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Milwaukee County Executive candidates’ debate highlights differences

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Interim Milwaukee County Executive Lee Holloway at the debate at the Marquette Law School last Friday. Photo by Emily Waller / emily.waller@marquette.edu

The first joint appearance of the Milwaukee County Executive candidates made one thing clear: For the Feb. 15 primary election, voters must choose between five individuals with very different political and personal backgrounds.

The candidates debated topics such as job creation, goals for office and their approaches to the position in a forum sponsored by the Marquette University Law School and the Milwaukee Press Club at Eckstein Hall on Friday.

The candidates are philanthropist Chris Abele, interim County Executive Lee Holloway, community activist Ieshuh Griffin, State Rep. Jeff Stone and former state Senator Jim Sullivan. The top two primary vote-getters will advance to the general election on Apr. 5, with the winner filling the remaining year of Gov. Scott Walker’s term as county executive.

Although opening statements such as “I’m the new guy” by Abele, and “don’t judge a book by its cover” by Griffin, showed various personal approaches to the election, all candidates agreed that Milwaukee County and its economy need redirection. Many blamed a history of poor leadership.

“Milwaukee County is broken due to its last eight years of leadership,” Sullivan said. “One can’t use this position as a springboard for higher office.”

Sullivan said the core county functions are mental health, infrastructure, transportation and the court system. He said those core functions are necessary to better the economy.

Stone agreed that mental health is important, but also said the county needs to do more with less. If elected, he hopes to bring ideas from Madison, ultimately helping the Milwaukee economy catch up with the rest of the state.

He also said not raising taxes and bringing more small businesses to the area will create jobs — a philosophy similar to that of Walker, whom candidate Griffin believes mishandled Milwaukee County throughout his term. She said the new county executive will need to correct Walker’s mistakes.

“Mismanagement is the reason why we’re struggling right now,” Griffin said. “Anyone elected to office is elected to service, and I don’t have any private interests. My ties lie not within the government, but with the people.”

Although Griffin claims to relate to the people, she was criticized in 2010 while running for Milwaukee County Assembly for her ballot slogan, “Not the white man’s bitch.” She was asked to explain this during the debate.

“It was never geared toward racial oppression,” Griffin said. “The ‘white man’ symbolized power and the ‘bitch’ was a dog that would roll over. I was just saying that I would not step aside.”

Where Griffin was questioned, Holloway spoke openly of the past and his current role as interim county executive. He said it is important to have experience in leadership and has already started what the other candidates plan to do if elected, such as creating an insurance program.

Holloway did, however, have to explain why there have been more than 10,000 home foreclosures in Milwaukee County under his reign of County Board chairman.

“Picking on me in reference to this is not OK,” Holloway said. “People are not shying away from just my property. Milwaukee County has problems, Milwaukee city has problems. Everyone is trying to solve the problems.”

The final candidate, Abele, spoke of fixing these problems in a different manner — one void of partisan politics. He said he has co-chairs from both political parties.

“The logistics and mechanics of what needs to happen in order for change are easy,” Abele said. “Resistance to change within the system is the hard part. The county does not have to be partisan. … I’m not running to be a politician.”

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