Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Scorched Earth Politics is a Long-Term Loser

Just like many other faithful Democrats, I worked hard to help get Chris Abele elected in 2011.  For my part, I did it because I believed that we really needed a Democrat to clean up the mess that Scott Walker left behind in Milwaukee County.  I knew that Chris Abele would be more conservative than I am in some respects but that is not a deal breaker for me.  In fact I appreciate a practical approach to policy but in my view that is not what Abele and his allies used in their formulation and pushing of AB 85.

If Chris Abele wanted to make such dramatic changes to the very structure of county government, then he really should have clearly and specifically campaigned on it.  However only a few years before he first ran for county executive a poll found that county residents didn't support radical changes to county governmental structure. In fact Chris Abele's Argosy Foundation funded that poll. [Public Policy Forum, August, 2008]

Here is what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported about the poll results at the time:
"Despite a series of budget cuts and other lingering effects of the county pension scandal, most Milwaukee County residents say the county does a good job overall and oppose a radical government restructuring, according to survey results released today". [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 8/19/2008]
Very late in 2012 was the first time (that I have found) where Abele made a specific public statement regarding his desire to change the actual structure of county government.  The problem is that he planned these actions months (or more) before he ever uttered a word about it publicly.  In fact these plans were already in the works long before the author of the bill, Republican Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, was even elected. To make matters worse, it appears that most of this planning was done behind closed doors either at the elite University Club or in one-on-one meetings with people like GMC President Julia Taylor.

Consider for example the following chain of events which are based on Abele administration records that were obtained via open records request:

  • On Monday June 25, 2012 Abele meets with Julia Taylor to discuss topics including "legislative strategy." 
  • In an email less than a month later he makes what appears to be his first recorded comments about changing the current government structure.  He talks about various actions by the board that he doesn't like and says that it provides "lots of new material for the narrative re board and the need for change."
  • The very next day Abele was scheduled to attend a GMC County Task Force Meeting at the elite University Club. 

There is no indication that any other stakeholders were invited into these private planning sessions about public policy.  Apparently you had to be a GMC member, ally or consultant to give input on the plans that they were devising for the rest of us.  That theme was reinforced when we found out that GMC lobbyists were literally in the room with legislators as they drafted AB 85.  

I don't imagine that this legislation would have gone over well with many people if they would have worked on it in the open but at least you could have had some input and perhaps buy-in from some major stakeholders.  Instead they chose to use a large wallet, a GMC front group, a professional spin machine and an army of lobbyists to ram this legislation through.  Perhaps that is why they could only get 1 solitary Democrat to sign on to the legislation.  Perhaps that is why most Milwaukee-area legislators have aggressively fought it.  Perhaps that is why the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County voted unanimously to oppose this legislation.  It really didn't have to be this way. While you surely wouldn't have brought everyone over to your way of thinking, you could have at least made an effort to convince some. Maybe you could have actually considered other ideas and compromised in some way. But instead of doing any of that, the choice was made to blindside everyone that was not invited to the University Club.

Further evidence of the scorched earth tactics were demonstrated in other ways. For example, when our Democratic Minority Leader Sen. Chris Larson put out a newsletter that was critical of the legislation, Chris Abele had his county communications director send out talking points attacking and undermining him.  Those talking points were sent to Sen. Lena Taylor's Chief of Staff and to a GMC operative who was all too happy to circulate them regardless of the cost to Democrats.  Was that really necessary?

The bottom line is that the tactics that have been used to spring this legislation on Milwaukee County and then to ram it through by brute force has turned many former and potential allies into enemies.  In some cases Chris Abele has burned bridges and I really don't believe that it was ever necessary.  While Abele and GMC might win the fight to ram this legislation through, their scorched earth politics might prove to be a long-term loser.

No comments: