By Mrinal Gokhale
Hundreds filled the Italian Conference Center on February 22, listening quietly as Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Senator Chris Larson faced off in the first County Executive debate, moderated by the Public Policy Forum President Rob Henken.
After the primary election on Feb. 15, it became official that Larson and Abele are competing for Milwaukee County Executive.
This election was almost a tie as Abele had 47,741 votes and Larson had 48,375 votes, both defeating Steve Hogan and Joe Klein.
“I knew it was going to be close,” said Abele.
“Larson has more experience in politics as a senator, but I have more experience budgeting.”
Throughout the debate, which lasted from 11:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., both candidates addressed county specific issues such as debt, funding county parks, bus transit funding and joblessness.
The audience was instructed not to cheer or make much noise as Abele and Larson spoke.
At one point, Henken asked Abele and Larson what their top three priorities would be if elected.
Larson responded first, saying he’d repeal “power grabs” formed under the current administration.
“Unilateral land sales which don’t need public or county board approval should be repealed. I’d also repeal takeover of public schools.
Second, I’d announce public listening sessions in each municipality because this is a public office.
Third, I’d make sure we listen to employees and workers of Milwaukee County,” Larson said.
Abele said his first priority was further reducing debt.
“Before I was in office, the debt was at $112 million dollars and we’ve knocked off hundreds of thousands of dollars since I came into office,” he said.
His next priority, he said, is improving the Office of African American Affairs in Milwaukee.
Senator Larson also said reducing debt is important, but he feels doing so should involve listening to the community.
He also brought up the Milwaukee Domes closing and the possibility of county parks being sold under current administration.
“We have a situation where parks aren’t getting the attention they need.
If there’s a focus on just reducing on debt without focusing on the services you get, it’s looking at just one part of the equation,” said Larson.
He added, “I have neighbors who say they grew up near parks and they feel they’re being ignored.”
Henken then asked Abele and Larson if there are circumstances where it’s okay to hand over Milwaukee County parks to private entities. Both candidates said they are against selling the county parks.
Larson said, “Many of you have a soulful connection to parks, and I feel every family should have access to a well maintained park.
Selling them is something I’m not a fan of.”
“The current administration lobbied for power to sell land including the airport, zoo, museum and 43 parks with no public explanation.” Abele denied this accusation.
“If my intent is to sell parks, I’m doing a bad job because we’ve gained 150 acres in park land,” he began.
“Parks are not just a luxury; they add value to community and I take it seriously. I have no intention of selling parks.”
Another important issue Henken asked candidates about was mental health in Milwaukee County.
Under Abele’s leadership, long-term care units have been shut down. “Do you think this is a good strategy?” said Henken.
Abele feels the right choices were made, but said he can’t accept full credit.
“We went from only having nineteen peer counselors to having hundreds more now, which wasn’t the direction we went before,” said Abele.
Larson said he believes the wrong people run the mental health board in Milwaukee. He said that if he became elected, this would change.
“The person on the board was appointed by Abele, and I think he’s a corporate attorney with no experience in mental health,” Larson began.
“The board requested crisis resource centers but it was denied, because they were told it’s not in the budget and they were lied to about not being able to overturn the County Executive’s choice.”
When Abele could respond, he said it had more to do with Governor Walker’s decision, and he just followed the rules.
“No one argued we are not putting in more resources than we were before,” he said. “This is Walker’s process, not mine.”
Larson had a chance to respond as well.
“This is failing because the number of people who identify as having mental illness has increased in jails and our homeless population,” he said.
At the end of the debate, both candidates had just a minute to deliver their closing statements.
“When I ran five years ago, I said I’d do something for the fiscal condition. We’ve lowered debt by hundreds of millions.
I said I’d reform behavioral health division; we did it.
We never raised bus fares and cut routes and we instead added more routes,” he said.
Larson delivered his statement saying he is an advocate for the middle class.
“You will have someone who will give back to you not just when you get in trouble, but before. We have six weeks, one day and then the real work gets started.”
Henken made a joke before the debate closed and the news media and audience members met the candidates.
“I’m voting for Chris,” said Henken as the audience laughed.
This debate is one of many more to come in the future before the final election on April 5.