Ament, Milwaukee County’s “Tight-Wad Liberal” Dies at 76

Tom Ament was as intense a political animal as they come. He was no-nonsense and stubborn. Once he embraced an idea or a policy, he was a true believer. He called himself a “tight-wad liberal” and worked hard to live up to that label.

His career was peppered with successes and in classic Ament style, ended at least partly on his terms.

Ament looked at the long game in politics. He surrounded himself with like-minded souls — pushed, lobbied and strategised in ways that he could accomplish more good than any other Milwaukee County Executive has.

Without Tom Ament, the Calatrava Art Museum would not have been built. The Milwaukee Brewers would be gone since it was Ament who championed the stadium sales tax which allowed Miller Park to be built. Parts of Milwaukee County would have been sold off, or at least been so underfunded as to languish and decay. Without Ament, the Milwaukee Public Museum would likely still be a hulk of a building in suffering disrepair instead of the destination that it is today.

Tom Ament left a lasting legacy of building effective public-private partnerships which can maintain and even improve services and access without increasing taxes to fund those facilities and programs. At his heart, Ament was proud to wear the label “tight-wad”.

Ament understood how County government worked better than anyone I have ever known. He understood the legislative side, having served as a County Supervisor as well as having been elected by his colleagues to be the Board Chairman. He understood the dynamics between the County Executive, which was effectively created to be similar to an administrative position, and how he could work with, or in some cases use, the Board to advance his agenda.

There was never a time, in the 6 years that I served with Ament, that people had any delusion that he wouldn’t strong-arm his way into getting what he wanted. Ament wanted you to believe that he was the boss. He knew how to get things done and if you crossed him there would be consequences. More than once, I was on the receiving end of his wrath. But I was not phased and as we got to know each other, we developed a mutual respect, even if we didn’t always agree.

Charm and charisma came out of Tom in social situations. He had his go-to stories that he would generously share. They were his war stories. He would flash a wry grin and share some sage wisdom, revel in old victories, and recount the bravado of other political folk he had run across over the decades.

While there are those that would wish to define Ament by the successes of his political adversaries at the end of his career, they miss the point and do not have a full understanding of his life. Although they won a battle with smear tactics, Ament was vindicated by a County lawsuit which in the end, financially benefited those same adversaries. The county bankrolled the settlement based on what Ament had said all along, and Ament was right.

Perhaps that is the epitaph that Ament would be most proud of.


Why the JS will Support Walker Despite Email Scandal

For years, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has endorsed Scott Walker in his political races. Despite unanswered questions and ethical lapses, Milwaukee’s only daily newspaper has shown the formerly obscure State Assembly Rep. and unusual amount of gentleness. At campaign time, they have given him the benefit of the doubt in nearly all instances.

Walker is politically smart and has benefited from people underestimating him through his entire career. He has the ability to evade questions like no other politician. When asked a succinct question about scandals, inconsistencies, or problems in his own governing, he has aptly taken the time that a reporter normally allots for answering to push yet another agenda item or to claim success in areas where he has failed.

If pressed on those items and issues where he simply makes up his own facts and statistics, he will simply restate the fiction or move on to claim success on another issue, regardless of whether there was truly a success or a failure. The most interesting part about this is not about Walker himself — it is about how the media lets him get away with it under the guise of being impartial, or in some cases, “fair and balanced”.

Walker has shown himself to be amazingly talented in his handling of televised media — especially live television. He has an understanding that on live television, reporters have a finite amount of time for their segments and if he doesn’t want to answer a question, he chews up all of a reporters time without answering the question or by deflecting the question. He has shown an unwavering focus on restating his talking points and if he sits down with a reporter he controls the interview.

Team Walker has covered all the bases. They have been especially adept at making sure that if their candidate is tainted, that the opposition will have plenty of taint, or at least doubt, in the mind of the voter. Even in the Journal-Sentinel screen capture to the right (larger version here), you’ll notice that Team Walker made sure to get a negative campaign ad attached to the Journal-Sentinel article and that ad has a headline that is even larger than the Journal-Sentinel headline. ‘Which one is the most important story’ is the question that Team Walker hopes to stick in the minds of voters.

Going forward, it is difficult to see a possibility that the JS will not endorse Walker. Their track record has been one of accommodation, not critical journalism. The media savvy that the incumbent Governor and his team have accumulated will serve him well, even if the email scandal escalates.


