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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Secret Race

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Don’t tell anybody, but Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker is facing his first major challenge by a successful, established politician, Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor, since he rode into county office as a reform candidate six years ago.

Reform hasn’t gone all that swimmingly, so you might think a battle between two heavyweights would be just the sort of conflict that would be sensationalized by the media for all it was worth. You know, charges and counter-charges, inflammatory remarks taken out of context, over-hyped media exposs—the sort of thing that takes place hourly in the Democratic presidential campaign.

Well, you might have thought that, until you finally gave up trying to find any mention at all of the county executive race in the press or on the nightly news. Those who decry ravenous media coverage for distorting our politics should be careful what they wish for. The media ignoring a major political race can be just as harmful to the electoral process.

The impression left by the absence of any- thing but the most superficial mention of the county executive race is that there must not be any important issues at stake or any major differences between the candidates. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Milwaukee County Transit System is spiraling downward with the lowest ridership and highest fares in its history, and routes continue to be cut. The Milwaukee County Park System, a treasure preserved and passed down to us by past generations, is being trashed.

The most vulnerable among us are having health and social services slashed. As a reform-minded district attorney tries to divert people into effective drug and alcohol treatment instead of the criminal justice system, treatment funds have evaporated.

At the center of all this is Walker, whose principal claim to fame is that he has never supported a county tax increase. That’s a pretty hollow claim since county taxes go up every year. Taylor says she wants to turn around all of the county’s rapidly deteriorating services under Walker, but, since the race is not being covered, she has been able to remain vague about how much that might cost taxpayers. It’s too bad the media aren’t covering the race, because there would be plenty of personal, political issues for them to exploit, too. The only reason Walker is running for reelection is that he failed in his attempt to become the Republican nominee for governor.

He lost out to the lackluster Mark Green, who was blown away by Gov. Jim Doyle’s landslide re-election. Once again, Walker has refused to say whether he will complete his term if he is reelected county executive or make another run for governor in two years. Since his last campaign failed for lack of funds, he might have to start raising money for a state race the day after the election.

Walker Behind the Times
Actually, running for governor again might give Walker something to do. Since Walker refuses to submit a budget with a tax increase to pay what it costs to run the county, he has essentially made his role as county executive irrelevant.

The County Board passes its own budget every year to run the county. Walker criticizes the board for raising taxes. Then, the next year, Walker adopts the county board’s budget from the previous year as his baseline and says he won’t raise taxes beyond that.

This meaningless political tactic is popular with anti-tax voters, but it guarantees that Walker is always a year behind what county government is really doing. And if that’s not enough, all the gender and race issues that have the national media in heat permeate the county executive race, too. State Sen. Taylor would be both the first woman and the first African- American county executive in Milwaukee County history. And lest anyone think that makes it difficult for Taylor to attract both city and suburban votes, that is exactly what she has done in her city-suburban Senate district.

If the media had bothered looking into the race, they would have discovered a number of other intriguing issues. Like, how will the statewide race involving Wisconsin’s only African-American Supreme Court justice affect voter turnout among Taylor’s supporters? Will the enormous number of African Americans who registered and voted on Feb. 19 for Democrat Barack Obama return on April 1 to vote for Justice Louis Butler and Taylor? Several hotly contested aldermanic races, including the one pitting controversial Alderman Michael McGee, campaigning from behind bars, against Milele Coggs, a member of a powerful family in African-American politics, also could increase voting in the city.

Walker has his strongest support in the suburbs, but his re-election depends upon attracting city voters, who usually constitute 60% of the county turnout. He’d better hope none of those voters have tried to catch a bus lately.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.

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