Abele deserves praise for helping make June 6 special
It might be possible for me to count on the fingers of one hand the times I've actually been proud of a politician.
I was proud of Lyndon Johnson when he became president after John Kennedy was assassinated. I was proud of Ronald Reagan when he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." I was proud of Dennis Conta when he developed and then guided the Chapter 220 program to try and integrate Milwaukee schools.
Once more I find I'm proud of a politician, in this case County Executive Chris Abele. Even though I don't agree with all his decisions, he provided a moment that will forever be burned in my memory.
Late in the afternoon of June 6, without much warning at all, same-sex marriages became legal in Wisconsin. Couples flocked to the courthouse, licenses were issued and the television cameras rolled.
I was at home, watching this on the news and I saw Abele, standing quietly amid all the wild activity, wearing a smile that can only be described as over the top joyous along with a what looked like a tear or two.
"It was like all the stars were aligned," he said when I talked to him this week. "The decision came down about 3:30. An hour later I was onstage at Pridefest, and not everyone knew what had happened. I've never seen anything like that.
"I hated the thought that we'd be 50th or something like that (among states to ensure marriage equality)," he said. "This put us on the right track. In the right place. This was finally putting Wisconsin in a good place. We didn't have to be embarrassed over this issue anymore.
"As soon as the ruling came there was some confusion over whether we were going to issue licenses and if so, how we'd do it. That's when I got a call from Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremer. He said he was sitting with a bunch of judges and that if we decided to issue licenses, he had a bunch of judges who were willing to marry people. That was a big one."
Couples began to arrive as word got out that the marriage licenses were being issued. The cameras rolled to get the first couple for their newscasts. Judges were doing the marrying, but each marriage needed two witnesses. The county executive was ready, willing and able.
"I remember being a witness for this couple that had been together for 31 years," Abele said. "Our corporation counsel, Paul Bargran, was the other witness. All of a sudden a single tear fell on one woman's cheek. I look at Paul and we were both crying. It was about as special a feeling as I've ever had. Ever."
The momentum of the occasion continued to build as more and more people arrived. Caught up in the emotion of the moment, Abele said he would pay out of his own pocket to keep the courthouse open and that got him a lot of headlines. But this was no climbing on a bandwagon. Abele has been a big donor to LGBT issues for years. In the end it cost him about $7,000. Not much for a wealthy man.
"Without a doubt it's the best $7,000 I ever spent," he said. "And I got lots of letters from people who worked overtime saying 'don't worry about the money. We got it.'"
"This was such a special moment. And party lines didn't mean anything. We had Republicans and Democrats there. And all these people who were in love. It made me proud to be in Wisconsin."
He may well have been proud to be in Wisconsin, but for me, it was a rare moment when I saw a politician doing the right thing with integrity and determination.
And all of us ought to pretty damn proud of having a man like this as our county executive. I know I am.
Abele is not afraid to go on talk radio. He is a Goodfella.
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