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What Makes Lena Taylor Run?

Milwaukee County Exec candidate returns to her roots

Mar. 12, 2008
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If state Sen. Lena Taylor was tired at the end of a long day that included tending to a young son, working in the state Senate, the umpteenth campaign debate with Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and preparing for the next forum, to be held at 7:30 the following morning, it didn’t show.

In fact, she was ready to join a lively church service that was being held at the site of last Thursday’s event, Faith United Church of Christ, on the city’s Northwest Side. Since that wasn’t possible, she instead chatted with a member of the Capitol West Neighborhood Association about the group’s upcoming spring cleanup, and promised to publicize the event on her legislative update and help out after the April 1 election. And then she zoomed off to her campaign headquarters, housed in her former law offices, before being able to return home to 8-year-old Isaiah, read her Bible and get some sleep.

Taylor’s days balancing single motherhood, legislative work and her campaign for Milwaukee County executive are extraordinarily long and eventful. (“She’s the hardest-working candidate I’ve ever seen,” her longtime friend and adviser Les Johns said.)

Yet despite the never-ending demands, reports from the campaign trail show that she’s passionate and energetic and definitely not afraid to take on Walker’s record—even while sitting next to him at the same table. “On any of the issues that exist in our county—transit, parks, unemployment, education, corrections—where was the leadership from the county executive?” Taylor asked the debate crowd. “You need someone who will think out of the box, who will seek out innovative ideas. You need someone who is determined, no matter how hard it is, to make it work.”

And determined is a good way to describe Taylor, who seems to thrive on challenges. Taylor has risen quickly from solo lawyer and property owner to be elected to the state Assembly, then state Senate and, perhaps, the first elected female or African-American Milwaukee County executive.

Even though her campaign pits her against a well-funded incumbent and hyperventilating right-wing radio hosts and bloggers who seize on even the smallest of her mistakes to make her seem not credible, Taylor seems to shrug it off. She told the crowd that she’s already been tested by life, and that stepping into county politics is just another challenge that must be overcome—even if it’s just sheer force of will that gets her through.

“I don’t care if you look at the odds of me finishing my undergraduate degree, or going to law school and being the only African-American woman who graduated in my class,” Taylor said during the debate. “I don’t care if you look at me stepping out on faith and starting not one but two businesses simultaneously while I was parenting, my brother at first and later my son. I’ve been able to roll up my sleeves and get it done. I don’t think there’s anything more important than to say that I want to do it.”

Taylor said she’d approach the county’s tight budget the way her family always did—by creatively making it work. “If we had seven people sit down at the table and we made chili and more people came, we added tomato sauce to stretch it,” Taylor said in the debate. “And if we didn’t have tomato sauce, we added ketchup and water. You do what you need to do. And if more people came for dinner, we made chili dogs. And with the county budget, I’m going to do what I’ve done my entire life.”

“I Want to Come Home”
Taylor wasn’t forced into this race, nor is she leaving a bad situation for a better opportunity. She has served the city’s Northwest Side, Glendale and part of Wauwatosa in the state Legislature since 2003, first in the Assembly and then in the Senate, and sits on the powerful Joint Finance Committee, where the governor’s budget and other initiatives are hashed out before being offered for a vote. Now that her party is in the majority in the Senate, she’s able to move forward on some of the issues that mean the most to her—corrections, health and employment. So why give that up to work in county government, which seems to supply a steady stream of bad news? “I want to come home,” Taylor explained simply in an interview after the debate.

Taylor’s run for county executive draws on her deep roots in the Milwaukee community, a history that she’s eager to contrast to Walker’s. (Walker was raised in Iowa and Delavan, and moved to the city to attend Marquette University before serving in the state Assembly as a Republican and becoming county executive in 2002.) In conversation, Taylor seems like your typical Milwaukeean—albeit a very smart, outspoken and highachieving one. She grew up on the city’s North Side, graduated from Rufus King High School and UW-Milwaukee and now lives on the same block on which she was raised. Her parents worked at A.O. Smith Corp. and American Motors Corp. Her grandmother, Delta Edwards, owned Mama Delta’s Restaurant and Grocery Store, as well as some residential properties. Former Acting Mayor Marvin Pratt was a neighbor, Taylor’s alderman and an example to follow (“Marvin Pratt had a customer-service mentality with his constituents that to this day makes it difficult for anyone who comes behind him [to top],” Taylor said. “He knew your name, your address, what the issue was at your house. And got you results.”)

