MILWAUKEE – Robert Miranda of the Greater Milwaukee Green Party calls it “a stealth attack on democracy” and a “potential right wing takeover.” On Feb. 26, centrist Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament resigned rather than face recall over sweetened pension benefits for county workers. There has also been new pressure in the county for reducing of county services, eliminating union benefits and even eliminating the county government entirely.
The largest local government in Wisconsin, Milwaukee County boasts thousands of workers, a billion dollar budget and nearly a million citizens. About sixty percent of them live in the highly Democratic and racially diverse City of Milwaukee, giving Democrats political control. But the urban population has declined, in favor of more conservative suburbs, and the whole county has lost population and tax base. This has contributed to fiscal stresses and threatened programs that were showpieces of Milwaukee’s progressive history.
Frank Zeidler, the last socialist to serve as Milwaukee’s mayor, described Ament as spending his decade as county executive selling off the county’s proudest achievements. “He was seeking to privatize everything – he got rid of welfare, the county health system and in doing so he lost his base … now the Republicans are poised to take over,” said Zeidler.
Ament was inconspicuous before signing a pension package last June with a variety of generous elements: benefits were based on exit wages, increased annually, and the ceiling was lifted. A lump sum of benefits was available immediately upon retirement. Plus, unused sick days could be cashed in. In November, Milwaukee Magazine estimated that if Ament fulfilled his dream of becoming one of the longest serving county executives, he’d retire with $2 million in benefits, though a county number cruncher put the figure at a fraction of that.
Few noticed the changes until January, when complaints about the plan were voiced at a community meeting, sparking a movement to recall Ament and several county supervisors. The package “touched a sensitive part of Milwaukee politics – you have to stay within the limits of what you were paid when first elected,” noted Zeidler.
Recall organizers claimed to represent a spontaneous outcry of public anger in response to the pension plan. Organizer Michael Knodl told the World that their kind of grassroots campaign is “what democracy is all about.”
But an investigation by Doug Hissom in Shepherd Express cast suspicion on that account. In the article, Hissom notes that major media attended the minor initial meeting, and the recall’s “grassroots” leaders were mostly failed Republican candidates for local offices. Miranda calls it a “well-orchestrated campaign,” noting that most of the recent recommendations for change derive from the Milwaukee County Commission for the 21st Century, a forum of local business leaders.
The key recall supporter was Journal Communications, Inc. (JCI), which runs Milwaukee’s only daily newspaper, the Journal-Sentinel, four of its radio and television stations and most of its neighborhood newspapers. The Journal produced nearly 300 stories mentioning Ament once the recall began, more than in the entire two years beforehand. Journal articles reported where petitions could be signed and directed supporters to the movement’s website for information. Right-wing JCI radio jocks headlined at recall rallies and were mentioned as potential replacement candidates.
Local media critic Dave Berkman says the recall received “the most biased news coverage I can recall” in almost 20 years, resembling a media “lynching.” The Journal offered fawning profiles of recall leaders while ignoring their right wing connections and what Berkman calls “the overwhelmingly white nature of the recall movement.” It even falsely reported that Wisconsin’s first African-American woman lawmaker, Vel Phillips, supported the recall. It constantly repeated Knodl’s view that the pensions would “come out of your taxes,” without informing the public that this was simply false.
Ament tried justifying the pension package, pointing out opponents’ exaggerations, blaming subordinates, attempting to waive his benefits and finally suing to stop the recall, but nothing calmed the storm. He finally announced his resignation on Feb. 21. The County Board then repealed the benefits package, a move that may have been illegal and has spurred a lawsuit from county employees.
The authors can be reached at babette firstname.lastname@example.org