Milwaukee candidates and allies react to a difficult election

The city's public school system became a focus of outside spending

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

When results from the April 7 election were finally announced a week late, many voters were still aghast that the election happened at all. Candidates and legislators now have the opportunity to look back at what they’ve learned from campaigning during a pandemic — what worked, what didn’t, and what effect outside groups might have had on local races.

“To be really clear, the election should not have happened,” Ryan Clancy, who won a seat on the Milwaukee County Board in Dist. 4, told Wisconsin Examiner. “And the idea that folks had to choose between their own health and voting is a really terrifying one.” In the days and weeks leading up to the election, Clancy heard about absentee ballots that didn’t arrive in people’s mailboxes, others that were invalidated for not having witness signatures, and the difficulty campaigns had restructuring their outreach strategies to the community during Safer at Home.

As a candidate, Clancy says he found himself “reassuring people that it was OK for them to not vote for me.” Now on the other side, he finds some aspects of the results quite gratifying, despite the election’s shaky foundations. Progressive Supreme Court candidate Judge Jill Karofsky unseated conservative Justice Daniel Kelly, and Rep. David Crowley (D- Milwaukee) became the first African American Milwaukee County Executive. Tearman Spencer, a strong ally to the immigrant rights movement, became Milwaukee’s new city attorney.

“I’m proud that our community was able to put politics aside and think about what’s best for all of our community and I’m hopeful that we will be able to continue to work together as we move forward through this crisis and into the future,” said Crowley. “Once we get through these trying times, we need to get to work rebuilding our economy and getting our residents and businesses back on their feet in every neighborhood in this county.”

Rep. David Crowley confronting Republicans during the floor session. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Rep. David Crowley confronting Republicans on the ‘Tougher on crime’ bills during the floor session. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Crowley told Wisconsin Examiner that he’s “extremely humbled,” to have found himself as Milwaukee’s new County Executive. “It shows a real commitment by the voters to our message of bringing together all parts of the county, and to build bridges across traditional lines of division to ensure that everyone in Milwaukee can thrive.” Although the circumstances surrounding the election were unexpected, Crowley applauds residents who, when faced with that difficult decision, went to their polling places.

“Not only did our voters brave one of the most uncertain public health crises of our time, but they also made their voices heard despite hours-long lines and bleak weather,” said Crowley. “I hope that this level of bravery is not required for the rest of the 2020 elections, and that we can come together to achieve widespread mail-in voting going forward.”

Groups that worked over the last year to mobilize voter turnout shared similar sentiments that the election still reaped important victories. Voces de la Frontera, a Latinx advocacy organization, endorsed Karosfky among other winning candidates. The group, along with its allies, also called on Gov. Tony Evers to postpone the April election. “We delivered over 2,700 votes from Latinx voters,” said Voces de la Frontera political director Fabi Maldonado. “We look forward to the fall where we will vote Trump out of office.”

Other left-leaning groups also celebrated wins for candidates they backed. Grecia Lima, national political director of Community Change Action, which endorsed seven candidates including state Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa for alderwoman in Dist. 8 and state Sen. Chris Larson for Milwaukee County executive, said that even though their county executive candidate lost by a narrow margin, results show that “Wisconsinites want a change. Progressive candidates won up and down the ticket and voters were heard.”

A win for Milwaukee Public Schools

A Milwaukee Public Schools referendum also passed, adding much-needed funding to Milwaukee’s public school system. The $87 million referendum authorizes the school district budget to exceed revenue limits for recurring purposes.

Despite good news for advocates in Milwaukee,  says Clancy, “It was also terrifying to understand how many people had their voices silenced.”

Ryan Clancy (Photo courtesy of Ryan Clancy)
Ryan Clancy (Photo courtesy of Ryan Clancy)

“It was really eye-opening,” he adds. “So, while I’m happy to have won the election, the election should not have happened on April 7.”

