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Who Will Run for Milwaukee County Executive?

Dec. 1, 2010
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While two candidates have made it official and filed with the Milwaukee County Election Commission, the real race to replace Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker is taking place behind the scenes, where potential candidates are jockeying for political and financial support.

Officially, Walker hasn’t stated when he’d leave office, so the election hasn’t even been scheduled yet. In fact, Walker has to physically leave office before a special election for his replacement—who will hold that position until Walker’s full term expires in spring 2012—can be ordered.

It’s assumed that Walker will step down by Dec. 28 so that the election for county executive can be placed on the spring ballots.

The two potential candidates that have already filed are Renae Carlson and Ken Kraucunas.

All candidates for county executive would appear on the Feb. 15, 2011, ballot. The top two finishers would then face off in the April 5 general election.

Until then, Milwaukee’s power brokers and grassroots networks are evaluating potential candidates. They’re looking at name recognition, résumés and—perhaps most importantly—a candidate’s ability to raise serious money in four short months.

Since candidates are not going to have much time for retail, face-to-face campaigning, it is going to come down to advertising, which costs serious money. The ultimate cost of this election is estimated to be around $1 million—not an easy amount to raise in a few months in this economic climate. A candidate needs to prove that he or she is a solid fund-raiser or has substantial funds in an existing campaign account. Without that fund-raising ability, he or she must be willing and able to write a substantial personal check.

The Potential Candidates

While this is a nonpartisan race, the two candidates coming out of the February primary are likely to be a Republican and a Democrat. Milwaukee County has elected conservative and liberal county executives, although Milwaukee County has elected only one Republican county executive and in this past gubernatorial race Democrat Tom Barrett received 62% of the county vote over Republican Scott Walker.

While Walker is solidly Republican and has won three countywide elections with more than 55% of the vote, he received only 38% of the Milwaukee County vote in his successful gubernatorial campaign last month, and that makes Democrats very optimistic.

That said, conservatives or Republicans will be represented on the ballot. Republican state Rep. Jeff Stone of Greendale hasn’t officially declared his candidacy, but it’s only a matter of time. His impending candidacy likely knocked out another conservative, Sheriff David Clarke, from entering the race. We assume that the county’s conservatives will rally around Stone, barring any major mistake or the entrance of another like-minded candidate in the race.

There’s a longer list of candidates on the Democratic or liberal side.

Two county supervisors—Johnny Thomas and Marina Dimitrijevic—are mulling bids. Just elected to the board in 2008, Thomas has become deeply involved in transit and the budget. Thus far, Thomas is the only African American to show an interest in running—although there’s always Board Chair Lee Holloway, who could decide to run for county executive after he finishes his stint as interim county executive. Supervisor Dimitrijevic is best known for her award-winning Green Print program, which has saved the county $800,000 in electricity costs and reduced the production of greenhouse gases by 6,500 tons annually. If she wins the support of Milwaukee County’s women and environmentalists, she could be a formidable candidate.

Two other serious contenders could emerge from county government. County Treasurer Dan Diliberti represented parts of Milwaukee and Greenfield for 12 years as a county supervisor. He’s shown strong interest in running for county executive, as has Milwaukee County Clerk Joe Czarnezki, who has served in both the state Assembly and Senate. Both men were popular in their local districts and both have very good reputations, but they have lost their base now that they are in countywide positions, because people forget candidates when they don’t see them campaigning at their doors. But both men know the county through and through, even if they aren’t household names. The only real question for Diliberti and Czarnezki is whether they can raise the necessary money in the short time period.

Lastly, former Democratic state Rep. Sheldon Wasserman is weighing whether to jump in. Wasserman has a number of advantages: He comes from the vote-rich, more affluent North Shore, so he should have a fund-raising edge; he left the Legislature just two years ago after losing a bid for state Senate, so his name is still fresh in voters’ minds; his OB-GYN practice gives him an advantage with women and the medical community; and he is in a position to help finance his campaign. Wasserman hasn’t made it official, but he will probably enter the race.


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