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David Riemer to Challenge Scott Walker

David Riemer to Challenge County Executive Incumbent Scott Walker

by Sonya Jongsma Knauss

County parks filled with weeds, their bathrooms and bubblers closed and buildings in disrepair. The bus system down to just two routes, with rides at $5 apiece. Skyrocketing costs in county government due to phony budgets and uncontrolled health care spending. Vulnerable people unable to get the services they need. That’s what David Riemer says will be the end result if County Executive Scott Walker’s budget cuts play out over the next several years. And that’s why Riemer resigned from his job as budget director for Governor Jim Doyle to run for County Executive in 2004: “I couldn’t stand what this guy [Walker] was doing to my hometown!” A resident of the Washington Heights neighborhood, Riemer is running on a strong platform of fiscal responsibility and government efficiency, issues to which Walker also pays plenty of lip service. But Riemer, a moderate Democrat, says there’s a real difference between their strategies. “Walker is consistently underestimating expenses and overestimating revenues. This is NOT an honest budget,” he says, referring to the county budget passed last month. Riemer should know. He worked as budget director under Mayor John Norquist and was brought in last year by Governor Jim Doyle to deal with the biggest deficit in state history. “One thing you don’t do when you make a budget is put in phony numbers,” he points out. “We’re getting into a death spiral,” Riemer says with genuine concern. “When we cut parks and bus lines, people use them less. Then more cuts are justified. What’s the ultimate vision?” While he’s not so sure Walker has one, Riemer has a definite vision for Milwaukee County. Well-spoken and thoughtful, in a recent interview he carefully laid out his plans for how to rescue the county from the mess he says Walker has made. “We’ve seen deterioration in the parks and the transportation system… [Walker is] thinking so small. All he’s focusing on is what to cut in this budget, without an eye to the long-term health and stability of the county. Walker inherited a mess, but he has made it a lot worse.” Riemer has confidence he can fix the county’s problems, and so do many local politicians and activists. Riemer’s Campaign Director Bill Christofferson, one of the state’s leading political consultants — who served previously as Mayor Norquist’s chief of staff and recently as Governor Doyle’s campaign director — praised Riemer’s character. “David Riemer really cares about people, not political games,” Christofferson said. “He’s spent his life working to see that people have decent jobs, affordable health care, and good schools.” Key issues for Riemer all come under the rubric of cutting costs, increasing efficiency, keeping adequate funding, and doing a better job at what he sees as the core functions of county government: supporting and sustaining the county parks system, the transportation system, and providing services for vulnerable populations. “My goal is to have a dramatic improvement in the coordination and delivery of these programs,” he says. He plans to cut county government costs and increase its efficiency by controlling health care costs, on which he has a stellar track record, working more efficiently with other governments and municipalities so as not to duplicate services, and shifting costs to the state for some county-controlled programs that are property tax funded. He believes this will allow for better than a freeze — an actual reduction in property taxes. He gives an example of an area where a county-financed program was successfully shifted to the state. Riemer played a key role in getting the state to assume responsibility for the county’s public defender program. He believes similar shifts in funding can be made in other areas, despite current state budget shortfalls. “What the county leadership needs to do is position this county to be competitive when the state gets more money. When we begin to see favorable economic times, Milwaukee needs to have a plan out there to get these things.” While Riemer might not be the progressive’s progressive (the Green Party has endorsed county executive candidate Joe Klein, for example), he has a strong record that should appeal to a broad range of voters, fiscal conservatives and social liberals alike. In short, he has a well-defined vision and a love of the city, easily evident when he speaks about it. Among other notches on his belt, Riemer served on the board of directors for the New Hope Project; helped create Badger Care, the state’s health insurance program for the working poor; authored the state’s Earned Income Credit program, which allows low-income working families to get additional tax credits; helped craft the state’s W-2 program; and in his work with Norquist’s administration, designed the a health insurance plan that kept cost increases minimal each year compared to the spiraling costs of county programs. Riemer, 54, has served as City of Milwaukee director of administration, chief of staff to the mayor, and budget director. A Harvard Law School graduate, he also worked for Gov. Patrick Lucey and Sen. Edward Kennedy, in some non-partisan agencies, and in the private sector. Riemer lives with his wife, Ellie, and their two teenage sons. Riemer believes it’s important for the county executive to pay attention to the problems of the central city. “Walker has done virtually nothing to connect unemployed people with jobs,” he says. “In the heart of the city we have so many unemployed adults. The county needs to do a better job with job training and placement programs, health programs, Medicaid, Badger Care, child support, and the bus system. These things play huge roles in bringing jobs and workers together.” Walker clearly has a long-term vision for himself, Riemer believes. It just doesn’t necessarily involve the health of the County. “In the end I don’t think he cares about Milwaukee County. I think he just cares about his political ambitions.”
by Sonya Jongsma Knauss