As a former Milwaukee teacher himself, Clancy had high hopes that the referendum would pass. “What it was doing was putting more money into every classroom,” he explains. It’s difficult to work in a school which may lack up-to-date books, or a librarian, trying to teach 30 or more kids in each classroom.

“Giving MPS more money to meet our kids’ needs is absolutely the right thing to do. I’m really glad not only that the MPS referendum passed, but it passed with a really huge margin,” he says. And I think that speaks to the concern that our community’s neighbors have for our public schools, and the kids attending our schools.”

Crowley stated he was “ecstatic” to hear about the MPS victory. “I was an early and enthusiastic supporter and contributed to the Vote Yes campaign,” he told Wisconsin Examiner. “Our public schools desperately need the funding so we can continue providing and improving a strong public education for all of our residents.”

At the same time the referendum passed, Betsy DeVos’ anti-public education group American Federation for Children (AFC), spent significant funds to successfully repel Chris Larson’s bid for Milwaukee County executive. Larson is a strong supporter of public education, and also has prior experience running against dark money. In 2016, he ran against Chris Abele, who outspent him, and who poured almost a million dollars of his own money into the race to support Larson’s 2020 opponent.

As explained in this piece by activist and MPS board member Marva Herndon, the county executive has the power to enact a major privatization program in Milwaukee, under a provision of the 2015-2017 biennial budget called the Opportunity Schools & Partnership Program (OSPP).

Abele never used the program, due to a lack of state funding, and a dearth of community support. It’s through this obscure program, however, that up to five MPS schools deemed failing by the state can be turned over to a charter or voucher school. These private alternatives are promoted by DeVos and her allies as a superior option to public education.

Clancy saw the MPS referendum as a sort of test for candidates, determining whether they would support public schools or not. “It was an easy litmus test for me to look at a candidate and see if they were willing to put out there that they’re pro-public education,” explained Clancy. “Because there are people out there like Betsy DeVos who are not only not pro-public education, but they would be anti-referendum, and are pro-privatization. There’s no place for school privatization for anybody in public office, certainly in Milwaukee County.”

The American Federation of Children congratulated Crowley for his win describing Larson as, “one of the legislature’s staunchest opponents of school choice”. Justin Moralez, Wisconsin state director for AFC, stated the organization hopes, “Sen. Larson’s loss serves as a stark lesson for those who wish to deny families equal educational opportunities.” Moralez slammed Larson as one of the people who “had the luxury of attending private schools themselves.”

Crowley told Wisconsin Examiner regarding the private school interests in the election, “I don’t know Betsy DeVos or have any idea why she is interested in the County Executive’s race. I have been a staunch advocate for public education my entire career and attended public schools my entire life. Public education could not have a stronger ally in the Milwaukee County Executive’s office. If she thinks she’s going to influence me, she’d have another thing coming.”

“I am kind of wary and concerned that DeVos was trying to weigh in on local races,” Clancy says.

Even though the referendum passed, he adds, funding is still lacking for MPS to “try and compete with some of the surrounding districts which are spending much, much more per pupil — and not needing as much money per pupil.”

Looking forward to future elections

Ensuring that another chaotic election isn’t waiting for Wisconsinites down the road is a top priority for some legislators. Rep. Gordon Hintz (D- Oshkosh) has introduced legislation to create a vote-by-mail system for upcoming elections. Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) has signed on as a co-sponsor of the measure.

Rep. Shelia Stubbs presents her concerns about the bills. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Rep. Shelia Stubbs. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

“On April 7,” said Stubbs, “I saw our young people, our elders, our fathers, our mothers standing in long lines block after block waiting to cast their vote. They risked their lives to stand in the rain and in the hail to exercise their constitutional right to vote. As it stands right now, the voting system we have is not designed to provide access to free and fair elections during a global pandemic. The system has not changed, and that is unacceptable.”

Angrily, she declared, “This is beyond inequity. Our people have already endured generations of having to choose between our lives and voting. That is why this legislation is so critically important — especially for communities of color. It is our responsibility to make sure that this never happens again.”