Wisconsin Examiner

How Alex Lasry Rose in the Polls

Labor support, personal wealth helps Bucks exec in Democratic primary for US Senator.

By , Wisconsin Examiner - May 3rd, 2022 12:58 pm
Alex Lasry. Photo from Lasry for Wisconsin.

Alex Lasry. Photo from Lasry for Wisconsin.

A political newcomer with a fat wallet to help finance a campaign and private sector experience that will help him do things in public office that career politicians can’t. That’s the niche Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry is carving out in the 2022 Democratic contest to challenge Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in November.

But Lasry isn’t pitching himself as a flinty-eyed bean-counter who will use his private sector experience to clean up government and cut costs. And his manner is the polar opposite of former President Donald Trump’s “Art of the Deal” braggadocio.

Instead, the resume he highlights is dominated by projects, negotiations and collective accomplishments. He is running as a doer, not a talker.

“One of the frustrations I have had is that we’ve got a lot of people in Washington, and in politics in general, who don’t know how to get things done, don’t have a history of doing things,” Lasry says in an interview in the sparsely decorated downtown Milwaukee office that houses his campaign. “I’ve got that track record and history of raising wages, creating jobs, bringing investment here, and I think we need that kind of person in Washington to actually get things done.”

Lasry points to his role in the Milwaukee Bucks, including the building of the Fiserv Forum arena with an agreement to provide jobs for residents of the city’s most impoverished communities. He was also the public face of the city’s bid to host the Democratic National Convention in 2020 — an event that had promised to bring thousands of visitors to the city and produce countless media impressions nationwide before the COVID-19 pandemic turned it into a primarily virtual experience.

His pitch appears to be making inroads among voters evaluating their alternatives in the Democratic Senate primary. Last week the latest Marquette Law School poll showed Lasry with support of 16% of those surveyed, just three points behind the frontrunner, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, at 19%. (The Lasry campaign characterized the latest poll numbers as “a statistical tie.”)

Lasry has raised just over $9 million, according to Open Secrets, which tracks political spending, and so far he has spent just over $8 million. He has contributed $5.8 million so far to his own campaign, about 64% of the total.

On the issues Lasry and the other Democrats vying for the nomination may differ on the margins. But all share broadly similar outlooks: advancing economic policies that focus on the middle class and working people, further expanding health care coverage, and embracing progressive social stances on race, women’s rights and the rights of LGBTQ people.

In that environment, people who have joined Lasry’s campaign — and some who are watching from the sidelines — describe a case for his candidacy that combines resume, relationships and realism.

“He has the best chance to beat Ron Johnson,” says Mike Moran, former chair of the Brown County Democratic party and one of Lasry’s early endorsers.

Part of that calculation, backers acknowledge, is wealth and connections: Lasry isn’t just a Bucks executive, he’s the son of one of the team’s billionaire co-owners.

“Whoever is the nominee, they’re going to have to raise a mountain of money,” says Jarrett Brown, a freelance writer and worker advocate who has endorsed Lasry. “I know Alex can do that.”

Winning the state

As important as money is, however, Lasry’s supporters say it’s not the only reason they’ve gotten behind him. Brown, who lives in Green Bay, says he also believes Lasry has the best chance of winning the state in November.

Months before Lasry launched his Senate campaign, Moran got to know him while scheduling speakers for the county party’s meetings on Zoom in 2020. It was the first year of the pandemic. Lasry, whose Bucks job has made him the team’s public face on human resources and community public relations, discussed the NBA response to COVID-19 along with the team’s project to register Milwaukee voters for that November’s election.

Lasry “was clearly engaged with what was going on,” Moran recalls. “He spoke very passionately” about the importance of COVID-19 safety and the safety plan: a short 2020 season played without spectators and with the players held in a closely regulated “bubble.” Moran came away impressed with Lasry as someone who was serious and knowledgeable, not just riding on family connections.

A few months later, he took a call from Lasry. “He didn’t tell me he was going to run — he just asked me how I would feel about it” if he did, Moran says. No longer a party official, Moran was free to take a side. “I told him, ‘If you run, I’ll support you.’”

