Will Joe Davis Run For Mayor?
He probably has a better chance of beating Barrett than Bob Donovan. But what exactly does Davis stand for?
There are times where Ald. Joe Davis seems like the African American version of Bob Donovan. Davis, too, believes Milwaukee is going to hell in a hand basket and also sees himself as the man to rescue us from the flames — though he’d probably spark as little support from Common Council members as Donovan.
In June, just a month before he announced he might run for mayor, Davis issued a press release entitled, with Donovan-esque bluster, “Milwaukee is out of control.” Davis went on to tell us that “we are becoming desensitized by the rampant escalation of recent incidents, which causes us to lose focus on the real possible culprit – a true lack of LEADERSHIP by our CEO!”
Returning to lower-case letters, Davis noted that “we have not seriously addressed our negative poverty statistics for many years (which have turned Milwaukee neighborhoods into the OK Corral), we blame irrelevant entities for our systemic problems. Well now the chickens have come home to roost.”
One month later Davis announced he was forming an “exploratory committee” to consider whether those roosting chickens demand his entry into the race for mayor. “Forming an exploratory committee is the first step in bringing leadership back to the city of Milwaukee,” he explained.
The response from Mayor Tom Barrett’s chief of staff Patrick Curley was scathing: “I can only assume that Joe’s intent here is to let his constituents know he stopped into the office before he jets off once again. Joe showed real leadership when he resigned from the Black Male Achievement Council because the time commitment was too great and would interfere with his busy travel schedule. Apparently, Joe believes that leadership is all about issuing press releases and booking flights.”
I guess we can conclude the Barrett Administration is not shaking in its boots over the possibility of a Joe Davis candidacy. In truth, his chances of winning, should he enter the race, aren’t that great. But in a three-person primary, with Donovan taking away a chunk of the white, South-Side vote, a black candidate might do relatively well in the primary. Republican and conservative groups would love to see someone give Barrett a run for his pile of campaign money, and they might decide Davis has a better shot.
Davis seems to be reaching out in that direction, stressing the importance of having a “good relationship” with Gov. Scott Walker and noting his friendship with Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson. “I think his heart is in the right place,” he says of Johnson. “No one can question he’s a good business man.”
The political views of Davis, it must be said, are a tad erratic. He is a huge fan of fixed rail transit and once offered a proposal for a far-reaching light rail plan that would have cost in excess of $600 million, and perhaps as much as $1 billion. The proposal was far beyond what the city could ever afford. Yet Davis opposes the far more modest streetcar plan, which leaves some colleagues scratching their heads.
“It’s like saying unless we can hit a home run I’m never getting up to the plate,” Ald. Bob Bauman observes.
In an interview, Davis insisted Milwaukee needs a comprehensive transit system, even suggesting a system connecting to Brookfield and Waukesha should be undertaken. But what about the decades long, fierce opposition to this from the western suburbs? “I believe if you sit down with reasonable people, you can make it a win-win situation,” Davis assured me.
Davis was a blue collar worker for years: he was a member of the Steamfitters Local 601 for decades and a member of the Milwaukee Joint Apprenticeship Committee of the Pipefitting Industry. He won election to the Milwaukee County Board and then switched to alderman, winning a special election to his northwest side district in April 2003.
But he hasn’t made much of a mark in that position. As Curley’s snipe suggests, the alderman has a reputation more for his absence from City Hall and his frequent travel. Davis has styled himself as a kind of international diplomat for the city, and takes his globetrotting very seriously, traveling with as many as six pieces of luggage, one alderman observed.
His official bio notes his membership on the Common Council’s Sister Cities Committee, “spearheading efforts by the latter body to forge new international ties with cities across the globe, especially in Africa. Alderman Davis is currently the Republic of South Africa Honorary Consulate of the State of Wisconsin… He was also appointed to the National League of Cities’ International Council for 2009.” Davis told the Milwaukee Community Journal that he learned a great deal about Nigeria “when he was hosted by then-Governor Bola Tinubu of Lagos State, and that a visit from former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo this winter further strengthened Milwaukee’s ties to that nation.
Precisely how the city has benefitted from all that travel is unclear, but it has certainly been a boon to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel muckraker Dan Bice, who has generated lots of eyebrow-raising columns at Davis’ expense.
A Bice column in 2007 noted that “in the past two years, Davis has billed taxpayers for trips to Las Vegas; Reno, Nev.; St. Louis; New Haven, Conn.; Charlotte, N.C.; Wichita, Kan.; and Washington, D.C., three times. The total tab tops $15,600 since December 2005….That’s far and away the most of any member of the Common Council. In fact, he spent better than 25% of the entire travel budget for the 15 aldermen in each of the past two years, according to city records.”
Then there’s the alderman’s international travel, including a $4,500 trip to Venezuela in 2006 and a trip costing the same amount to South Africa in 2007. Writing about the latter trip, Bice noted Davis’s absence from the city’s finance committee: while it “completed the tedious process of reviewing 71 amendments to the mayor’s $227 million budget plan, Davis was with a delegation that was enjoying game drives, a lake cruise and a crocodile show in South Africa.”
Not long after that, then-Common Council President Willie Hines removed Davis from the finance committee.
Davis has been increasingly isolated from other council members in his self-appointed role as diplomat-in-chief. The Common Council rejected his call to create a city Director of International Trade and ultimately voted against his bizarre proposal to allocate $5,000 for the Retail Christian Network for a breakfast at the International Council of Shopping Centers convention in May in Las Vegas. The measure was passed by an 8-5 vote, but after Barrett vetoed it, the council voted 13-1 to sustain the veto, with only Davis dissenting.
Davis, City Hall observers say, has little clout with his colleagues, including African American alderman. When asked if he would expect any council member to support him should he run for mayor, Davis says no. “All of my colleagues have an election in 2016. So I wouldn’t expect them to have any other position,” he explains. Precisely who might support Davis for mayor remains to be seen.
The biggest threat to Barrett isn’t Donovan or Davis but Sheriff David Clarke, who carried (barely) the city in his recent reelection. He couldn’t beat Barrett one-on-one, but in a three-way race including Donovan, he might take first in a primary. That, however, would leave him running one-on-one against Barrett in the general election.
Clarke lost in the 2004 primary for mayor, and I suspect he wouldn’t want to chance another such defeat. If he’s likely to run for any other position, it would be county executive, against current officer holder Chris Abele. Abele is widely assumed to have funneled money to the Greater Wisconsin Committee for ads targeting Clarke, and the sheriff might be tempted to seek revenge.