It seems lately that Milwaukee County Supervisor Peggy West can’t catch a break. In addition to absenteeism, she’s been taking some fire from challenger Sylvia Ortiz-Velez over her role in the county’s 2011 redistricting process. Ortiz-Velez is claiming that Supervisor West didn’t support the Hispanic community getting a second majority district – also called a majority VAP district.

The controversy is spilling into the public largely because of a 2011 email between Supervisor West and Harold Mester, the County Board’s public information manager, indicating that West thought it was unnecessary for Hispanic voters to get more representation.

Before we get to that, let’s bring you all up to speed. Every 10 years, local governments redraw district lines based upon changes in population determined by the U.S. census. If, for example, the census shows there was an uptick in Hispanic population for Milwaukee County, county supervisors would ordinarily redraw districts to reflect that growth. But that didn’t happen.

In 2011, the Milwaukee County Board approved of a preliminary redistricting map that would have cut 8% of voting-age Hispanics out of Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic’s (4th) district and shifted them to Supervisor West’s (12th) district. Both Dimitrijevic and West voted in support of this plan.

The reason this is so controversial is because Supervisor West’s district, at the time, had a Hispanic majority voting-age population (VAP) of 66%. The vote to add another 8% of Hispanic voters to her district by cutting them out of Dimitrijevic’s district would essentially ignored their population growth and the increased political influence that is supposed to come with it. This is literally the reason we have redistricting.

However, it appears that Supervisor West didn’t get the memo. In a 2011 email between her and Harold Mestor, she questions whether the Hispanic community needed “more representation,” saying:

Hey Harold, I know we are giving this guy way too much time but his comments suggest that Latino’s need ‘more representation’? Having a 2nd Hispanic majority district does not ensure a Latino will be elected. Marina [Dimitrijevic] has never had a Latino opponent and she has the ‘Hispanic Influence District” . . . And just to drive the point home both the ‘Hispanic Majority’ and ‘Hispanic Influence’ districts are both represented on the Common Council by Anglos who have both run and won against Latinos . . . so does it seem like it matters? I am afraid I don’t understand his point and would kind of like him to clarify.”

Since the person she’s referring to in the above email is me, I’ll take the opportunity to “clarify” the point for her. The purpose of a second majority Hispanic VAP district isn’t to get another Hispanic elected to office – although that would be nice. The purpose is to ensure that the Hispanic community literally has “more seats” at the County Board table when it comes time to voting on county policy.

If 3 of the 18 supervisors on the county board represent the farming community, the concerns of those farmers will not get equal consideration as the concerns of the urban voters who control 85% of the county board. More seats equal more political power. And when the Hispanic population in Milwaukee County increases by 45,000 in the span of ten years and they don’t get another seat at the table, someone isn’t doing their job.

There is a rather long history in the United States of minority communities being disenfranchised by a process called “packing.” When minority communities grow in population, their political influence in government should also grow. But when they’re packed into a single district that is already a 66% Hispanic voting-age voting district, their political power becomes redundant and they lose say over how their government operates.

In 2011, writing for El Conquistador, I asked Supervisor West why the African-American community had six times the representation as the Hispanic community while having only twice the population. I asked why she didn’t fix this inequality in representation when she had the chance during the redistricting process. She answered that it was “impossible to draw a second Latino-majority district, because the rest of the Latino population is so widely scattered across the county.” She also added that the only way to add another Hispanic majority VAP district was to increase the size of the County Board.

Both statements turned out to be false.

Using the same county redistricting software, Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo (who is now a state legislator) demonstrated that a second majority Hispanic VAP district of 57% could have been created. When questioned about Sanfelippo’s map, West dismissed it saying that the County Board had already voted on their plan. When we had asked if any changes could still be made before the board’s plan was finalized, West told us,

“I am checking into the process of verifying this information however my understanding is that Milwaukee County's Redistricting plan has been submitted and is non-negotiable . . . So to clarify, I am not aware of the ability of the board to vote for a 2nd time on another redistricting plan if this information is incorrect which I will verify tomorrow, I will review with an open mind all other plans being offered.” [emphasis mine]

This statement also turned out to be false.

