By Mrinal Gokhale
Hundreds filled the Washington Park Senior Center auditorium for the County Executive Debate on Thursday, Feb. 4 at 6 p.m., hosted by Milwaukee County Clerk Joseph Czarnezki and sponsored by Democratic Party of Milwaukee County.
County Executive Chris Abele is running against three individuals this year including Senator Chris Larson, Joe Klein and Steve Hogan.
Czarnezki read a series of hard hitting questions to the candidates, regarding what each would do to improve Milwaukee County.
They had a short amount of time to respond and had a chance to follow up based on what the other candidates said.
Milwaukee transit funding
Czarnezki asked how each candidate would help fund Milwaukee’s bus system.
Abele acknowledged that he has helped push for some suburban bus routes to industrial parks, helping inner city residents get more jobs in the suburbs.
“The state provides less transit funding compared to a few years ago, but we use federal grants and tax levy on what we don’t get from the state so we don’t raise bus fares,” Abele said.
He feels the state should put more funding into public transit, comparing it to how he helped restore child support in 2013.
“I met with the state legislature and discussed restoring funding for both transit and child support, and we won by a 16-0 vote.”
Larson also is interested in reducing fares and expanding routes.
“Under Governor Walker, the fares are high compared to other states and we cannot allow the system to become privatized to forprofit parties, out of state.
We cannot make drivers go part time and be unprofessional,” he said.
The audience loudly clapped and cheered. Hogan also was in agreement with Abele on adding more suburban routes for job access.
After discussing the importance of Milwaukee transit, candidates were asked how they plan to address segregation and create opportunities for people of color in Milwaukee, as well as helping children who grow up in poverty.
“These statistics are not new,” said Abele, adding that Wisconsin has a high African American incarceration rate.
“The county has more resources now, which is how we offer job training, and we had a partnership with Hunger Task Force and offered job preparation training at the House of Corrections.”
Hogan agreed that creating more jobs is key to reducing poverty rates, saying people in the city should have more access to suburbs for jobs.
“We should speak to the younger generation and encourage them to look past race and class.” Klein did not have much to say when it was his turn to respond.
“I’m not a social worker,” he said, followed by a long pause and some laughs from the audience.
Senator Larsen feels the key is increasing jobs and home ownership in Milwaukee County neighborhoods.
He referred to Milwaukee’s high homicide rate and gun violence, saying last year was “a punch in the gut.”
“We must partner with municipalities to prioritize public safety,” he said. “We must also address root causes of poverty, and increase funding for SpotShotter technology to predict potential shootings.
Czarnezki asked candidates how they felt about the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program, which is designed to improve underperforming schools by direct management or by converting them to charter or private schools.
Abele was put on the spot as the current County Executive, but he said he’s passionate about MPS and will not hurt the public schools system.
The other candidates made it clear they felt negatively about OSPP. Both Klein and Hogan said OSPP goes against democracy and is unconstitutional.
“They should go through teacher unions and school boards, if there’s a problem with how MPS is run,” said Hogan.
Larsen delivered the most well received response. “OSPP was designed by those who demonize teachers,” he said, as attendees cheered so loudly that the moderator told the audience to “refrain from any outbursts.”
“I authored legislation to push for more community schools and Abele could have opposed OSPP, but didn’t.”
However, Abele maintained that he discussed OSPP with Senator Alberta Darling, telling her the program may be harmful.
“I told Alberta Darling OSPP isn’t the approach I’d take, but wraparound services cost nothing to MPS and I’m just trying to take the passed legislation and turn it into something positive.”
Towards the end, candidates were asked how they would each address homelessness throughout Milwaukee.
Abele discussed the recently launched initiative that aims to end chronic homelessness by 2016 through subsidized housing, rental assistance and health services.
“The term ‘chronically homeless’ is defined as being homeless for a year or longer,” he explained, adding that many chronically homeless people have gotten housing ever since the program has been launched.
Hogan feels more housing options for homeless should be available on colder nights and empty buildings on lots can be turned into housing.
Klein suggested using the Tommy Thompson Center at State Fair to add beds to serve as housing.
Senator Larsen emphasized the importance of building a strong community to combat homelessness and poverty.
“If we see neighbors without a home, we should take them in,” he said. As far as Abele’s initiative to end chronic homelessness, Larsen said it only addresses a sub-population.
“Those needing emergency shelter should have it, and statistics showed 1,500 people needed it last year,” he recalled.
“But our current County Executive pulled $300,000 to use for personal security.”
When it was time to follow up, Abele denied this. “I put zero dollars towards my security.
The chronically homeless population is the most vulnerable and we’ve given hundreds of people housing since the initiative started.”
At the end of the debate, the attendees mingled with candidates as news media photographed them.
Everyone was reminded that the primary is on February 16 and the election is on April 5.