Interesting issues came up over lunch today. A handful of local tradesmen started riffing on Mayor John Dickert. Surprisingly, the traditional Democratic voters, didn't like what they saw in City Hall.
All, who asked not to reveal their names, had a gripe over the city's Neighborhood Stabilization Program. That's the one designed to use stimulus money to buy up foreclosed homes, refurbish them, sell them back to the public, and then use the sale to fix up another home. The program was a good idea led by a mayor with a real estate background and positioned to address one of the city's big problems: a lack of quality affordable housing.
But the program has led to problems, and, if you listen to the contractors, possibly lawsuits. People are upset that the mayor brought in a bunch of union contractors for a press conference in front of Milwaukee TV cameras, but never followed through on jobs for the unions. Other contractors feel excluded by unnecessary rules, unclear guidelines, changing requirements and bickering between among city employees.
The NSP also came under fire for contractors failing to follow lead guidelines (a story we broke last fall), and it indirectly led to the dismissal of housing technician Bill Bielefeldt, who may be planning a lawsuit of his own.
Lastly, the program essentially is placing the city in competition against its own residents in the real estate market. While hundreds of local residents are trying, unsuccessfully, to sell their homes, the city is selling remodeled houses at affordable prices. That'll make it that much harder for people who need or want to move to sell their homes.
Then there's the ill-fated West Racine project. Builder Tom Tousis intended to open a gas station, grocery store and restaurant on the site, but was denied by city officials who want a larger project at the corner to pay off debt taken out to demolish buildings on the site. The problem for Dickert, who didn't fight for the project, is Tousis had promised to use union labor on the job. The city's refusal to approve the project angered unions and made Dickert, fair or not, their main target this spring.
It's easy to respond that unions don't mean much anymore in Racine, that their power is reduced and local politicians can win without their support. That may be true, but unions bring two critical elements to any campaign. 1.) Money. 2.) Volunteers.
No doubt Dickert will be the best financed of the three candidates running for mayor - Alderman Eric Marcus and Alfonso Locke are the other two - but he may be looking at an enthusiasm gap. Unions backing Marcus - and most are - could bring energy to Marcus' outsider bid to win City Hall. Dickert has the advantages of the incumbency - namely, everyone now calls him mayor - but his record isn't strong enough to bury opponents the way Gary Becker did when he was re-elected.
A few things to watch for in the coming weeks:
1. Money. How big is Dickert's advantage over his opponents? If it's major, he'll be in good shape. If opponents can bridge the gap, he'll be in trouble.
2. Endorsements. If the unions back Marcus as strongly as some think they will, it could be a real race.
3. Campaign confidence. Dickert breezed through his first mayoral election without specifics or details. After two years on the job, he'll be able to point to specific examples of what he's accomplished and how he'll expand on them over the next four years. How will Marcus, a relative newcomer to local politics, respond? Conversely, Dickert's opponents are going to hit him on his record. How does he take the heat?
4. The primary. General thought is Dickert and Marcus move through the Feb. 15 primary, but sometimes the insiders have it wrong. We're in a time of political change, and Locke may be the true outsider voters want. More importantly, it will be a public referendum on the incumbent. We'll know Feb. 15 if Dickert cruises to another term or is up for a fight.
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