Milwaukee County Board Gets What They Deserved

In a rush to prove themselves ineffective an unable to act as a mature legislative body, the Milwaukee County Board has just earned themselves not only the wrath of a majority of the Republican legislature, but Governor Scott Walker as well. They proved that they just don’t get it.

Now I’m not at all willing to goose step to the drum of the tea party republicans who run our state. I find them to be short sighted and unable to understand that infrastructure should be fixed when it is cheap to borrow money to fix it. That doesn’t strike me as very bright and it’s not only no way to run a business, it’s no way to run a government. I find their desire to trip over their own feet to make corporations happy at the expense of the general welfare of the public (and real small businesses for that matter) to be, well, un-American.

But what I do understand, and this is a fact that evades a majority of the County Board, is that Milwaukee County is, by legislation, effectively a department of the state of Wisconsin. They may be elected to a local legislative body, but that does not mean that they should spend time beating the drum to things they cannot impact or change. Spending County dollars to lobby state legislators about things that do not directly affect County government is foolish. It is an exercise in futility, a waste of local property tax dollars and it is akin to poking a ferocious bear with a stick. Not smart.

When Governor Walker pushed through legislation that effectively decertified public unions, that was the law of the land. He has effectively won his fatwah against unions and that meant that local governments did not have to negotiate with a union that had no standing to negotiate. But it appears that that is exactly what Chairman Marina Dimitrijevic did. Why? Perhaps it was her philosophical belief that unions are a good thing and they ought not ignore the folks who claimed to represent the employees. Is it a bad thing to talk with employees? Of course not. Employees can find inefficiencies that cannot always be found by management. Audits of these processes can often ferret out these problems and employees must be part of the process — but if a union is effectively defunct, and the order from the State is to not negotiate with decertified unions, then it was Dimitrijevic’s responsibility to follow state law.

Now I have a certain amount of healthy skepticism about this. I know some of the veteran County Supervisors and they seem to get it. Others do not. One of the Supervisors who seems to get it right every time is John Weishan. If Weishan says it, I have a fairly high degree of confidence in this ex-Marine. And with Weishan saying that Dimitrijevic must go, well, I tend to believe him.

My skepticism comes from the sources of the stories in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. One such source is Rich Abelson. Abelson is the guy who is still collecting a paycheck from the decertified union, AFSCME District Council 48. Abelson is one of those guys who will say whatever helps Abelson. He lies and is a bully. Abelson said that Dimitrijevic was negotiating with him according to the Journal-Sentinel. If that’s true, and if it came out of Abelson’s mouth the truth of it is highly suspect, then Dimitrijevic made a bone head move.

Then there is the issue of the reporter. Steven Schulze is happy to write some pretty salacious sounding stories that have traces of truth, but when presented in his context have little truth to them. My recommendation to anyone who is interviewed by Schulze, whether you are a democrat, republican or non-partisan elected official – record the interview. Record the interview, inform him that you are recording the interview, and then podcast it if you find that he has taken liberties. Do not make the mistake of talking to Schulze about two different issues. He lacks the depth and understanding to separate issues. If he interviews you about an issue, do not let him stray to other issues. He will transpose facts in such a way that will make whoever the interviewee look bad and then the journalism community will give him an award for it.

So there you have it. Understanding what has happened, on this, the day that Governor Walker has signed legislation to single out the Milwaukee County Board for punitive legislative action, while giving the County Executive power than that position has ever had, provides the context to understand how it has happened.

But why has this happened? Historically there have been statesmen on that board who understood how things worked. Now they have almost no members who have been there for any length of time. Walker and his disciples made sure of that.

What they really need to do, and this will probably sound stupid to some, is reduce the sizes of the districts to the size of, say one of their neighboring communities — Waukesha. Do something simple. I hate to say this, but just compensate them as a part time board. Increase the amount of districts so that common people can actually talk to their Supervisor. Give them something like a buck a constituent, but only give them 10,000 constituents each. Do what so many of the other Wisconsin Counties have done — enlarge the board enough so that when people want to talk to their elected county Supervisor, they can. But don’t make the salaries enough so that they can live off of them. They don’t need to go to every Senior citizen and community meeting on the planet anyway. Bring them back into the private sector so they can be in touch with what the public is struggling with. You’re going to get some real goofballs on that board, but you’ll also get some real quality people.

