Milwaukee County Labor Council AFL-CIO

April 21, 2014

In The News

Dead made to speak (but not vote) on East Side

Vel Phillips, alive, kicking and posing with a young guest at March's delegate open house

By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press

I see dead people.

So do most homes in Milwaukee’s 3rd District, thanks to full-size full-color four-page campaign literature that blew the East Siders way in the final days before the April 1 election.

Under a huge headline asking “WHAT DEFINES A TRUE PROGRESSIVE?” (and implying the answer was Nik Kovac), the mail piece arrays, in typical endorsement fashion, photos of Frank Zeidler, Father Groppi, Bob LaFollette and Vel Phillips. None of whom can provide the answer Kovac wants.

The first three are dead. The last, Phillips, lives on the East Side, though not in the district, and remains active in politics and charitable work.

She was also astonished to learn that a photo of her from the 1950s was being used in Kovac campaign literature.

Reached on Easter by the Labor Press editor, she confirmed that she was not asked to clear use of her image and unaware that any conversation with Kovac would lead to such use, in a manner that suggested endorsement.

She is frankly unhappy when old photos of her are plucked from the Internet ether to back any cause without permission. “I’m proud of every one of these gray hairs because I earned them,” said Phillips, who is also “writing my own history.”

She carefully treasures her time and energy for causes and candidates close to her heart, about half dozen in this election.

Zeidler, Groppi and LaFollette are of course no longer around to tell us who is really in their tradition, if any one person can be.

The campaign piece, with the photo array out front and more questionable goodies inside, produced the first negative door-to-door element in an aldermanic race that had been free of everything but unavoidable petty sniping.

Patrick Flaherty, the unquestioned progressive

Patrick Flaherty, the front runner in the Feb. 19 primary with the deepest progressive credentials, and Kovac were working the doors and forums hard. Both seem well liked and even-tempered. Both picked up support from candidates they defeated. Both come across as knowledgeable and personable, unconnected to any political machine, fighting for the only open seat on the Common Council (once Ald. Mike D’Amato decided not to run again).

As in a national Democratic race you may have heard about, they are actually in large agreement. They say much the same thing about giving voice and power back to citizens.

So there has been no absolutely reprehensible, inaccurate and frankly disgusting ads, as in Mike Gableman’s attempt to smear Supreme Court incumbent Louis Butler.

No billboards, as on the South Side, hijacking the image of a popular Spanish-speaking priest, who had to ferociously object to a challenged alderman (James Witkowiak in District 12). No organized whisper campaigns as faced by Milele Coggs in her District 6 contest against jailed incumbent Michael McGee.

Nothing like that in District 3. Not even the fact-twisting and psychological gamesmanship that steals under the radar during any nasty campaign season (since the media is focused on far grosser excesses and lets the mild ones slide).

Until this late March brochure dump, which addressed a Kovac problem.

Running in Milwaukee’s most liberal district, he is perceived as more conservative than Flaherty. (That may actually have brought him backing, such as a fund raiser involving names from the Citizens for Responsible Government. But quick calculations in both candidates’ camps suggest that’s not enough support and money to win.)

Flaherty has actually handled large budgets for nonprofits and can cite success in persuading City Hall to act on citizen causes. He is also organized labor’s endorsed candidate, partly – as labor council Secretary-Treasurer Sheila Cochran notes – “because you would be hard pressed to find anyone in this city as progressive.”

In fact, you might have to be dead to argue otherwise.

Clearly, Kovac summoned his full-color séance to displace Flaherty in the progressive parade. He announced his civic heroes as “Frank Zeidler and Vel Phillips.” (Unfortunately for him, one can’t tell us and the other just did.)

The campaign promos overinflated in other ways. Kovac, who wrote for New York City area weeklies well into 2007, did good work for the chain, but hardly qualifies for the campaign description: “an acclaimed newspaper editor in New York City.”

Sura Faraj, the candidate who placed fourth in the Feb. 19 primary (and clearly is having trouble bringing along her 1,596 supporters since several found it natural to move to Flaherty), now suggests in the print piece that Kovac has the guts “to challenge an entrenched, out of touch incumbent” – an obvious reference to D’Amato, who wasn’t in the primary and whose own legislative assistant didn’t make the voters’ cut. Which took away that argument and also took away her attack on the “usual political machine,” which neither remaining candidate represents. Unless she means Mayor Tom Barrett's plans to visit senior citizen centers with Flaherty (how underhanded!).

The campaign lit also quotes a public official who describers Kovac as “a visionary” – but apparently saw a different vision Feb. 19th when she was Sura Faraj’s campaign manager. (Just how many visionaries does the 3rd District have, and could they spare a few to the rest of the city?)

Still, Jennifer Morales of the Milwaukee Public Schools Board does have a curious distinction in this race. Her past rival for the MPS district and frequent opponent on the current MPS board, Bruce Thompson, is also backing Kovac – one of the few times you will find them in agreement. It sort of makes you wonder why.