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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Chairman Leaves the Building

Lee Holloway on his 20 years in Milwaukee County government

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In 1992, Lee Holloway was a community health care executive who decided he would be a better county supervisor than the candidate who came knocking on his door to ask for his support. Twenty years later, Holloway is leaving the board on his own terms as board chair.

During his tenure, Holloway created the countywide General Assistance Medical Program (GAMP) to provide health care for low-income residents; launched a lawsuit against Mercer Inc. (the company that had advised the county on its scandal-ridden pension plan), which resulted in a $45 million settlement for the county; proposed plans to redesign the county's mental health services; and sparred with tea party activists, the unions, the Journal Sentinel, Scott Walker and current County Executive Chris Abele as the county board's actions came under heightened scrutiny after the pension scandal.

We met with Holloway in his office on Wednesday, the day after the first spring election in 20 years in which his name was not on the ballot. Here's an excerpt of our interview:

Shepherd:
You've been around for a long time, but folks are still trying to figure you out politically. Are you a Democrat or Republican or liberal or conservative?

Holloway:
I think I'm an animal of all. If I were a fruit, I'd be an apple, a banana, a grape. I think I'm a fruit of all. On serious issues, I see them from a business perspective. There's no liberal or flexibility in me in terms of my representing Milwaukee County. On the other hand, I have sensitive feelings about certain things, especially people with mental health problems, people who are poor, who don't understand the system. I have a lot of compassion for those people.

Shepherd:
You helped to lead the fight to sue Mercer because it gave the county incorrect information about the lump-sum backdrop. The pension scandal has been discussed endlessly for the past decade, but is there anything that the public doesn't know about what really happened?

Holloway:
They don't have any idea that the supervisors followed the procedures, tried to protect the money, and that Mercer gave us the wrong information. That could happen in any county, any city. It was not the supervisors' fault.

But Scott Walker's got to keep his thing going. You know, "I came in and cleaned up the place." Ever since then we've been taking hits and hits and hits. And it didn't do well to have a big black chairman who's tough and strong and will stand up to a bunch of stuff. So it stayed going.

Shepherd:
If you actually believe in something and push for it, the push-back is intense. It's far worse now than it has been in the past.

Holloway:
You can survive if you don't stand for stuff.

Shepherd:
A lot of people are smart, but they're not strategic. You're strategic.

Holloway:
If I was [Milwaukee Common Council President Willie] Hines, I'd be running the city. I would run the city as Common Council President Hines.

I think that if I had been anything but big, black, with a beard and whatever, then I would have had a different image and would have been able to move the county more than I did. But I had all of those hits.

Shepherd:
What are your thoughts on the county executives you've worked with?

Holloway:
I actually preferred working with Scott Walker because I knew where he was. Also, I didn't have any trouble with him in terms of program issues. The only problem I had with him was that he wanted to cut the budget. He didn't give a damn about programs and anything to do with the operation of the county. He just wanted to keep it under that zero budget [tax increase]. That was the only damn thing he cared about. He was out raising money and putting on the conservative image. He didn't care anything about the county. He never did.

Shepherd:
Tom Ament?

Holloway:
I didn't work directly with him in power. I don't really know what kind of county executive he really was. I think he was very narrow, very structured, very old school.

And Abele, I don't know where he is. I don't know what he stands for. He doesn't know what he stands for.

Shepherd:
What do you make of the John Doe investigation into Walker's county executive staff?

Holloway:
I think it's going to turn out big. They just don't have the thread to undo it. They may not have it. You know, you cannot make a move without consequences. They have to make sure they have it. So far, it's made him nervous. Anytime you have to go back and bring your mother and father in—that you would never do that because your mother and father didn't raise you that way—anytime someone reaches for their mother and father, they are desperate. You're scared as hell.

Shepherd:
Did you have any clue that this stuff was going on?

Holloway:
I had clues about Tim Russell. I knew he was doing nothing but politics. I knew that he had people up there that we didn't know anything about. And I knew once I got up there [as county executive after Walker's election as governor] that they had removed all of the computers and everything that had any information, and they are not supposed to be able to do that. And they did. I knew that there were things going on. But that's all that I knew.

Shepherd:
What do you make of the Walker recall?

Holloway:
I think what happened is, some of the teachers, primarily white teachers, they thought that they were voting for tax relief and they had no idea that they were talking about themselves. That pulled him [Walker] over [in the 2010 election]. There were a lot of conservative people who voted for Scott. But there were some liberal people who supported him and brought him over.

Shepherd:
Will there be county government in 10 years?

Holloway:
There will be county government, but I don't know what it will look like or be like. You've got people involved in the county board process that should not be involved. You've got the municipalities trying to play a big role. If the legislators had their way, the county would be downsized. The municipalities all represent the Republicans.

Shepherd:
Abele is listening to Sheldon Lubar, who wants county government to disappear.

Holloway:
He knows that won't happen, but he wants the airport and stuff like that. You've got people here who don't have experience. If I were county executive, I'd be running the hell out of this. Before you know it, it would be my damn board.

Shepherd:
What are you going to do next?

Holloway:
I'm going to wait. I don't think I'll be back in politics, unless Barrett wins—then I might get in and have some fun. If I get a chance to be on a paying board, I could really bring a lot to it, a lot of expertise and skills. If I could do that, I could make some things happen. 
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