Ament from our 2002 feature "Daddy Dearest"
Tom Ament was talking tough right up to the end.
Weeks before his death on March 10, the former Milwaukee County executive gave me his final media interviews for an article I was writing for Milwaukee Magazine. In the interviews, he had harsh words for both of his successors – Gov. Scott Walker and current County Executive Chris Abele – and for the far-reaching changes they wrought.
I had interviewed Ament many times before, dating back to the early 1980s. Often his tone was gruff and his words blunt, but beneath that was deep knowledge and insight about the issues facing the county.
When I contacted Ament earlier this year, for an article about county government in the magazine’s April issue, we had not spoken since the pension scandal that drove him from office in 2002. Now, dying of lung cancer, he still had that same gruff tone, bluntness and insight.
In two interviews in early February, Ament blasted Abele and his business allies for pushing through state legislation to weaken the County Board and strengthen the county executive. “Government works best if you have a strong executive and a strong County Board,” says Ament, who served 24 years on the board – 16 as chairman – and 10 years as county executive. “Obviously, you have an executive today who doesn’t believe in that. He believes he should have all the strength.”
Nor did Ament approve of Walker’s approach to budget-cutting – “The only service he thought was good was no service” – or his state legislation sharply limiting collective bargaining for most public employees: “The biggest strength government has is its employees. Emasculating public employees’ bargaining rights (is) destructive of the work force.”
Comparing the two, Ament did not mince words: “I used to say that Walker was the worst executive I’ve run across. I don’t say that any more. I think Abele is. ... Abele’s basic philosophy is that he wants to control everything.”
Walker and Abele have said their actions were necessary to improve government efficiency and save taxpayers’ money. As county executive, Walker bashed Ament and blamed many county financial problems on the pension deal. And Abele has said the county’s bid award appeal process was suspect partly because it was approved when Ament was executive.
Despite his vilification over the pension scandal, Ament long hinted at a comeback, refusing to rule it out even in 2012, when he emptied his campaign account to establish a charitable fund of almost $340,000. He told me that his illness meant he couldn’t run for office again – as if that would have been a realistic possibility otherwise.
But Ament’s belief in his political viability was a rare exception to the pragmatism that marked his career.
A month before his death, Ament was lining up speakers for his funeral. In the final stretch of his last campaign, this veteran politician seized one more chance to shape his public image.