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Milwaukee County Executive Candidates Don't Agree on Much in First Debate

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LaToya Dennis
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Chris Larson and Chris Abele debate ahead of the April 5th election.

The race for the Milwaukee County Executive is hot. In last week’s primary, incumbent Chris Abele and state Senator Chris Larson ended up in a virtual dead heat, and despite the fact that Abele spent 20 times more. On Monday the men sparred over issues ranging from public transit to the county’s structural deficit and behavioral health system.

The hour long debate opened with a question about what the two candidates would tackle in their first 100 days as county executive. For Chris Larson, his first priority would be undoing what he called Chris Abele’s power grabs.

“That includes the power to do near unilateral land sales without public approval or county board approval and make sure that there is an American style check and balance. That also means repealing the takeover of our public schools. So that our schools will then be public once again,” Larson says.

Last year, the Legislature created what’s called the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program. It allows the county executive to appoint a commissioner to take over the lowest-performing Milwaukee Public Schools. County Exec Chris Abele appointed a commissioner but says said he does not plan to take over any failing public schools.  When it comes to the first 100 days, Abele says his focus would be on continuing to reduce the county’s deficit.

“Every other thing we can talk about as a priority, whether it’s restoring services, continuing to expand parks, more regionalization…our ability to do all of that is greatly improved by our fiscal sustainability,” Abele says.

Another hot topic was the county’s behavioral health system. In recent years the county has shifted from running an institution to providing more community based care for people dealing with mental illness. Abele says the change has been good.

“We get people better treatment, better care closer to their community, closer to their family with more dignity. Its recovery oriented, individualized, it’s not one size fits all,” Abele says.

Abele says the reforms have led to a financial surplus, allowing 14 percent more people to receive help. Not surprisingly, Larson disagreed with Abele’s portrayal. Larson says that while he supported the move to community based care and creating a mental health board, it hasn’t turned out as planned.

“We actually have a mental health board now that is headed by someone who has no experience in mental health other than they were appointed by this county executive. They have more of a background as a corporate attorney,” Larson says.

Larson says the intent when creating the board was that it would be responsive to community needs, but he says it has become nothing more than an extension of the county exec’s office.

While Abele and Larson didn’t agree on much, the two men did say that Milwaukee County needs some sort of dedicated funding to run its transit system.

Several more groups are inviting the two candidates for county executive to debate, before the April 5th election.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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