Power and the Campaign for Milwaukee County Executive

The shift of power in Milwaukee County government is proving to be an important part of the race between Chris Abele and Chris Larson.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele has powers that no other local official in Wisconsin — and no other Midwestern county exec — has been granted. The state Legislature has considered giving him even more.

But Abele may not have the power to keep his own job, and the backlash against his efforts to increase his power could be one reason he’s in danger of being removed from power altogether.

The county exec’s expanding authority has been a key campaign issue for his opponent, state Sen. Chris Larson, a Milwaukee Democrat who finished narrowly ahead of Abele in the Feb. 16 primary. Those primary results show Abele would have to overcome an enthusiasm gap that crosses municipal lines to win a second full term on April 5.

Abele’s predecessor, now-Gov. Scott Walker, won three straight victories with huge suburban margins. Abele swept in with overwhelming city support in 2011. But in last month’s four-way primary, Abele took just under 50 percent of the suburban vote while losing the city to Larson — even though the millionaire incumbent spent nearly $2.1 million, compared with less than $109,000 for Larson and $80,000 for Larson’s backers in the Wisconsin Working Families Party.

Public opinion seemed to be on Abele’s side when the Legislature shifted power from the County Board to the exec, under the banner of focusing supervisors on policy instead of administrative micromanaging. After 2013 legislation gave Abele more authority over contracts, voters agreed in a 2014 referendum to turn board members into part-timers after this April’s election. Later that year, voters rejected an advisory referendum to replace the elected exec with a board-appointed administrator.

Lawmakers weren’t done empowering Abele, however. The 2015-’17 state budget authorized him to sell or lease any county property not zoned as parkland, without board approval, if the county comptroller or a representative of the affected municipality agree. (The Joint Finance Committee voted to give him power over O’Donnell Park, too, but the Senate rejected that idea.)

The new sale and lease power doesn’t extend to any of Wisconsin’s other 10 county execs. A Wisconsin League of Municipalities official says he doesn’t know of any mayor or village president with similar power. Nor do any of Abele’s counterparts in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri or Ohio have that kind of authority over county property, according to officials in the four other Midwestern states where counties elect chief executives.

Asked in a brief interview why he needs this power when comparable officials don’t have it, Abele responded, “Many of them do,” citing the governor’s control over state property. An Abele spokeswoman did not respond to a follow-up question seeking other local government examples.

Also in the budget, legislators authorized Abele to appoint a commissioner to take over some failing Milwaukee public schools. Although Abele and his commissioner, Demond Means, now say they won’t take over any schools, other such “recovery districts” are typically state-operated.

Larson and County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb Sr. warn Abele and other county execs would gain more power — to unilaterally change adopted budgets and cap borrowing — under a bill drafted by Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield). The withdrawn legislation, primarily aimed at allowing counties to switch from annual budgets to biennial budgets, will be redrafted in the next legislative session in response to comments from various county officials, a Kooyenga aide said. She didn’t respond to follow-up questions.

And in what would have been the largest power shift, the finance panel’s budget called for Abele to prevail whenever he and the County Board disagree — perhaps the only U.S. elected official who could have overruled his legislative branch on every issue. After furious objections from Lipscomb and other supervisors on constitutional grounds, the Senate killed that idea, too.

Larson has vowed to push for repealing the property sale and education commissioner provisions and to oppose the new budget powers. He says his concerns about “giving too much power to one person” are a big part of his motivation for running.

Abele dismisses such concerns, saying, “This power grab stuff always strikes me as a distraction.” He says that if he just wanted more power, he wouldn’t have supported measures to create an independently elected comptroller and a largely autonomous mental health board.

Seeking to shift the focus, Abele is now trying to undermine Larson’s progressive support with ads linking the challenger to banking interests. Between his incumbency and his wealth, this is still Abele’s race to lose. But if he can’t turn voters around in the next three weeks, they just might disconnect his power.



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.