As bombshells go, this one was nearly nuclear.
Chris Abele blew up the Milwaukee County executive’s race late Wednesday when news broke that he would not seek a third full term.
Until then, the April 2020 election was looking like a sleepy non-event, in which the incumbent would glide to an easy re-election, either unopposed or with only a token challenger.
Now, it’s suddenly a wide-open contest to take over the reins of Wisconsin’s largest county, a major local government with broad influence over parks, transportation, social services and criminal justice – but one beset by daunting fiscal pressures.
The last such race was the 2011 special election that philanthropist Abele won after predecessor Scott Walker was elected governor. That contest featured a five-way primary that eliminated then-County Board Chairman Lee Holloway, former Democratic state Sen. Jim Sullivan and long-shot hopeful Ieshuh Griffin. Abele prevailed in the general election against then-state Rep. Jeff Stone, a suburban Republican who promised to continue Walker’s policies.
Nobody ran against Abele for his first full term in 2012, but he faced a strong challenge from the left while seeking his current term in 2016. Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson, a former county supervisor, finished ahead of Abele and two minor candidates in the four-way primary, although he ultimately couldn’t overcome his wealthy opponent’s record $3.5 million campaign.
Some progressives were hoping for a rerun this time around. It seemed something might be up when Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff confronted Abele during a radio call-in show. Brostoff is associated with Larson and with the Wisconsin Working Families Party, the progressive group that backed Larson’s campaign. On the air, Brostoff mentioned Sheriff Earnell Lucas, who was supported by Working Families and another progressive group, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, in his 2018 Democratic primary win over Abele’s favored candidate, then-Acting Sheriff Richard Schmidt.
But Brostoff, who has a 7-month-old son, told Milwaukee Magazine he wouldn’t run against Abele. So did Larson. And in an interview just hours before Abele’s announcement, County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb said he was ready to take on Abele after the 2016 election — in which the exec donated massive sums to an unsuccessful effort to defeat the board leader — but he changed his mind after Abele adopted a more collaborative approach toward supervisors.
Lucas and Shepherd Express publisher Lou Fortis announced they wouldn’t run, either, leaving Abele the only declared candidate. Political observers expected it to stay that way.
Now everything has changed. Larson was among several political figures who told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel they’re taking a look at the race. But with less than six months before the April 7 election, candidates will have to move fast to raise funds and organize supporters.
Here’s what to watch for as the campaign shapes up:
Supervisors vs. Legislators
After the county exec’s office was created in 1960, three of the first four people to win it (John Doyne, Bill O’Donnell and Tom Ament) were County Board chairmen, a natural step up from what had previously been the county’s highest elected office. Similar patterns often played out in other major Wisconsin counties as well.
But in recent years, many county execs have come from the state Legislature, including Walker, Kenosha County Executive Jim Kreuser, Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow and his predecessor Dan Vrakas. State senators have a particularly strong record of winning for Milwaukee mayor and city treasurer, among other offices. And with their own offices up for election in the fall, legislators can enter a spring local contest without risking their current jobs.
Suburban Conservatives vs. Urban Progressives
Although the office is officially nonpartisan, five of the six Milwaukee County execs have been Milwaukee Democrats (Doyne, O’Donnell, Dave Schulz, Ament and Abele). The lone exception was Walker, a Republican then living in Wauwatosa, who capitalized on a pension scandal that forced Ament to resign, triggering a 2002 special election. In that race and in 2008, Walker amassed huge suburban margins to overcome opposition in blue Milwaukee. To a lesser extent, centrist Abele needed suburban help to beat back Larson in 2016.
While conservatives could take another shot at winning back the exec’s office, progressives are likely to mount strong bids. Working Families and BLOC are among the new organizations that have emerged as important players in local politics.
Some progressives hoped Larson would benefit from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ coattails in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. Another contested Democratic primary will coincide with the 2020 local election. But Larson says the 2016 timing turned out to be a disadvantage: Not only did Sanders lose Milwaukee County to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (despite winning everywhere else in Wisconsin), but the presidential race drew many voters with little interest in county politics.
For nearly 60 years, every elected Milwaukee County executive has been a white male. Women (Karen Ordinans and Janine Geske) and African-Americans (Holloway and Marvin Pratt) filled in only briefly after Ament and Walker stepped down. While Holloway lost in the 2011 primary, Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor – now running for mayor – took 41% of the countywide vote and carried the city in her unsuccessful 2008 challenge to Walker.
Other Wisconsin counties, such as Dane and Brown, have elected women as execs. But countywide races have been tough for candidates of color. Although Lucas is Milwaukee County’s third black sheriff, both of the others (Richard Artison and David Clarke) were first appointed by governors to fill vacancies. So were many of the county’s female and minority judges, along with Israel Ramon, the county’s first Hispanic register of deeds.
The Wealth Factor
Abele’s vast financial resources deterred most challengers. Few could match his spending. Fewer still would drop that much on a Milwaukee County exec race even if they could afford it.
But without Abele in the race, that kind of outlandish spending probably is no longer necessary. Or is it?
If some other rich person really wanted to be exec, they could upend the campaign as Abele did in 2011. And Abele isn’t ruling out the possibility that he could support a potential successor through his largely self-funded independent spending group, Leadership MKE.
Between his wealth, his relatively young age (52) and the power of incumbency, Abele probably could have stayed county exec as long as he wanted to, says University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Professor Emeritus Mordecai Lee.
But now that he no longer wants to, it’s game on.