By James Rowen   Published Nov 09, 2004 at 5:20 AM

{image1} One of the undeniable implications of the 2004 elections in southeastern Wisconsin is how one of the oft-repeated wish-list items in this part of the state -- regional cooperation -- is more fantasy than reality.

As generally defined, the region essentially runs from western Waukesha, to the north and east through Washington and Ozaukee counties, then east and south through Milwaukee County to Racine and Kenosha counties.

In reality, it is two intersecting, intermingled, often contentious demographic regions -- urban vs. rural, city vs. suburban, white vs. non-white and, as the vote tallies showed Tuesday night, Democratic vs. Republican.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry swamped President George Bush in the City of Milwaukee and in Milwaukee County, and in large measure used the area to deny Bush the state's 10 electoral votes.

Even with the help of former Gov. Tommy Thompson and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, and hundreds, maybe even thousands of hours of free, pro-Bush air time on right-wing talk radio, the president could not carry Milwaukee or Wisconsin.

But Bush crushed Kerry throughout Waukesha and, generally, in the region's suburbs, villages, towns and remaining rural areas.

So, while Kerry ran very strongly in Milwaukee's heavily minority central city, Bush piled up huge margins in nearly all white, higher-income communities like Mequon, Elm Grove or Brookfield.

There's no getting around it: The political divide in the region is substantial, and is based on, and also reflected by, race, income and geography.

This means that it is going to be really difficult to bridge the gap or find a consensus -- and if not a consensus, at least a "fair'' solution -- for some of the major political issues in the region, such as transportation policy, water rights, shared revenue and housing.

Political campaigns, after all, are about differences, and this election shows that there are profound differences in the region. Policy-making, on the other hand, is about problem solving. It has to work through, past or around the differences.

Transportation is a perfect example. Several years ago, Waukesha County Executive Daniel Finley vetoed a regional transportation plan that would have expanded some freeway lanes while beginning a light-rail transit system running between Waukesha County and Milwaukee County.

The rail plan made business sense because it would have helped connect Waukesha commuters with their downtown offices, Milwaukee job-seekers with suburban employers, and Waukesha students with their University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee classes.

It made transportation sense because modern rail lines would have relieved pressure on the congested east-west lanes of Interstate-94, given drivers a commuting choice, and helped improve the region's dirty air that federal monitoring says violates Clean Air standards.

But Finley, a Republican, chose to approach the regional transportation plan as a partisan, not a problem-solving policy-maker. His veto played to Waukesha's anti-Milwaukee biases, and while it allowed him to play Talk Radio Super Hero for a few days, it didn't help move any of the business and transportation and environmental issues in the region closer to resolution.

Regional water issues are now similarly in play. As Waukesha sprawls out, it continues to draw down its aquifer, so Finley wants piped-in Lake Michigan water off the table and onto the fast track.

Milwaukee, however, with a lot to lose economically and environmentally if sprawl gets a fresh supply of fresh water, is understandably on a different path.

In both an unanimous Milwaukee Common Council resolution and a recent policy statement adopted by Great Lakes Cities' mayors -- strengthened with pro-conservation language proposed and signed by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett -- Milwaukee wants to see demonstrable water conservation measures from Waukesha prior to consideration of its request for a diversion from Lake Michigan.

It wants the heavily-consuming area to prove it will conserve this most precious regional resource (and that is "regional" in the traditional sense, but also as a Great Lakes and world resource, too). But Waukesha, despite decades of over-consumption, has no water conservation program in place.

Waukesha says it does not want to return diverted water to Lake Michigan -- a virtual requirement under existing and any likely new rule because it is a necessity for the health of the entire Lake Michigan watershed. And it also says it will wait to begin water conservation until it sees what requirements are mandated in the U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes agreement that is now under review.

That agreement's final implementation may be 10 years down the road, so water conservation planning, let alone any willingness to do and measure it, is so far away for Waukesha -- and the region -- that it may be a fantasy, too.

Nor does Waukesha show much interest in addressing a host of related land use and growth issues that are implicit in its single-minded focus on getting more water -- and these are the very coordinated issues pressed by Milwaukee: housing policies, transportation and sprawl control.

Regrettably, from its perch in a Waukesha County office park, the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission addresses these big issues in a piecemeal fashion (except transportation: there it strongly backs $6.5 billion in highway expansion) and shows no signs of trying to bridge, let alone even recognize, the urban/suburban, city/rural, rich/poor and racial divisions in the region.

If office holders are going to work on regional solutions, they are going to have to work creatively to locate the common ground without making themselves ex-office holders by alienating their core partisan supporters. Let's hope that's more reality than fantasy.

James Rowen is a veteran journalist and policy-maker who served in the administration of former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

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