Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Strange Politics of Anti-Streetcar-ites

So when is that referendum coming, and where are those aldermanic opponents?

By - Jun 18th, 2015 11:03 am
Milwaukee Streetcar.

Milwaukee Streetcar.

It was detective fiction writer Elmore Leonard who advised never to start a story with weather, but I’ll have to violate that maxim and note that May in Milwaukee was really a pretty lovely month. Say, for instance, you wanted to distribute anti-streetcar petitions. You couldn’t have asked for much better temperatures: just two days with highs in the upper 40s and otherwise every day ranged from the mid-50s to low 80s, perfect weather for getting out and getting signatures from irate citizens.

It was back in March, you may recall, that the anti-streetcar forces, announced they would be disbanding their efforts to get at least 31,000 signatures from city voters to force a binding referendum for any streetcar project of more than $20 million. Chris Kliesmet of the CRG Network, who had declared that “sentiment in the city is wildly against” the streetcar, let the media know the drive would be postponed due to chilly weather. Yes, Milwaukee does have winter with reliable, annual frequency, and that, alas, had prevented Kliesmet and company from completion of their appointed rounds.

Orville Seymer, longtime co-leader of the CRG, continued to insist to the Business Journal that there was “overwhelming” opposition to the streetcar, but blamed the seasonable weather for the drive’s failure. Longtime streetcar opponent, Ald. Bob Donovan offered no thermometer readings, instead waxing war-like: “Make no mistake, this is not a retreat but a strategic withdrawal. We will regroup, and we will live to fight another day.”

That strategic regrouping, Kliesmet and Seymer assured the media, would take place in May, when better weather would make the going so much more balmy. Which brings us to today, June 18, partly cloudy with an expected high of 77 degrees and still no anti-streetcar petitions delivered at City Hall.

What happened to the petition drive? I asked the two CRG leaders via email.

“I am still ready willing and I think I am still able,” wrote Seymer, with disarming frankness. “Unfortunately our best circulator is a roofer who had time back in January and February but he is working on roofs right now.” Hm, that would seem to suggest winter was actually the best time to do those petitions.

“Others seem to have lost the will,” Seymer added, with what struck me as a touch of woefulness. “If someone wants to start the effort all over again, I am more than willing to assist but I simply cannot do it all by myself.” And who could blame him?

Seymer added there is some “scuttlebutt” about starting anew, and indeed, the anti-streetcar Facebook page calls for restarting the petition drive on July 10 if there are 1,000 volunteers, but notes the current total is 641.

That message calls to mind the mathematical precision generally brought to bear on this subject by Kliesmet, whose email response told me the entire matter of the petition drive was “up to the good people of the City of Milwaukee.”

“I am obligated to remind people,” he went on, “that CRG rarely initiates such actions. However, if asked, CRG would likely provide some form of assistance. My first bit of advice would be to assemble 1,000 or more circulators before spending any time collecting signatures.”

So if 1,000 people are needed, that would mean each petition circulator would be getting exactly 30 signatures. Does it really require temperatures in the 60s for citizens so wildly against the streetcar to accomplish this?

Meantime, it’s not at all clear CRG will get involved because Kliesmet, as of early June, indicated that no one, including Donovan, has asked for the group’s assistance. As for Donovan, his office did not respond to my questions, but he told Milwaukee Magazine that a CRG leader (presumably Seymer) refused further aid and the busy alderman doesn’t have time to run the drive himself while he’s running for mayor. More recently, Kliesmet said he got a nibble from someone asking (anonymously) for his assistance, but he added, “Is this just another case where the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak?”

A reference to the crucifixion? I never realized how death-defyingly hard it was to get 30 people to sign a referendum.

Craig Peterson, a Republican-leaning public relations executive who worked on the anti-streetcar petition drive, now says he may be too busy to help with it this summer. Nonetheless, he predicted to Milwaukee Magazine that every alderman who supported the streetcar would have an opponent in the 2016 election.

If anything, the political winds are blowing the other way. Donovan has two opponents, Democratic state Rep. Josh Zepnick and school aide Justin Bielinski, and both are streetcar supporters. Bay View alderman Tony Zielinski has an opponent, former school board member, Meagan Holman, who twice mentioned the importance of the streetcar issue in an OMC interview.

There is also speculation that streetcar opponent and Ald. Joe Davis may drop out out his race for reelection and concentrate on his quixotic campaign for mayor. There are already three announced candidates for his aldermanic seat: Larresa Taylor, Andrew Archie and Keith Bailey.

