At least nobody was fed to the lions
Last night’s Waukesha mayoral forum was an example of role-reversal. If you didn’t know better, you would swear that Alderman Larry Nelson (D) was really the state representative, and State Representative Ann Nischke (R) was the less-than-polished alderman. Nelson spoke clearly and forcefully – even when straying into serious blunders – while Nischke stumbled and fumbled through every answer.
It was partly a function of Nelson being the better public speaker, possibly the result of the number of years Nelson has spent teaching Middle School English. But I think the other factor was how much Nischke had to lose tonight. She’s the presumed front-runner, and this candidate forum could only hurt her, or so the thinking was going in.
The crowd definitely tilted towards Nelson, but Nischke had a good-sized following there as well. You could tell the crowd was pro-Nelson when the first applause of the evening was reserved for mass-transit. No wonder I found a good parking spot. The lack of other candidates in the race probably kept attendance down. Finding a seat or two wasn’t a problem. If there were any undecideds in the room, they couldn’t have been more than a handful.
Nischke’s worst moment of the evening came towards the end when she accused Nelson of voting for the proposed garbage fee. Nelson took time out of his closing remarks to point out that he had not voted in support of the garbage fee because he had been absent that evening, he basically accused Nischke of lying, and then saved Nischke by saying he would’ve voted to “discuss” the garbage fee.
Nelson’s worst moment of the evening – well, he had two – but his absolute worst moment of the evening came when the subject of partisanship came up in the race. Moderator Jeff Wagner of WTMJ radio asked the question by saying the Democrats had endorsed Nelson. Nischke stumbled through an answer saying she was a Republican, but that she really believed the mayor should remain non-partisan.
Nelson responded first by correcting Wagner that even though he was an active member of the Democratic Party and that he was proud to be a member of the Democratic Party because of the Democratic Party’s stand on education issues the first thing that he did when he ran for mayor was ask the Democratic Party not to formally endorse him even though he was proud to be a Democrat. I think I’m skipping over a mention of how proud he was to be a Democrat. And then Nelson employed the “some of my best friends are Republicans” when he triumphantly announced his next-door neighbor is a Republican and Nelson asked his next-door neighbor to be his campaign treasurer.
Nelson’s other rough patch of the evening came when Jeff Wagner threw a curveball of a question: given that Kenosha is considering allowing the Dairyland Greyhound track to become a casino, would you consider allowing a casino in Waukesha if developers proposed it here? Nelson went first, and I could not believe my ears. He said he would actually consider it, and refer the matter to the “appropriate department heads”. He did add the caveat that there currently wasn’t any demand here for a casino, but he would have to consider it.
Nischke responded that the idea had actually come up when she was on the Chamber of Commerce, and that she was opposed to the expansion of gambling in Wisconsin and opposed to the expansion of gambling in Waukesha.
I guess there goes my dream of owning a riverboat casino on the Fox River anchored off Frame Park.
Nelson is a big believer of everything being considered. There’s the aforementioned garbage fee, gambling, and he even offered to take businessmen to lunch if they considered moving a business here. (Milwaukee business owners, here’s your chance for free food.)
When the subject of taxes came up, Nelson even attacked his opponent for making a pledge to not raise taxes.
There was one thing off limits for Nelson: shrinking the size of government. The first question of the evening Wagner asked was whether or not the candidates would support the Waukesha Taxpayers League’s referendum drive to reduce the number of county board members to eleven. Nischke said she would sign the petition, and that she was considering proposing the reduction of the size of the city council. Nelson complained that it would reduce “representation” and “diversity”.
There were other differences as well. Nelson was supportive of the proposed neighboring Regional Transit Authority and Waukesha’s participation in it, while Nischke was concerned about an unelected taxing authority. Nischke repeatedly stated she would not raise taxes beyong the growth of the city and pledged to stick to the limits of the Taxpayer Protection Amendment (TPA) even before it becomes law. Nelson attacked the TPA as an assault on local control and quoted Lee Sherman Dreyfuss.
During the course of the debate, Nelson repeatedly pointed out his time in local government and attacked his opponent for being a legislator from Madison with no experience in local government. He said it was “very easy for someone not involved in local government for the last six years to criticize.” Nischke in turn twice attacked Nelson for serving on a common council that allowed borrowing to get so out of control as to put the city’s bond rating on Moody’s watchlist.
Missing from any discussion until the very end was the subject of water which only came up as Nischke attempted a bad pun (“a leader into uncharted waters”).
The election is April 4th, and the forum will be re-broadcast on channel 25 on local cable television. We’ll see how well Nelson’s pride in being a member of the Democratic Party plays with the larger audience of Waukesha.