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New County Board chair Theodore Lipscomb Sr. is taking the helm of an embattled ship sailing into ever more perilous waters.

It hardly ever happens in Milwaukee, but this was the second time in 18 months, both remarkably similar and strikingly different from the first.

The top spot in a major local legislative body changed hands in the middle of a term, as a presiding officer stepped down to accept a new job and was succeeded by a finance panel chairman who stirred hopes of bolder leadership to come.

But while last week’s election of Supervisor Theo Lipscomb Sr. to replace Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic as County Board chair bore some resemblances to Ald. Michael Murphy’s ascension to the Common Council presidency last year, the differences were stark.

When Murphy took over the council gavel from former President Willie Hines Jr., he inherited the leadership of a branch with its powers intact. And when Murphy’s colleagues said they expected him to be a forceful advocate for the council, they acknowledged that their policy differences with Mayor Tom Barrett were relatively minor.

Lipscomb, by contrast, is taking the helm of an embattled ship sailing into ever more perilous waters. At the urging of County Executive Chris Abele, the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature has repeatedly curtailed the board’s authority, most recently cutting supervisors out of the sale of any county property that isn’t parkland. Starting in spring 2016, supervisors’ salaries will be halved, their benefits will end and their terms will be shortened from four years to two.

And unlike Hines, who stepped down from the council to accept a Housing Authority job that later disappeared, Dimitrijevic is staying on the board, at least through the end of her current term, as she steps into her new role as Wisconsin director of the Working Families Party. That apparently unprecedented move led Supervisor Patricia Jursik to cast a lone vote to re-elect Dimitrijevic, in protest against the rules of the chairmanship election.

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But coming to office in an unusual way is the norm for Lipscomb, a member of a leading Glendale political family. The son of a former state legislator and the brother of a suburban municipal judge, Lipscomb saw his opening when then-Supervisor James White failed to file enough signatures on his nominating petitions to win a place on the 2008 ballot. Instead of  cruising unopposed to a fourth term, White found himself in a losing write-in battle with Lipscomb, as the district’s suburban minority rallied behind its native son after years of feeling ignored while White focused on his urban base. For the 2012 election, Lipscomb’s district was redrawn to consist almost entirely of North Shore suburbs.

This time, Lipscomb capitalized on unity instead of division. In rolling up a 12-5 margin over Supervisor Willie Johnson Jr., the other co-chairman of the board’s Finance, Personnel & Audit Committee, Lipscomb drew votes not only from most of his fellow liberals but also from conservatives and moderates. And he won on the first ballot — unlike the 2012 chairmanship election, when Dimitrijevic was locked in a three-way tie with Lipscomb and Jursik until the 24th ballot, when Johnson and Supervisor John Weishan Jr. pulled out of the race and threw their support to Dimitrijevic.

Supervisor Steve Taylor, a south suburban conservative, says he hopes that by demonstrating Lipscomb’s solid support across ideological lines, the board is sending a message to Abele that it will stand united against further incursions on its authority. Taylor and other supervisors from all sides of the political spectrum say they’re not criticizing Dimitrijevic, whom they credit with doing her best to lead the board through one of its most difficult periods.

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At the same time, Jursik and Taylor say the change in board leadership offers a chance to start fresh on relations with Abele. The executive extended a bit of an olive branch by issuing a conciliatory news release congratulating Lipscomb on his election. But Abele hasn’t followed up with a phone call or meeting, Lipscomb says.

That’s symptomatic of the division between the county’s executive and legislative branches. Supervisors complain Abele hasn’t reached out to communicate with them in person, instead issuing public pronouncements, vetoing legislation — only to be overridden nearly every time — and appealing to the state to take more power from the board.

Lipscomb says he hopes to change that. He acknowledges the two branches have their differences, but he wants those differences to be settled in Milwaukee, not Madison. Accomplishing that would be a major change in course for the county — and a notable achievement for the board’s new captain.

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