Chris J. Larson might only be 35, but this candidate for the seat of Milwaukee County Executive has a lot of experience in WI politics. He’s served as a MKE County Supervisor (2008-10), worked for the Milwaukee-area – in Madison – as a state senator (2010-present) and as the Senate Dems party leader (2013-14) (the youngest leader in that capacity since the 1930s, matter of fact). Now he’s looking to return to Milwaukee and serve as the County Executive in the spring of 2016. We went for a jog in the Menomonee Valley’s “Three Bridges Park”, and talked about a variety of topics – the park system, transparency in government, career arcs, transit, and the limits of pleasing constituents.
Finding a balance
In a lot of his campaigning, Chris mentions a need for “balance” in government, and finding that a bit vague, I asked him to clarify what he meant. He suggested that pols need to always be listening to their constituents and open to their ideas – and that needs to be balanced against his own thoughts on any given topic and what information he may have on a particular situation.
He went on to say,
“…you learn very early on that you cannot make everyone happy, but you CAN be receptive to your people. I learned this when I was on the County Board, with a kiddie pool issue. I got this call from a woman about the pool hours, how they were inconvenient and hard to get to. We asked some questions, made some calls, and we changed the hours – problem arrived, problem solved, right? Well, within a week, we had three other people call to say that the new hours were bad for them. No matter what you do someone’s gonna be happy and someone’s gonna be upset.”
‘Balance’ in governing means, “…listening to people, having conversations constantly, and letting people know where you stand.”
“What you can do is realize where people are coming from, and look at the facts – and often you might have more information than the public – and use that, and make sure people are educated on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. That has not happened with the current County Exec. That certainly hasn’t happened with the Governor.”
“…closer to home, with Abele, we helped get this guy elected…we vouched for him, and he quickly stopping picking up phone calls. He’s cut out the balance…when he sold the land for the Bucks arena, there was no public hearing…same thing with the MPS takeover; he didn’t call back teachers, parents, education experts – he just made his own decision.”
“When he fired Sue Black (former head of the County Parks), one of the most popular county employees of the past few decades, do you remember the explanation? It sounds comical, but his response was ‘I don’t owe you gossip, I don’t owe you an explanation.’ And maybe that was behavior was OK in his life as a philanthropist – no one’s gonna question you as long as you’re writing out the checks, but as a public servant? You work for the public, and yes, you owe them an explanation when something like that happens.”
Milwaukee to Madison to Milwaukee
When I think of people’s careers, I usually imagine some sort of upwards-inclined arc. I asked Chris about his thoughts on this, and what going from a county supervisor, to state lawmaker, …and back to county level politician might indicate for him. He had some good thoughts on this topic.
“Well, hopefully I’m coming back to county – we still have to stick this landing next spring. Life’s not a straight line, Troy, you know that. …and I think about that, as I talk with my own kids, my nieces and nephews…it’s about figuring out who you are as a person, what’s gonna make you happy, …but also how you can best serve your community.”
“For me, a lot of these opportunities found me – the county board was initially a call from a friend. Her father was retiring from the board, and she knew I was into community organizing and politics, and cared about people. So, I did it – I ran … and it was really, really tough…”
“Fast-forward to the State Senate race, as I was considering running for county board president, but the then-current senator, in my opinion, betrayed a lot of his constituents, particularly on environmental issues. And I looked around, and it seemed no one else was going to challenge him. No one else was going to do anything, and it was like “that’s not right”. You gotta speak up. And I realized, in my capacity on the county board, having built a lot of coalitions, that I could win. I knew I’d be outspent. I even got a call from somebody who said they’d “ruin me, tear me apart if I ran” and I realized that call was reason enough to run.”
Now, with the county executive campaign, “It wasn’t part of my ambitions to be county exec, but I knew no one else was going to run and I know I can do it. I know we can win. I know our community will be better for it.”
“As I said before, life’s never a straight line – you think it is, but I challenge you – ask 18-y/o Troy – “are you on the career path now that you thought you’d be on?” It’s never a straight line.”
Getting Places, Places to Go
Chris has been a longtime fan of the county park system and mass transit, and sees much value in keeping both properly funded and staffed. He spent a lot of his youth biking and running in the parks, and during that time developed an appreciation for the park system.
“You realize it (a strong parks system) doesn’t happen on its own – people work towards this, they have a vision, and they get other people who share that vision, and they work towards it…it’s about making sure we take care of the parks for the next generation, and the generation after that.”
“And it (the parks) is a place that sets us apart. If you travel to other places, and they don’t have a robust park system…not everybody does, and that’s a piece that >makes< our community…parks can be a core part of what keeps people in a place.”
“(I’d like to) make sure everyone has access to quality parks, where you are proud of it, where it’s “your” neighborhood park – it’s your public space.”
As for getting people to those parks, Chris also has some ideas for mass transit in MKE County. And while he’s glad some lines have been expanded, he’d also like to see fares lowered, stating “we have some of the highest fares in the country. Sure, some lines have gotten expanded – due to federal lawsuits – it’s great of Abele to take credit for that when he had nothing to do with it. It’s like ‘isn’t this a beautiful day? You’re welcome!’…”
As for other transit ideas, Chris wants to make sure the county admin is connecting transit with employers with employees and potential employees. He also feels strongly about the county incorporating >all< types of of mass transit into its plans: “…like the streetcar – love it or hate it – it’s happening. If you go to other cities, or even other countries, it’s all integrated; it’s (mass transit) how people live. And we’ve lacked that vision for a long time.”
The challenge in this election is not going to be merely the difficulty in challenging a millionaire incumbent, but in getting supporters to visit the polls. Still, Chris thinks he can overcome many people’s cynicism and get the vote out.
“We have a very cynical generation – of big business, of government, big, small, and in-between. You just have to be as genuine as you can, as accessible as you can…there’s a lot of people staying in power because other people don’t care, or think their votes don’t matter.”
“You gotta be in this to actually make some change, and do some good.”
Learn more about Chris HERE.
On Twitter HERE.