Milwaukee County Sheriff's Race Features Hard-Fought Primary

Jul 14, 2014

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke faces a challenge again this year, from Milwaukee Police Lieutenant Chris Moews

Milwaukee County voters are in for a rerun next month. The primary for sheriff will, again, feature incumbent David Clarke and Milwaukee Police Lieutenant Chris Moews. They faced off in 2010. 

Both candidates are campaigning vigorously across the county, before the Aug. 12 primary.

Thousands of spectators gathered for the Fourth of July parade in Whitefish Bay. Some cheered, when Sheriff David Clarke rode by on a horse, wearing his signature white cowboy hat.

Sandy Cicero of River Hills has just given the sheriff a thumbs-up. Cicero says he plans to vote for Clarke in August. “I think he’s a great guy, good leadership, good work ethic,” Cicero says.

The sheriff didn’t want to talk politics at the parade, so I caught up with him a few days later at a coffee shop on Milwaukee’s north side. He says voters appreciate experience, and he’s been sheriff since 2002. That’s when former Republican Gov. Scott McCallum appointed Clarke. He has won the job in every election since.

“I’ve been here for ten years, people know what they’re going to get. I’m not afraid to shake things up, I’m not afraid to challenge the status quo. I bring the voice of dissent in an otherwise monolithic chorus here in Milwaukee County,” Clarke says.

I asked Clarke for examples of how he’s agitated things. “Unless you’ve been living under a rock, most people are well aware of how I’ve shaken things up,” he says.

Clarke has riled some people by his public attacks on fellow elected leaders, including County Executive Chris Abele, when he cut the sheriff’s budget. Clarke also stirred criticism in early 2013 when he aired a radio ad, encouraging people to defend themselves from attackers. Clarke defends the ad, saying he was giving sound advice.

“Consider taking a firearms safety course so you can protect yourself and your family," Clarke says. "That does not say pick up a gun and start shooting and it does not tell everybody to arm themselves."

Clarke ruffled union feathers when he began replacing sheriff’s deputies with corrections officers, including at the county jail. He called the personnel moves a money saver for taxpayers.

Clarke’s Democratic opponent is one of the people riled by some of the sheriff’s actions. Chris Moews is a lieutenant with the Milwaukee Police Department.

WUWM caught up with Moews at a fundraiser in Fox Point.

“One example of that is when he sent unarmed and untrained corrections officers down to the lakefront and out to our park-and-rides to patrol, last summer," Moews says. "A lawsuit was filed and the taxpayers had to write a check for $370,000 because of that single, poor management decision by the sheriff.” 

This is the second time Moews trying to unseat the sheriff. In the 2010 Democratic primary, Moews garnered 47 percent of the vote. Moments after defeat, he announced his candidacy for 2014.

Moews says Clarke’s public battles with other leaders have been a distraction and sometimes are inappropriate.

“The press release that he put out on official department letterhead accusing County Executive Chris Abele of having a certain type of envy, which was completely unprofessional and inappropriate, when he accused Chris Abele of putting forth a budget that indicated he was high on heroin,” Moews says.

Bonnie Joseph is attending tonight’s fundraiser. She believes Moews will bring a sense of professionalism to the sheriff’s office. “I think he would be more on an even keel. I think he would be dignified and responsible,” Joseph says.

Moews has garnered the endorsements of a number of elected officials and law enforcement associations. Clarke says he’s proud of the fact that no groups or elected leaders have endorsed him.

“The only endorsement that’s important to me is, on Election Day, from the people I serve,” Clarke says. The incumbent calls himself “the people’s sheriff.”