They don’t call Milwaukee the “Hollywood of Southeastern Wisconsin” for nothing [citation needed]. We’ve got our fair share of locally born, bred, or based celebrities, and The Squeaky Curd is sitting down with them at local watering holes to talk non-profits, beer gardens, Milverine, and Milwaukee.

The busiest man in Milwaukee is County Executive Chris Abele; and for once, I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic. Between his unending philanthropic and non-profit pursuits, private-sector business dealings, and successful (and on-going) political career, essentially every single aspect of life in Milwaukee County is touched by this one Boston-transplant. We were lucky enough to grab a moment of the County Executive’s time, along with a stein of beer, on a gorgeous summer afternoon at Estabrook Beer Garden.

All photos by Joe Powell for The Squeaky Curd.

The Squeaky Curd: As a Milwaukeean, where do I probably know you from?

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele: I’m County Executive, and we run all sorts of services in addition to what the local cities do. It may not always be sexy, but it’s hugely impactful.

TSC: In your opinion, what would you like me to know you for?

CECA: A huge chunk of my time is devoted to philanthropy, and I love being involved helping others both through giving and through my political abilities. People should know who they’ve elected, but I don’t love “retail politics”. I’m not as interested in riding floats in parades; I’m much more interested in you.

TSC: You said you’re from Boston originally. What brought you and kept you in Milwaukee?

CECA: A girl. I could beat around the bush, but I won’t. But what kept me here? I was flying back into Milwaukee one evening and the sun was setting, and you know how when the sky gets that golden color and it just lights up the entire city like…like nothing else? I just got that feeling of ‘this is home’. And now I’m still here.

TSC: What makes Milwaukee a desirable place for you to live and work?

CECA: I frickin’ love this place. I’m the most unapologetic Milwaukeean. 

But we’re kind of a cynical city. If there were one thing I didn’t like about us, it’s that we apologize too much for all our great things. ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got Summerfest.’ No, we’ve got the world’s largest music festival. ‘There’s a symphony.’ No, we brought in one of the world’s best symphony directors (Edo de Waart). In the music world, that’s like signing Brett Favre, twice. We won President Obama’s national White House Healthy Communities Challenge in 2016, getting healthcare to thousands more residents.

I could go on and on. In Milwaukee, things that excel usually get national attention before they get local press. Point is, Milwaukee is world-class, and we should admit to that.

TSC: What’s your favorite thing to do in Milwaukee?

CECA: I know this is not an every-day occurrence, but I like every time I hear a new Milwaukee band, or see a new Milwaukee show for the first time. Or when we (as a city) get a new award. Oh, James Beard, thank you for another accolade for our amazing culinary scene.

TSC: What are you drinking right now? Why did you choose to come to Estabrook?

CECA: I’m having the Hofbrau Original Lager. Why come to a beer garden? It’s parks, it’s beer, there ya go. I’m all in.

I remember when we were just getting this idea off the ground with Sprecher‘s traveling beer garden. They had this little fire truck fitted to serve beer, like they’ve got roaming around today. We thought, ‘Hey, maybe they’ll make $100k this summer.’ They made that much in the first 3 weeks. It was like that scene in Jaws where they see the shark for the first time: “We’re gonna need a bigger beer truck.”

TSC: If you could have a drink with one other local celebrity, who would it be?

CECA: Joshua Glover would be interesting, or Joe McCarthy so I could tell him to lighten the hell up. 

But really, I’d love to be able to sit down again with Marty Stein (founder of Stein Optical). In some regards he was the closest thing I’ve had to a mentor. He grew up in Milwaukee, came from nothing, had a huge life in philanthropy and giving back. His work with the Boys and Girls Club is legendary. He told me once, “Kids are 25% of your now, 100% of our future.” He had incredible moral clarity.

TSC: If you could say one thing to someone just moving to Milwaukee today, what would it be?

CECA: Make sure you find Milverine

My startup incubator (Ward 4) had these guys come from MIT to work here, and I told them about Milverine. Pretty soon they’d put together this app that could track Milverine sightings around town. His strut is just so big, so purposeful.

TSC: What’s harder, public service or non-profits?

CECA: Non-profits can be smaller, usually more nimble. Government has a lot of built-in resistance, some good, most bad. The reality is there’s no “anti” everything, for example no one is anti funding childhood cancer research. But in government, it just takes a lot to get things done. I’m still involved in for-profit ventures too, which helps me keep perspective.

I love public service; I think it’s a noble profession for anyone. I’ve taken perspectives from Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr, that you can’t limit your actions to just the people who agree with you. Look too at JFK and Eisenhower: they had approaches that didn’t make them less Democrat, less Republican. There’s all this desire to avoid giving the “other side” a “win”. We need to look at each other as fellow public servants. 

One of my biggest pet peeves is complaining but not doing. I’m the chair of the Victory Fund (LGBTQ political action committee) Board of Directors. I’m not gay: I’m like the token straight person…but that’s the point. The biggest good comes when little ‘w’ we becomes big ‘W’ We. 

The most enduring impressions I was left with from my time with County Executive Chris Abele was his obvious, unrelenting desire to improve the lives of those around him, and his seemingly insatiable drive. That’s a good combination of qualities to have in the leader of your county, not to mention a person with the means to make a philanthropic difference in the area.

We’d like to thank the County Executive and his Communications Director, Melissa Baldauff, for the great company and engaging stories.

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