Dan Shafer is the founder of The Recombobulation Area, an award-winning, reader-supported weekly column and online publication. Subscribe HERE.

Going into this year, it might have seemed like this had the chance of being a Big Deal Election, with the presidential primary being on the ballot. This is Wisconsin, after all, and it seems like the future of the nation tilts on every last vote we cast.

However, with Donald Trump having locked up a victory in the primary months ago—leading to the inevitable nomination speech this summer in downtown Milwaukee at the RNC, hoo boy—this year’s spring election lost a bit of its intrigue.

But make no mistake, this year’s Spring Election is still a pretty big deal. No matter what community you live in across the state, there is going to be something on your ballot that impacts you directly. Whether it’s a school board or a city council or a mayor or a county executive or a judge, these local races are an extraordinarily big deal. The more time you spend covering and writing about politics, the more you realize how these local races can often make more of an impact on your day-to-day life than the national ones. And you, as a voter, can have an especially big impact on these races, with turnout typically far lower than a fall general election.

There are important races happening all over the Milwaukee metro area. In the suburbs—and around the state, really—school board races dominated by right-wing culture war politics continue to be especially concerning. There are also 91 school referendums happening across the state.

No matter where you live in Wisconsin, there are two referendum questions that will be on your ballot. I wrote about why you should vote “no” on both in a column over at The Recombobulation Area. The presidential primary will also be on the ballot, and while there is not much intrigue as to who will win, many on the left are encouraging people to vote “uninstructed” to send a message to the Biden administration about its policy toward the war in Gaza.

But for our purposes here, we’re going to be looking at the landscape of elections happening in Milwaukee. The City and County have been undergoing a sea change in new leadership in recent years. Will that continue? The shared revenue and local sales tax legislation passed last year was among the most important Milwaukee has seen in a long time. Will it have an impact on this year’s races? What else is happening in these important local races in this (ostensibly) nonpartisan spring election?

Let’s recombobulate.

We’re going to take a look at these races by putting them in a few different categories, like “uncontested races,” “competitive races,” and “why in the world do we elect these positions?”

But first, let’s talk about what’s on the ballot.

In the City of Milwaukee, positions on this year’s ballot include Mayor, City Attorney, Treasurer, and Comptroller. Those are all on the ballot citywide. Additionally, all 15 seats on the Milwaukee Common Council are up for election.

In Milwaukee County, on the ballot county-wide, there will be races for County Executive, Comptroller, and several judicial positions on Milwaukee County Circuit Court. Additionally, all 18 seats on the Milwaukee County Board are up for election.

Mayor and County Executive

Mayor Cavalier Johnson and County Executive David Crowley have a few things in common. They’re both the first Black men to be elected to their respective positions, they both went to Bay View High School, and they are both on track to be re-elected.

They are both facing perennial challengers, too. For Johnson—seeking his first full term in office after winning a special election in 2022, following Tom Barrett’s resignation to become the Ambassador to Luxembourg (still weird!)—he’s going against David King. King beat out Ieshuh Griffin in the February primary to land on the general election ballot, but received less than 10% of the overall vote. King has run and lost in a great many races in recent years, including the Republican primary for lieutenant governor (in 2022), the Milwaukee Common Council’s District 9 primary (in 2016), the Republican primary for Wisconsin’s 4th Congressional District (in 2014), the race for Wisconsin State Senate (in 2012), and as a Republican running for Wisconsin Secretary of State (in 2010). Johnson is going to win this race, possibly with 80% or more of the vote.

For Crowley, he’s facing Griffin. Griffin was simultaneously running for mayor, county executive, and Milwaukee Common Council District 3. She lost in the mayoral primary, which she also did in 2022, coming in last in the seven-candidate field. Now she can focus on the other two races…that she’s likely to lose. This year, she’s running as a member of the “Poor People’s Piece of the Pie Campaign”—not a former slogan when she ran for State Assembly in 2010, the “NOT the whiteman’s bitch” campaign. Nowadays, she makes wild allegations of voter fraud every time she loses. Maybe she’d find a more receptive audience this summer at the RNC.

ANYWAY, Johnson and Crowley are going to win these races. The work they’ve done in their first terms in office have been rather remarkable, and it says something that no opposition materialized after the shared revenue and local sales tax debate. Turns out doing good things that positively impact people’s lives can lead to political success. Funny how that works out!

The most interesting local election?

I wrote about this over at The Recombobulation Area, endorsing challenger Evan Goyke against the ongoing disaster of an incumbent, Tearman Spencer. You can read that piece to see why.

Uncontested races

Milwaukee has been undergoing a significant upheaval in new leadership in recent years. Johnson and Crowley are the most obvious examples of this, but there has been a whole lot of change at the Common Council and County Board, too.

