In The News
Supported by unions, Harris easily wins seat on County Board
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Update May 26:
Endorsed by the Milwaukee Area Labor Council and the Milwaukee County Democratic Party, Nikiya Harris easily won the May 25 special elction to earn a seat on the Milwaukee County board in District 2 on the city's northwest side. Leaving aside a small write-in vote for a third candidate, Harris more than doubled the vote received by her ballot opponent, business consultant Wallace White, with early election
commission figures giving her 736 votes to his 331. An earlier profile of Harris follows.
Acting on interviews and recommendations by its committee on political education, the delegates to the Milwaukee Area Labor Council voted by acclamation Wednesday, May 5, to support Nikiya Q. Harris as the next Milwaukee County Supervisor to represent District 2 in the rapidly approaching special general election May 25.
Harris, in her first excursion as a candidate, emerged from the April primary as the top vote getter out of a field of 11, too large a field for the labor council to step into with a recommendation though they interviewed many of the primary candidates. The contest came down to the top two vote getters.
Her opponent – Wallace White, now in his 70s and a veteran presence in the political community – may have raised twice as much money, but Harris blew him away with twice as many votes in a primary -- a recount confirmed she drew about 65% more votes, slightly less than originally thought.
Insiders had predicted the primary would draw only 2 or 3% of the electorate but actually attracted 5%. Clearly Harris made her case tirelessly in door to door campaigning – and she was right back at the doors the day after she won.
This primary beat the predictions in turnout, but the same could happen in the May 25 finale as the candidates will face off in community forums and work the neighborhood even more actively.
In the city of Milwaukee, county supervisors may not be as well known as city aldermen but look at what’s in trouble – parks, busses, courts, public health, all county services, all currently under deathly attack and facing worse without a strong county board to deal with budget and revenue.
Harris believes her intensity during the primary, combined with public assurance that she learns fast, was a key to her victory. “I’m a hard worker and I care for this community,” the lifelong county resident noted, “so I thought I’d do well, but I didn’t expect as well as it turned out.”
Presence was the key more than money. Her chief exposure was the sign on top of her own car.
A people’s person -- according to lifelong friends and co-workers -- she brings some notable credentials, administrative experience and business acumen along with a bright smile and enthusiasm to the campaign. She has a bachelor’s degree in community education and a master’s in adult education from UWM, has worked as intern in D.C. and was trained last year in a White House project for women interested in public service. “I learned the ropes of how to campaign,” she said, “and I learned to really appreciate what one voice can do for a community.”
For the last three years she has been a vital staff member of the Urban Ecology Center near Riverside Park along the Milwaukee River, where she handles fund-raising and special activities and manages the member lists for a nonprofit that now boasts more than 2,000 members and regularly holds environmental education sessions and guided tours for children and adults on ecological concerns.
If she wins in District 2, in fact, the only people who are likely to be sad are her co-workers at the Ecology Center who describe her as a sparkplug to their organization.
A number of fellow supervisors say they would like that commitment to progressive causes on the county board. Supervisors Chris Larson, Theo Lipscomb and Marina Dimitijevice have already rung doors on her behalf.
The locals of AFSCME District Council 48 have joined the MALC in working for her campaign.
The first Labor 2010 Milwaukee walk of the AFL-CIO unions, where union members go door to door visiting union households to speak about their issues and candidates, will take place starting at 9:30 a.m. Saturday May 15. The 8,000 union members in District 5 are on the visitors’ list and a strong turnout for Harris is expected. (Union members who want to participate should call the labor council, (414) 771-7070, extension 12.)
Harris has indicated some central concerns she wants to work on, such as safety in and funding for public parks, public transportation to provide job access and strengthening disability care and services. But in talking to her you will also hear her deep worries about preserving county jobs and maintaining employee benefits. She wants to be an independent and fresh presence on the county board. Obviously she supports organized labor but she also spoke of a deep concern to finally help bring “honest budgeting” at the county and deeper understanding of how privatization is not cost effective and diminishes the county services the citizens rely on. “We play a lot of games with how we speak about the government’s roles,” she noted.
“Getting people to see” how taxes can really be controlled – and not just through rhetoric -- and how money can be managed effectively will be real challenges in the coming years. In the current state of affairs, there has been tension between the county board, which has been forced to rescue bad budgets, and County Executive Scott Walker, who has been seeking to make his reputation by cutting corners at the county.
One result is that Walker takes credit for saving taxes while in fact bad administration has forced the state and federal government to use more tax money for things that the county no longer does well.
Walker is currently an absentee landlord as county executive, since he has indicated that win or lose the GOP primary for governor, he will leave the job. The county board, therefore, is looking long and hard for active, energetic, thinking members. MALC and others in District 2 believe they have found that in Harris, who did not expect to run for public office this soon in her career. The opportunity fell into her lap with the resignation and felony conviction (for mismanagement of campaign and personal finances) of Toni Clark.
Harris is the oldest of nine children and raised her three youngest siblings largely on her own after their mother’s death several years ago.
Those siblings are now college age – but all those siblings don’t mean eight active votes for Harris, as she ruefully noted. While all the Harris kids live in the Milwaukee area none are in her territory, though she has several relatives who own property in the district.
All the wards in District 2 are in the city of Milwaukee and are concentrated into 17 voting sites:
Albright United Methodist Church
Clara Barton School
Clovernook Playfield Fieldhouse
Custer High School
John Marshall High School
Madison High School
McGovern Park Senior Center
Milwaukee Police Safety Academy
Silver Spring Neighborhood Center
Sixty-Fifth Street School
Webster Middle School