Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Can Larson Beat Abele?

Democratic insiders handicap the race, which may come down to turnout.

By - Feb 29th, 2016 11:21 am
Chris Larson vs Chris Abele

Chris Larson vs Chris Abele

What was one of the last things state Sen. Chris Larson said last week in the first post-primary debate with the incumbent – Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele – who Larson is trying to oust on April 5? “Make sure our county is taken back.”

Add one letter – an “r” – to that phrase, and it sounds like a call from Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders: “Make sure our country is taken back.”

Coincidence? Nah.

Larson is selling his own version of Sanders’ politics of outrage, as the Democratic senator tries to oust Abele, a wealthy business executive elected in a special election in 2011 after former Executive Scott Walker became governor. Abele had no opponent in 2012.

“I’ve had a lot of good luck in Madison,” Abele said in the debate.

Abele’s Capitol meetings with leaders from both parties have resulted in changes that Larson calls a “power grab” that broadened the authority of the county executive and weakened the county board. Abele backed a plan to cut the pay and power of county supervisors and got sole authority to negotiate Milwaukee County’s contribution for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena. He now backs an Assembly-passed bill that would allow the state Revenue Department to collect Milwaukee County’s outstanding debts.

Abele said his five years of Capitol meetings with “allies” have focused on “solutions – not fights and enemies.”

Larson was badly outspent – $20 to $1, he claims – before the primary, but he stunned Abele by beating the incumbent on election night. By all accounts, Abele is fighting for his political life.

“Very impressive,” one former Democratic elected official said of Larson’s victory. “That’s a signal of an important invisible network of like-minded voters.”

“I was floored” by Larson’s win, added a Democratic elected official who has so far stayed publicly neutral.

In the Public Policy Forum debate, Larson launched several progressive political missiles, testing which ones could do the most damage in the weeks before April 5: Abele has “demonized” county workers. The structurally unsound Mitchell Park Domes are a symbol of a failing “infrastructure.” Abele sought, and got, laws changed that allow him to unilaterally sell parks, the airport, whatever. The number of sheriff’s deputies has fallen from 350 to 250 on Abele’s watch. Abele has a “Hollywood” style personal security detail.

Although he is not a polished campaigner, Abele fought back, making these points: On his watch, Milwaukee County parks have grown by 150 acres. And, “I have no intention, nor will I ever sell parks.” His budgets have not raised property taxes. He has cut a crushing debt-service load that was an unsustainable $112 million a year when he took office, freeing up millions for critical services. He closed county-run warehouses for the mentally ill, working with state officials to fix a broken care system.

“We’re just getting started,” Abele said.

Several Milwaukee County political veterans score other factors this way:

*Money: Advantage, Abele. Big advantage.

*Turnout: Advantage Larson, if Sanders is still running for President on April 5, which is also Wisconsin’s presidential primary, because Sanders voters are likely to be Larson voters.

*Local Democratic leaders: Advantage Larson. Abele’s enemies include not only Milwaukee County board members but several Democratic legislators – Reps. Leon Young, Jonathan Brostoff, Fred Kessler, David Bowen, Chris Sinicki and LaTonya Johnson and Sens. Nikiya Harris Dodd and Tim Carpenter, for example. Former Rep. Sandy Pasch is a senior Larson adviser.

*Suburbs-versus-city vote: Unknown. Has Abele given Milwaukee County’s suburban voters reasons to rally around him?

Those who have dealt with both Abele and Larson say neither likes to compromise. Abele insisted that he alone negotiate Milwaukee County’s share of the Bucks arena deal, for example.

But Democrats fault how Larson, who was Senate Democratic leader In 2014, recruited candidates that year. Democratic candidate Dick Cates, a well-known Iowa County farmer, was interested in running for an open state Senate seat until he met with Larson. Cates said Larson gave him so many my-way-or-the-highway directives that Cates decided he couldn’t work with Larson. So, Cates ran for the Assembly .

When Cates refused to run for the Senate, Larson recruited Pat Bomhack in the 17th Senate District, angering Democrats who were backing Ernie Wittwer. Bomhack beat Wittwer in a primary by 33 votes.

Cates and Bomhack then both lost in November.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit WisconsinEye public affairs channel. Contact him at

One thought on “The State of Politics: Can Larson Beat Abele?”

  1. Diane Buck says:

    I am a Democrat; however, I am also a fiscal conservative. For years I have been very concerned about Milwaukee County government, especially because when Scott Walker was Executive he never tried to do anything about the terrible County debt and the warehousing of mental patients. County Exec Abele has attacked both of these big problems and done it well!

    My largest interest is in the County Parks. Until Sue Black came along the parks were always on the losing side when it came to the budget. Black was head strong but found ways to help the parks, not necessarily by more taxation but by making contracts with food and beverage businesses, which resulted in more recreation opportunities for children, adults and dogs. And, as a result, more citizens care about the parks. Abele fired Black when he became Executive and hired John Dargle, a nice guy who does exactly what Abele wants.Many of us had to fight when Abele wanted to sell O’Donnell Park to Northwestern Mutual. The area remains a urban park but my park friends are worried about other moves he mighty make to sell green space. Abele now promises not to sell parkland and I will take him at his word.

    I know Abele likes everything to be orchestrated by himself, but so does Chris Larson! Overall Abele has been strong enough to get many things done in our county that needed to be done. Larson does not seem to have answers to fiscal questions and parrots what Bernie Sanders stands for. I will vote for Abele.

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