For the Common Council, nearly half of the members were first elected to their positions in 2020 or later. For many of those candidates newest to the role, they don’t face significant challengers. Andrea Pratt (District 1), Mark Chambers, Jr. (District 2), Larresa Taylor (District 9), and Marina Dimitrijevic (District 14) are among those elected in 2020 or later and are running for re-election unopposed. Also not facing opponents will be Scott Spiker (District 13), Russell Stamper II (District 15), and Council President José G. Pérez (District 12). So, seven of 15 races in the Milwaukee Common Council have already been decided.

For the County Board, there aren’t too many competitive races, either. Only five of 18 races have multiple candidates. There are 10 incumbents who do not face a challenger (Willie Johnson Jr., Sequanna Taylor, Shawn Rolland, Felesia Martin, Steven Shea, Board Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson, Kathleen Vincent, Juan Miguel Martinez, Priscilla Coggs-Jones, Steve Taylor).

In the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, there are 11 incumbents running unopposed. But that’s for a different category.

Uncontested open seats

Sometimes, when there’s an open seat, that ignites a vigorous campaign cycle to see who fills it. Other times, not so much.

This year, three candidates will join the County Board without a challenge. They are Anne O’Connor (District 1), Sky Capriolo (District 15), and Justin Bielinski (District 16).

Contested open seats

Three members of the Milwaukee Common Council are not seeking re-election this spring. That includes Khalif Rainey (District 7), Michael Murphy (District 10), and Mark Borkowski (District 11).

The race in District 7, located on Milwaukee’s north side, including the Sherman Park neighborhood and the 30th Street Industrial Corridor, had the most competitive primary of any in the city. Four candidates ran and each received more than 20% of the vote. Emerging as the top two to go to the general election were DiAndre Jackson and Jessica Currie. Jackson, who won the primary with 31%, is a former employee at Master Lock’s Milwaukee plant, and served in leadership roles with the UAW. Currie leads a nonprofit organization called “Missionary Currie for Women and Children,” an organization she founded to support emergency shelter and support services for women and children. Jackson seems like the favorite here, based on some of the endorsements he’s received, but this might wind up being the Common Council’s closest race.

The race in District 11, located on the city’s far southwest side, will see current County Board Supervisor Peter Burgelis against Josh Zepnick, a former state representative in the Assembly. Burgelis seems like the odds-on favorite to win this race, with a host of endorsements and a strong showing in the February primary, getting more than 50% of the vote in a three-candidate race.

But this is not exactly an inspiring head-to-head matchup. Burgelis has seemed like a promising up-and-comer in Milwaukee politics, but a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story reported he’s been “verbally abusive” with female staff members at the County (and I’ve heard other accounts backing this up). Pretty bad! As for Zepnick, he served in the State Assembly for more than 15 years, but lost all of his committee assignments and faced calls to resign after a CapTimes report on his behavior at political events, where he was accused of kissing women without their consent on multiple occasions. Zepnick apologized and said he has since gotten sober, following a 2015 drunk driving arrest and conviction. He has since lost races for State Assembly (in 2018), Common Council (in 2016 and 2019), and Milwaukee County Board (in 2022). Not the best race here.

In District 10, Sharlen Moore, a longtime nonprofit leader with Urban Underground, will face Richard Geldon. Geldon also ran in 2020, receiving less than 10% of the vote. Moore should be headed for an easy win in this race to succeed Murphy, who served in this district since 1989.

On the County Board, there is one competitive open seat in District 4. Ryan Clancy is not seeking re-election (he also serves in the State Assembly). The matchup there is between Jack Eckblad and Ronald Jansen. Their respective endorsements (Eckblad, Jansen) show a pretty clear contrast between the two, but I’d put Eckblad as the favorite to win this one.

Incumbents facing challenges

Incumbency is always a huge factor in local or lower-turnout elections. Sometimes the way it works is once you’re in, you’re in. Incumbents will have significant advantages in all of these races, but in lower-turnout elections, anything can happen.

In the Common Council, those races are

• District 3: Jonathan Brostoff (inc.) vs. Ieshuh Griffin
Griffin again! It’s actually kind of amazing that she is able to get on the ballot so regularly

• District 4: Bob Bauman (inc.) vs. Rayhainio Boynes
Fun fact: Boynes, aka “Ray Nitti,” is a former rapper (remember that song “Bow!”?)

• District 5: Lamont Westmoreland (inc.) vs. Bruce Winter
Westmoreland won the primary with more than 83% of the vote

• District 6: Milele Coggs (inc.) vs. Brandon Payton
Fun fact: One of the endorsements listed on Payton’s website is an “example endorsement”

• District 8: JoCasta Zamarripa (inc.) vs. Ryan Antczak
Antczak is facing allegations of violations of campaign finance law

It seems likely that the incumbents will all win here. Of these, the one I’ll be watching closest is in District 4. With Murphy’s departure, Bauman will be the longest-serving member of the Council, and it will be interesting to see if voters in his district have an appetite for change. Boynes sure has been campaigning hard.

