Why Bob Donovan Can’t Beat Barrett
No alderman will back him. Why he’s so disliked -- and so certain to lose.
This week brought us another outburst from Ald. Bob Donovan, condemning Mayor Tom Barrett for not putting enough officers on the street. This won him a slap down from Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn, who has called Donovan “a demagogue,” along with a droll tweet from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Don Walker, who covers City Hall. “Ald. Bob Donovan is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it any more,” Walker tweeted.
Bob Donovan is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Milwaukee Common Council. His colorful style wins him coverage, but few take him seriously. He can’t get no respect.
Why can’t Donovan win a race for mayor? Let us count the reasons. For starters, no alderman has won a campaign for mayor since the election of 1910, when Emil Seidel was elected heading up a Socialist wave that was historically unique. His fellow socialist Daniel Hoan later won after serving as city attorney, which gave him a city-wide base to run for mayor, while Henry Maier and John Norquist were state senators and Barrett a congressman — all had a much larger electoral base than an aldermanic district.
Donovan also has no money. Barrett now has $454,461 in campaign funds or 29 times more the $15,497 Donovan has. Donovan can expect to get some money from Republican-leaning individuals and groups who’d favor anyone who attacks Barrett, which Donovan does routinely. But he won’t get anywhere near enough money to level the playing field.
Donovan is also unlikely to gain many volunteers to support him. Why? Because there is probably no one on the Common Council who will support Donovan.
I asked liberal downtown Ald. Bob Bauman if he would support Donovan. “Doubtful,” he answered. Would any of your colleagues support him? I asked. “Doubtful.”
Southwest side Ald. Joe Dudzik, who is closer to Donovan on the issues than any alderman (Dudzik says he typically votes in agreement with Donovan “95 percent of the time”) considers it unlikely any Common Council member would support Donovan. Far South Side alderman Terry Witkowski, agreed, calling Donovan “noisy but ineffective.”
Dudzik and Donovan had once been seen as allies, but they had a falling out over redistricting back in 2011. Donovan also annoyed Dudzik and other council members by barnstorming in their districts on the issue of crime, trying to win political points at the expense of his colleagues.
“He didn’t go into central city districts (where crime is higher),” Dudzik notes. “He went into districts like mine where he felt comfortable. I don’t think an alderman should stick his nose in my district. Bob is for Bob.”
Donovan’s big advantage is supposed to be his likely support from the police union. In fact, it’s a sign of how little clout the union has these days.
Dudzik remembers the power the union had decades ago, back when his father Jerome Dudzik ran it. “The Milwaukee Police Union had more clout in those days than the state teachers union,” he contends.
The police union still has clout with Republican legislators, who gave members their dream by eliminating the city residency requirement. But on city issues the union is seen by many council members as a group that’s out to undermine the city.
The alderman who should be most supportive is Dudzik, as his district has long been where the most police and fire fighters reside. He estimates that fully 25 percent of all city employees live in his district. He says he is strongly supportive of police and fire fighters — but not their union. “We (council members) have lost all respect for some of the union leaders,” Dudzik says. “The difference is stark from the old days.”
The other district that in the past would have been solidly behind the union is Witkowski’s. Not any more. “The police union is not for the public good,” he says. “The union is for pay, for benefits, for less work to do.”
To gauge how far the fire and police unions have fallen consider the fact that they have targeted both Witkowski and Dudzik for defeat — and lost badly. Former police union president Bradley DeBraska ran against Witkowski and lost. “I won every ward,” Witkowski recalls.
The police and fire unions both supported Dudzik’s opponent in the last race. “I won by a two-to-one margin,” Dudzik notes.
“The unions do not have the clout they once had,” Witkowski says. “I think every alderman holds that view.”
And their influence is likely to decline further as their members abandon the city. Dudzik says he can see the impact in his district, as police and fire fighters and other city employees move to the suburbs. “It’s having a negative effect on home prices, loss of students at schools, a fall off in volunteers at churches and civic groups.”
The decline of union power has occurred over a period of years, and is a result of many factors, but perhaps the biggest is the budget situation the city faces. As state shared revenue has continued to decline, the budget for the police and fire departments now is equal to the city’s entire tax levy, and about two-thirds of the entire budget (counting state and federal funds that help support the city).
“When we can do it, I’ve always supported more police officers,” Dudzik says. “I just don’t know where we get the money from.”
Donovan, says Witkowski, “fails to deal with reality. Finances are not important to him. Basically, what you hear him spouting is from the police union.”
Not surprisingly, when Donovan announced his run for mayor, police union president Michael Crivello hailed the news. “It’s exciting — and telling — that members of the council are willing to challenge the current mayor,” he declared.
It certainly is telling. It shows how isolated Donovan and the union are from any other city officials. The two districts Donovan would need to run up big totals in a race against Barrett are those of Dudzik and Witkowski, neither of whom will support the alderman. Witkowski predicts Donovan won’t be able to carry either district.
“Through the years I’ve had some of my constituents say, ‘oh, you oughta be more like Donovan,’” Witkowski says. “My response is, ‘oh, you don’t want me to be effective?’”