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The Worst Job in Wisconsin

Jan. 5, 2011
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County executive of a county on the verge of financial collapse is not the sort of public office millionaires usually try to buy.

When millionaires and billionaires wake up one morning and suddenly decide to enter politics, they almost always set their sights on far more exalted positions.

That means nothing less than governor or U.S. senator or, what the heck, president of the United States.

So what’s with Milwaukee philanthropist Chris Abele, CEO of the Argosy Foundation?

He’s suddenly gone from being a behind-the-scenes player courted by progressive Democrats to help finance their campaigns to a declared candidate himself for Milwaukee county executive, the worst job in Wisconsin.

Scott Walker made certain of that.

Walker’s election as governor came just in time for him to skip town as his disastrous financial management of Milwaukee County for the past eight years was about to come crashing down.

Walker’s strongest Republican backers, the top corporate executives on the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC), tried to hide an analysis of the county’s looming financial crisis until after the election to protect Walker and all those massive corporate tax giveaways they expect him to shower upon them.

But someone leaked a draft of the GMC’s report declaring Milwaukee County on the brink of financial ruin. It recommended immediate emergency state legislation allowing the county to declare bankruptcy and begin liquidating assets.

Unbelievably, Walker’s financial mismanagement at home did not become a critical issue in the gubernatorial race. Now Walker’s “starve the beast” philosophy will be financially eviscerating state government.

Overseeing the Looming Financial Collapse

So, once again, why would a local millionaire voluntarily seek the horrible job of county executive overseeing the looming financial collapse of Milwaukee County?

Chris Abele is an intelligent person with strong opinions about how things should be run. When he puts money into community projects, he often wants a hand in management.

Most Milwaukee County voters don’t know him—yet.

One thing money certainly can buy is political name recognition. Ron Johnson, a millionaire Wisconsin knew little about six months ago, is now the state’s United States senator it still knows little about.

A more serious problem for Abele might be that intelligence is not as highly prized in politics as one might wish.

George W. Bush, whose inability to speak intelligently was a comedian’s dream, managed to win presidential elections against two Democratic candidates who came off as so smart many voters couldn’t stand them.

The smartest Milwaukee county executive in recent memory was the late David Schulz, who had served as Chicago’s budget director under Mayor Harold Washington before returning home to take the same job for Milwaukee County.

After also serving as county parks director, Schulz was elected county executive in 1988 as a non-politician. He quickly became exasperated with how little he could accomplish butting heads with county politicians he considered—probably accurately—far less intelligent than himself. He did not seek re-election.

Abele, running as a non-politician, already has shaken up the race. Former state Rep. Sheldon Wasserman said he wouldn’t run against Abele. Other potential candidates with familiar names decided not to run.

As of now, the other candidates appear to be Acting County Executive Lee Holloway, Greendale Republican state Rep. Jeff Stone and former Wauwatosa Democratic state Sen. Jim Sullivan. Holloway, so far, is the candidate who has put his ego most on display in the race.

County Board Chairman Holloway, assuming a 30-day temporary position as acting county executive, threw himself an elaborate inaugural “swearing-in” ceremony with 250 invited guests, a military honor guard and two judges administering the oath of office.

Holloway also named a 32-member council of prominent community leaders to advise him, enough to have a different advisor every day unless he also decides to appoint himself interim county executive after 30 days.

Holloway is the only declared African American candidate so far. He also carries some political baggage, having been pilloried in the local media for city building code violations at inner city properties he owns.

Sullivan is a moderate Democrat who succeeded in knocking off one right-wing extremist, state Sen. Tom Reynolds, only to be defeated himself by another one, state Rep. Leah Vukmir, after one term.

Stone, as the only Republican in the race, will be trying to woo Walker’s conservative voters without Walker’s personality and crossover appeal.

The only reason for Abele to run for county executive is that he apparently believes he can reform a rapidly collapsing financial disaster.

But what if Abele wins and, like Schulz, finds local politics totally inhospitable to new ideas unless they happen to simple-minded? You know: Low taxes, good. Trains, bad.

Abele could find himself powerless to save Milwaukee County as hostile outstate Republicans leading the Legislature and the Republican governor who helped create the crisis look on without lifting a finger.

Full disclosure: The Shepherd Express is suing Abele, Milwaukee Film Inc. and two of its employees. For a complete copy of the complaint filed in the Milwaukee County courts, go to www.milwaukeefilmfest.info.


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