Milwaukee County Exec candidate Chris Larson today avoided a pledge to serve a full term if elected, while incumbent Chris Abele repeated his promise to stay all four years if re-elected.
The two were questioned about that in a WisPolitics.com debate today at UW-Milwaukee in the context of their names being mentioned as possible guv candidates in 2018. The county exec election is Tuesday.
"Yes, I will pledge not to run," said Abele, adding it's never been his goal to "put myself on a track for a political career."
Larson answered, "That's my plan."
Pressed by reporters afterward, Larson still would not say whether he'd consider a gubernatorial run.
"I'm just focused on winning this election," he said.
Larson, who narrowly won the primary, pressured Abele to acknowledge ongoing talks regarding the possible sale of county-owned land in Wauwatosa to health care institutions at the county's Regional Medical Complex.
Larson, a former County Board supervisor who often knocked what he describes as Abele's lust for power, said, "They're talking about selling the land out there. Has anybody else heard about this? This is where the rubber hits the road, where concentrated power of land sales, where things don't even need to be made public as they're ongoing, becomes a problem."
Abele said talks have been going on "for a long time," with "institutions" at the Medical Complex.
"One of the institutions we're talking about, who are interested in the land, we leased it to them -- right now, they don't pay taxes on that land," Abele said. "We are, the county, subsidizing them at a level that was intended to help them grow like they have. It was not intended forever to basically be, 'Hey, here's a subsidy even though now you're able to make it' and by being able to work with them to change that, allowing us to have more resources."
But Abele would neither specify which tracts of land nor the names of possible buyers. He also didn't explain how the sale to nonprofit institutions, which traditionally do not pay property taxes, would generate revenue for the county. The medical complex grounds contains Froedtert Hospital, the Medical College of Wisconsin, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and several other medical clinics and laboratories.
"There, was that so hard to say? There's a land sale being negotiated on the County Grounds," Larson said.
Afterward, Larson told reporters he doesn't know any specific details.
"We haven't been able to get people on record to confirm it, but we've got it from multiple people, multiple sources, which is why we brought it up today," he said. "Abele pretty much confirmed that we're looking to sell off some land, but the price, we don't know. Who's involved? We don't know."
Abele told reporters afterward that thorough discussions are needed to ensure taxpayers get something in return and that he's "very excited" about a possible deal. He added that relations "have never been better" with the occupants.
During the debate, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke drew harsh disapproval from Abele, who said while he "would love to have a great relationship" with Clarke, it's necessary to hold fellow county officials accountable for their actions and "how we comport ourselves.''
"Clarke has said things on the national stage that aren't just wrong, aren't just untrue, but are unbelievably unproductive and, in fact, I think they sometimes serve to give license to intolerance and divisiveness," Abele said.
Larson, on the other hand, said he "respects the office" of the sheriff and even though he and Clarke "won't be tailgating anytime soon ... there are things that we share that we want to tackle," such as drunken driving. Larson also accused Abele of giving Clarke the leftover crumbs from the county budget.
"The sheriff is left trying to patch together his budget, which compromises public safety," Larson said.
Abele responded that the Sheriff's Department comprises the largest portion of the county's tax levy. He said there is redundancy in public safety services because each community in Milwaukee County has its own police department.
In talking to reporters later, both candidates agreed it's a good idea to move youth correctional facilities to Milwaukee County in the wake of turmoil at Lincoln Hills.
"It's about time," Larson told reporters. "What's happening right now is criminal. As county executive, we'll make motions to make sure that happens as soon as possible."
Abele said such a move would eliminate three-hour trips for many families of youth offenders and would let the county "keep an eye on programming so it doesn't escalate to the level it did at Lincoln Hills."
A small group of anti-Abele protesters made their voices heard in the lobby of Zelazo Center at UW-Milwaukee, with many holding signs in support of public transit workers, and others holding an effigy of the county exec.
Abele and bus drivers, who are unionized, clashed last year over wages and benefits, causing a strike.
Some protesters entered the debate hall and interrupted Abele with shouts of, "Abele did not put more money into transit service -- that is a lie." and "Chris Abele does not support good jobs and living wages."
Another stood up and said, "Chris Abele does not care about the black community. He has two complaints against him for racial discrimination."
Afterward, Larson told reporters protests have been happening everywhere Abele goes.
"That's what happens when you try to shut out the public for five years -- people get upset," Larson said. "This the guy who ended up causing the transit strike last summer in the middle of Summerfest, he doesn't play well with others. He doesn't work with leaders in the community."
Abele told reporters he's focused on "solutions and getting things done." The protesters, Abele said, "are a reflection of something that's been true through the history of our government. Anytime someone in elected office is trying to make any kind of significant change, it almost never isn't accompanied by somebody who is upset about it. And that's all right, that's part of our system."
Without addressing the discrimination complaints directly, Abele said he is proud he carefully vets all potential hires.