The Board’s plan was not “non-negotiable” as West had stated. This much was proved false when Supervisors West and Dimitrijevic had co-authored an amendment to change the Board’s redistricting plan, giving the Hispanic community its second VAP district of 51%.

Challenger Sylvia Ortiz-Velez raises a valid point about Supervisor West not supporting a second majority Hispanic district. Her email to Harold Mester is an indication that either she didn’t understand how redistricting was supposed to work, or that she did, but chose to screw the Hispanic community in Milwaukee County. Neither option bodes well for Supervisor West.

Ultimately, Supervisors Dimitrijevic and West did the right thing when they had coauthored an amendment to remedy their mistake and provide Hispanic voters with a second majority VAP district; but this was only after two months of relentless pressure by El Conquistador and organizations like Hispanics for Leadership, the NAACP, and the ICC.

If we’re really looking to thank a county supervisor for fighting to ensure that Hispanics were properly represented, we shouldn’t be thanking State Representative Joe Sanfelippo. He did most of the legwork showing that a second VAP district could be created and got zero credit. Perhaps Supervisor West and Dimitrijevic should consider that the next time they take credit for the Hispanic community getting its second Hispanic district.

Hispanic Issues - Wisconsin Latino News

Wednesday’s ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) delivered a major setback to Voces de la Frontera’s (VDLF) five-month caustic campaign against Palermo’s Pizza. Voces de la Frontera, a union-centric advocacy group, alleged the pizza company used an ICE audit to stymy worker efforts to unionize. Early on, Chris Dresselhuys, spokesperson for Palermo’s Pizza, said allegations of union busting were manufactured by Voces and that efforts to organize a union materialized only after Voces learned of the ICE audit.

The NLRB ruling appears to support Dresselhuys’ claim. Irv Gottschalk, regional director of the NLRB, said, “The claim [made by Voces] was that all of this was really in retaliation for union activity. And my conclusion is the evidence didn’t show that.”

On May 27, 2012, Palermo’s legal counsel notified VDLF of the ICE audit and asked for help getting the proper documentation of their employees in order. The news left Christine Neumann-Ortiz scrambling -- not to help employees with documentation -- but to collect signatures for a union petition.

On May 29 (two days later), Neumann-Ortiz filed a petition to unionize with the NLRB. Maria Monreal-Cameron, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told El Conquistador that she was approached by undocumented workers and was specifically told they would keep their jobs if a Palermo’s union were formed.

The timing of the Neumann-Ortiz’ petition and the filing of Unfair Labor Practice charges suggests she knew of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOA) between the U.S. Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Labor affirming that ICE would have to “de-conflict itself” from an audit if the company in question had an ongoing labor dispute.

A timeline of events shown below indicate that within three days of filing Unfair Labor Practice charges, Palermo’s received a “stay of action” letter by the Deputy Chief Counsel of ICE, which effectively halted the ICE’s audit.

May 27 - Palermo’s Pizza contacts Voces de la Frontera for help and notifies them of an ICE audit.

May 29 - Christine Neumann-Ortiz files unionization petition on behalf of the Palermo’s Workers Union.

May 31 - Palermo’s receives notification of the petition to unionize.

June 4 - Palermo’s Workers Union files an “Unfair Labor Practice charge” against Palermo’s (officially creating an ongoing labor dispute)

June 7 - ICE notifies Palermo’s of a stay of further action regarding its Notice of Suspect Documents.

In an email to El Conquistador Newspaper, ICE said that their policy is intended to prevent parties from using ICE to interfere with ongoing labor disputes “without regard to whether a workforce is or is not unionized.” In other words, the Memorandum of Understanding between Homeland Security and the Department of Labor prevents companies from using ICE as a tool to thwart union organizing, but does little to prevent groups like Voces de la Frontera from filing Unfair Labor Practice charges to thwart an ICE investigation.

