It seems like we’ve been here before. A local government decision stirs conservative outrage. Talk radio fuels the fire. A massive petition drive is launched. Angry activists vow elected officials will lose their jobs.
But as much as some on the right may wish it, the Milwaukee streetcar plan isn’t likely to become this decade’s Milwaukee County pension scandal. In fact, it’s possible the issue could backfire on the streetcar opponents who are on the 2016 ballot themselves.
The 2001-’02 pension scandal was triggered by Milwaukee Magazine’s revelation that then-County Executive F. Thomas Ament and the County Board had signed off on unusually generous pension enhancements that would benefit themselves and their top aides. A new group, Citizens for Responsible Government, sprang up to organize a petition drive to recall Ament. With recall looking inevitable, Ament resigned, spurring a special election that handed his office to Scott Walker, then a Republican state legislator. A second wave of recalls knocked off seven of 25 supervisors. And even though liberals remained in control of the board, Walker ushered in a far more conservative era in county government, building a platform from which he won the governorship and is now preparing to seek the presidency.
Streetcar opponent Craig Peterson threatened a similar result from the Common Council’s Feb. 10 vote to approve Mayor Tom Barrett’s modern streetcar plan, saying, “Elections have consequences, and I predict the Milwaukee Common Council will look completely different after April 2016.” Peterson, a Republican public relations executive, is aiding restaurateur Christopher Wiken, who is moving from Brookfield to challenge Ald. Terry Witkowski, and he says every alderman who voted for the streetcar will have an opponent. In Peterson’s view, the streetcar is already as big an issue as the pension scandal in the suburbs and he expects it will reach that level in the city as well.
But the differences between then and now are numerous. For one thing, the pension news came as a surprise, while the streetcar action followed nearly a quarter-century of debate. More importantly, the pension vote was portrayed as self-serving (although no elected official was ever charged, a former county personnel chief pleaded no contest to misconduct in public office). This time, Barrett and aldermen “are not directly personally enriching themselves,” even if the streetcar is “a really stupid idea,” CRG Network Executive Administrator Chris Kliesmet says.
That had a big impact on the petition drives. In 2002, the fledgling CRG collected more than twice the 72,000 signatures needed to demand Ament’s recall in just half the 60 days allowed. This year, CRG-backed streetcar opponents took the full 60 days and still fell 6,000 signatures short of the 31,000 needed to force a referendum on the issue. Although both drives were conducted in winter, Kliesmet blamed the weather, saying this winter was much colder.
Despite claims the petition drive would be revived in spring, it’s now dead, even if no one will admit pulling the plug. Kliesmet says it’s not his decision and his group probably would help Barrett’s mayoral campaign opponents, Aldermen Bob Donovan and Joe Davis Sr., if they asked again. But Donovan says another CRG leader refused further aid and he doesn’t have time to run the drive himself while he’s running for mayor.
Another significant difference is that the pension scandal was a countywide issue in which the suburbs’ conservative voices were heard loudly. The streetcar is considered a boondoggle by some residents of automobile-oriented suburbs where its tracks may never reach. But “people in Brookfield can’t vote in our aldermanic races” or sign citywide petitions, notes downtown Ald. Bob Bauman, a leading streetcar proponent. And even if reasonable people can argue whether a streetcar is the right public transit solution, most Milwaukee residents aren’t likely to be stirred into a throw-the-bums-out fury by adding more transit lines in a densely populated city where more than one in eight workers lack access to a car.
Also unlike the pension scandal, the conservative forces face a backlash this time. Donovan now has two opponents in his simultaneous aldermanic re-election campaign: Democratic state Rep. Josh Zepnick and school aide Justin Bielinski, both to his left and both streetcar supporters.
Donovan questions whether Barrett’s camp urged Zepnick to run; Zepnick denies that and says he got more encouragement from unions. Meanwhile, Ald. Joe Dudzik is up against accountant Michael Sugden, who has condemned Dudzik’s predictions of rape and other crime aboard streetcars. Insiders also expect aldermanic opponents to surface for Davis.
Perhaps most telling, Donovan is now returning to his signature issue, public safety, while Davis is focusing more on economic matters. As a major political issue, this streetcar may have left the station.