If Lasry’s wealth, and thus his ability to afford the expense of a campaign, has inspired some of his support, it’s also is a potential stumbling block for people who are not keen to see a wealthy Democrat carry the torch for progressive values against multimillionaire Johnson. So is the fact that he’s not from Wisconsin. His campaign aims to neutralize both criticisms.

The campaign launched in February 2021 with heavy-hitting endorsements. In Milwaukee Lasry got early backing from Black political leaders, including Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley; Cavalier Johnson, the city council president at the time who was elected mayor this April; and Martha Love, an elder stateswoman among the city’s Democrats.

All three are featured in the campaign’s introductory video, along with two Milwaukee alders and former state lawmakers, Nikiya Dodd and JoCasta Zamarripa. The video includes sound bites from Fiserv Forum workers as well as scenes of Lasry marching with Crowley in Kenosha following the August 2020 shooting of Jacob Blake.

“It’s one thing to have money,” Love says in the video. “It’s another thing to be respectful of people and demonstrate that respect.”

The Bucks and the Fiserv Forum

The Milwaukee-centric launch capitalized both on Lasry’s work with the Bucks and his role in the city’s successful bid for the convention. He came to Milwaukee after getting an MBA degree at New York University and after his father, billionaire and hedge fund manager Marc Lasry, along with Wes Edens, another wealthy financier, bought the Bucks from former owner and longtime Democratic senator from Wisconsin Herb Kohl. Lasry joined the Bucks organization as a vice president, later rising to senior VP.

Lasry has described his role as helping with the team’s subsequent rebuild and rebranding as well as overseeing the team’s compliance with an agreement that the Bucks had signed committing to benchmarks for hiring locally among unemployed and under-employed people.

The arena’s jobs agreement was negotiated in 2016 as community payback for the project’s $250 million in state tax breaks. It included a promise to bring hourly wages to $15 by 2023 and to accept unionization for arena employees. For the construction project itself, the team committed to building with union contractors  and signed a project labor agreement with the unions.

In his campaign, Lasry has emphasized his role in those decisions and relationships. “We knew that in order to get the best-trained and the best people, you’re going to hire union,” he says in an interview. “I’m not just saying it because it’s good politics. I’m saying, because these are my real values.”

Lasry’s campaign staff is also unionized, signing with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which is among the unions that have endorsed him.

“We want to create more jobs, we want to raise wages, we want to bring more investment here to Wisconsin — those are the reasons to vote for me,” Lasry says. “Because I’ve done those things, right? We pay a $15 minimum wage, we’ve created thousands of good-paying union jobs here in Wisconsin, we’ve sourced 80% of our materials right here from Wisconsin. We’ve worked with vendors and suppliers of small businesses, minority- and women-owned businesses.”

In a column last year, Urban Milwaukee Editor Bruce Murphy suggested Lasry’s role in some of those decisions was overstated. The promise to build the arena with union labor and pay employees $15 an hour after it opened had been the price Democrats in the state Legislature exacted in return for supporting the arena project’s tax break, Murphy wrote.

The column also criticized the Lasry campaign for originally implying that the $15 minimum wage took effect when the arena opened rather than in 2020, as it did. (The 2020 hike to $15 actually took place three years ahead of the 2023 deadline in the agreement.) And Murphy noted that the Forum had employed non-union stagehands for concerts and other entertainment events when it opened, only signing a contract in 2019 after the stagehands’ union began picketing the previous summer.

After the column the Lasry campaign reworded its description of the $15 wage to specify both the original 2023 deadline and its 2020 implementation.

But beyond that, Lasry is dismissive of Murphy’s criticism. In a news report, he observes, a stagehands’ union leader credited Lasry with facilitating negotiations with the union. “They endorsed us,” he adds, referring to the union.

‘A pro-union Democrat’

Peter Rickman, president of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers (MASH) union, says he has no doubt about Lasry’s sincerity on labor issues. The union represents Fiserv Forum concession and custodial employees, among others, and also functions as a hiring hall for connecting service workers with union employers.

