In his nine years leading Milwaukee County, Chris Abele has evolved politically – sometimes in baffling ways.
Legally, only one person can be Milwaukee County executive at any time. Since April 2011, that person has been Chris Abele.
But it doesn’t seem as if it’s been the same Chris Abele the whole nine years.
With his surprise decision not to seek a third full term, Abele’s enigmatic stint leading Wisconsin’s largest county ends this spring. And yet, after nine years, we don’t know him any better than we did when he was first elected – and maybe not even as well as we thought we did back then.
Not long after his inauguration, some of his supporters began complaining that they didn’t get the county exec they thought they’d voted for. Then, after a bruising 2016 re-election battle, and again after a contentious attempt to influence 2018 County Board races, Abele’s political and governing styles evolved in ways not seen in his first five years in office – a fitting (apparent) final act in a short, often puzzling political career.
AT FIRST, PROGRESSIVES WERE optimistic about Abele’s 2011 special election win. For nearly eight years, the nonpartisan office had been held by Scott Walker, a conservative Republican usually at odds with the liberal-led board, county workers’ unions and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
All that was expected to change under Abele, a self-proclaimed liberal Democrat enthusiastically backed by Barrett’s camp. Those expectations helped Abele, a multimillionaire philanthropist who had never held office before, defeat Jeff Stone, a Republican lawmaker endorsed by Walker, five months after Walker bested Barrett in the 2010 gubernatorial election.
Still, some supervisors were wary of Abele’s association with business leaders who had assailed the county as dysfunctional in the wake of a pension scandal, and of Abele’s campaign rhetoric about holding the line on taxes and cutting the size of government. Their suspicions were borne out as Abele swiftly plunged into conflicts with the board and unions over spending, privatization and shedding county assets.
The new exec even adopted Walker’s approach to budgeting: For his first five budgets, he proposed exactly the same property tax levy enacted the year before, then vetoed multiple County Board changes, followed by a wave of veto overrides. In those five years, supervisors overrode 102 of Abele’s 112 budget item vetoes, agreeing to freeze taxes only in 2014.
A frustrated Abele joined with Republican state lawmakers – led by former Milwaukee County Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo – to push through legislation slashing supervisors’ powers, pay and terms. As Abele notes, voters approved the pay cut, and no other Wisconsin supervisors serve full-time for four years. But not even Walker – who signed the measures – had tried to disempower the board to that extent. As a former state legislator, Walker knew how to work with then-Board Chairman Lee Holloway despite their public clashes, says Democratic state Rep. David Bowen, an ex-supervisor.
Meanwhile, Abele’s relations with Barrett had cooled, for reasons unknown. However, that’s been the norm for past county execs and mayors, because “they live in different political worlds,” with overlapping constituencies but somewhat different policy concerns, says UW-Milwaukee Professor Emeritus Mordecai Lee. Or, as Republican operative Craig Peterson puts it: “Tom Barrett’s dealing with babies being shot in their homes. Chris Abele’s dealing with moisture seeping into the Domes.”
Progressives channeled their anger at Abele into Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson’s 2016 campaign to oust him. Larson, another former supervisor, hammered at Abele’s power grabs, while Abele scoffed at Larson’s plan to seek state authority to triple the county sales tax, from 0.5% to 1.5%, to fund parks and transit, an idea voters backed in a 2008 advisory referendum. Larson edged Abele in the four-way primary, only to be swamped by the incumbent’s massive general-election spending.
Then, everything changed.
Six months after he was re-elected on a no-new-taxes platform, Abele proposed a 2017 budget that sought to raise property taxes by $4.2 million and impose a $60 vehicle registration fee, mainly to fund the Milwaukee County Transit System. Supervisors were stunned. “It was just so abrupt,” Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb says. “It caught everyone off guard.”
Supervisors trimmed the property tax hike and cut the wheel tax to $30. They did the same for the 2018 budget.
One Exec, Two Budget Styles
Early in Chris Abele’s tenure as Milwaukee County executive, he clashed with the County Board constantly over the budget. Abele used his line-item veto 110 times on his first four budgets – nearly all of them overridden by the board. In the following five years, he vetoed just three changes to his budget, with none in each of the last three.
Abele still had his wealth, however, and he used more than $1 million of it to form an independent spending group, Leadership MKE, that intervened in the 2018 board elections. Leadership MKE spent an unheard-of $600,000 to target five supervisors, aiming almost one-third of that sum at Lipscomb alone. Outspent nearly 7-1, Lipscomb prevailed even as three of his colleagues fell to Abele allies.
Once again, Abele’s approach changed after an election. Abele consulted more and earlier with supervisors while drafting his 2019 and 2020 budgets, Lipscomb says. In contrast to his last two budgets, he didn’t propose to raise the wheel tax to $60. He even signed both the 2019 and 2020 budgets with no vetoes. (Abele’s item vetoes had already dropped to two for 2016 and one for 2017 – all overridden – and he returned the 2018 budget intact but unsigned.)
Yet another extraordinary turnaround came in September, when Abele united with Barrett, Lipscomb and other local officials to lobby for raising the county sales tax to 1.5% and sharing the proceeds with municipalities – a new version of the tax increase he campaigned against in 2016. “It took him 10 years to catch up with the public,” says Lipscomb, referring to the 2008 referendum.
In an interview, Abele depicted the evolution of his budget strategy as a pragmatic reaction to fiscal necessity. He says he’s cut millions of dollars in spending every year, but after the first five years, he realized that continued cuts without revenue increases would slash services too deeply. “I didn’t want to raise taxes before I had to,” Abele says. But, he adds, “Things have to get paid for. … It wasn’t because I had any sort of philosophical change.”
Similarly, Abele says he proposed a $60 wheel tax because the bus system needed the money and he wanted to avoid an increase in the $2.25 base fare – something he has done successfully for nine years. By contrast, Walker hiked the adult cash fare 50%, from $1.50, over eight years.
Finally, Abele says he still believes the state should increase shared revenue payments and give the county and other local governments a larger slice of state sales and income taxes collected from their residents. But he says a local sales tax increase would be more workable politically, because it wouldn’t blow a hole in the state budget the way a shared revenue boost would.
Those explanations sound reasonable: The county’s 2017 fiscal challenges were the greatest in five years, according to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum. But Abele’s account also seems incomplete, given the timing of strategic changes after tough campaigns. Yet if Abele was humbled by nearly losing to Larson in 2016 and by failing to defeat Lipscomb in 2018, he’s never admitted it, Lipscomb says. And before Abele announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, Lipscomb questioned whether the exec had truly become more conciliatory or was merely positioning himself for the 2020 campaign.
PERHAPS ABELE AND other elected officials have never really understood each other. “Abele is not a natural politician” like Barrett and Walker, who instinctively know how to connect with colleagues and voters, says Lee. Abele, instead, often sounds as if he’s reciting a carefully worded but ultimately unconvincing script.
Also, Bowen adds, growing up in East Coast wealth, Abele “came from a background where he wasn’t used to working-class families, Midwestern style. He was just not in tune” with the values of many supervisors and their constituents. Add to that Abele’s private nature, and hardly anyone in local politics claims much insight into his thinking.
Reflecting on his departure, Abele says, “I didn’t go into office thinking this was going to be a career.” While he values public service, he says philanthropy and venture capital are “where I find joy.”
Now he returns to pursue that joy, leaving others to puzzle over his unusual legacy.
This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.
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