 and have only had communication returned once and it was the alderwoman referring to her assistant.

  7. Dave says:

    The Steering and Rules Committee today at 1:30 pm could be interesting. Hope Bruce can get over there in time.

  8. Dave Reid says:

    @Dave I’m tuned in.

  9. Patty PT says:

    “Whatever my constituents support…” Many of us support the Streetcar, but the opinions are being completely ignored.

  10. Blaine says:

    Alderman Zielinski has an assistant who replies to emails pretty quickly. No problems there. Regarding the Hide House, the neighborhood residents were told about the development after it was already rubber-stamped. (The hearings to get it branded as “historical” were a joke.) The alderman seemed supportive (though not proactively) of our concerns, but keep in mind when the apartments were eventually built he retained the goodwill of the developers, not to mention the potential votes of his new constituents who moved in.

    For the record, I live a block away from the apartments and contrary to our concerns, there have not been any major problems.

  11. Tom says:

    Rumor has it that Tony Z. is denying the legitimacy of this article over on Facebook in the Bay View Town Hall page.

  12. Bruce Murphy says:

    Tom, Zielinski hasn’t noted any inaccuracies Of course if there were any errors we would want to correct them.

  13. Tom says:

    Oh, I don’t doubt the article’s accuracy. I’m just adding to the discussion that Tony Z is posting on facebook that the article is false. Maybe he’s saying it because the majority of his constituents want it be false. 🙂

  14. Allison says:

    Just so people are aware, the proposed Streetcar will require an annual subsidy from the city of $1.8 million, according to Martin Matson, city controller. This will make up the difference between estimated revenues and estimated expenses. Matson said this yesterday at a Streetcar meeting, apparently.

    However, Ald. Bauman says this will not be an issue as the city has “plenty of money”.

    I thought this was interesting and had not been covered in you other Streetcar articles.

  15. PMD says:

    I’m far more concerned about what we’re about to spend on freeway expansion. $1 billion compared to $1.8 million.

  16. David says:

    Of course the streetcar will require a subsidy. So what?

  17. Dave Reid says:

    @Alison Correct, to run a transit system there will be operational costs. And I’ll add that Ald. Bauman was referring to was the parking fund, which every year has a budget surplus.

  18. Dave Reid says:

    I should add that city controller Martin Matson also stated that all transportation systems are subsidized in the US.. roads and so on.. (he failed to mention air travel but that is too).

  19. Dave says:

    Tony Z is either a liar or a moron. He is a political opportunist of the highest degree with no discernible personal beliefs of his own (unless one presumes his earliest and craziest proposals were the best reflection of his true character). Bruce’s piece makes that abundantly clear.

    What bothers me most about the current issue at hand is that Tony is actively misleading his constituents. Although the nuances of the financing have been presented to him and others multiple times on Facebook he continues to fan the flames about how we can’t afford it (untrue) and how we should use the money elsewhere (practically impossible).

  20. Allison says:

    @PMD-I agree the freeway expansion debate is far more important than the Streetcar debate.

    @Dave Reid-My only point was that this was new news to me and I did not see the $1.8 million annual subsidy number in any of your articles (unless I missed it). You have done excellent work on keeping people informed on the subject. Is the annual Milwaukee Streetcar subsidy comparable to other cities that have Streetcars and subsidize their Streetcars? Is it higher or lower? Do other cities take money from parking funds to pay the subsidy? I would guess the subsidy would rise over time due to inflation?

  21. Dave says:

    The City’s 2015 budget is approximately $1.5 billion dollars. $1.8 million is 0.12% of the budget. One way to look at that is the City portion of my property tax bill is $1200. 100.12% of $1200 is $1201.44 or an additional $1.44 on my taxes. Can I afford that? Yeah, I think so. While that may not be exactly how it works regarding paying for the $1.8 million “subsidy”, I think it gives a fairly accurate representation of the orders of magnitude we’re talking here instead of the standard “$1.8 million?”, “can’t afford it” garbage we’ll hear in the coming months.

  22. Dave says:

    Obviously, I’ve made the assumption that additional parking revenue won’t happen and us tax payers will be left on the hook for the entire 0.12%!

  23. David says:

    I live in the city and I am for the streetcar. Does anyone have any insight into whether or not the Common Council is in support of the plan? Are they terrified of the talk radio crowd? Does Davis or Donovan have a chance of getting this to referendum?

  24. Hereiam says:

    @PMD no joke. What is the total either already spent or set to be spent overhauling freeways just in the Milwaukee area?

    I recall estimated costs of approximately:

    Marquette Interchange $1 billion
    Zoo Interchange $2 billion
    Miller Park Interchange $1 billion
    I43 Expansion $500 million
    794/Hoan Bridge $300
    I94 North-South $1.5 billion

    Total is over $6 billion, which is about $4,000 for every man, woman and child that lives in the Milwaukee Metro.

    This isn’t to say that these costs are not necessary, just to point out how deep the area can dig to encourage growth. Hopefully we do so with the much much smaller costs of a streetcar.

  25. Dave Reid says:

    @Alison During that same meeting yesterday, the comptroller said the operating subsidy was (as were all of the other costs) in line with other comparable US streetcar systems. Transit system operating costs are funded all sorts of different ways. “The Portland Bureau of Transportation, which runs the streetcar…is funded largely by the city’s portion of the state gas tax revenue.” Now that’s not a option even remotely available to the Milwaukee, but it is an example. And I’d say the parking fund is a perfect solution for the streetcar, as that subsidy can be targeted to downtown (meters, ramps, tickets) along the line. In fact that is a pretty elegant solution. Finally, of course costs will rise over time due to inflation, doesn’t everything?

    PS The real story from that Steering & Rules Meetings was completely ignored by the JS… if only I had time to write about market based pricing…

  26. Thomas bamberger says:

    Regarding Portland’s street car — it appears to me that about half of it is paid for by Trimet, which covers a large metro area not available to Milwaukee.

    Here is their budget… see page 9

    http://www.portlandonline.com/auditor/index.cfm?a=487580&c=64479

  27. John says:

    About 2 years ago I saw Tony at Gurnee Mills holding hands with a young Asian girl. He looked at me like I was familiar and quickly turned around and hide his face. From there on I can’t trust him. Liberal or not he’s a sketchy politician with many selfish motivations. I have an iPhone photo I took of him with the girl in case he ever tries to screw with my business.

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