In The News
Labor endorsements dump familiar, ring in fervor and stiff the status quo
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted January 12, 2012
The Milwaukee labor council made political news beyond its own union members January 11 when its delegates embraced the recommendations of its politically savvy, traditionally pragmatic representatives – the dozen and a half members of COPE, the Committee on Political Education – and then cheered when told why it was a remarkably short list lacking several familiar names and races despite the heavy run of candidates for both the Feb. 21 primary and April 3 general election.
The Serb Hall meeting erupted in applause when Secretary-Treasurer Sheila Cochran explained the selectivity involved when 43 candidates went through the intensive two-day process in person. There were many new faces that were respected while several familiars were passed over. It was a pointed lesson from workers who “from bottom to top have been cornered like rats and robbed -- COPE knew it and is sending as clear a message as it can,” she said.
“We can no longer abide to be around mediocrity.”
She pointed out, again to cheers, that the decision to seek out newer and more progressive candidates -- and only back politicians whose deeds approach their words -- would put the Milwaukee Area Labor Council in conflict at times with longtime allies such as the local Democratic Party.
The most newsworthy endorsement reflected that. It backed Eyon Biddle, despite his clear underdog status, against long established Common Council President Willie Hines, who is being helped by some local Democratic politicians.
This contest won’t take place until April 3, time to promote the reasons for labor’s unhappiness with Hines, which centers on how poverty and unemployment levels increased during his long tenure in this crucial inner city area.
Cochran mentioned no names of those passed over during her talk to the delegates.
So who was backed?
The delegates recommended Jennifer Morales among a field of opponents in the primary seeking to oust Ald. Bob Donovan in the newly competitive Common Council District 8. Morales, a former member of the Milwaukee school board, has been actively going door to door in the district, which has a growing Latino component and wiped out some of Donovan’s low-hanging conservative fruit.
COPE also recommended Latino activist and business figure Jose Perez in a primary to oust longtime Ald. Jim Witkowiak in District 12.
And it is recommending noted jobs activist and legislative aide Ray Harmon over an incumbent in District 9, a contest with some ironies. One of Ald. Robert Puentes’ claims to success is his long tenure with the Milwaukee police, but their members are now endorsing Harmon.
Over at the county, the recommendations stepped into two open seats and held off on two others. Biddle occupied a safe board seat (District 10) but left to take the high risk of running against Hines, so COPE robustly opted in a competitive race to support a newcomer to political office to replace him – David Bowen, a Bradley Tech grad and leader of Urban Underground.
Johnny Thomas had also abandoned his District 18 county seat to run for city comptroller and COPE recommended another new face in that contested election (there will be a Feb. 21 primary) -- Tracey Corder, a social worker and specialist in helping juveniles.
For now, COPE is staying away in the busy primary to replace retiring Lynne de Bruin in County District 15 though there clearly was interest in two of the candidates there who went through the interviews They are David Cullen, a longtime Democrat in the Assembly who fears that the pending GOP redistricting will make his old seat too red for him to survive next November (it also overlap 45% the county district he belatedly stepped into) and Dan Cody, an active Democrat and parks and transit figure who has knocked on 5,000 doors to make his views of the issues known.
The seven-member field running to replace Lee Holloway in District 5 included several impressive candidates, even as new borders spread the district. But what borders! And what an enormous field! The race has drawn names with many family and social connections. Most of the candidates came in for interviews, including current school board member Peter Blewett, Chevy Johnson, Roy Evans, Russell Stamper II and Priscilla Coggs-Jones.
COPE decided to hold off until after the primary when both county Districts 5 and 15 will reduce to two candidates each.
COPE interviewed both Thomas and deputy comptroller Martin Matson vying for the city controller seat vacated by Wally Morics, but COPE declined to endorse either.
It then defied political expectations by stepping into a brand new elected office, one imposed by the legislature in Madison – an elected county comptroller. This countywide race was interpreted by many liberals as yet another divisive Madison action, though some Democrats and unions supported the concept. But right now few in Milwaukee trust the motives of the Madison legislature and there was widespread suspicion that this was just a stalking horse for the business community to start dismantling local government control.
So it was a surprise when the unions started examining the field for a “nose to the grindstone” fiscal type concerned about financial accuracy and independent watchdog role, willing to give good advice without a partisan viewpoint. It may have found one in a reluctant candidate who had originally opposed the law – the existing appointed county comptroller, who told COPE the job would still depend on being accurate with the numbers and responsive to his own conscience, not to political maneuvering.
With that statement, Scott Manske was recommended and won endorsement in both the primary (three candidates) and general election.
Looking at a crowded race for city treasurer among four known candidates with labor credentials, COPE decided to wait until after the primary to recommend a replacement for retired Wayne Whittow. The competitors are former state treasurer Dawn Marie Sass, socialist Rick Kissell and two state senators, Tim Carpenter and Spencer Coggs.
After interviews in several Common Council races COPE did endorse incumbent Millele Coggs enthusiastically(District 8), back Michael Murphy (District 10) and support Tony Zielinski (District 14).
Of the incumbent county supervisors, COPE strongly endorsed Marina Dimitrijevic, Theo Lipscomb, Peggy Romo West, John Weishan and two newcomers who made time to answer questions though they couldn’t go through interviews, Jason Haas and Nikiya Harris. (Weishan, Haas and Harris have no April 3 opponents.)
