2016 Rewind: Divisive Milwaukee politics
The divisive political climate that dominated 2016 got off to an early start in Milwaukee with an unusually bitter race for County Executive between incumbent Democrat Chris Abele and Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson. The race paralleled the party’s presidential primaries, with Larson portraying Abele in the same broad strokes Sen. Bernie Sanders and his followers used to characterize Hillary Clinton — as an elite insider more concerned about the ruling class than the middle class.
The Abele-Larson race was so ugly that Democratic Party leaders worried it would create intra-partisan divisions that would carry over into the fall.
Abele, who was better financed and had better name recognition, ultimately prevailed by a vote of 56–44 in a race that was expected to be much closer.
Another curious race in Milwaukee generated buzz this year, albeit at a lower volume. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm had been on the GOP hit list for some time due to his involvement in prosecuting two John Doe probes. Gov. Scott Walker had even made veiled threats to reduce funding for Chisholm’s office if he continued to pursue the cases. Chisholm’s run for a fourth term in April presented Walker and his dark money backers with an opportunity for revenge.
Chisholm also faced opposition among some African-American voters in the county over what they saw as his reluctance to hold police accountable for excessive force. The highest-profile example was his decision not to seek criminal charges against ex-police officer Christopher Manney, who gunned Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed black man, in 2014.
But Chisholm is nationally renowned for his innovative work in crime prevention and has a 95 percent conviction rate. The GOP could not come up with a candidate strong enough to take on such a widely respected incumbent, despite spending beaucoup bucks on dirty ads in the days leading up to the election.
Part of the problem was their choice of attorney Verona Swanigan to oppose Chisholm as a Democrat. A stealth candidate with no qualifications and an odd personal history, she received only 35 percent of the vote in a race that had been hyped as Chisholm’s potential Waterloo.
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