Taylor moved away from Milwaukee once, to study law at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She returned to Milwaukee to practice law. In those early years, she took on a variety of cases—family, criminal, you name it—and the issues she worked on as a lawyer informs her work in the Legislature. She is currently the chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Corrections and Housing.

Her entrance into the political realm in 2003 wasn’t expected of her. Taylor said her family wasn’t political and didn’t encourage her to run for office. But she said that the seed may have been planted by her grandmother, whom Taylor cites as her greatest inspiration. Back in the 1970s, the senator says, her grandmother took her on a trip to Washington, D.C. to witness the inauguration of Jimmy Carter.

“Can you imagine?” Taylor said. Taylor said her grandmother’s lessons and example still affect her. “She also taught me something that I can say is a huge part of who I am,” Taylor said in an interview. “She taught me that to whom much is given, much is required. It’s one thing to say that you’re a person of faith. It’s another thing to live it. My grandmother … when I was growing up we’d have to go and see if people were outside at Thanksgiving and holidays and dinners and invite them in. I used to hate that when I was a kid. But now I look back and I’m so glad that she taught me that it’s not about you. It’s very important to remember that you’re blessed.”

Taylor said that this message of sharing and caretaking is one that she wants to build on as county executive. “I guess that’s the reason why I feel so strongly about being the county executive,” Taylor said. “Because I believe that county government is a place where we should nurture families and help them to be strong, where we should be a safety net for individuals. Not a foundation for people to live on, but a place where we can help them to be stronger.”

Clinton and Obama Combined
Taylor recently told a reporter that voters who support her don’t have to make a tough decision between “Obama” and “Clinton” because she embodies both African Americans’ and women’s experiences.

Listen to Taylor debate Walker and one is reminded of one of Hillary Clinton’s more successful lines on the stump—that it takes a Clinton to clean up after a President Bush. Because to hear Taylor tell it, it will take her efforts to clean up after Scott Walker’s mess in county government.

In contrast to Walker’s efforts to downsize the county’s resources, Taylor said that she would invest in the county to stimulate economic growth and repair its infrastructure, and improve employee morale and productivity so that residents could rely on quality services.

“If we’re not willing to invest in the county, why would a business want to?” Taylor asked. Unlike an earlier debate between the two candidates in February, now Taylor consistently uses Walker’s five years in county government against him, arguing that his no-tax promise has made the county’s problems worse.

“I’m saying, give me a chance,” Taylor said after the debate. “He’s had five years, almost six, and he’s not been able to cut his way to prosperity, which is what he’s basically trying to do.”

Taylor pointed out a long list of bad news coming out of the county: the transit system is deteriorating, with higher fares and fewer riders; there are security gaps at the House of Corrections and Downtown jail facility; an unacceptably high percentage of calls into the county for social services go unanswered; the chief judge of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court System has sparred with the county executive over his requested cuts; an audit of a new computer system for medical records at the corrections facilities shows that it isn’t saving money and should be scrapped; a regional transit system has been blocked and $91 million in federal seed money is up in the air; and the much-loved park system is constantly under threat.

And Taylor isn’t afraid to get personal with her criticisms, constantly reminding the crowd that Walker hasn’t lived in Milwaukee County long enough to remember the good old days, when kids could safely hang out in properly maintained parks and pools, or when Milwaukee County had a much-admired transit system that residents could rely on.

“He isn’t even from here,” Taylor said. With her list of complaints, Taylor is trying to capitalize on dissatisfaction within Milwaukee County. According to a Mellman poll conducted last November, Walker’s disap- proval rating is 49%; the same number says that Milwaukee County is headed in the wrong direction. And although Walker had a greater name recognition among those polled, the results showed that his support is weak. Johns, Taylor’s campaign adviser, said that the senator is working overtime to become more familiar with voters, never failing to stop if she sees a place with lights on and a crowd gathered.

“I would say that her name recognition is about 80% now,” Johns said, up from 40% last fall. Taylor said that the voters’ option on April 1 is clear.

“If you like the way that things are, then you can continue doing the same,” Taylor said. “But if you think we can do better, if you think that it’s a shame that our transit system has been destroyed, if you think our parks need to be restored, if you think that you need someone who cares, then I’m saying that we can’t expect a different result with the mentality that we currently have.”

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.


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