Chris Wiken

Chris Wiken

Yes, the race to succeed the late alderman Joe Dudzik may elect a streetcar opponent. County Supervisor Mark Borkowski, who is running, was releasing anti-streetcar statements even before he entered the race. But Dudzik opposed the streetcar, so that’s not a change for that district.

The one race that could be interesting is for District 13 on the southeast side, where incumbent Terry Witkowski, who voted for the streetcar, faces challenger Chris Wiken. Witkowski says he is not finding the streetcar is a major issue as he goes door to door, apparently unimpeded by those brisk spring winds weather. Of course, you’d expect him to say this. Still, the fact that streetcar opponents had to go to Brookfield to find someone to run against Witkowski (Wiken is moving his home and family to the city in order to run) seems telling.

Kliesmet and CRG never did reveal how many of its cold-averse petition circulators were actually city residents. And though he dismissed it as a non-factor, we know that the group had help from out-of-town staff and volunteers provided by the Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity. Yet the drive failed.

Even had it succeeded, there was reason to believe the courts might not allow a referendum, given it was completed so far after the initial pro-streetcar vote (in 2011) was taken by the Common Council. That would be doubly true today, as the city is already spending money on the project. My guess is that sometime next month the anti-streetcar petition drive will quietly die yet another death. Maybe they can blame a heat wave.

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

20 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Strange Politics of Anti-Streetcar-ites”

  1. Matt says:

    Question, so why can’t we go out and get signatures against public funding of the bucks stadium to force a referendum on public spending in Milwaukee. I think that is over $20 million by the city? Is this because it is being sold under the guise of a TIF?

  2. PMD says:

    Speaking of the new Bucks arena, has that issue killed most if not all of the anti-streetcar sentiment? All the discussion about the arena is probably why I forgot all about the streetcar until reading this.

  3. David says:

    Matt…. the streetcar is being financed by a tif as well. So is $75M of the NML building as well as several other projects. What else would you like to get signatures on to force a referendum?

  4. Matt says:

    Was just curious as I have not heard any talk about trying to get signatures for the bucks building / give away. In my opinion more people are against that than the street car.

  5. Will says:

    I can’t seem to understand how so many people can be so blind to the benefits and potential from the new arena. Already businesses (i.e.comedy cafe) have moved/are moving closer to park east specifically because of the arena being built. None of this gets factored into the “400 million”.

    Its amazing how so many people could reject a deal that costs you two dollars today but yields 40 dollars over time. I should add, this naivety spreads to much smaller scale business in the private industry, as well. So many people don’t have the intelligence, to be able to recognize when something that costs 2 dollars today yields forty over time. They are either too dumb, cynical or lack the courage. Its sad really, because if we lose this stadium the collateral damage could be fatal to this city. So many people are just so cynical in this city.

  6. Oh Well says:

    Well said, Bruce Murphy, and wildly entertaining! It’s so refreshing to see the dirty underbelly so well explained, without the angst-y sentiments engendered by knowing the players and fearing an adverse outcome. And, oh yeah, feeling that one has to jump in and try to influence yet another politician whose main job it is to ignore constituents. I’m talking’ about you, state legislators and the budget!

  7. Will says:

    I would also like to add that I just got off the phone after speaking with 2 staffers for state senators. These staffers spent the entirety of the conversations telling me how much no one likes the Bucks, how much the Bucks don’t contribute to anything, and how STATE senators across Wisconsin “they hate Milwaukee.” These are our elected officials. What does this say about Wisconsin?

  8. Matt says:

    Will – that is your opinion and you are entitled to it. I just disagree that the return is what you say and disagree that the development will not happen if the bucks don’t move. I want the bucks here, I just don’t want spend $400 million to do it and I really don’t think we will get that kind of return, based on several academic studies I have read. you choose to disregard them I choose to believe them. Are we better off without the bucks, absolutely not. Are we better off without the bucks and $400 million in the pockets of the citizens of Wisconsin to spend how they choose, I believe so. I would you say you lack the courage, along with some of our elected officials to stand up and tell the bucks to pay more and I applaud the senators for actually having a backbone on this issue instead of just going along party lines that is so common in todays politics. We can all agree to disagree but can’t we be civil about it. The world will likely not end if the bucks stay or go. Also if they are so important why don’t the counties surrounding Milwaukee chip in.

