Blogging Blue sits down with Chris Abele

The candidacy of philanthropist Chris Abele, who’s running for Milwaukee County Executive, has been a lightning rod for discussion both within the universe of Wisconsin bloggers (conservative and liberal alike) and in the mainstream media. Some on the left seem to believe Abele is a conservative masquerading as a liberal, while some on the right believe the opposite, but after talking to Abele I get the sense that while his politics may be on the left side of the political spectrum, Abele is far from being a rigidly partisan ideologue.
Chris Abele
During the course of our conversation, Abele and I discussed a number of issues, but the one issue that seemed to be prevalent in our discussion was the proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the room – Milwaukee County’s difficult fiscal situation. I noted Abele had come under attack by at least one of his opponents for purportedly supporting a proposal to “blow up” Milwaukee County government, and Abele was quick to make it abundantly clear he didn’t want to “blow up” Milwaukee County government. Abele noted he believes Milwaukee County does provide vital services to residents of the county, and he went on to add that he believes Milwaukee County’s fiscal difficulties can be overcome with transparent, responsible, leadership that works to build consensus when it comes to making tough financial decisions rather than dictating policy from the top down.

Abele cited his work with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as an example of his leadership style, noting that at the beginning of his involvement with the MSO, it was plagued with significant debt and declining revenue, with accumulated debt of $7.1 million, a yearly deficit of roughly $3.7 million per year out of a total budget of approximately $16 million per year. Acknowledging the significant challenge a deficit of that size posed to the MSO, Abele said difficult decisions had to be made to get the MSO’s fiscal house in order, and those decisions resulted in some positions at the MSO being cut. Abele was quick to point out that instead of cutting musicians, the positions cut at the MSO were administrative positions, meaning that the MSO’s ability to put a quality product onstage would not suffer. As we discussed the difficult decisions that had to be made to get the MSO’s financial house in order, Abele recognized that the individuals whose jobs were cut at the MSO were real people with real lives, and so making those cuts was a very difficult decision.

As we continued our conversation, I asked Abele to explain how he’d address Milwaukee County’s pension and health care obligations, which by themselves constitute a big part of Milwaukee County’s current and future fiscal woes. Abele acknowledged there are no easy solutions to address the County’s legacy costs, but he also noted that the county’s fiscal problems aren’t new – they’re simply a product of a lack of leadership. Explaining how he’d address the issue, Abele said he’d work to stabilize the the county’s pension system, including exploring the possibility of merging the county’s pension system with the State of Wisconsin retirement system. Asked how he’d deal with the county’s labor unions regarding any changes to how the county administers health care coverage and pensions to its employees, Abele noted he doesn’t believe labor unions should be the enemy, adding, “Demonizing union workers doesn’t solve the underlying problems.”

Speaking in more general terms about how he’d change Milwaukee County government, Abele did acknowledge he’d take a look at reducing the size of county government, but he was quick to add he’d first look to reduce the size of the county’s administrative bureaucracy, rather than focusing his efforts on cutting rank and file workers who actually provide services to citizens. Abele added he believes policy should be made with input from the individuals who will actually implement the policies, “because you’re bound to get good ideas.”

Throughout our conversation I was struck by the fact that for every question I asked him, Chris Abele seemed to have not just an answer, but one or two questions of his own for me. Abele impressed me as someone who definitely has his own ideas and beliefs, but who also values the input and ideas others have to offer.

Chris Abele is among five candidates vying to become the Milwaukee County Executive. Abele’s opponents are former State Senator Jim Sullivan, former acting County Executive Lee Holloway, community activist Ieshuh Grrifin, and State Rep. Jeff Stone. The spring primary will be held February 15, 2011, with the top two vote getters will move onto the spring general election on April 5.


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