Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

City Hall’s Game of Thrones

Hail Ashanti! Ald. Hamilton's route to the Iron Throne laid bare.

By - Apr 28th, 2016 10:07 am
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Ashanti Hamilton on the Iron Throne

Ashanti Hamilton on the Iron Throne

The popular HBO television series Game of Thrones may have had its season premiere on Sunday night, but a Milwaukee version of the series has been escalating for weeks inside City Hall. The latest episode of that version had new Common Council president Ashanti Hamilton releasing his committee appointments late Tuesday afternoon.

The appointments lay bare how Hamilton secured many of the votes to become president. Much like in the TV show when Tywin Lannister secured the loyalty of Roose Bolton with the promise of controlling the north, Hamilton used the offer of power to secure votes. He won votes from three south-side aldermen (Tony Zielinski, Robert Donovan and Mark Borkowski) and rewarded them with committee chairmanships.

The real business of the council is connected at the committee level, giving committee chairs substantial power and, in some cases, fundraising ability. Hamilton ensured that Zielinski would stay as chair of the powerful Licenses Committee. He also restored Donovan to chair of the Public Safety Committee, a position former council president Willie Hines, Jr. removed him from in 2012. Most surprising of the appointments was the installation of council newcomer Mark Borkowski as head of the Public Works Committee.

Public Works and the Streetcar

Borkowski’s appointment as chair leaves longtime Public Works chair Robert Bauman on the outside looking in, stripped of a committee chairmanship he held since 2004. The move might also leave the Milwaukee Streetcar hanging in the balance. Borkowski has long been vocally anti-streetcar, dating back to his time on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. It’s certain that all kinds of items related to the construction of the project will need to come before the committee, and the committee is now made up of three streetcar opponents (Borkowski, Donovan and Jim Bohl) and only two supporters (Bauman and Nik Kovac). The full council maintains a pro-streetcar majority, and might spend a lot of time reversing the actions of the committee.

Borkowski’s appointment isn’t just bad news for streetcar proponents. Borkowski has historically not been an ally to the bicycling community. The then-county supervisor repeatedly pledged to “eat his tie” should the use of bike racks on Milwaukee County Transit System buses ever exceed 100,000 boardings in a year. That level was first achieved back in 2012, four years ago for those who are counting, but no ties were ever swallowed. That’s good news for Borkowski’s digestion system, but his new power may be bad news for any proposed bike infrastructure improvements that come before his committee.

The fast-tracked bus-rapid transit proposal to connect Downtown and the Milwaukee County Medical Center also will have to go through the committee. Borkowski’s stance on that project remains unclear.

The move to jeopardize the streetcar comes as a bit of a surprise from Hamilton, who voted for the project, but makes sense when you consider what Hamilton might be running for next.

Hamilton for Mayor

It’s not hard to connect the dots on why Hamilton has built such an unusual coalition; he’s effectively kicked off a campaign for the Iron Throne. Most insiders expect Tom Barrett to leave office at the end of this term in 2020, triggering the first open race for mayor since 2004. Hamilton may be looking to build support and a financial war chest before the race heats up.

By building a broad base of support on the council, through whatever means necessary, Hamilton will have an easier time raising funds and getting his name in the media. He’ll need that to counter a seemingly out-of-character 2009 incident involving him and one of his daughters.

All hail King Joffrey… wait, Ashanti! (And yes, his first name does have a Game of Thrones ring to it.)

More Appointments to be Made

Hamilton made a number of other appointments yesterday, and still has a number left to be made. Milele Coggs, arguably Hamilton’s biggest supporter on the council, was awarded the chair of the Finance and Personnel Committee, last held by Kovac and by former president Michael Murphy for years before that. Murphy, the longest tenured member of the council, wasn’t left in the dark though; he’ll take Hamilton’s old position as the chair of the Judiciary and Legislation Committee. Jim Bohl will retain his post as head of the powerful Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee. The 2014-elected Russell Stamper, II will quite quickly be promoted to the head of the Community and Economic Development Committee, a position last held by former alderman Joe Davis, Sr.

Hamilton has a number of other appointments to make, ranging from the boards that run the pension system to the library system. He also gets to appoint three members to the powerful Wisconsin Center District, which controls the convention center, Panther Arena, Milwaukee Theatre, and oversees the yet-to-be-built new Bucks Arena.

How Long Will It Last?

While the appointments were billed as lasting to the next election in 2020, city politics and Game of Thrones have both taught us nothing is permanent. It’s essentially guaranteed that something will happen to change at least one chair before the end of the term, be it a retirement, resignation, political infighting or barometric conditions.

Odds & Ends

  • One insider, remarking on Kovac losing his finance chairmanship: “the guy with the Harvard math degree is now on committees about shovels [Public Works] and dirt [Zoning].”
  • Multiple additional sources have since confirmed that Chantia Lewis was the swing vote to get Hamilton the presidency, as was previously reported, but the intriguing part is how she changed her vote. According to multiple sources, a group of seven ministers had a meeting with Lewis to persuade her to vote for Hamilton. Lewis herself is a minister.

5 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: City Hall’s Game of Thrones”

  1. Dave says:

    Ah yes…getting his ducks in a row for 2020. It will be very sad if his selfish political dealings negatively affect the new street car or the kill the gains we’ve been making in bicycle infrastructure

  2. M says:

    Now that all the power perches are lined up it could be a good time to ask respective leaders about their visions and plans. Maybe they have not thought far beyond getting their positions, including Hamilton, but it would be helpful to Milwaukeeans to know their priorities.

    Much has been written about how Barrett is not a “visionary” leader (but is rather an OK manager). But what are the visions, if any, of others on the council? Yes, development is happening, but whose got ideas about how to make Milwaukee work much better as an inclusive, prosperous and sustainable city? Bring ’em on!

  3. Gary says:

    Love the metaphor! There’s a Downto’n Lib’ary thing going on further west up the Avenue with a bunch of Lady Marys and multiple Dowager Countesses; a couple of other supporting roles pop up now and again, like O’Brien (early seasons), Mrs. Hughes, Mr. Carson — and that’s just the genealogy society!

  4. Al Lindro says:

    Dave, says … “It will be very sad if his selfish political dealings negatively affect the new street car or the kill the gains we’ve been making in bicycle infrastructure.”

    Scratching my head, I have to wonder how laying the groundwork for a potential mayoral run becomes “selfish political dealings.” But, oh well … if Dave says so …

    Dave is concerned that the streetcar project may be threatened by the selfish one . Obviously, derailing Barrett’s Unicorn Express to Nowhere would be tragic. And dangerous, too. Just imagine a candidate getting elected after taking a position(s) that reflects thinking of a majority of the citizens, and then actually acting on it. Frightening scenario. But with a silver lining: the vacant streetcar route should be easily converted to bicycle-only rights of way.

  5. Vincent Hanna says:

    In 2010 Milwaukee County residents supported the streetcar. http://publicpolicyforum.org/blog/people-speak-citizens-views-transportation-issues

    Has that changed? Is there a more recent poll of county residents and their view on the streetcar?

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