Rickman also headed the coalition that had negotiated the jobs agreement in 2016, before the union was established. In 2015 he had been told that “the Bucks owners are expecting that [arena jobs] are going to be union across the board,” Rickman says. “My skeptical response was, ‘Prove it.’” The result was the jobs agreement, which specified as much.

Rickman hasn’t endorsed anyone in the primary, but calls Lasry “a genuine supporter of unions and living wages” whose campaign has reached out to him and other labor leaders to consult on policy issues.

“If Alex Lasry wins the Democratic primary, we’re going to see a reliable vote for the PRO Act [strengthening union organizing rights] and labor law reform,” Rickman says. “At no time could anyone call into question that Alex Lasry is a pro-union Democrat.”

In the last year Lasry has been traveling the state, meeting with groups of supporters. At a Plumbers Union gathering in Kaukauna in December, Moran, a host along with former state Sen. Dave Hansen, watched as Lasry mingled with the small crowd after a short speech. “He spent a lot of time talking to people one on one,” Moran says approvingly. “What I noticed was that Alex probably spent more time listening than speaking.”

Lasry says that his state travels are aimed at “building that relationship and trust” with voters. He knows that the conventional wisdom describes Wisconsin’s electorate as deeply polarized along partisan as well as geographic lines. He insists that’s not what he sees, however.

“I push back on that a little bit,” Lasry says. He points to the shifts from Obama to Donald Trump, with voters along the way electing Republican Scott Walker as governor but also Democrat Tammy Baldwin as senator, and giving her a 10-point margin in 2018.

“To me what that’s saying is that there’s a lot of persuadable voters out there,” he says. “When I travel the state, whether it’s Marathon County, or Bayfield, or Racine or Kenosha, I hear a lot of the same problems.”

Water quality, public transportation, good public education, access to health care and access to broadband internet service — “these are things that are affecting the entire state,” Lasry says. “Whether it’s in urban Milwaukee or in Barron County, what I hear is the same thing: ‘I want someone who’s actually going to go to Washington and do something.’”

From business to politics

What about the criticism that business people are actually ill-equipped to be effective in politics and government, because they’re too accustomed to being able to exercise authority unilaterally in order to get things done?

“The way I look at it is, you’re still dealing with people, right?” Lasry says. “Whether it’s business, sports or politics, you’re dealing with people. In business and sports you’re constantly dealing with people you agree with and people you don’t agree with — putting different value propositions on different things. You got to then figure out a way to come together to get the deal done.”

Lasry grew up watching as his parents actively supported and funded Democrats Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry in their successive presidential races. After college, he went to work in the White House for President Barack Obama’s senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, who directed the Office of Public Engagement.

He marveled at her “being that close to the President, having to deal with a thousand different things — and every move she made, anything she did, was going to be scrutinized, and how she was able to handle that with grace and composure…”

After he got his MBA Lasry joined the family business — if an NBA team qualifies for that description.

Lasry says his decision to run for Senate came in the aftermath of Joe Biden’s election in 2020. “I had a number of people asking me to get in, and I looked at it and thought I could bring something different,” he says.

And while he offers “a positive agenda and a positive reason” for his campaign, he — along with every other person running — says Johnson’s record is also part of the case.

A Senate seat “is an opportunity to help people and do good,” Lasry says. “Ron Johnson has wasted that opportunity. For 12 years, he’s really done nothing. And I think people are really frustrated with that. I think people want someone who’s going to go there and do something.”

Tammy Baldwin has stayed away from endorsing any of her fellow Democrats. Lasry isn’t shy about offering himself as a teammate to the second-term senator, however. She is, he says, evidence of what’s possible in Wisconsin.

“Tammy is one of those people who actually gets things done,” he says. “And I think we need to be able to give her a partner to bring some real results.”

Lasry’s 3-point shot: Running for Senate as someone who can ‘get things done’ was originally published by the Wisconsin Examiner.

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