As for the County, the competitive races are as follows:

• District 3: Sheldon Wasserman (inc.) vs. Alexander Kostal
Fun fact: Wasserman is an OB/GYN and has helped deliver more than 5,000 babies in Milwaukee

• District 9: Patti Logsdon (inc.) vs. Danelle Kenney
You may recall Logsdon’s appearance in attack ads directed at Mandela Barnes

• District 14: Caroline Gomez-Tom (inc.) vs. Angel Sanchez
This is a rematch of a special election from last year, where Gomez-Tom won with more than 65% of the vote

• District 18: Deanna Alexander (inc.) vs. Brandon Williford
This far northwest side district had the most competitive primary of any County Board seat, with Alexander finishing first with 46% and Williford second with 39% (Marty Hagedorn finished third with 14%).

Why in the world do we elect these positions?

In both the City and County, there are races for comptroller on the ballot. Both comptrollers chose not to seek re-election. It’s comptroller madness!

Yeah, this is not a position we should be electing. This should just be a cabinet appointment for the executive.

At any rate, the matchups are:

• City
Bill Christianson vs. Gregory Gracz

• County
Liz Sumner vs. Michael Harper

I’d expect the winners to be Christianson and Sumner (and for those to be the right choices), but again, it’s a low turnout race and we really shouldn’t be electing accountants.

I also don’t think we should be electing circuit court judges. This should be another scenario where the selection is made via appointment. There are 12 incumbents running unopposed.

The other is a race between Marisabel Cabrera and Rochelle Johnson-Bent in Branch 43. Cabrera is currently serving in the State Assembly, a Democrat representing the 9th District since 2019 (she defeated Josh Zepnick in the 2018 primary after losing to him in 2016). Johnson-Bent has worked with Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, Milwaukee Public Schools, and the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee. This one could go either way; I’m leaning toward Johnson-Bent.

The biggest race on the ballot: The MPS referendum

What has emerged as the biggest race on the ballot for Milwaukee this year is the referendum for Milwaukee Public Schools.

The school district—the largest in the state, serving nearly 70,000 students—is again turning to the voters for funding by way of a referendum. This has become increasingly common for school districts in Wisconsin, and more than 90 districts across the state are turning to voters for funding referendums in one form or another.

Given the lack of competition in so many other races on the ballot, this might be the closest one, and has certainly emerged as the most polarizing in the region.

The ask from MPS is to raise property taxes to increase funding for the schools, to the tune of $252 million. Projections from the district say the cost would be a tax increase of $216 per $100,000 of assessed property value, a significant increase for many taxpayers. Without the funding, MPS says it would face a $200 million budget shortfall in the next school year. This could mean a 13% cut for schools and a 26% cut at the central office.

This plan has invited significant criticism and well-funded pushback from the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) and its new leader, former Republican state legislator Dale Kooyenga of Brookfield. They are opposing the referendum, and the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC) has followed suit.

The thing with MPS is that, like any public institution, it is open to criticism. Some of that criticism is warranted, but because so much of the criticism is of the bad faith variety, it makes it difficult to parse through the nonsense to get to the reality. There are plenty of legitimate concerns people might have with MPS leadership and with this plan, but those aren’t necessarily the ones being discussed in this campaign, with misguided accusations of the district not having more of a plan. The Wisconsin Policy Forum has a terrific extensive breakdown on the financials of this. But part of the bigger picture, too, is that the state has a budget surplus while also underfunding schools, and until things change at the state level, there are fewer paths to make change locally.

“State leaders have not stepped up, so local residents of Milwaukee are saying yes, our kids are worth it,” Goyke said at a rally in favor of the referendum, per MJS. “The only tool we have to provide the resources in the classroom that kids deserve is through this referendum. And maybe in future years, the Legislature will solve this problem. But today, right now, this next school year, the only thing we have is to vote yes.”

In 2020, a smaller referendum ($87 million) passed with 78% of the vote. That one was largely unopposed (and that election happened right during the onset of the covid pandemic), so it’s hard to say if there’s anything that can be learned from that result.

This one will undoubtedly be closer. This will be an interesting test for MMAC and its new leadership to see how much their message resonates on this issue. It sure is an interesting position for Kooyenga to take, feigning fiscal conservatism right after the group was just the main supporter of a highway expansion that just had cost projections soar by $500 million. It’ll also be an important test for MPS to see how they can get this referendum over the finish line in the face of increased opposition, and others questioning if they’re doing enough to make meaningful long-term changes with this funding.

School funding is an undoubtedly difficult and often messy issue. For many, this will be a difficult decision. The final push over the next few days could be the difference in what might ultimately be a relatively low turnout election.

Be sure to have your say. Vote.

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About The Author

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Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the weekly column and online publication, The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer, where he's probably tweeting about the Bucks.