In The News
Walker the shadow discoloring April 3 election
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted April 4, 2012
For nonpartisan local officials and judges, April 3 determined the next four years of their public lives – a big deal. The national media concentrated on a small deal, the obvious clown sideshow known as the GOP presidential primary where Mitt Romney edged Rick Santorum about 43-38% in a weak turnout race that probably won’t be remembered by anyone a month from now.
But there was a shadow hanging over the entire process that affected many results and put the national GOP figures in a strange shade. They all supported the threatened governor in words but avoided physically posing with him out of fear of the future (imagine what a photo op for the press that would be!). Agreeing with Scott Walker at arm’s length can win sympathetic GOP voters, but the game for the near future was avoiding the voter distaste looming in the May 8 primary, the June 5 recall election, the John Doe corruption probe and the court declarations of his unconstitutional tactics.
All that left everyone examining April 3 for predictive signs of how those recalls would go (four GOP senate seats are also in the mix). In that regard, both sides saw portents of concern in the specter not yet on the ballot.
For instance, Wisconsin’s fastest growing minority, Latino citizens, also successful in challenges to the voter ID law and the GOP redistricting maps, are now the most energetic and most progressive faction in the electorate and proved it April 3.
Yet in Milwaukee, the largest entrenched minority, the ones most suffering from lack of jobs and poverty, African Americans, seems the most complacent about using the ballot box to correct their conditions. Maybe because it didn’t solve things before. That indifference has to be a disappointment to the union organizers who may not have them as members but have worked hard to improve their lot.
That is certainly one reading of the Milwaukee election results, where the Common Council became more progressive and dynamic when Latino activist Jose Perez, a veteran developer and MICAH organizer, surprised the establishment by defeating long established and strongly financed veteran James Witkowiak, first elected in 1992. Perez won by 90 to 200 votes depending on how you count these moving results.
An unbelieving Witkowiak at this writing refused to concede, hoping a recount or absentee ballots might change the inevitable. But District 12 is a Hispanic majority region which coalesced around Perez and represents important new clout and coordination.
Turnout in Latino neighborhoods is still somewhat low, but it is sure growing. In another Latino majority area, County District 12, incumbent Latino Supervisor Peggy Romo-West sailed to victory with nearly 57% of the vote though outspent four to one by her opponent.
In districts where Latinos have not yet grown to a majority, change was not in the air for the reform and corrective minded. Educator Benjamin Juarez – partly because of a poor campaign strategy that assailed the incumbent with last minute attacks on his shady past rather than simply repeating his recent extremist preenings – failed to unseat veteran District 8 Ald. Bob Donovan, the Common Council’s most disruptive member.
One similar failure of the progressive movement in an African American district was not a surprise. Eyon Biddle, who had given up a safe seat on the county board, was an outspent underdog in his city District 15 fight against a perennially smooth, amiable and well-financed Willie Hines, the second most powerful person in city government as president of the Common Council It would have taken amazing insight and galvanization of the injured and neglected citizens of the district to change things, and there weren’t enough of those showing up at the polls, so Hines easily beat Biddle back, no surprise to Biddle but certainly a disappointment to those who wanted Milwaukee to move forward on jobs and the poverty issue.
(As one longtime Democrat told me, his party’s establishment concern about traditional sources of money and influence “could be our Achilles heel because more and more of the involved young citizens are tired of our caution and are moving way ahead of us.”)
Similarly, there was hope but not massive grassroots efforts behind Ray Harmon’s attempt to unseat the notorious do-little incumbent Ald. Robert Puentes in the predominant African American District 9, but while he led early in the count, Harmon succumbed by some 500 votes.
Both Biddle and Harmon had been endorsed by the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, as had another progressive candidate who lost in a low turnout African American area, open County Board District 18. Newcomer Tracey Corder’s loss made a curious choice, Deanna Alexander, the new supervisor for the district, but her election will not overall slow the board’s move to a more progressive mix of incumbents and fresh activists.
A similar example of tradition winning ahead of direct action occurred in County District 15, which the labor council had stayed out of because two similar and noted Democrats were competing. Rep. David Cullen, fearing redistricting would cost him his state seat, leaped into the county race against Dan Cody, a parks and transit champion who had been working for years on replacing retiring Lynne de Bruin. Cullen’s better-known name in a region overlapping his Assembly district won him the seat by some 1,400 votes, but the contest among normal colleagues caused quiet hostility among voters.
County Executive Chris Abele was re-elected unopposed (largely because no one dared take on his wealth and no one can yet quite figure his intentions). But the County Board is now absent its self-absorbed chairman Lee Holloway (whose seat was won by the council backed Russell Stamper II) and is now likely to prove an even more coordinated force for change and opposition to the exec if he tries to bully his way. Also elected was newcomer David Bowen (District 10) and incumbents Marina Dimitrijevic and Theo Lipscomb, all council backed.
So all will probably prove formidable idea challengers to Abele, joined by a number of incumbents the council also supports (Gerry Broderick, Nikiya Harris and Jason Haas, all unopposed). Incidentally, Dimitrijevic’s opponent, Bill Buresh, at $26,000 spent the most on a county race – in effect paying more than $17 for each of his losing votes.
On the Common Council, labor backed incumbents Milele Coggs, Michael Murphy and Tony Zielinksk also were re-elected (while a number of other incumbents were unopposed).
Labor’s choice for the elected county comptroller, a position imposed by the Madison GOP legislators that may now have boomeranged on their effort to control the county, is actually an experienced independent expert on county fiscal practices, the veteran and long appointed comptroller, Scott Manske, who won handily.
Over at the city, that comptroller job was won by the longtime assistant to retired Wally Morics -- Martin Matson.
The position of city treasurer was contested by two known Democratic state senators, Tim Carpenter and Spencer Coggs. Coggs won – though don’t expect him to leave the senate as long as there is a 16-16 tie – and is expected to become an influential figure in ongoing Milwaukee politics from his office at City Hall.
Mayor Tom Barrett, though lacking the numbers and enthusiasm of past elections, easily won re-election to a four year term even as he announced his candidacy to take on Walker in the governor’s race (first he has to enter the May 8 primary).
In judicial contests, labor supported Mark Sanders was unopposed and hence sailed to victory. In the Branch 23 race for the Milwaukee Circuit Court, there were two highly regarded candidates, but the labor council’s choice, Hannah Dugan, lost to Lindsey Grady.
At the same time labor’s choice for Branch 17, Carolina Stark, surprised the field with 13,000 votes more than the Walker appointee to the bench, Nelson Phillips. The media tried to make this a pro or anti Walker race and Stark indeed had said she did not want to be associated with “Walker’s values,” by being appointed by him to the bench. But it was the electorate more than the candidate who made a big issue at the polls about Walker’s involvement, aided in no small measure by JS publicity about her statement.
So her win was one of several clues as to how the voters feel about the upcoming recall. But it’s not a clean message. The low turnout in this election suggests it still takes a lot to motivate the public to believe that elections change things.
The distinct lack of involvement of the black minority community, judging by the voting numbers in too many inner city districts, suggests organizers who think their engagement in the recall is essential to defeating Walker – well, they have their work cut out for them.