Barrett aims for the fence
Despite all the talk of the newer, tougher Tom Barrett, in person he seems more like Clark Kent than Superman.
Milwaukee’s amiable mayor doesn’t have the larger-than-life aura that is often associated with successful politicians. Despite his tall frame, he doesn’t quite cast the imposing shadow that President Lyndon Johnson famously did. He even seems genuinely flattered when people come up to say hello or shake his hand.
A new cast on his right hand (the result of yet another surgery last week) is a constant reminder of the scuffle that could have cost him his life this past summer. It may seem cynical, but there is little doubt that the injuries he sustained when he inadvertently walked into that confrontation last August have served as a powerful political asset – especially when a race for the governor’s seat is on the line. But Barrett is more concerned with making progress in Wisconsin than he is with garnering sympathy.
I caught up with Barrett recently, and he agreed to sit down for a few minutes to talk about his gubernatorial aspirations and what he hopes to accomplish if elected.
His top priority, he said, is to get the state’s economy moving again and to focus on retaining existing jobs and creating new ones.
He pointed to recent successes like the agreements with Republic Airlines and the Spanish firm Ingeteam (expected to bring hundreds of new jobs to the city) that came about through coordination with the Milwaukee 7, a public/private partnership that Barrett helped to launch.
“I’m not interested in fighting ideological battles; I want to get things done,” Barrett said.
The reference seemed like a veiled dig at Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, the leading Republican candidate vying to succeed Jim Doyle after Doyle announced that he wouldn’t be running for re-election.
It strikes some who follow Wisconsin politics as amusing when opponents paint both Doyle and Barrett as knee-jerk, tax and spend liberals. Doyle resisted efforts from Democratic leaders in the state legislature to push through a universal health care program, opting instead for a more modest expansion of the BadgerCare program to help cover more of the state’s uninsured.
While Barrett and Doyle have had their differences, both have assiduously courted business leaders and made economic development a top priority. Doyle’s Grow Wisconsin initiative streamlined many of the regulatory policies and procedures that had frustrated new and existing businesses in the past. Barrett has also reached out to businesses in Milwaukee, often to the dismay of other Democrats who think he’s been too friendly to business.
And Barrett has taken the side of business over labor on issues such as paid sick leave and the governance of Milwaukee’s public schools. He insists that his effort to transfer control of Milwaukee schools to the mayor’s office would be in the best interest of the children. He says that he’s concerned that recent funding cutbacks announced by the current school administration will interfere with MPS’s ability to provide a quality education.
Barrett did make it clear that he differs with Doyle on the current governor’s proposed Clean Energy legislation. Barrett says he supports the legislation’s goals of promoting renewable sources of energy, improving energy efficiency and conservation efforts, but believes the auto and sulphur emission standards should be set nationally – or at least regionally. He’s concerned that setting an independent state standard could put Wisconsin at a “competitive disadvantage.”
In the gubernatorial race, both Barrett and Walker will benefit from being perceived as likable, and both will enjoy strong support from their respective bases. In this evenly divided state, it seems likely that the governor’s race will be decided by the candidate that can appeal to moderates and independents, and Barrett appears comfortable with that field of battle.