For years, parties played the same traditional tunes. Almost all local offices are officially nonpartisan, and the remaining few have been in Democratic hands for decades. Once in a while, someone would bust out with a surprise move – like Republican Scott Walker capturing the nonpartisan Milwaukee County executive’s office after a pension scandal, or then-Sheriff David Clarke morphing into a belligerent right-winger while winning re-election as a Democrat – but most local political dances were fairly predictable.
In recent years, however, new forces have emerged, operating in both nonpartisan races and Democratic primaries.
Among them are the union-backed Wisconsin Working Families Party, current County Executive Chris Abele’s Leadership MKE, Republican operative Craig Peterson’s Milwaukeeans for Self-Governance and progressive Black Leaders Organizing for Communities. All are organized differently, with different goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they’re on the same side, but each has its own vision for change.
“These quasi-parties … give voters a sense of who’s on whose team,” helping to fill “the political vacuum caused by nonpartisan elections,” says Mordecai Lee, UW-Milwaukee professor emeritus and former Dem legislator.
Here’s a guide to the shifting political landscape, heading into next year’s city and county elections:
Origin: The Wisconsin Working Families Party is a coalition of labor and community groups, part of the national Working Families Party. The state group launched in 2015 with Marina Dimitrijevic, a county supervisor from Bay View, as executive director.
Goals: Progress for progressives. Raising wages, expanding health care and protecting the environment are on the agenda for the party, which endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president in 2016.
Strategy: Growing from the grass roots. Dimitrijevic says “thousands of volunteers” spend “thousands of hours” going door-to-door and texting voters to turn out for Working Families candidates in the Milwaukee and Racine areas. The party also recruits local candidates who can be groomed for higher office and become “the future of Wisconsin politics,” she says.
Top Candidates: Sheriff Earnell Lucas, Racine Mayor Cory Mason.
Origin: Abele founded Leadership MKE early last year to spend independently of candidates, and he provides nearly all its funding. He and his campaign also donate to candidates and political groups (Money Man).
Goals: Whatever Abele wants. No one from Leadership MKE responded to requests for comment, but its website talks about encouraging economic development, protecting public services and exercising fiscal responsibility, all in language resembling Abele’s campaign site.
Strategy: Cash, cash and more cash. Abele spent more than $1 million of his own money to win a 2011 special election after Walker became governor, then shoveled nearly four times as much into his 2016 re election campaign, outspending Working Families and its candidate, state Sen. Chris Larson, about 7-to-1. Separately, Abele donated more than $250,000 to advertising against Clarke in 2014. Last year, Leadership MKE threw an unprecedented $605,008 into five County Board races; $300,819 into the sheriff’s race; and $21,000 into municipal and school races in Oak Creek, Shorewood and Greenfield.
Top Candidates: Former Acting Sheriff Richard Schmidt, 2014 sheriff candidate Chris Moews.
Origin: Peterson organized Citizens for Urban Justice as an independent spending conduit for the 2014 sheriff’s race, then rebranded it as Milwaukeeans for Self-Governance for the 2016 elections. He says one backer is Eric O’Keefe, a leader in the conservative Koch brothers’ Wisconsin Club for Growth.
Goals: Overthrowing liberals and stopping streetcar expansion. Peterson says he promotes competition to ensure local officials “resemble the electorate.” Translation: Uniting people of color and conservatives against white liberals like Mayor Tom Barrett. Some aldermen have tried this, but it’s been a shaky coalition.
Strategy: Dark money and attack ads. By airing “issue advertising,” the group avoids disclosing its finances and contributors. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Peterson’s groups spent $15,000 backing Clarke; $100,000 to $200,000 on mayoral and aldermanic races; and as much as $400,000 opposing DA John Chisholm.
Top Candidates: Clarke, Ald. Bob Donovan.
New Kids on the BLOC
Origin: Black Leaders Organizing for Communities was founded in late 2017 by Sen. LaTonya Johnson and Rep. David Bowen, both Milwaukee Democrats; Supervisors Supreme Moore Omokunde and Sequanna Taylor; and Ald. Chantia Lewis, with veteran labor organizer Angela Lang as executive director.
Goals: Empowering African Americans. BLOC wants to “improve the quality of life for black folks in Wisconsin,” by mobilizing the community to participate in politics, Lang says.
Strategy: One voter at a time. A team of 47 “BLOC ambassadors” worked 30 hours a week to knock on almost 200,000 doors and talk to about 20,000 voters last fall, Lang says.
Top Candidates: Lucas
Winners and Losers
So, who’s ahead? Early returns suggest Working Families and BLOC volunteers are more effective than Abele’s and Peterson’s dollars in many local races.
In 2014, before the progressive groups formed, Peterson helped Clarke defeat Abele-backed Moews. But since then, Abele’s 2016 re-election has been the top big-money victory – and Working Families’ biggest local defeat.
That same year, two Peterson-backed candidates, Donovan and lawyer Verona Swanigan, lost decisively to Barrett and Chisholm, respectively, with Working Families backing Chisholm. Working Families also aided Mason in his 2017 special election. Last year, BLOC and Working Families helped Lucas overcome Abele’s candidate Schmidt.
Including supervisors, aldermen, School Board members and Racine and suburban officials, 26 of 32 Working Families candidates, or 81 percent, won local races. That compares with 11 of 18 (61 percent) supported by Abele, who failed to take out his top target, County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb. Peterson won’t name everyone he backed in aldermanic races – conceding his support would be a stigma for some – but he didn’t defeat any pro-streetcar incumbents.
“Going door-to-door, that personal contact totally trumps TV advertising” and mailings in smaller races, as demonstrated by the defeat of Abele-backed candidates in Lipscomb’s North Shore district and in the sheriff ’s primary, Lee says.
Both Working Families and BLOC expect to be active in 2020 – when the mayor, county exec and all aldermen and supervisors are up for election – but haven’t targeted any races or endorsed any candidates yet. Leadership MKE and Peterson aren’t saying even that much.
But between these four organizations and others that may arise, the parties are just getting started.
CHRIS ABELE IS the $10 million man of Milwaukee politics.
Since 2000, campaign finance reports show, the Milwaukee County executive has poured more than $10.2 million of his own wealth into political causes – almost four times as much as he paid last year for his Shorewood mansion. That doesn’t include all 2018 contributions, or any personal donations to other states’ gubernatorial campaigns or to local candidates other than himself.
Abele is his own biggest benefactor. From December 2010 through June 2018, he invested almost $7 million in his campaign fund, loaning more than $6.7 million and donating nearly $265,000. Last year, he also contributed more than $1.3 million to his Leadership MKE independent-expenditure group, giving that organization and his campaign more than 95 percent of their funding.
The exec, his largely self-funded campaign and his then-wife also donated more than $1.8 million to candidates and political organizations in 40 states, mostly since 2013. Nearly all of it went to Democrats and progressive groups, with the single biggest beneficiary being the state Democratic Party ($369,757).