Chris Abele is a community activist, patron of the arts and friend to movers and shakers on both sides of the aisle. He is also an unabashed liberal, contributing to causes and programs with a decidedly “lefty” bent (his words, not ours).
But after years of living in his adopted city, Abele felt the calling to get into the political arena and help to fix the mess that is Milwaukee County.
Abele spoke with us and even answered a bonus sixth question concerning his plan for the county, his claims of bipartisanship and why he wants to be Milwaukee County Executive.
Q: Milwaukee County is facing a massive budget hole and fiscal crisis due to past decisions and current economic realities. What is your fiscal plan, including spending cuts, tax policy and transit?
“The single biggest tools I’ll use are consolidation and efficiencies,” Abele said. “There is enormous duplication between the services provided by the municipalities, the county and the states.”
Abele said the problem between the county and the cities has been the political competition.
“We have to get rid of that. For example, look at the things the county does well – such as parks landscaping. Sue Black has often proposed bidding services to other cities. It would be less cost to those cities and bring more revenue to the county.”
Abele would also like to explore pooling the health coverage of all the public entities in the community, including the county, cities, villages and school districts, to save taxpayers across the board.
But for that to occur, he will have to lobby Gov. Walker to change state laws and labor agreements.
As for transit, Abele wants to approach the system for the optimal leverage of its assets.
“The ideal urban bus system has direct lines from high population areas to areas with high densities of jobs,” Abele said. “Secondly, routes should be timed to be at shift changes and during rush hours. One big problem with the system is due to long waits and loss of routes. We have to make it easier to use.”
Q: Milwaukee County’s system of mental health care has been exposed for weaknesses and mismanagement on a personal and policy level. What is your plan to care for the most vulnerable and mentally ill among us?
Abele said concern for mental health care in Milwaukee County should be ongoing, not just an election issue. He points to the Public Policy Forum’s extensive report on the state of mental health care in the county and said he would follow many of the suggestions contained in the document.
“I will look at increasing efficiencies, controlling overtime, assigning accountability and improving security,” he said. “I will look for the best practices and use them to improve our services.”
Q: There have been suggestions to disband county government or trim its reach. What is your opinion of the role of county government?
Abele says he wants to preserve the services that are suffering and restore those that have already been lost, though not necessarily from within county government.
“I will look at the functions of the county, figure out what we’re doing well and scale them up. For those things we’re not doing well, we’ll find efficiencies and partner with the city and the state.”
He would also work to improve communication among various constituencies. A priority would be deciding the future of O’Donnell Park. Abele said he would sit down with all players – the museums, the businesses and members of the community – to come up with the right decision for the space.
“Taxpayers deserve disciplined decision making and thoughtful discussion among all the users.”
Q: Why should the citizens of Milwaukee County vote for you and what are your qualifications to be the administrator of a $1.3 billion enterprise?
“First, I’m not doing this to get a job or stay in politics or to give in to patronage,” Abele said. “I am passionate about the place where I live and I want to make this a better and safer place for my daughters.”
Abele points to his years of experience as president of the Argosy Foundation, his family’s charitable fund, and work on numerous local for- and non-profit boards.
“I’ve worked with people on both sides of the issues, I have great relationships with business leaders in greater Milwaukee and I have the experience and knowledge to hire great talent.”
Abele adds that he knows what the county needs to create jobs and he went public with his plan for job creation today. Included in that plan are holding the line on taxes, providing a property tax holiday for small business start-ups, leveraging the county’s assets to help businesses grow, streamline and consolidate economic development strategies across the region and aggressively market the county across the state and nation.
Q: After years as a philanthropist, why this position and why at this time?
Abele said he is running in part because of the dead-end and dysfunctional relationship between the position and the County Board, and the county’s general inability to move forward and respond to urgent needs.
“If we don’t change it, it won’t stop happening. In six years, the liabilities of our county will exceed what we bring in. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines anymore and watch this happen. I want to be part of the solution.”
Q: Your message at forums and in campaign commercials has been the ability to work with both sides of the aisle, to the point of having a leading GOP supporter, Sheldon Lubar, as your campaign co-chair. On Jan. 24 you appeared before the County Democratic Party meeting touting your liberal credentials and describing yourself as a “lefty.” How do you reconcile your long-time Democratic loyalties with your message of bipartisanship?
“Sheldon Lubar worked for Nixon and Ford, I didn’t trick him into being a co-chair,” Abele said. “There is a difference between ‘I agree with everything’ and ‘I agree with most things.’ We need to find shared agreements and work on them.”
The five County Executive candidates – Abele, Former State Sen. Jim Sullivan, community activist Ieshuh Griffin, State Rep. Jeff Stone and Acting County Executive Lee Holloway – will take part in a debate sponsored by the Public Policy Forum on Friday, Feb. 4 at the Pfister Hotel. Details can be found here.
The spring primary will be held Feb. 15. The top two vote-getters will move on to the spring general election on April 5. Chris Abele is a 19% owner of Vital Media Group, LLC, publishers of ThirdCoast Digest; however, Mr. Abele is in no way connected to our editorial process. For more information from Editor in Chief and co-publisher Jon Anne Willow, click here.