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.
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.
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.’ ”
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.”
“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.”