Here’s the thing — whatever they want right now; it’s not going to happen. There is life after politics. If they make an effort to succeed, they will succeed. Things are not the same. Things cannot be the same. It’s a new day. Like it or not, deserved or undeserved, the rules have changed and so should the county board.


Appeasement is not Reform

The Milwaukee County Board is under seige. Attacked from talk radio, County Executive Abele, a former colleague of theirs turned State Representative, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the County Board has pushed through a change that would reduce their pay to about $40,000.

That’s not reform — that’s appeasement.

Reducing the salary of the board is pure ignorance. If there are supervisors who don’t do their job they do not deserve to be paid. The work is there. Districts are now large and each Supervisor represents over 50,000 people. If they’re not dealing with constituent calls they should be doing park walks, constituent contacts, attending district meetings, working with their colleagues to draft common sense ordinances or eliminating ordinances that don’t make any sense anymore. There are roads to be evaluated, projects to be assessed and community outreach to be done.

If they’re too lazy to do those things, they don’t deserve to be in office. If they are doing those things, they are underpaid. It is not for the lazy ones to agree to a lower salary for the work horses.

I have strong views that a district deserves the representation they have. You vote for a person who doesn’t work hard for you, you forfeit the ability to complain about the effectiveness of the whole body. It’s just that simple. Now we have a County board that is going to make $40,000 next term. That may seem like a fair amount of money to some people, but will it really generate good people to do the work? In the private sector that would be an unequivocal “NO”. People who have real life experiences and put the time in to do research are not going to want to work for that salary. I’m sorry for those who are offended by this statement but I understand the marketplace. What will now happen is that if qualified people run for the job, they will only dedicate themselves to the job part time.

Studies have been done that show that the amount of money a family must make so they do not have money arguments is $70,000. I’m not saying to increase the salary that much. I am saying that there are people on that board who work hard and deserve to at very least maintain their salary of $50,000 per year. To the folks who don’t make that type of salary and look at it with jelousy, here’s a little hard lesson for you — make better decisions in your life. I worked as a County Supervisor for 6 years. At that time I enjoyed the challenges, the constituent work and interactions and working with my collegues. I would not have given that experience up willingly but I will say this — it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. Yes, it make me more cynical, some would say seasoned. Yes, I follow my instincts now as a business owner more than I ever have. If it doesn’t feel right now, it doesn’t happen. I have no problem telling a customer that we are probably not a good match if I have a bad feeling about it.

But that’s not how the County Board is working.

It’s more like the blind leading the blind.

Amusement. That’s the best way to explain the clowning around that is happening on the County Board these days. They’re passing resolutions in support of things they have no control over. It’s a typical union tactic to coerce Supervisors to support things that have little hope of passing. In fact, it’s pretty much the M.O. of decertified AFSCME union chief Chris Abelson to push for legislation that the county board has no real hope of impacting. All of that pressure, for a lousy campaign donation of about $400 and the promise of campaign volunteers that never show up? Seriously? Are the county board members really that stupid?

Apparently yes. They voted in Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic as chair. Marina, as she prefers to be known, is an approachable person who has made some smart decisions but has coupled them with facepalm moments. Reporters have said that she attempted to negotiate some sort of contract or agreement with a decertified union. Bonehead Abelson confirms this. Then she denied it. Now I’ll say this — Abeleson’s words are like the slimiest politician. He would sell out his own mother if he thought it would preserve himself and his own job. If he thinks it will give him some time in his job, collecting his salary, it will pass his weaselly pencil lips. Nothing that comes out of Abelson’s mouth should be viewed as true. If reporters are using his word as their primary source, they’re doing a great job honoring the Wisconsin tradition of former Senator Joe McCarthy and the yellow journalism that he was the beneficiary of.

But why has this happened? I shouldn’t even have to say this, but it is happening because there is not a culture of county legislative experience on the board. The great republican purge of 2002 made that possible. It’s the same thing for the County Executive. Poor little Chris Abele, a man with no private sector experience aside from running the family charity and deciding where to dole out an endowment here or there, won by buying the election. Then again, JFK was said to have bought his election so what does it matter?

It actually matters a fairly good amount since Abele has no experience working and playing well with others. I will admit that at first I thought it was just that he had poor communication skills but it goes deeper than that. Lacking any legislative experience, he has no respect for what goes into the legislative process. By eroding the power in another branch of government, his own power is increased. Is this a good thing? Probably not.

