Chris Abele Is In Deep Trouble
A year ago he was a shoo-in for reelection. Now he's in the fight of his life.
Just a year ago no one expected Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele to have an opponent, much less that he would be looking at likely defeat. But in little more than six months Abele has managed to wound himself so badly that he could well be defeated by challenger and Democratic state senator Chris Larson.
The fact that Abele lost the February primary is one thing. It’s certainly not good news, but in the bigger turnout general election there will be far more voters, enough that he could easily turn around his fortunes. But the Abele campaign is telling us they doubt this, because it is doing nothing but attack ads against Larson, suggesting their own polling shows Abele is behind.
Abele no doubt annoyed some liberals and hard-core supporters of the county board by pushing for state legislation to reduce the county board to part-time status and salary, but the results of a Spring 2014 referendum showed that voters overwhelmingly supported the idea, by a 71 percent to 29 percent majority. Board members, of course, were incensed with Abele and were looking for payback, which made their relations with the executive all but toxic. But all Abele had to do was wait until April 2016 for the measure to go into effect and he’d be facing a very different board with considerably less power. Instead, the ever-impolitic county executive went back to the legislature yet again to ask for more power.
The Republican-controlled legislature complied, with a law that stripped the county board of any power over all county land sales (other than parks), and removed its authority over transfers of county property, over the construction, maintenance and financing of “county-owned building and public works projects” while handing all this power to the county exec. All the executive needs is to get one additional official to sign off — either the county comptroller or a real estate professional designated by the Milwaukee County Intergovernmental Cooperation Council, whose members include all the mayors or village board presidents of the county’s 19 municipalities.
In addition, the County Executive was given “sole authority… without any review or approval of the county board” over “procurement, including requests for proposals,” and “contracting” and “administrative review of appeals of the denial… of a contract award.”
Everything about the deal stunk. It was a last-minute, never-discussed amendment to the state budget that had no fiscal impact and didn’t belong there. The measure was a complete surprise not just to the county board, but to Milwaukee County voters. And it gave Abele far more power than any other county executive or manager in the state.
And all of this came just a month or so after Abele had promoted a plan that bailed out Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators by transferring most of the public costs for the Milwaukee Bucks’s arena from state to county taxpayers through a plan to use the Wisconsin Center District‘s hotel, car rental and restaurant tax. That might have been bad enough, but Abele also embraced a plan proposed by state officials that would raise the final $80 million needed to fund the arena by having the city and county certify some of their uncollected debt so the state could collect it. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett made it clear he couldn’t support a plan “to collect debt from indigent people to support a $500 million arena,” as one city insider notes. Abele, however, not only agreed, but offered to take on the entire $80 million cost. This, for a project to benefit billionaire sports owners that most county taxpayers already opposed.
But Abele still wasn’t done digging himself into a political hole. In January we learned that the state law giving Abele the nearly unilateral power to sell county land made it possible for him — or any successor — to sell land in as many as 43 county parks, because some of this land was not zoned as parkland. It was a huge goof by Abele, and showed how little vetting of the budget amendment had been done. Upon learning of this the Abele administration began contacting municipalities asking them to rezone this parkland, but this turns out to be a fairly complicated process, leaving the whole issue unresolved and reeking of political incompetence.
Remarkably, however, Abele was soon digging himself deeper. Three weeks ago, discussing what to do about the Mitchell Park Domes, whose repair could be as high as $75 million, Abele indicated he was open to tearing the Domes down and described their design as “McDonalds-y.” That might be okay to say after the election, but Abele’s frankness has undoubtedly cost him votes with the many people in town who love the Domes. ‘This is a part of our soul, of who we are as Milwaukee County,'” Larson declared, striking a populist note while making Abele look like an elitist snob.
An insider connected to a conservative group that polled Milwaukee before the primary told me that Abele had 10 percent more people rating him unfavorably than favorably, never a good sign for an incumbent. My guess is that Larson will carry the city’s liberals by a wide margin. Which leaves the minority of white conservatives who support Donovan for mayor who are likely to vote for Abele, who has styled himself as a fiscal conservative. Abele must carry the suburbs or he can’t beat Larson.
It’s worth noting that Abele lost the primary to conservative Jeff Stone in the 2011 primary, but won easily in the general election. It’s still possible Abele could rebound in the April vote. But his campaign is unrelentingly attacking Larson with increasingly lame literature, including one that puts a silly-looking white wig of hair on Larson while telling us the state senator is “No Bernie Sanders.” I might add that we get two copies of every piece of literature, for me and my wife, meaning Abele’s campaign consultant hasn’t consolidated voter addresses to prevent that. It makes the lit drops feel more sloppy and desperate.
Larson looked initially like a weak candidate. The Democrats replaced him as Senate Minority Leader, which raised questions about his abilities. He has never made any statements to separate himself from the county board, or suggest he has any views different than the board’s liberal majority. And his campaign initially seemed poorly organized and went through several staff changes. But Larson gradually found his footing, while Abele was wounded badly on the issue of park sales and then on the Domes. Abele has now booked an astonishing $500,000 in TV ads to pound Larson, which may still turn around the race — unless the county exec finds a way to shoot himself in the foot again.