Friday, September 30th, 2016

Waukesha mayoral candidate forum

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No big surprises here. The lack of surprises was abetted by the candidates receiving the questions ahead of time. If it wasn’t for WTMJ’s Jeff Wagner introducing each question and occasionally teasing the candidates, we would all have been better off if the candidates just taped their note cards to their seats. Maybe next time Wagner can just read the candidates’ responses.

If you’re looking for a winner from a performance point of view, I think you’d have a hard time arguing that any of them won. From a tactical point of view, a couple of them accomplished what they needed to set themselves up for the rest of the campaign.

Let’s start with the presumed front runner, State Representative Ann Nischke (R). Did she wow the audience? No, but she didn’t lose them either. Her opening statement, like most of the candidates, puzzled me in that she didn’t lead out with any issue. She did mention her experience and made a point of emphasizing her tie to the Chamber of Commerce. Someone should have told her that it was going to be more than the Chamber there (it was standing room only), and she should have started on her themes early: taxes and experience. Those themes certainly play to her strong suits, and if she focuses on those two items that should be enough to put her into the top two. And she did a good job of sticking to the theme of taxes, even when discussing affordable housing. She referred to the “not-so-hidden cost” of property taxes. When the subject of TABOR came up, she was able to proudly point to being a sponsor of the bill. She got bonus points when Jeff Wagner couldn’t remember the new name for TABOR and asked Ann what it was. (Taxpayer Protection Amendment, for those of you keeping score at home.)

Nischke at one point took a risk and let loose a trial balloon that made a couple of people around me uncomfortable: She suggested that maybe Waukesha has too many Aldermen and the city should consider downsizing. An interesting suggestion worth exploring.

The politician with the next largest district would be Andy Kallin, the Waukesha County Supervisor for the 14th district. Kallin probably could benefit from a larger exposure if the county board shrunk in size. If there was a theme to Kallin, it was let the County do it. Consolidation was his buzzword, especially the dispatch centers. He wants to consolidate the library system, too. He called himself fiscally conservative, and advocated impact fees (that’ll make him popular with realtors and developers). He’s a big believer in the Les Paul museum, and wants to downsize mass transit. On the subject of TABOR, Kallin tried to be too clever by half by saying he would support any freeze that included Madison, too.

Alderman Larry Nelson at times was the entertainment of the evening. He had ten points he wanted to emphasize, and I think that was the scaled down list. I expected him to break into a Mel Brooks line, “I have fifteen {crash} ten commandments”. But Nelson gave us some highlights as he attempted to go over his allotted time and push his bookmark and thank people like he was accepting an academy award. The single word that spang to mind hearing Larry Nelson was, “Character.” As in, “That Larry, what a character.” Nelson’s saving grace is that Democrats have to have somebody to vote for in this city (and certainly a number of Nelson supporters were present in the room). Nelson’s goal was to stress his experience, and even ran over the time given to his opening remarks talking about his experience.

Nelson fits the stereotype for the local Democratic Party favorite: loves mass transit (businesses are “begging for it”), water conservation, internet wireless community, library bookmark. When it comes to TABOR, Nelson favors “local control” instead. He called the City Administrator Jim Payne an “unsung hero.” City Administrator Jim Payne was the proposer of using fees for services to supplement tax revenue.

Alderman Jim Connors looked kinda lost out there on the left side of the stage, and sounded like it at times. His strongest statement of the evening was when he declared he was the son of Judge Arlene Connors, and “proud of it.” I’m sure she’s proud of her son the alderman, too. On the subject of affordable housing, Connors actually suggested using a TIF district to create more. I’m not sure you could assign a theme or a single word to Connors. He supports TABOR, wants employees to pay more for their benefits (a huge chunk of the city budget), and we should not count on water coming from the Great Lakes any time soon. His best moment during the candidate forum came at the end when each of the candidates were asked, “What is your favorite television show, and what was the last book you read.” The last book he read was “The Mitten”, a story he read to his young daughter.

The candidates not holding office didn’t impress me.

Dean Field promised in his opening statement that he would donate part of his salary to charity. On the issues, if he lost his note cards, we might have a reenactment of James Stockdale’s infamous moment. He did say that he supported the concept of TABOR, and that it gave local control by allowing a referendum to raise taxes. On mass transit he looked away from his note cards to comment that Alderman Larry Nelson was painting a too rosy picture of mass transit in the city. However, when asked whether the city needed a full time mayor and a full time city administrator, Field responded he would certainly need a full time city administrator, at least in the short term. I believed him.

Eric Holmes, who is waiting for the City of Waukesha to annex his property, had the line of the night on mass transit. He referred to, “air buses”, buses that move air from one part of the city to the other. Jeff Wagner asked if he could use that on his show. If Holmes could be summed up in one word, it would be “Vietnam.” As in, what do you think should be done to solve the problem of Waukesha’s future water needs? “When I came back from Vietnam…” (Holmes is not the only veteran running, either.) Holmes lost me when early on he said, “Everyone expects the mayor to have the wisdom of Solomon.” Clearly implying that he, Eric Holmes, did not. That or he was going to split the city in two.

James Young, a businessman when he’s not touring as the guitarist from Styx, was probably the most comfortable speaking in this type of setting. He gave very direct answers for the most part. He promised to put his salary in an escrow account and he would decline his pay if taxes didn’t go down or remain the same. (I hate gimmicky politicians, and this type of thing drives me nuts.) He advocates growth if it pays for itself and a shorter time limit on TIF districts (5-7 years). On the subject of affordable housing, he suggested rent vouchers. On mass Transit, he suggested making it a county-wide system and letting the county pay for it. (Dan Vrakas left before I could ask him what he thought of that idea. But I can guess.) On the flip side he is in favor of TABOR and supports a referendum for capital expenditures over $1 million/year.

I talked to a few people afterwards, but certainly not enough to get a representative sample. We all liked Jeff Wagner. He’s a lot taller than he is on the radio. He’s not on the ballot. And we all thought Nischke did nothing to hurt her campaign, and that she seemed to be hitting her stride when talking about taxes. Nelson seemed to reach out to his base. Jim Young got points for his direct manner. And the rest, well, the rest were there and didn’t make a difference to their campaigns.

For a slightly different take, Dean Mundy was also there. He had a better seat. Mike at the Spring City Chronicle just missed the show. The Waukesha Freeman was one of the co-sponsors. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter apparently left a question short of the end.

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