So what should have been done? Dimitrijevic should have stepped down as Chair. She was the one who allegedly negotiated against what was clearly the intention of the Governor sponsored Act 10. Since by statute, Counties are more like departments of the state than individual entities, she has to follow the rules. If she doesn’t, there are consequences.


Change the Dialogue, Change the Debate

One thing that moderates and liberals are lousy at doing is advocating for what they really want. They give their causes benign little names, their bills get titled things that barely represent what they really are, but they allow the opposition to belittle them.

They need to get tough for a change.

There’s a reason why liberals and even today’s moderates have the reputation for being pussies. There’s no reason why we’re having a discussion about gun control. Many liberals don’t give a damn about gun control. It’s not the guns that are the problem — it’s the efficiency in massacres that various firearm related products afford. High capacity clips for guns make it so that you can mow down a dozen people without even taking the time to reload. With today’s firearms that’s barely the time it takes a person to take a breath. So call it what it is.

The Massacre Prevention Act.

Now that really tells us what it’s about. It’s not about hunters. It’s not about someone being able to protect themselves. Someone can protect themselves from an unwelcome intruder if they keep a 12 gauge shotgun under their bed. Of course they could just as easily waste one of their own family members, but that’s not the issue that is in front of the nation today. The issue is these mass killings — these massacres.

Like it or not, we like to label things. The group that advocates for healthcare for women now is disavowing the label “pro-choice” because they are about so much more than one of two choices. I think they’re a little naive, but then my label of “pro-health” wouldn’t fly with many of those folks just as my label for their opposition wouldn’t fly with those folks.

Labels are here to stay. Slogans are here to stay. As long as people get their news and views from a 15 second TV commercial, political advocates will try to boil down their message to fit within that time frame and still have enough time to get in a bit more about their message.


County Board Shouldn’t Bother Itself with Clarke’s Antics

Plenty of political activists are now suggesting the Milwaukee County Board should censure Sheriff David Clarke for his over the top grandstanding on issues he has no control over.

They are wrong.

There is no reason to give Clarke more of a soapbox. The more attention he is given, the wackier he will become. Clarke is a bully. He thrives on the attention. It doesn’t matter whether it is positive attention or negative attention. Clarke loves to play the martyr. There is no reason and nothing that can be gained by giving Clarke any ammunition that can allow him to play the martyr card.

And really, what would censure do? Nothing. Nothing at all. Censure by the County Board is the equivalent of saying “naughty, naughty”. There are no ramifications.

County Executive Chris Abele has a strained relationship with Clarke — for good reason. Clarke recently said Abele has penis envy. Despite his poor behavior, low class antics and combative attitude, Clarke continues to get re-elected.

Yes, Clarke takes positions on issues he has no control over. For the most part, his department doesn’t fight crime. The Sheriff’s department patrols the freeways, occasionally responds to calls in the parks, and oversees security in the courts and in the jail. Most of the calls in the County are responded to by the most populous city in the County — Milwaukee. That falls under the purview of Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn, not County Sheriff David Clarke. Yet it is Clarke who is urging people to arm themselves and using tax dollars to do so, not Flynn.

The guy who actually is responsible for dealing with people who decide to arm themselves and go on rampages, isn’t Clarke at all. It is the Police Chief of whatever municipality that a problem might arise in. So Clarke really has very little impact on fighting crime.

Clarke is simply like the Emperor with no clothes.

Now why would the County Board choose to be like Clarke? Why would they choose to jump in and take a position on Clarke and his antics when their opinions are just that — opinions. They have no legislative authority to do anything about Clarke’s buffoonery.

If anything, Abele and Clarke are a match made in heaven.

Abele, who has no legislative experience, suggests that he knows best how to reform the legislative branch of county government. Not surprisingly, if he gets his way it will mean that Abele will have more power and more people will pay attention to him. Clarke, who has very little crime fighting experience is now suggesting to homeowners that they should arm themselves. The result here is that if Clarke were to get his way then more people will pay attention to him and he might even get elected to a higher office which will mean he’ll have more power as well.

All of these antics remind me of basic parenting skills. If every time a baby screams, yells or throws a temper tantrum they get picked up and rewarded with attention, they are taught that bad behavior gives them what they wanted in the first place.

I think it’s time for a “time out”.

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