Many other elected officials were not even being considered since it is a COPE condition that they must complete the questionnaires in timely fashion. Thus several aldermen and supervisors were not in the wheelhouse and nothing negative should be read into their absence.
That however was not universally the case, since some negatives could legitimately be guessed elsewhere. For instance, it was new County Executive Chris Abele’s deliberate decision to stay away from the process, another case of emulating predecessor Scott Walker. Since several of his policies have been interpreted by the workers and several supervisors as a Walker echo, this was probably a smart move. Many COPE members interviewed doubted he would have ever won their backing, though his wealth assured he would be unopposed.
COPE also looked at the judicial contests and had one easy road when assistant DA Mark Sanders showed up for an interview to thank labor for its informal support. In reality, Sanders has no opponent for Milwaukee County Circuit Court Branch 28, so he will replace retiring Tom Cooper after April 3. Despite that inevitability, the delegates January 11 gave him their endorsement and he came by after the meeting to thank them again.
Because of technical concerns, the labor council did not act, but still might, on the one judicial primary race. It’s Milwaukee Branch 17 among an incumbent appointed by Gov. Walker, Nelson Phillips III, and two opponents with judicial credentials of their own – Glendale municipal judge Chris Lipscomb and Carolina Stark, an administrative law judge for the state’s DWD.
COPE did make a strong choice between two respected lawyers running for open Branch 23 of Milwaukee Circuit Court, choosing the more deeply experienced Hannah Dugan over Lindsey Grady, who also has local Democratic backing. But Dugan gave the more impressive interview, COPE members said.
This was just one of the several stories behind the endorsement stories. As MALC’s vice president, Annie Wacker, told the Serb Hall delegates, the COPE members were impressed by the knowledge and determination of a number of young non-union candidates, another signal of how willing the COPE committee will be to step outside their own ranks when a more progressive voice emerges.
Organized labor – from national AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka down -- has been saying for a while that lip service and past practice won’t do it anymore. Putting labor money and street power in a race will be about performance on working family issues.
Organized labor has also heard the chatter about how unions are on the wane, which makes it doubly curious how many politicians are still seeking to harness labor’s effective get-out-the-vote results and outsized union presence at the polls. The council, for instance, radiates out from some 130 locals and affiliates with 45,000 public and private members.
But no question. Walker’s Act 10 has emasculated basic rights and caused genuine hardship,
No wonder MALC is reflecting no patience for Democrats who moan about how much Walker’s ascendance is costing them, without reflecting more deeply on their own behavior before they lost power. ‘If you want to look at a year of horror,” Cochran reminded the delegates January 11, “look at what organized labor has gone through!”
“Decades of carefully worked out collective bargaining drained away. Grievance procedures, arbitration rules, created over time with great care and balance -- wiped out with a single stroke of the pen in Madison. That was not to save money but because they think we will let them get away with it.”
Those once supported officials “who complain about what happened and how much it has cost them still have their jobs and their campaign war chests,” she noted. “We have family, members who don’t have jobs or know where that next meal is coming from or how to pay the dentist. We don’t have any chance at fairness in the workplace. So don’t come crying on our shoulder about how tough you have it.”
Cochran’s litany drew the sustained applause of recognition because it outlined why unions intend to be taken seriously, backing only those now and next fall who give heart as well as lip to fundamental concerns, to job creation, to financial equity. The COPE decisions actually signal a more aggressive seeking out of alliances and candidates who share labor’s core principles. It comes on the eve of what many expect will be a devastating unassailable number of signatures to recall Scott Walker.
There is some risk in labor’s attitude. Hines, for instance, was a contest that could have been ignored or passed over without consequence. But COPE decided to enter the fray. Even Cochran, an active supporter of Biddle, noted to friends that standing aside would have been politically expedient.
Biddle was once an SEIU organizer and had a safe seat on the county board. So some in the media will interpret backing him as labor supporting one of its own, ignoring how COPE simultaneously passed up several other candidates with union credentials. Some in politics also openly speculated to Cochran’s amusement that she “must be related to him” (she’s not) to get so strongly involved in unpaid support of his campaign, but that also misreads the motives.
She is known for political involvement but as a common sense no-nonsense “back to the basics” adviser. She clearly admires Biddle’s convictions, warns him about getting too wordy and first encouraged him to play it safe and stay at the county because Hines is established, comes from in influential family, plays footsies with both the business community and the established but cautious Democratic powers.
What convinced her, she told friends at a recent Martin Luther King event, was walking the streets where she was raised and which Hines represents. “It looks like crap now compared to then” she said. She does not blame Hines personally for all the broken windows and boarded homes, the children walking door to door begging for running water – “like some forgotten Third World country” -- the pervasive endemic unemployment, the palpable despair.
“But where has he been?” she asked. “And aren’t these the conditions an alderman has to be taking on?”
“Win or lose,” said Biddle in interviews, “I have to run for those people,” and he faults Hines in his campaign speeches for paying more attention to “getting by” and meeting with developers rather than caring for and working down on the street level.
If nothing else, this race will make a media and campaign issue of the conditions in the inner city.