Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele agreed to meet with El Conquistador last week to talk about his county budget and local issues that impact the Hispanic community. Right out the gate, we'll say that Abele is a different breed of politician. As cynical as the American public is, we expect our political leaders to be split-tongued narcissists more concerned about lining their pockets than serving their constituents. Of course, not all politicians are like that. We hope - at least locally - that Abele can help re-brand the face of local politics.
Three words come to mind that best describe Chris Abele: intellectual, passionate, and nonpartisan.
We prefer the descriptor nonpartisan because we're confident that, despite his campaign donations, Abele is not a party subscriber. During our interview, Abele expressed at length his conviction that our two party political system - which he described as "simplistic" and "reductive" - tends to divide Americans more than anything else. He believes that a third party would shake things up and perhaps improve party relations. His critique of American politics has led us to believe that Abele doesn't see himself as a party loyalist. To us, he seems like one of those post-modern politicians that enjoy operating above party controls.
Last year, Abele balanced a county budget in part by requiring public sector employees to pay more for the rising costs of health care coverage. It wasn't a liberal or conservative thing to do, it was necessitated by major cuts in state funding ($29 million) and having to contend with a growing structural deficit of $55 million. Making an even bigger splash, Abele also reduced the Sheriff's Department budget by $14 million, a budget that has grown by 62% since 2001.
As expected, the more liberal element of the County Board wasn't exactly pleased. They overrode eighteen of Abele's twenty-four vetoes restoring $1.6 million to the Sheriff's Department and $3 million for the health care coverage of county employees. All in all, Abele's budget was a big success proving to his critics (us included) that he can do the job as well as, or even better than his predecessor.
From an inside vantage point, Abele attests to the dire fiscal state of Milwaukee County. Walker didn't exaggerate when he said the county's finances were on an unsustainable path. This explains why Abele had vetoed a $50,000 artistic bus shelter proposed by Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic.
Abele told Supervisor Dimitrijevic that he didn't oppose her designer bus shelter per say, but objected to the county using $50,000 of bonded money - borrowed money with interest - when $120,000 was accessible as a federal transportation grant.
County Legislative Affairs Director Tia Torhorst sent Marina Dimitrijevic an email locating Federal Transportation Enhancement funds for her bus shelter hoping to deter Dimitrijevic from using bonded money. In the email, Torhorst reinstated the Abele's desire to use all available public art funds for the county's deferred maintenance and pointed out that the federal grant would give Dimitrijevic more than three times the funding made available through the county.
Dimitrijevic fired off an email - forwarding it to all the County Supervisors and their staff - reminding the County Executive's Office of the vast support she dredged for her Bay View bus shelter. She then thanked Torhorst for finding the federal grant and would consider using it after overriding Abele's veto. In other words, she would gladly take the $120,000 in federal grant money while also taking the $50,000 in bonded money in the county's public art fund.
During our interview, Abele was clear on how he viewed the county's money. "Every dime belongs to the public, it is not money for government officials," Abele said. Viewing county finances in this light should guide Abele in finding the best and most efficient use of public money. It doesn't matter if it's $50,000 or $1,000. Ultimately, the money belongs to county taxpayers.
Last spring's redistricting mess is yet another example of how officials act to advance their partisan interests. During our interview, Abele said there didn't seem to be a genuinely good faith effort by the Board to get input from their constituents. We think that's a rather polite way of putting it. Last year's county redistricting was a type of ramrodding that lacked nearly all prudential controls - specifically as it relates to giving minority communities a voice in their own government.
When asked to elaborate, Abele noted that the County Board reduced its number of supervisors from nineteen to eighteen. "It's redistricting 101," he teased. "You want to end up with an odd number." Ending with an odd number is the right play, but not if you're trying to oust a particular County Supervisor from his district. The County Board, led by Board Chairman Lee Holloway, redrew Supervisor Joe Rice's district altering the conservative base of his constituency. This was a move that many believed was retaliation for Rice's staunch advocacy to reduce the Board's size. But, there are ways to keep redistricting politically kosher.
Abele said, "If you want objective decision making, then you should separate the Board from the process." By this, Abele is referring to a type of independent commission, one appointed by surrounding communities striving to cut partisan self-interest from the equation. "Have a third party do it lest people accuse you of doing things to benefit yourself," Abele concluded.
Abele's passion for the community moves beyond county budgeting and to the equal treatment of our fellow man. Abele championed domestic partner benefits at the county level and ultimately signed it into law.
Not only was Abele instrumental in establishing health care coverage for the domestic partners of county workers, but he did so at a rate far less than they anticipated. Abele said only 19 of more than 4,500 county employees had signed up for the new benefits. The county government, Abele said, saved money because "they budgeted nearly a million more than it would have cost." That should satisfy those critics who saw the entitlement as a costly endeavor.
After interviewing the County Executive, one of our bigger concerns is that Abele's non-partisan philosophy will eventually pit him against both political parties. Wisconsin's politics today are the most polarized and partisan in recent memory. Party leaders will want him to choose sides, which so far he's been unwilling to do. We need more leaders in local government not beholden to a party's talking points, leaders willing to bring both sides together to get things done.