Chris Abele and Chris Larson have big differences and their race for Milwaukee County executive is intensely contested.
But their one-hour debate at Eckstein Hall Thursday evening, broadcast live by WISN (Channel 12), was an even-tempered and unflashy presentation of their positions on many of the specific issues and their general approach to what the county executive should do in the next four years. In other words, it was a good way for voters in large numbers, given the television audience, to get a direct view of what the candidates say, as well as some impression of how the two handle themselves.
This is a time when people nationwide have been getting heavy doses of insults, sharp personal attacks, and posturing in debates between the candidates for president. That makes for more entertaining events, “better’ television,” and more lively material for reporters and commentators to write about. But it also leaves many people (count me in) wondering: Has political dialogue come to this?
So consider this praise of the candidates, of Mike Gousha, Marquette Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy who moderated the debate, and of WISN for making serious discussion between candidates the focus of a debate and for making it available to the general public.
Abele, the county executive since 2011, and Larson, a Democratic state senator, did present sharply different opinions on many things.
A one percent sales tax in Milwaukee County to support transportation and parks and reduce property tax? Abele, no. Larson, yes.
The future of the Mitchell Park Domes? Larson is committed to restoring them. Abele says we should at least consider other ideas that might be better.
The county’s role in funding of a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks? Abele defended the commitment of $80 million over 20 years and the sale to the Bucks of some of the land that is needed for $1, pointing to how much will result in terms of development and jobs. Larson criticized the deal both for how Abele acted without County Board involvement and for getting $1 for valuable land.
Changes in state law that have given the county executive more power over matters such as land sales? Abele says they have improved how county government is functioning. Larson says they are power grabs by Abele and he would week to have the laws reversed.
What’s at stake in the election? Overall, Abele said county government is in better shape now than when he was elected and the issue is whether the momentum of improving things will continue. Larson said that Abele has grabbed power for himself in multiple ways and the issue is that Milwaukee County needs an executive “who is going to make this public office public again.”
People who were watching, both in the Appellate Courtroom and on television, had a chance to see and hear all of this and more, straight from the candidates. They are not likely to get that chance again with such length and depth (sorry, 30 second commercials are not the same thing). It’s a public service to provide this kind of opportunity, even if it’s not quite the “fun” of watching national heavyweights slug it out with vehemence.
There were will be two more examples in the next several days for this kind of public service. In the same room, with Gousha moderating the discussion, the candidates for mayor of Milwaukee will debate at 7 pm. Friday and the candidates for state Supreme Court will debate at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Both one-hour debates will be shown live on WISN.
To watch video of the full debate, click here.