Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele Not Seeking Re-Election

Oct 16, 2019

Updated at 8:50 p.m. CT

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele announced Wednesday that he's not running for re-election. This comes after announcing his 2020 re-election campaign in May. 

"I ran for County Executive because I care about the community I live in, because I believe in public service and because I wanted to improve the quality of life for everyone in Milwaukee County. And I have been humbled that you elected me to serve you for the past nine years," Abele wrote in a statement.

Abele was first elected during a special election in 2011, and re-elected in 2012 and 2016. He came in as a political newcomer after Scott Walker left the post to run for governor. 

"This commitment required significant sacrifice, which I was honored and humbled to take on. Now — alongside my three incredibly dynamic daughters and a new marriage with a strong woman who brings life and love into every room she walks into — it is time to write our next chapter together," Abele wrote.

While he's not running for re-election, he wrote that doesn't mean he's slowing down.

"I have been talking with Department heads, I have made it clear that we will be sprinting through the finish line in April," he wrote in the statement. "We have more to do and we will do everything we can to walk out the door leaving Milwaukee County and its residents in a stronger place than it has ever been."

The county executive said he has approached public service by giving it his all, promoting economic development, modernizing the youth justice system, and tackling racial equity.

He says racial equity "is – by far – the most significant challenge we face as a community and I join many in remaining committed to not resting until it has been addressed."

But Abele said he has submitted his proposed 2020 budget to the county board, and when his term ends, it will be time to pass the torch. Abele has presided over monumental financial challenges, which remain headwinds for anyone taking up the role. 

Rob Henken, president of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, attributes that to large retirement costs of pension fund contributions and also stagnant revenue streams — like state funding for Milwaukee County. But he says when he looks at the situation eight years later, there's been a lot of improvement.

"I think the county's overall level of capital debt has gone down dramatically," says Henken. "The size of the structural deficit has shrunk. There have been some difficult decisions made to really get health care costs under control, though those have had impacts on county employees."

Henken notes that Abele proposed and saw enacted a $30 vehicle registration fee for Milwaukee County —which has ensured existing levels of county transit services.

Henken adds that Abele's management style has certainly rubbed some the wrong way, including the county board.

"I think one of the policies that he will be known for is the dramatic change that was actually adopted in Madison, in part at his behest, to convert the county board of supervisors to a part-time board, to cut their pay essentially in half, reduce their benefits and to try to redefine the structure of county government," Henken says.

Henken says whether that was a good thing to do can be debated on both sides, but it led to rancor with the county board.

"And so they were several years in which when County Executive Abele said, 'The sky was blue,' the county board would say, 'No, it isn't.' And that extended to all sorts of very critical policy issues that the county was facing, that really have not yet been resolved," Henken says.

County Board Chair Theo Lipscomb says it's no secret he and the executive have had their shared disagreements over the years, but the relationship has shifted course over the last 18 months. He describes collaboration on initiatives like "A Fair Deal For Milwaukee County," a plan to get the county more state funding.

Lipscomb says if he has one major critique, it's Abele's support for policies that consolidated more power in the executive office. Policies like giving the executive authority over the sale of public lands and cutting the pay, benefits and term lengths of the county board.

"There were many pieces of legislation to give the county executive more power," says Lipscomb. "I always said it wasn't about Chris Abele having the power, it was about that office, and that no one needed that excessive power. And I still believe that."

Looking forward, Henken says it's too early to tell how the campaign for a successor will shape up. But he says as far as the eye can see, the county budget process is going to be a very difficult one.

"So hats off to anyone who wants to take on that challenge," says Henken.