Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why The Mayor is Not Dead

By - Aug 1st, 2001 03:26 pm

Back in the early 1980s, Milwaukee Magazine ran a scathing caricature of Mayor Henry Maier with the title “What Does This Man Do All Day?” Readers were asked to answer the question and the winning, funniest entries were run in the next month’s issue. Maier came in for a royal lampooning, but it didn’t matter. He often seemed to disappear for months, if not years at a time, yet come election time Maier was always reelected easily.

It’s worth remembering that bit of history, as the current mayor, John Norquist, has suddenly been declared invisible and a non-factor. Because Norquist dared to take three weeks vacation and was not here for the visit of Mexican President Vicente Fox, the mayor was pummeled by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in three straight Spivak and Bice columns and an MJS editorial, and lampooned in two editorial cartoons and a Jim Stingl column – all of this is one week. I guess we know where they stand on this issue.

Henry Maier would disappear for months, if not years at a time, yet come election time was always reelected easily.

Radio commentator Mark Belling has also weighed in with the John is Dead theory while Milwaukee Magazine’s Mary Van de Kamp Nohl actually ran a feature story handicapping possible candidates for mayor three years before the election. Norquist was simply left off the race form, as though he was already six feet under.

As with most pack journalism, there is a good deal more heat than light in all this nay saying. I do not doubt Norquist has been wounded by the Marilyn Figueroa controversy and has seemed less engaged by his job of late. But he has nearly three years before the next election to recover himself, and that’s a near lifetime in politics, all the more so for a job like Mayor of Milwaukee, where an incumbent is almost never defeated.

It’s true Norquist’s father declared his son would not run for re-election, but the mayor himself demurred. And what if he was flirting with the notion? Tommy Thompson told us he wouldn’t run again after 1996 and then changed his mind. And won reelection easily.

You might imagine that journalists, who get paid to understand these things, would keep some of this history in mind. But they often have other motivations for writing. Spivak and Bice had two strong columns on Norquist’s invisibility, then trailed off with a weak and repetitious third one, probably because they have more space to fill (they’ve recently been asked to do four rather than three columns a week). Their second column told us Norquist could still right himself, but two days later they decided the mayor hadn’t done so. They’re an impatient duo, the Spice Boys.

Belling and Nohl’s commentary is partly explained by the fact that both dislike Norquist and hope that pronouncing him dead will make it come true. Nohl’s story is particularly silly. It is easy to find “candidates” three years before the election, when absolutely nothing is at stake. The surprise is that every member of the Common Council didn’t volunteer.

Belling and Nohl’s commentary is partly explained by the fact that both dislike Norquist and hope that pronouncing him dead will make it come true.

But come 2004, they may change their mind if Norquist opts to campaign. Or they may decide they have too much to risk by running. Ald. Tom Nardelli has talked about running before and has yet to do so. Vince Bobot must step down from his high paying job as municipal judge in order to run. Rep. Antonio Riley is a Norquist supporter who will not run if his mentor does. Few of these “candidates” may be around come the real election.

The fact that Norquist looks vulnerable now has opened the door to challengers, and will help potential candidates like Ald. Marvin Pratt and Nardelli raise money. But any misstep will get more attention than it might have, and put more pressure on them to act mayoral. That is much harder to do from the lowly position of aldermen, particularly when the mayor, who is far more powerful, wants to neutralize you.

Norquist, in short, is far from dead, and should he decide to run for reelection, would have to be rated as the favorite, though not an overwhelming one. He’s also far more likely to remain enthusiastic about the job if he takes some vacations, like normal people do. Even journalists.

Short Takes

State Sen. Gary George (D-Milwaukee) amused some folks by writing an op-ed piece you can find on, decrying the secrecy of the legislative budget deliberations. He later voted against the budget “on principle,” declaring “there is far too much secrecy involved in the process?What we end up with is a few guys in a room trading baseball cards.” George, in his years of co-chair of Joint Finance, was the undisputed master of the secret, 3 a.m., anonymous budget amendments. Apparently, he’s seen the error of his ways.

Why did the Republicans on the state elections board go along with the decision to allow Tom Barrett to convert his federal campaign donations for Congress to a state race for governor? One theory is that this will open the door to allowing Scott McCallum to convert his donations for Lt. Governor to a race for governor. This could mean any political action committee that donated to Lt. Governor McCallum could do it again for his governor committee.

Northwestern Mutual Life CEO Jim Erickson retires this week. Erickson, who rose up from the sales department, was a gladhander in style, and rather timid and low profile compared to famed predecessors like Francis Ferguson or Edmund Fitzgerald, who all but ran the city when it came to major civic projects. It’s difficult to remember much from the tenure of Erickson, who has served as CEO since 1993.

We missed our opportunity to build a Wisconsin Navy, it appears. Possibly the most bizarre item tossed out of the state budget was contained in the Senate Democratic version, which would have created a “Wisconsin naval militia consisting of members or former members of the US Naval, Coast Guard or Marine Corps reserve who would have been under the command and control of the governor.” The amendment “would have expanded the Governor’s military staff to include an Assistant Adjutant General for Readiness and Training for the Naval Militia” and would “permit the naval militia to defray any expenditures necessary for the defense of the state during war, riot, natural disaster or public emergency.” Some Democrat with military experience apparently envisioned himself as the Adjutant General who would build a Great Lakes fleet to do battle against Michigan.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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