In The News
Politics seen in delay of Milwaukee jobs projects
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted March 16, 2012
Political cowardice when it comes to creating jobs was the blinding central issue in March for Milwaukee unions, even amid the political turmoil and enthusiasm to recall the governor.
This was not just about the obvious Walker policies that prevented Wisconsin being part of the national job recovery.
But in Milwaukee, anger and unhappiness were particularly aimed at labor’s so-called allies, who were stalling action that would quickly generate job growth. These are elected officials who have sought and counted on union support but turned invisible when simple shove was needed -- officials that had already supported the job plans for the most neglected pool of work-hungry residents in the state! Yet both city and county councils held their final pre-election sessions March 15 without moving forward on needed steps to job creation.
Political cowardice caused these needless delays in job creation projects that could be operational right now, helping hundreds desperate for jobs and ready to go to work. That useless stalling simply confirmed to residents that the officials who should care don’t -- despite campaign promises.
The poverty was in runaway existence in Milwaukee long before there was a formal recession -- and long before the more well-to-do in the community began feeling the pinch and started to demand action. Back then you could argue a lack of political will or clarity, but not now, not in any way. And yet even politicians who publicly agree with the desperate need have balked.
“Never again,” said Sheila Cochran, secretary-treasurer of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council to 750 stirred-up union members at Serb Hall March 7, “look for our help in your races if you disappear when we most need you!”
Community groups – 17 belong to the Milwaukee Jobs Act Coalition -- along with unions have given up pleading with local officials to get moving on what they have already agree to. They were demanding it -- because only self-serving finances and political gamesmanship delayed immediate implementation of city and county initiatives until after the April 3 election.
The mainstream media ignored the major protest about the delay by more than 250 people March 9 who set up chairs for absent supporting aldermen in the city rotunda. While a majority of the council backs the job action, only Milele Coggs and Anthony Zielinski showed up.
Where were all the others? The moving finger of guilt for the delay –according to civil servants at City Hall and other sources outside the coalition – pointed to Common Council President Willie Hines who has given lip service to the jobs act yet worked mightily behind the scenes to prevent a planned public hearing and participation in the coalition’s mock hearing in the rotunda. Insiders told me he even hinted at withholding committee appointments and community grants funding to get the delay until after the April 3 election.
(Still the coalition will attempt one last gasp at a final March 20 Common Council meeting.)
Why such political calculation, particularly given the widespread agreement on the jobs act, which only needed some technical language polish to move ahead?
To understand the juking and jiving. one need look no further than Hines’ firebrand opponent for his District 15 Common Council seat in that April election along with the clear trail left in Hines’ required campaign finance reports.
Supporters of the job act had worked for months to get majority support on the Common Council, including (on paper and in radio talk interviews) Hines. The idea was to move into fast-forward at least $500,000 and some teeth.
The act would put young people to work year-round in nonprofits and small businesses, employ residents in maintaining foreclosed properties, and also challenge the business community by requiring community reinvestment from banks that benefit from taxpayer money, fairly simple checks to make sure that jobs with good benefits would be created by taxpayer supported businesses and that businesses would be accountable for the jobs they promise.
The idea of the coalition was “Draft It, Introduce It, Pass It!” – a clarion rallying cry, unless you are a business used to controlling politicians through contributions and worrying about what you have to promise the voters in agreeing to help create more jobs. Hines has historic opposition to bold and broad jobs action that might put him in trouble with his key financial supporters – the development community.
Playing up to them may well be important to progress in his inner city district, but what progress and for whom? You need only roam the streets of his district as I did to see the level of disrepair and neglect that reflect not on the residents but on their alderman.
Despite what he told WMCS Radio listeners March 12 about how it is mainly residents of the area who support him, the campaign finance reports reveal solid maximum contributions ($394) from developers and business groups in the $120,00 plus he raised. These include contributions from both businesses within his district and outside it, but all give him a ton of election support.
One speculation about Hines’ slow-walk is that waiting until after April 3 would allow him to fudge the language affecting business requirements, comforting the developers.
He is also opposed in his aldermanic race by a strongly supported union candidate, a former organizer for SIEU who gave up secure re-election to the Milwaukee County Board because of outspoken anger about the levels of unemployment in Hines’ district and the sort of neglect of neighborhoods that is directly any alderman’s business.
Eyon Biddle has roots, family and church supporters in the region and was co-creator of the successful county jobs initiative (discussed below) while also being an outspoken champion of getting the city’s job action moving. The treasurer in his election campaign is also the most famous member of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, CFO Sheila Cochran, a champion of the inner city neighborhoods where she lives.
Waiting until after April 3 prevents the comparison of candidate job support being a central issue in this race, keeps him from appearing in direct conflict with Biddle, an acknowledged underdog given Hines’ coffers.
The disinterest of the local media in this story is another puzzling factor in the unfolding April 3 election.
Less understandable is the needless delay at the county, where language and money are already available. It’s not simply politics, since Chris Abele is not opposed in his run for re-election as county executive.
But he does control the purse strings and is largely responsible, according to sets of insiders, for the slow-walk on the county’s progressive job initiative. The delay confirms the impression that he doesn’t have his act together in county administration and lacks empathy with the long-standing need for jobs in the community.
It will not please Abele to find he is being described in county quarters as “Romneyesque” -- reflecting the same wealth background and inability to connect with the working class laid at the door of the leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination.
Abele has been quite frank about wanting to avoid entanglement in partisan politics, but his definition of what that means confounds many. He was elected opposing Walker’s destruction of public worker collective bargaining – he even went to Madison to signal his opposition -- but fell right into the right wing media’s current interpretation that anyone who signs a petition to recall the governor is not behaving as a honorable politician but a partisan stooge – a hard view to sell given how many have signed. It’s even harder to sell when you’ve taken a pubic stand.
Similarly Abele has put himself at odds with progressives at the county by dancing between Republican and Democrat hires in a pretense at balance while failing despite the names he’s brought aboard to convince anyone that his team mounts up to a coherent management system and policy. To many he comes so strongly from a management style approach and financial shenanigans that he has yet to understand the basic give and take required in democratic government service. Some criticize him for being a pawn of the business community while others fear his liberal credentials are proving a skin-deep smokescreen. Others hold out hope he is still feeling his way, just taking a peculiarly long time in doing so.
Whatever the reasons, Abele’s slow-step in making commitments and doing homework has now prevented fast movement on the “Ready to Work” initiative, which the County Board and Abele approved to use some proceeds from sales of county land to immediately put hundreds of desperate citizens to work in needed new jobs.
The sale to MSOE of Park East land provides $1 million for this work project as soon as a check is cut, but that requires speed from the exec’s office, which he has failed to provide, supervisors say. Such delays will keep Ready to Work idling until probably late April.
Clearly angry is Biddle, who pushed the work idea through the county board and in March pulled no punches in his disgust at both the county and the city, where he is seeking to defeat Hines.
“Abele needs to make implementation of the “Ready to Work” Initiative a priority,” he said. “Mayor Tom Barrett and the Common Council need to make the Milwaukee Jobs Act a priority NOW. Seriously, how bad do things have to get? Are we waiting to become even poorer than the fourth poorest city in the nation?”