Media Coverage

With regard to media coverage, it should be noted that the NLRB delayed Tuesday’s ruling to Wednesday - a day before Thanksgiving and the busiest shopping weekend of the year. Prominent talk radio personalities at 620 and 1130 AM that had followed the Palermo’s story closely were off for the holidays. Most mainstream media outlets ran stories reflecting a major win for Palermo’s Pizza, clearing them of union busting charges.

WISN12’s headline read, “Labor Board supports Palermo’s decision to fire workers over immigration issues.” The Business Journal’s headline read, “Palermo Villa: NLB decision ‘vindicates’ company.” Fox6Now’s headline read, “NLRB dismisses claims filed by Voces de la Frontera against Palermo’s.” And Channel’s headline read, “Federal officials side with Palermo’s in labor dispute.”

The only coverage that seemed to drizzle on Palermo’s parade came from Georgia Pabst of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Her report appeared to assign more space to debunked and dismissed worker complaints than to the implications of the of the NLRB ruling.

It’s no small matter that the overarching claim used to fuel a nationwide boycott of their products by the country’s largest umbrella union organization has been wholly dismissed by the NLRB. The story here should be about a company’s ultimate vindication from undeserved attacks. Space dedicated to rehash old talking points used ad nauseam by affected former workers is unnecessary and arguably diversionary.

Media ignores sentiment among Latinos

As the controversy percolated between Palermo’s and Voces, leaders in the Hispanic community weren't slow to choose sides. Voces began to court Hispanic politicians quickly, but understandably some were reticent about taking a public stand. State Representative JoCasta Zamarripa felt a connection with the affected workers and wrote a passionate op-ed saying in part,

“The ways things are going now, Palermo’s will be known across the country as the immigrant run pizza business that started small and achieved the American Dream -- only to exploit their workers doing so, while sticking it to the taxpayers.

And Palermo’s will be infamous as the factory where scores of immigrants wanting to better their lives - like its owners, the Falluccas, not long ago -- were fired under bogus anti-immigrant pretenses, and got away with it.”

In a new statement sent out by Zamarripa, she says she’s happy to hear some of the workers will get their jobs back, but will “withhold further comment until I have read the full written decision by the NLRB upon its release.” This should have been Zamarripa’s course of action before writing her condemnatory piece. It’s understandable to sympathize with workers fired during tough economic times, but swinging blunt political instruments at Palermo’s wasn’t the answer.

Although the Hispanic community was generally supportive of Palermo’s Pizza, the lack of support they received from Milwaukee leaders like Mayor Tom Barrett, Representative Josh Zepnick, County Supervisor Peggy Romo-West, and Madam Chair Marina Dimitrijevic is frustrating.

When asked last month whether Zepnick would support a national boycott of Palermo’s products, he responded, “I’ll have to answer that question in January when they become a part of my district.” That’s like a president-elect refusing to accept help from a transition team because he hasn’t been sworn into office.

Palermo’s Pizza is an important player in Zepnick’s newly drawn Assembly District. He should be building bridges, not coauthoring a letter that blame them of illegal activity. When I asked Zepnick if he had evidence to support his allegation, he said he presumed the NLRB wouldn’t be investigating charges if there weren’t legitimate worker concerns. Wrong answer.

I don’t doubt that Zepnick wants to do good for his community. My advice to him is not firing a gun before pulling it from the holster. If politicians want to take any lead, it should be from Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele who, upon request, released this statement:

“I'm obviously very happy for the Falluca family and Palermo's getting the vindication they deserve. What is disappointing is that so much of the information that supports the Palermo's case has been available from the start and yet that didn't seem to matter too much to the people and organization leading the charge against them. Why? Because they were apparently more interested in appearing to champion a righteous cause than getting their facts right. If we want to build the kind of world class business climate and create the jobs I know we can here in the County, all of us in public office have to be passionate about getting there.”

It’s understandable why some advocate for Palermo’s Pizza to relocate their business to districts more receptive and appreciative of values associated with increased job creation, property tax revenue, and community involvement. Instead, our political leaders should reevaluate what’s important for and in our communities.

Although Milwaukee’s unemployment rate is gradually improving, failing to support good businesses that lead the way in employment compensation and community involvement is not just an economic mistake; when deliberate, it’s moral ineptitude.

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