Vote-Counting For Bean-Counters

Although few voters may know who they are or what they do, elected comptrollers in both the city and county could face re-election challenges from familiar names in 2016.

Marty Matson and Scott Manske labor in an obscurity that can’t be quantified on the balance sheets that their staffs so assiduously maintain. As the city and county comptrollers, they are their respective governments’ elected chief financial officers, in charge of such eye-glazing tasks as accounting, payroll and debt management. But their most important role is to blow the whistle on fiscally unwise decisions and outright fraud, by conducting audits, blocking improper transactions and advising elected officials.

Although few voters may know who they are or what they do, one or both of these first-term fiscal watchdogs could find himself in a dogfight next spring, when both say they’ll seek re-election.

Matson, perhaps Milwaukee’s most vulnerable incumbent, is the more likely target. Less than four years ago, few gave the deputy city pension director any chance of being elected, in what was shaping up as a contest between Ald. Michael Murphy and then-Supervisor Johnny Thomas. But Murphy opted to run for re-election instead, and Thomas was forced to drop his campaign and defend himself against bribery charges, after one of County Executive Chris Abele’s cabinet members secretly taped him in a sting operation. That handed the office to Matson, whose 2004 mayoral campaign had fizzled when he couldn’t collect enough signatures to reach the ballot.

In his first three years, Matson hasn’t impressed other city officials, who compare him unfavorably to his predecessor, Wally Morics. Matson concedes he’s often silent at Common Council committee meetings, when Morics would have been more likely to jump in with advice. Aldermen worry they’re not getting the independent professional insight they need to evaluate major deals like the tax-incremental financing districts the city uses to aid development. Matson says he’s just maintaining his neutrality between the council and Mayor Tom Barrett.

Manske is better-regarded, as the first occupant of a new office that grew out of an appointed job he held for 20 years. Legislators modeled the elected county job after its city counterpart — at the urging of Abele and the business community, over supervisors’ objections — expanding Manske’s former post to oversee borrowing, take over the board’s audit office and later absorb the board’s research staff as well. Supervisors from across the political spectrum say they respect Manske’s professionalism, independence and integrity.

Politically, Manske is also stronger than Matson, having won an actively contested countywide election. But county insiders say they wouldn’t be surprised if Abele and his business allies recruit and fund a challenger for Manske, considering how the multimillionaire Democrat has worked with the Republican-controlled Legislature to consolidate his power and has spent heavily to try to defeat his county government antagonists in their own races. Through a spokesman, Abele said he likes and respects Manske.

The short list of possible challengers for either city or county comptroller largely overlaps. Murphy, now the council president, says he’ll seek re-election, leaving the potential field to three accountants with government experience:

  • Craig Kammholz: The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce’s chief financial officer would be the most logical candidate. Kammholz was a top lieutenant to Morics, but after Matson’s election became inevitable, he jumped ship to become Abele’s budget director — then left that job after 15 months for the MMAC. Insiders say Kammholz has considered running for city comptroller. He declined to comment.
  • Johnny Thomas: After being acquitted of bribery charges, the former supervisor is now a Milwaukee Public Schools fiscal staffer, but could be looking for a political comeback — or for payback. Insiders say Thomas might launch another run for city comptroller, although they don’t discount a race for county comptroller or even a challenge to Abele. Thomas, who was elected unopposed to his sole County Board term, says he’s discussing his options with his wife and his pastor.
  • Deanna Alexander: The conservative first-term supervisor has lined up with Abele on many issues, while also stirring controversy by dismissively labeling Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as “Ovary.” Alexander, who replaced Thomas on the County Board, says she’s running for re-election to her northwest side seat, but won’t rule out other options. Insiders say a county comptroller bid is possible. But they also expect Alexander to run for state Senate, if River Hills Republican Alberta Darling decides against a seventh term, and eventually for Congress, whenever Menomonee Falls Republican Jim Sensenbrenner steps down.

Who actually runs for — and wins — the comptrollers’ offices may show who can handle political calculations as well as financial calculations.



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 profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.