In sketching out what he would do if elected Milwaukee County executive, Chris Abele drew at least one bright line.
"As county executive," he declared in a campaign video, "I will not raise taxes."
That’s a promise we can track.
And we will.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and PolitiFact Wisconsin have launched the Abele-O-Meter, our system for following promises that Abele made during his 2011 campaign for county executive. We’ll use the meter to report Abele’s progress in keeping his promises, the same as we use the Walk-O-Meter to measure promises made by new Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
(You can read more about our process here)
Abele, who won the county executive post in his first run for public office, was elected to finish the final year of Walker’s term. That gives him relatively little time to make his mark on an institution viewed by some as resistant to change.
"County government, in particular, is a lumbering giant, more than most government entities," said Mordecai Lee, a governmental affairs professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and former Democratic state lawmaker. "You can barely go to the bathroom without asking permission from the County Board."
The Milwaukee County executive, Lee said, has relatively little power in comparison to the County Board than the governor does in relation to the Legislature and mayors do in relation to city councils.
So working with the 19-member County Board will be critical if Abele is to achieve the specific promises he outlined during the campaign. He enters the job as a political novice who will contend with a County Board populated with seasoned veterans such as Chairman Lee Holloway, one of the opponents vanquished by Abele in the primary election for county executive.
And Abele confronts a budget deficit projected to be as high as $25 million in 2012.
Besides promising no tax increases, Abele often stated on the campaign trail he would use "consolidation and cooperation" to confront many of the county’s challenges. In one of the 17 promises we’ll track, he said he would "establish an official framework to guide consolidation of services and functions between county, state and local governments."
But even if the course Abele charted in the campaign was sometimes sketchy, some of his promises offered a clear picture of what he said he would do:
- Give a "short-term" property tax exemption to new small-business start-ups based on "new net jobs" they create in the county.
- Sell "unused and underused land and building assets" to companies and entrepreneurs who want to start or expand business ventures.
- Overhaul the transit system "to ensure residents without transportation are connected to the highest density of employers, as well as job training centers."
Most people who voted for Abele probably don’t have specific expectations of what he should accomplish, Lee said. He said they likely chose Abele because he differed sharply from his general election opponent, state Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale.
Indeed, Stone was tied by critics in the campaign to Walker, who became more of a lightning rod after his proposal to curtail collective bargaining for public employees.
With Walker’s tenure as county executive as the exception, Lee said, Milwaukee County residents traditionally "want a left-of-center, pro-labor, social work-oriented, compassionate and charitable county government."
Abele is a Democrat, though the office is nonpartisan.
John McAdams, a political science professor at Marquette University, said Abele likely will face County Board opposition on taxes and consolidation. Constituencies such as county employees that benefit from county spending, he said, have allies on the board.
"There are people who have a big interest in a lack of efficiency," said McAdams, a political conservative.
McAdams said being a political novice isn’t necessarily a drawback for Abele, given that he has long civic experience. And McAdams said he doesn’t see the one-year term hurting Abele because, in most cases, politicians are almost always running either for re-election or higher office, regardless of the length of their term.
"He’s a politician," McAdams said of Abele. "Politicians run for re-election."
ChrisAbele.com, "Milwaukee County Works" video
Interview, Marquette University political science professor John McAdams, May 12, 2011
Interview, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee governmental affairs professor Mordecai Lee, May 12, 2011
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Stone, Abele offer few concrete plans for county’s fiscal squeeze," March 31, 2011