Will City Council stand with those who poisoneed children?

Parents’ ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ battle

‘army of crickets’ on lead-paint lawsuit


by Roger Bybee


“They’re doing it by blood, sweat and tears, ” Ald. Jeff Pawlinski admitted in grudging praise of the efforts of  Wisconsin Citizen Action and Parents Against Lead to persuade Milwaukee Common Council to sue the lead-paint industry.


Indeed, the tears that come from watching one’s own child suffering have been a powerful motivating force for hundreds of Milwaukee parents. Milwaukee has been plagued by the nation’s 5th-highest rate of childhood lead poisoning, which can result in retardation, severe learning disabilities, behavioral problems like hyperactivity, and major physical problems like hearing loss.


The lead-paint industry has been well aware of these effects for almost a century. One Sherwin-Williams document warned, ”White lead is poisonous, both for the workers and the inhabitants of a house painted with white lead colors. “  That document was written in 1904. But extensive lobbying efforts and campaign contributions by the lead-paint industry kept lead paint legal in the US until 1978, nearly 60 years after most European democracies had acted to protect their children from the effects of lead paint.


With nearly one of out of five Milwaukee children under age 6 showing elevated levels of lead in their bloodstreams, the city faces huge costs from the lingering effects of lead poisoning.  Taxpayers stand to continue picking up the tab for drastically higher educational and medical expenses for victims of lead poisoning.


Given this history and the city’s limited resources to clean up the lead problem on its own, it would seem only fitting that the Common Council would sue the industry that knowingly caused the problem. The lawsuit seeks to tap the coffers of the industry for the expenses needed to remove lead paint from older housing, and provides that attorneys’ fees be limited to 20% of the settlement, far below the standard rate.


With the lawsuit targeted on solving the problem of deprived children and not enriching lawyers,  the Council voted 12-5 on July 24 to authorize the lawsuit.  The arguments for the lawsuit united both progressives committed to children’s needs and some fiscal conservatives opposed to taxpayers paying for the cleanup of a problem caused by private interests.


However, Ald. Pawlinski and the lead-paint industry refused to show the white flag of surrender. Instead, Pawlinski launched a slick parliamentary maneuver where he switched his vote so that he could then call for “reconsideration” of the lawsuit.  (Pawlinski has also been fighting off proposals from Ald. Micahel D’Amato and others for lobbyist registration and the disclosure of lobbying expenses, as is required at the state level.)


Pawlilinski’s maneuver has set the stage of a showdown Sept. 6, accompanied by what veteran political observers call it the biggest lobbying battle ever fought in the hallways of City Hall in Milwaukee’s history.


The battle over the lawsuit has been viewed as bigger than the 1983 fight over the cable TV franchise awarded to Warner Cable or the 1999 battle over expansion of the Potawatomi Bingo Casino expansion.


Entrenched against the “blood, sweat and tears” grass-roots force of Citizen Action and PAL have been interests associated with the lead-paint industry:  The DuPont Corp. with $26.9 billion in assets, Sherwin-Williams, Glidden, Arco, NL Industries, and many more.


The lead-paint interests have hired “most of the city’s highest-profile, best-connected lobbyists and lawyers,” reported the Milwaukee Journal Aug. 7. The entranceways to the Common Council’s chambers have been so clogged with lobbyists for the industry that Todd Robert Murphy, the prominent lobbyist, remarked, “It was like walking into a seat of crickets. You’re afraid if you step wrong, you’ll crush one.”


As the votes are lining up, it now appears that freshman Ald. Rosa Cameron-Rollins from the 10th District on the near Northwest Side will play a particularly decisive role. Although her district had 665 cases of childhood lead poisoning according to city Health Dept. figures for 1998 (the latest available), Cameron-Rollins is leaning against the lawsuit. 


Despite the devastating figures for her district, Cameron-Rollins maintains that her constituents are more concerned with crime prevention and garbage-removal.


But Cameron-Rollins and other representatives of districts heavily afflicted by lead poisoning are likely to discover that their constituents will remember the Sept. 6 vote long after the highly-paid lobbyists have moved on to other clients. 


There’s a simple question that will haunt aldermen like Cameron-Rollins for years to come: Did you stand with big corporations like DuPont or with poisoned children deprived of their futures?


 Roger Bybee is the communications director of Wisconsin Citizen Action, the 58,000-member public-interest watchdog organization.


Leave a comment