Analysis: The Results of the 2016 Milwaukee City and County Election

Voters re-elected Chris Abele, Tom Barrett and many other incumbents holding elected offices in the city and county. Why?

It was a dramatic embrace of the status quo.

After the nerve-rackingly close primaries, after the bold proclamations of change in the air, after all the attack ads and heated debates and charged rhetoric, voters re-elected Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and almost all of the other incumbents on Tuesday’s city and county ballots.

Although that is what Milwaukee voters normally do, observers had good reason to expect something different this time. That was particularly true in the county exec’s race, where the challenger, state Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), had narrowly led the four-person field in the Feb. 16 primary, with 45 percent of the vote to Abele’s 44 percent. Larson took almost half the city vote then, while Abele carried almost half the suburban vote.

But on Tuesday, when nearly three times as many voters turned out for the hotly contested presidential primaries, Abele prevailed, with 55 percent to Larson’s 44 percent. This time, Abele narrowly carried the city but decisively swept the suburbs, 61 percent to 38 percent. While Larson ran competitively in the city, Shorewood was the only suburb he carried.

Still, Larson racked up the highest voting percentage of any challenger in a county exec election since 1988, when Dave Schulz ousted incumbent Bill O’Donnell, 2-1. Abele’s margin of victory was the narrowest since 1992, when Tom Ament won his first term, with 54 percent to 46 percent for Joe Czarnezki, then a state senator and now county clerk.

Larson tapped into deep resentment against Abele, who has angered traditional Democratic constituencies by working with Republican lawmakers to shift power from the County Board to the executive office and to create an exec-appointed education commissioner originally intended to take over failing city schools, while taking a hard line against county unions. That was effective in the primary, which drew the most activist and informed voters. But as fellow Sen. Lena Taylor found in her 2008 campaign against then-County Exec Scott Walker, now governor, progressive anger against an incumbent wasn’t enough to carry a general election.

Larson couldn’t overcome Abele’s heavy spending, much of it on ads attacking the challenger. Through late March, the multimillionaire incumbent had poured $3.9 million of his own fortune into his campaign and had spent $3.5 million. By contrast, Larson had spent $210,185, supplemented by $262,272 from his allies in the Wisconsin Working Families Party. In his concession speech, Larson said his grandmother — who died shortly before the election — would have been proud of his frugality.

Casual observers might have expected a similar pattern in the mayoral election. Barrett emerged from a four-way primary with just 46 percent of the vote, suggesting that the most active voters might have been yearning for a change from the mayor’s low-key, consensus-building style. But in the city, opposition to Barrett was split between the conservatives who backed Ald. Bob Donovan, the second-place finisher, and the African-Americans who lined up beside the other two candidates, Ald. Joe Davis Sr. and James Methu.

Davis endorsed Donovan and Methu endorsed Barrett. But with both black candidates out of the race, it was unrealistic to expect minority support to coalesce behind Donovan, who has a history of racially divisive rhetoric. Barrett easily swept Tuesday’s balloting 70 percent to 30 percent. Donovan carried only 44 of the city’s 327 wards, nearly all of them on the predominantly white south side. Despite Donovan’s high profile, his proportion of the general-election vote was barely higher than that of Ed McDonald, the little-known academic who challenged Barrett in 2012.

Barrett outspent Donovan, nearly 4-1 through late March. Donovan also received undisclosed support from Milwaukeeans for Self-Governance, a conservative group run by Republican operative Craig Peterson. Last year, Peterson had predicted wholesale change on the Common Council after aldermen voted to move forward with Barrett’s streetcar plan.

But the streetcar was largely a non-issue in aldermanic races, where effort and effectiveness — in constituent service and campaigning — usually trump ideology. The only council member to lose his job, Ald. Robert Puente, was a streetcar opponent. Peterson-backed candidates failed to unseat Aldermen Terry Witkowski, Bob Bauman and Nik Kovac, among others.

Another outside group, the Wisconsin Working Families Party, fared better, despite its loss in the county executive race. Led by Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic, the liberal organization helped elect all three new aldermen — Chantia Lewis, who defeated Puente; former Barrett aide Cavalier “Chevy” Johnson, replacing Davis; and outgoing Supervisor Khalif Rainey, replacing retiring Ald. Willie Wade — and two new supervisors: Sequanna Taylor, replacing Rainey, and Marcelia Nicholson, replacing Supervisor Martin “Mac” Weddle, who lost to Lewis and Puente in the primary. Also new to the County Board are former state Rep. Sheldon Wasserman, replacing retiring Supervisor Gerry Broderick; Dan Sebring, filling the seat vacated by Ald. Mark Borkowski; and David Sartori, replacing retiring Supervisor Patricia Jursik.

With City Comptroller Martin Matson fending off a challenge from former Supervisor Johnny Thomas, City Treasurer Spencer Coggs easily defeating perennial candidate Rick Kissell and City Attorney Grant Langley and County Comptroller Scott Manske being re-elected without opposition, Tuesday’s results will have little impact on the number of minorities and women in local elected office.

That was just one of the many ways in which the 2016 campaign turned out to be a long, hard trail that ultimately led back to the same place it started.



Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.