In The News
Progressives and newcomers dominate Milwaukee election
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted Aug. 15, 2012
Milwaukee television and establishment print missed the boat August 14. Fixated on a feeble turnout GOP race over who would face Tammy Baldwin for the US Senate, it fawned as the best known name, 70-year-old former Gov. Tommy Thompson, held back by three percentage points the high-spending blitz of hedge fund invader Eric Hovde – apparently not noticing that the two together pulled in a mere 373,403 statewide votes.
The real election story here was a reinvigorated state legislature, a clean sweep for progressives. While the media spent time counting a smaller number of black representatives (even pulling in Racine’s retiring Bob Turner to make the example work) it missed the energized Milwaukee agents of change and proven butt kickers against complacency -- across the board and despite skin color. It was a true march together for social justice principles of the sort Dr. King once envisioned.
The margin of success startled even liberal observers while striking fear into conservative expectations. In fact, the biggest loser in this campaign was a Republican dominated national conduit for voucher school money, the mendaciously named American Federation for Children. Every place it put its support, every candidate it lavished with an estimated $200,000 in Milwaukee expenditures, every lie it helped promulgate, the AFC failed -- and failed big. “Imagine what the community could have done with that money,” sighed one visitor to the election night parties.
Beating down endorsements from establishment figures and the lure of a well-known political last name, Milwaukee County Supervisor Nikiya Harris surprised even her own backers with the size of her victory over Elizabeth Coggs, a former supervisor and current member of the Assembly funded by the AFC who had treated the Senate District 6 seat as a royal inheritance from her cousin, Spencer Coggs, who was moving on to be city treasurer.
Instead she was crushed by Harris, 49% to 32% (with three other candidates making up the difference). And this was a higher turnout race than many anticipated -- Harris 6,373 votes to Coggs 4,445.
“Wow!” texted one observer who like most of the community hadn’t expected this outcome, given the parade of notable names who (sometimes to their own surprise) were featured in Coggs literature. Indeed the Coggs family credentials were trotted out at every turn – and that may have eventually disgusted the constituents.
Harris admittedly was not the most experienced or polished candidate in the large field, but her warmth, honesty and willingness to work the doors – plus an excellent ground game from her backers – more than carried the day.
But if Harris was the icing, the progressive cake was pretty rich in Milwaukee Aug. 14. Despite Coggs and particularly state Sen. Lena Taylor playing racial politics, despite lagging behind in early totals until the weight of her Shorewood support cane crashing through – 96% of that community’s vote, though opponent Millie Coby actually lives in the suburb – Pasch won with 63% of turnout (3,531) more than doubling Coby’s numbers. Her victory moment at Art Bar in Riverwest brought a flood of high-five-ing fist pumpers, including a notable community activist couple, MPS board member Larry Miller and 9to5 founder Ellen Bravo.
What turned the tide for Pasch in both city and village was her reputation as a progressive fighter and her refusal to get dirty even as some enemies actively insulted her.
In truth, Coby would not have done even that well except for the spending of AFC and particularly the blatant blunt appeal to race from Sen. Taylor, who used the Internet for her harshest remarks and then smiled more pleasantly in printed community op-ed pieces.
Looking at this and other races, such skin-color politics died deservedly. District 18, where Tamara Grigsby had long served, has been regarded an African American domain, yet it was a white candidate in the eight-person field, longtime resident and lawyer Evan Goyke, who won going away, not just because of a more convincing determined manner and beliefs but more experience on how to campaign, when to talk and when to be quiet and listen. It didn’t hurt that his policy ideas closely allied with Grigsby’s.
What the Pasch race did demonstrate was that something other than race is still an issue – a lingering city-suburban resentment despite the obvious necessity for the communities to act in concert. It was the GOP that included Shorewood in a traditional city district and clearly some voters resented that, and took it out on the suburban candidate even if she was a Democrat and an avowed champion of minority rights. The Taylor-Coby-Coggs racial ploy added to the resentment.
But natural change also helped Pasch succeed – there is more diversity and comity of views along Capitol Drive and in Riverwest as well as Shorewood. This is all now a vocal part of Taylor’s Senate District 4 (she has only token opposition this time around). So she will have lots of fences to mend in the next four years. The racial politics game and the voting strength of the people who dislike such bullying could well smack her in the electoral face.
As satisfying as the Pasch win may have been in burying the divisive games, as surprising as the Harris margin of victory was to some, these were not actually the biggest news for the rebellious side of the Democrats.
Most notable was how sizable was community organizer Mandela Barnes’ victory in District 11 over a polished, placid veteran incumbent endorsed by Mayor Tom Barrett, Common Council President Willie Hines and other Democratic Party notables. But Jason Fields had also voted to expand the voucher program. He had failed to curb payday loans. He wallowed in AFC money and he didn’t work the doors, while Barnes and his talented team sure did.
Moreover, Barnes had a strong case and a positive platform of ideas of how the legislature could reach down into the community. When the smoke cleared, it was a remarkable 69% to 31% victory, celebrated by happy imbibers long after Barnes left the victory party at the Sheraton Points North. (It is also notable that despite similar funding sources, Fields’ brother Jarrett came in a weak second to Goyke in District 18).
On the southwest side there was another surprisingly large victory for the forces of change -- 68% to bounce a 29-year incumbent from District 7. Peggy Krusick was done in not only by her erratic votes and by a redistricting that reshaped most of her territory. Principally, she was defeated by the energy, platform, winning personality and orchestrated campaign of law student Daniel Riemer, whose support of public education also won back factions once behind Krusick.
Another startling margin of victory came in District 17, where Barbara Toles had left office. AFSCME child care leader La Tonya Johnson dominated the race, doubling the totals of UAW supported Fred Royal and also of AFC supported Tracey Dent, a former aide to Elizabeth Coggs whom AFC had attempted to make seem a progressive pick, much to the immediate outrage of Toles.
This was hardly a good day for entrenched political connections. Nor, as an aside, for the establishment media, which didn’t seem to grasp what was happening and sometimes resorted to speedy inaccurate shortcuts. Early stories referred to young Riemer as his father David, a Doyle policy expert who ran for county executive, but that was clearly a typo. More pointed but strange was that skin color count strangely neglecting the ideological makeup of the newly elected – there may be fewer blacks, but there is clearly strengthened support for their community needs.
Also, the vote count database used online and on TV didn’t know how to handle two members of the Assembly redistricted out of their original seats, so it labeled Republican Don Pridemore as “incumbent” in District 22, which he never was. He had actually served in another district. And Pasch, before District 22 was bowdlerized and moved west to become a Republican conclave, was the incumbent there, yet the database listed her as (inc.) District 10, which she had never claimed.
Elsewhere, proven actual incumbents (and in some cases notable progressive leaders) also won easily in races they were expected to take. That included District 8’s JoCasta Zamarippa, still the only Latina in the Assembly, District 9’s Josh Zepnick and veteran champion of liberal causes Fred Kessler in District 12.
In every race where Democrats ran against Democrats and face no major opponent in November (thus in effect already elected barring some write-in campaign), it was the progressive and even in-your-face side of the party that took over. In many cases that was in opposition to the publicized wishes and endorsements of the established Democratic leadership. So – who is really leading now?
Should the Democrats take back the Assembly in November – well, that would be a stretch. But now it is indeed a larger possibility since the fever for change and more dynamic leadership visible in Milwaukee had echoes around the state Aug. 14.
Bottom line – whoever dominates, the Republicans are going to face a quite different breed and nimbleness from the opposition than they had before. The old games of divide and conquer have been exposed. Oh yes, compromise and conciliation are still possible. But not by weaklings.