  9. David says:

    Matt…. the majority of the funds are coming from the county. The city, county and owners are paying $450M towards the $500M tab. The state is the biggest winner. This comes down to the typical Wisconsin divide of city, region and state. It’s politics. It’s outstate Wisconsin’ hatred of Milwaukee. Divide and conquer is well underway.

  10. blurondo says:

    We should oppose the use of public money because the Bucks owners don’t need it, they don’t deserve it.
    They, the owners, could build everything that they envision without one dollar of public funding and still be well off. There is no need for the ultra-rich to be receiving taxpayer money. That’s just the way they insist on doing business.

  11. M says:

    I can understand throwing a bit of public money and some free land at an NBA arena, a “unique” entertainment venue. But certainly not $400 million and counting. I’d rather that kind of taxpayer funding went for viable transit options that connect people to jobs, etc.

    But what’s with the city all gaga over subsidizing a massive new franchise-laden “entertainment mall” and handing over a perfectly good city-owned parking structure to tear down for it? It’s become a cliche that mega-wealthy people buy mansions for millions and then tear them down to build snazzier mansions (think Mitt Romney or Kanye West). It appears the Visiting Billionaires have talked the mayor into thinking the city should behave likewise ’cause we’ve got TIF money to burn or something (maybe it’s an “aspirational” thing, like they pitch in get-rich-quick seminars…borrow money on the city’s credit card to invest in spec real estate…). Here’s the latest on the city’s shell game financing plan for this build-it-they-will-come white-elephant-in-the-making…

    Some urbanists have been railing against these “trying-too-hard-to-be-cool” entertainment-district-malls for years (and many such malls fail) but it looks like MKE’s jumping on this train anyway. Malls are much cooler than light rail, or so we keep telling ourselves. Milwaukee’s motto: There’s no such thing as too many bars! More voodoo economics…

  12. CC says:

    So, pro-streetcar but anti-arena. That makes a lot of sense.

  13. Dave says:

    Pro street car and pro arena here. Just not a fan of Abele’s BS funding scheme. Apparently, Abele and his GOP pals in Madison will do ANYTHING to convince their stupid, vindictive electorate that they’re not raising taxes and it’s “cheaper to keep them” including sacrificing a much needed convention expansion and likely a (further) reduction in state aid to Milwaukee County when they discover much of the $80 million in collected debt will remain that way. Just raise the sales tax and be done with it. We can then finally properly fund our parks too. It just absolutely blows my mind the number of people I hear complain about a 0.1% sales tax that they pay towards Miller Park. That’s literally like $20 a year. People around here have an amazing ability to bitch about $20 when they’re losing thousands of dollars a year in lack of wage increases due to our piss poor economic performance and declining quality of living.

  14. Jeff says:

    $ 24 Billion for a 9 year TV contract, millions more in income from ticket sales, luxury box sales, sports wear sales, advertising tie ins, etc., and the NBA cannot fund its own arenas? Possible salary cap of $106 million per year coming down the line and the NBA cannot afford to pay for their own arenas? Tax exempt “outdoor meeting room” with only 25% locally owned businesses, 50%of the income but no investment in a publicly paid for parking lot? The owners have shown us midwestern rubes their bridge for sale and boy howdy, we’ve sure got the checkbook out for them. As for raising the sales tax to cover public transit, parks, and cultural sites, that was approved by county voters but killed by the same “cheaper to keep them” crowd.

  15. Will says:


    “NBA cannot fund its own arenas?”

    When did the NBA say it cant fund the arena? Obviously they can, but they do not have to. Why? Because they know they offer a great, revenue sharing product that myriad other cities will jump on with public funds if given the chance. Just as the gentleman from Columbus in the article said he would love to do. Want to stand up to the 1%ers and not allow public subsidy? Ok, well they will move the bucks elsewhere, get a subsidy, makes boatloads of cash and Milwaukee will be left with a city far worse off. But hey, at least you showed it to those evil billionaires.

  16. Will says:

    All these economic studies I hear about in regards to the bucks remind me of the saying “there are 3 types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” the ripple effect of the bucks leaving Milwaukee I feel is greatly under valued. I cant imagine we would be able to keep the Bradley Center thus losing WI’s largest indoor auditorium, the property values of downtown would shrink instead of grow, the West side of downtown would become an even bigger ghost town, the streetcar would be less useful, grand avenue would be less in demand and maybe abandoned, tax receipts for the city would shrink instead of grow, our national image would take a large hit hurting recruiting business to come downtown, and so on and so forth. Everybody talks about what might happen if they stay, but what about if they leave?

