Chris Larson’s War Against Abele
State senator running for county executive blasts Abele with personal attacks, will divide Democrats.
Is Chris Abele a Democrat?
When the longtime philanthropist announced he would run for Milwaukee County Executive in 2011, he portrayed himself not as a Democrat, but a bipartisan pragmatist who had “worked with Republicans, Democrats and anyone who has good ideas to find solutions,” as he put it.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter David Umhoefer did a Politifact column examining the truth of his claim and found that Abele, in fact, gave political donations only to Democrats, from presidential candidates like John Kerry and Barack Obama, to Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle to legislators like Lena Taylor or Pedro Colon to congressional candidates like Tammy Baldwin and Russ Feingold. “We couldn’t find one dime in donations over a decade to a Republican candidate out of about $175,000” in political contributions, Umhoefer wrote.
But once Abele became County Executive, he went over the heads of county board members to convince the Republican-led legislature to pass a law creating a county comptroller, an independently-elected office similar to the city comptroller. The idea (a sound one) was to make sure a disaster like the outrageously lucrative pension plan of 2000-2001 never happens again, but it made enemies of some board members, who soon began to deride Abele’s budgets as “Walker-lite,” referring to Abele’s Republican predecessor as county exec, Scott Walker.
Once Abele went over the heads of board members again, soliciting the support of Republican legislators to turn the county supervisor job into a part-time position, with far lower pay and staff support, it left the county exec in an unrelenting, bitter war with the board. State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) opposed this law and is a former county supervisor who tends to agree with board members in their opposition to Abele on a wide range of policies.
Still, it’s unlikely Larson would have run against Abele — whose personal wealth and ability to spend freely on a campaign makes him a formidable opponent — if not for Abele’s more recent move agreeing to become a kind of education czar who will oversee a special district in Milwaukee for the city’s most troubled public schools. Opponents see this as a Republican plan to undermine Milwaukee Public Schools and replace them with choice and charter schools.
This was the issue that finally pushed Larson to run, he concedes. “That was the big one. As soon as that came out, I remember picking up the phone to talk to him.” But Abele didn’t answer, and never called him back, Larson says.
Larson calls the county exec “King Abele” and repeatedly derides him for using his “dad’s money” to get his way. (Abele has inherited millions from his wealthy father, Boston Scientific founder John Abele.)
Larson says his opposition to Abele boils down to three major issues:
1. “Abele is not the person we elected,” Larson charges. The man most Democrats supported — and Republicans opposed — when Abele was first elected in 2011 has changed, and recently held a fundraiser for Republican Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, “who is leading the charge on defunding Planned Parenthood,” Larson complains. But the county exec’s spokesperson, Melissa Baldauff, says Abele has “never” held a fundraiser for Sanfelippo.
Milwaukee’s Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Moore, in announcing her support of Larson, echoed the idea that Abele has changed and the MPS takeover was the deal breaker. “It’s really sad to have to withdraw your support for someone,” Moore told Fox 6. “It feels so, so disappointing to come back to my own hometown and really find someone who’s trying to obliterate democracy right here in my own community.”
2. “Abele has become increasingly out of touch,” Larson charges. “He lives in the largest house in Milwaukee and drives around in a huge SUV with two armed guards.” And he won’t answer phone calls from Democrats with concerns about his policies, Larson adds. “He doesn’t think he needs to explain any of his actions.”
Aides to Abele have said he added the armed guards after receiving threats. And Abele is now divorced and no longer lives in the Lake Drive mansion, but in a pricey condo in the high-rise Moderne. Abele’s campaign spokesperson Tia Torhorst say Abele “regularly meets with elected officials, even ones who disagree with him. In the past week he’s met with Reps. Barnes, Goyke, Riemer, and Sinicki and Sen. Harris.” But Larson counters that Abele has suddenly begun meeting with Democrats since Larson announced his campaign.
3.“Abele has become power hungry, grabbing power for himself and taking it away from elected members of the county board and school board,” Larson charges. (Torhorst counters that “Chris isn’t interested in more power, he’s interested in more accountability.”)
“I have no doubt that Chris Abele will throw tons of his dad’s money at us to try to distort the message, distort the facts,” Larson told Fox 6. “What he can’t do is what we’re going to do — build a grassroots movement.”
The growing opposition among Democrats to Abele is in some ways surprising. Abele’s philosophy is reminiscent of former Mayor John Norquist. Like Norquist, Abele is a fiscal conservative who supports both choice and public schools, but has been liberal on other issues. Abele who has kept a lid on overall spending and has reduced the county’s debt, but has been a liberal on many policies. After nearly a decade of cuts in county transit funding and routes, Abele stabilized funding and even got the state to provide more aid. Abele helped get the state to rescind cuts in the county’s child support program and has gotten federal support as well, he has reformed the mental health care system, created a plan to end chronic homelessness, has supported LGBT rights and was the first county exec with the guts to take on Sheriff David Clarke and his long-bloated budget.
Some observers believe the Republicans supported the plan in return for Abele’s agreement to become the local official leading the MPS takeover plan. The fact that Abele didn’t offer much explanation of his new bid for power — and that Republican legislators, when asked to explain it, referred questions back to Abele — all added to the smelliness of the deal. Larson claims Republican legislators first approached Tom Barrett to head up the MPS plan and the mayor declined. (Barrett’s office didn’t get back to me to confirm or deny).
Larson questions why Abele wants to amass more power, in this case over MPS: “Why are you trying to take over on schools when you don’t have a background in education?”
While much of the language to further increase Abele’s power over county government was excised, he was given authority over county land sales, with no need for county board approval. “That’s frightening,” Larson says, “both for Abele and for the community. He as sole authority with or without a public bid process.” Not quite, Baldauff notes: under the new law, land sales must be a approved by least two of three members of panel that includes the county exec, comptroller and a a real estate expert appointed by elected members of the Milwaukee County Intergovernmental Cooperation Council.
Larson also condemns Abele for putting county taxpayers on the line to subsidize the Milwaukee Bucks new arena. “After he walked into that room (where negotiations for the arena took place) the county was on the hook for $80 million.”
Larson also condemns Abele for being willing to raise the $80 million by using more aggressive tactics to go after delinquent taxpayers and others who owe fees or other money to the county. Barrett flatly turned down the suggestion of state officials to use this tactic, his aides have said, as this could mean going after the indigent to create a new arena owned by billionaires. An outraged Larson got the legislation changed to prevent Abele from using this approach, but this left the county looking for other ways to raise the money he had pledged.
Larson is pretty much a pure liberal who disagrees with Abele and supports the county board on nearly any issue. On many of those issues the average county voter might agree with Abele. They did, after all, elect Walker three times.
But Abele’s grab for power — when combined with his wealth — has opened the door to a populist campaign by Larson that could be potent. Larson will probably have the support of nearly the entire county board, Milwaukee School Board and a number of other Democrats. “I think we will have a lot of folks who will come out against his power grabs,” Larson predicts.
Larson, however, wants to roll back the downsizing of the board, which voters supported in referendums in both the city and various suburbs. Abele will doubtless attack Larson on that issue, and this could have been very effective, if not for the county exec’s more recent grab for further power. This has the feel of an election that could quickly get very personal, bloodying both candidates and badly dividing the county’s Democrats. All this in a race that looked like an easy reelection for Abele just a few months ago.
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