Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Cheaper Candidate For County Treasurer

Reform candidate Ted Chisholm promises to work for less pay than incumbent David Cullen.

By - Jul 2nd, 2024 03:08 pm

Ted Chisholm. Photo Courtesy of Chisholm campaign.

The usual election for offices like county clerk, treasurer and register of deeds is a low-visibility race, often with no opponent for an entrenched incumbent who sleep walks to a little noticed victory.

Not so the current campaign for county treasurer where brash young challenger Ted Chisholm is mounting a strong campaign against incumbent Milwaukee County Treasurer David Cullen. Chisholm served as a senior administrator with the county Clerk of Courts office until stepping down in January to work on this campaign.

The two candidates could hardly be more different: Chisholm, 26, is running his first campaign for office as a reformer who wants overhaul the office, and Cullen, 64, who has served as treasurer for 10 years, is a lifetime politician who’s held state and local offices for 40 years, and sees no need to change how he operates.

After a decade of quietly running the treasurer’s office. Cullen has suddenly run into controversy this year. He worked on a plan with Clerk George L. Christenson and Register of Deeds Israel Ramón to get each of them a $33,000 or 36% pay hike over four years. As stunning as the proposed pay hike was, it was all the more notable as all three positions have long been seen as sinecures that are more like part-time jobs.

Yet the county board approved the pay hike, only to back down in the face of growing controversy and a veto of the legislation by Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley.The board voted instead for an 11.5% pay raise, increasing the pay from $91,483 to $102,004.

Which has handed Chisholm a campaign issue. He calls the original proposal for a 36% pay hike a “massive and disproportionate” raise, and promises he will work for just $91,483, returning the difference each paycheck to the county. Over a four-year term, that would save taxpayers $42,000.

“I don’t think a $91,000 salary is insufficient for a person who is a manager of just nine employees,” Chisholm said in an interview with Urban Milwaukee.

To which Cullen offered this retort: “He got a job as age 22 as chief of staff for the sheriff and I didn’t see him complaining about what he was paid.”

In April, not long after the pay hike squabble erupted, Cullen managed to court controversy again, sending out a four-page mailer to every resident in the county which cost the taxpayers $24,113 and got him attention from reporters Dan Bice and Vanessa Swales. Cullen described this as an informative newsletter to constituents, but it felt more like a campaign brochure, entitled “Trusted Financial Stewardship” and including warm family photos of Cullen and grandchildren along with, ironically, a chummy photo of Cullen with his pay raise pals Ramon and Christenson.

In an interview with Urban Milwaukee, Cullen noted that what he did was legal and many local and state politicians send out such literature. He said he’s sent out such brochures in the past as county treasurer, but couldn’t recall how many times.

Which handed another issue to Chisholm. “This episode really underscores why the Treasurer’s Office needs new leadership,” he declared, promising he will never send out such literature should he be elected as county treasurer, giving him another way to save the taxpayers money.

To which Cullen retorts: “These are the kind of issues a candidate jumps on when they have no reason for running.”

Yet Chisholm’s campaign has picked up considerable support. You would expect the incumbent candidate to lead in endorsements, and Cullen does have a long list of political officials supporting him. But Chisholm has a pretty impressive list of endorsements, including from more union groups than Cullen has. Chisholm has also raised more campaign donations, about $50,000 to date, he notes, while Cullen says he’s raised about $30,000.

But that’s because Chisholm “is running on his father’s name,” Cullen charges. Ted is the son of longtime Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. 

Chisholm counters with an attack on the “obscure and in some ways willfully obscure way” that Cullen has run the treasurer’s office. “The two biggest questions I get from voters is ‘what does the county treasurer do’ and ‘who is the county treasurer’?”

Cullen insists the job is a full-time position and says the key duties of the office include collecting delinquent taxes for 18 of the 19 municipalities in the county (all except Milwaukee) and working with three investment professionals to invest the county’s money. The office also posts a list of unclaimed funds “every couple years,” he notes, and prints the county’s checks.

Chisholm points to the office’s main function of collecting delinquent taxes for the suburbs and says it’s telling that he has more endorsements —13 in all — from suburban political officials the office serves, versus just four who have endorsed Cullen.

Cullen counters that “the number one issue voters have to decide is whether they want a candidate who is experienced and has done a good job or do they want a candidate who has no experience and has never done anything like that.” He has derided Chisholm as “a political operative without a college degree.”

Chisholm left Macalester College midway through his third year. But after serving as campaign manager for Earnell Lucas, who won the race for county sheriff in 2018, Chisholm served for more than three years as chief of staff for the 700-employee Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office. His job duties included overseeing the department’s annual budget process and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He followed that up with a year serving as one of the top two sub-administrators to the 300-employee Clerk of Courts, where he oversees financial and administrative services.

Chisholm does not have a degree in finance, but neither does Cullen, who has a bachelor’s in education and a law degree. The county’s deputy treasurer, Rex Queen, who has served in this role since 2004, has a degree in accounting and previously worked in the accounting departments of both the Medical Complex and the Sheriff’s Department.

When asked what he does as county treasurer that the deputy treasurer can’t do, Cullen says, “well, theoretically if I’m gone or on vacation, he can handle all the things I handle.”

Chisholm says the job is a part-time position and “it’s a top-heavy office,” with a treasury accounting supervisor, a senior accountant and multiple accounting assistants working under the deputy treasurer and treasurer.

He adds that his goal would be to make the job a full-time position through reorganization of the office. “I would work with the Wisconsin Policy Forum and the county Office of Strategy Budget and Performance” to create recommendations for how to more efficiently organize the department, Chisholm says. “I think the office needs more hands-on, engaged and innovative leadership.”

Cullen sees no need for such reforms. He contends the key issue is that “taxpayer money must be invested wisely and prudently,” and this is what he has done.

The position is a partisan one and there is no Republican candidate running, so whoever takes first in the Democratic primary in August will effectively win the job of county treasurer.

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

2 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Cheaper Candidate For County Treasurer”

  1. Colin says:

    A kid that has no idea what the job does, thinks it can be done in half the effort, yeah good luck with that.
    And even if he does somehow win, he’ll be right there wanting those same exact raises. What a chump. I can’t say I’m a fan of Cullen’s moves but with the suburban endorsements of Chisholm this reeks of of something really bad for the county.

  2. LittleFrog17 says:

    Let’s ask Cullen why he didn’t foreclose on any tax delinquent properties in the County for ten years in a row, until about last year. I’d call that “not doing his job.”

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