  17. Matt says:

    Man I love folks who say statistics are lies and then in the next sentence they use the words, “I feel are undervalued”. You know why, because all the studies have proved you wrong. In the limited times the public has let sports team leave there has been no economic impact cited in several studies. Look at Seattle. Your feeling is great, the bottom line is the vast majority of constituents in the state do not want to spend $400 million to keep the bucks.

  18. Al Lindro says:

    In his comments above about the Bucks, Will hits the nail smack dab on its head. Time will tell, of course, but several cities are considered by commentators as being prime for an NBA team relocation, especially: Seattle, Columbus, Louisville, Las Vegas, and Kansas City. How much financial skin their citizens would put into the hunt for one is an unknown, but note that Seattle and KC lost teams in years past because of the economics, to Oklahoma City and Sacramento respectively. And the sentiment is especially strong in Seattle to reclaim major league professional basketball as part of its “great city” entertainment profile.

    My sense is that the new owners would rather be in Milwaukee, for reasons that escape me, and are building a franchise that will be a winner, competitively, with the media attention and revenue that goes along with it. If the owners were schmucks, or “losers, I probably wouldn’t be in favor of keeping the Bucks around, but they are neither. Just astute business people who have been savvy enough to build their personal fortunes into the billion$.

    These guys bought and own something that others want; simple as that. That gives them the leverage to cost-share, if not “here” then “there” (wherever “there” is). In the first year of their ownership the Bucks’ talent, coached by Jason Kidd, they astounded the sports world by performing WAY beyond what anyone expected. They are greatly more valuable than they otherwise would have been under prior ownership and management.

    So here is the choice:
    (A) The “We’ll Show THEM” approach. Meaning: tell the owners to find their shared funding elsewhere because we think they are too rich to expect any concessions from “little old Milwaukee and Wisconsin”. Implication: we don’t care much about having an NBA team as part of our urban profile, so don’t let the door hit you in the behind as you go elsewhere.

    —or —

    (B) The “We’re in This With You” approach. Meaning: We wish you’d pay more, but we realize you have a strong positive vision and plan (one you COULD take elsewhere and be welcomed), and we’d like our citizens to enjoy the ride with you.

    My own preference would be to work a deal in which the taxpaying public would get a share of the capital gain if and when the franchise is sold and relocates. And, meanwhile, I would like to see this franchise become “top tier” competitively, because we know how that would build community pride and spirit.

  19. M says:

    I am pro-streetcar, pro-mass transit, and pro-arena–when it’s not a Fifty-Shifty deal with taxpayers get shafted.

    For example, it may be $20 a year per person for the MP sales tax, but that’s just one piece of a massive public subsidy puzzle. I was shocked to learn the City also sends Miller Park $1 million every year from the general fund, i.e. from property taxes. It’s just part of Salesman Selig’s big deal. Plus 300 acres of Miller Park property are tax exempt. Plus all its operations and ancillary commerce. Bruce M. has cataloged it all and it ain’t pretty. Matt Hrodey also analyzed the MP books in MKE mag. We all pay to provide city services for MP. (By contrast, the county gives MAM just over $1M a year, to maintain two needy county-owned buildings and many acres of land. I bet arena and MAM attendance are not that far apart and MAM probably attracts way more out-of-towners–and not just from Chicago to see the Bulls. The state has also given the BC over $10M since 2006.

    I don’t believe we’ll all be sorry if we don’t hand over our lunch money plus college funds & transit bucks etc. to boot. The City could surely put its $1 million MP subsidy to better use. It can also hold on to its paid-for parking garage and let the Bucks build redundant bars on other free land they finagle. The Bucks should also not get 50% of income a city facility nets nor 100% of arena naming rights. They’re stacking the deck left and right.

    The Bucks owners are absolutely out-playing all the pols in these crappy deals. The pols need a top-notch coach to help them get back their game. The Bucks will NOT leave just because they are not handed the sun, moon, a few bonus planets, 30 acres for free to control and a parking garage to tear down. Appease-at-any-price strategies are a trap: those who get all their demands met drive even harder future bargains. We’re being played for chumps. Let’s all repeat affirmations: We can get a better deal and keep the Bucks here…

  20. So nobody gets to vote on an $800 million highway expansion that would harm adjoining private property owners, yet we’re supposed to vote on a streetcar that costs a fraction of that and causes property values to appreciate? Who’s really “conservative” in that equation?

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