The Story Behind the Streetcar Referendum
Conservatives from outside Milwaukee hope to join forces with black city residents to oppose the streetcar.
The recently announced petition drive to force a referendum opposing city expenditures for a streetcar system seems straightforward on its face, but there’s far more to the story. In fact, this exercise in participatory democracy provides a smokescreen for another agenda, which is an attempted right-wing seduction of African-American voters for political reasons.
Central city residents could be a prime field for new recruits, since many African-American voters, although they traditionally vote Democratic, lean right on some issues, particularly social ones like abortion or same-sex marriage.
An opening to the minority community came via an unlikely source — the John Doe investigation of the campaign practices of Governor Scott Walker overseen by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. As Urban Milwaukee has previously reported, conservative groups and Republicans angered at the investigation and largely from outside the city made common cause with black activists who were unhappy about Chisholm’s response to the handling of African American suspects in custody. Chisholm initially refused to press charges against the police in whose custody Derek Williams died (the D.A later appointed a special prosecutor who decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence to go to court). Chisholm also declined to press charges after the death of 16-year-old Corey Stingley, who had been grabbed and restrained by three white male customers after he stole some items from VJ’s Food Mart in West Allis, and died of died of positional asphyxia, or a lack of oxygen.
For months, this group of white conservatives and black city activists talked about launching a recall of Chisholm. The group for a time included Orville Seymer and Chris Kliesmet, longtime leaders of the Citizens for Responsible Government, the organization that got its start pushing for the recall of Milwaukee County Executive F. Thomas Ament after the pension scandal broke. The Chisholm recall was never launched, but the issue helped create some political connections that may help Ald. Joe Davis, who has announced his run against Mayor Tom Barrett in the 2016 mayoral election. Republicans and conservatives would like nothing better than to find an opponent who could drive a strong turnout of black voters for a candidate to oppose the liberal mayor. City Hall insiders have been predicting that Davis and South Side Ald. Bob Donovan will be both be looking to draw donations from Republicans looking to defeat or at least embarrass and weaken Barrett. And the streetcar is a perfect issue for Donovan and Davis to prove their conservative stripes.
For Donovan, that’s a natural. He has always been a tough-on-crime conservative who’s adamantly opposed to the streetcar. But for Davis, who is a huge fan of trains and once proposed a light rail plan that might have cost as much as $1 billion, his opposition to the streetcar is more difficult to explain. Not to mention that Davis is also a former steamfitter and retiree of Local 601 and it will be members of the pipe trade unions like 601 who will earn the millions of dollars in wages that will be spent relocating utilities for the streetcar line.
In late December, Davis was seen at Miss Katie’s Diner meeting with Seymer, Kliesmet and two other Republicans: consultant Gerard Randall, Jr. and PR man Craig Peterson. Kliesmet and Seymer have already announced the CRG group will be organizing the petition drive to force a referendum on the streetcar.
According to the state’s direct legislation statute, organizers have 60 days to accumulate petitions equal to 15 percent of the city’s vote in the most recent gubernatorial election. According to the CRG website, “That number is 30,800 signatures but the goal is 35,000 signatures given that some signatures may be disallowed for various technical reasons.”
The group hopes to have the signatures in hand before the scheduled January 21st Common Council vote on streetcar funding. One insider tells us that CRG has a huge group of people willing to circulate petitions. That may include some police and fire workers.
The “technical reasons” for disallowing petitions should prove to be interesting, and a potential contested point during petition review. You don’t even have to be a registered voter in the City of Milwaukee to sign the petition — you merely have to be a city resident who is eligible to vote, meaning you’re over 18 years of age, with voting privileges not suspended. These signatures and qualifications will be much harder to check than the usual review of nomination papers, which may only be signed by registered voters, and easily checked against a list.
Standards are even more relaxed for petition circulators: “Any person eligible to vote anywhere in the U.S. can circulate a petition for signature.” In short, it’s legal for non-city residents to circulate petitions, which allows CRG to recruit widely for volunteers.
CRG notes on its website that the referendum language was written by an attorney, without identifying the party involved.
Esenberg’s response: “I can tell you that we have provided certain advice to CRG. That advice is confidential and privileged so I can’t give you any of the details.”
While much of the organizing on the streetcar petition seems to be by non-city residents, the high-profile involvement of Davis and Donovan helps give it a Milwaukee face. If the drive succeeds, it at the very least delays the streetcar until a referendum is held. Meanwhile the petition drive helps identify voters who are likely opponents of the Barrett administration, providing a good base on which to build the candidacy of Davis or Donovan, depending on which candidate gets through the primary. It also provides an opportunity to foment opposition to the streetcar and Barrett in the black community, by arguing that this is really just a transit system for whites.
Streetcar opponents also hope to mount electoral challenges in 2016 to some Common Council members who support the project. One insider in the effort predicted there will be an African American opponent in 2016 running against Downtown Ald. Bob Bauman, whose district has a black majority. How all this plays out may depend on African American Common Council members, and whether they come out strongly in defense of the streetcar, or whether they buy the Davis argument that this project has no upside for non-whites.
- Council Delays Streetcar Until January – Jeramey Jannene – December 16th, 2014
- Committee Takes No Action on Streetcar – Jeramey Jannene – December 10th, 2014
- Committee Approves Milwaukee Streetcar – Jeramey Jannene – December 9th, 2014
- RACM Approves Tax Funding for Streetcar – Michael Horne – December 8th, 2014
- How to Sell the Streetcar – Michael Horne – November 28th, 2014
- Next Stops for the Streetcar – Michael Horne – November 24th, 2014
- Barrett Moving Forward with Streetcar – Jeramey Jannene – November 18th, 2014
- Who Will Be Streetcar Operator – Michael Horne – May 8th, 2014
- A Streetcar Named Cooperation? – Dave Reid – April 27th, 2014
- How a Streetcar Spurs Development – Angie Schmitt – November 3rd, 2013
- Streetcar Social – Michael Horne – September 12th, 2013
- Mayor Says Streetcar is a “Trojan Horse” – Michael Horne – April 17th, 2013
- Whoops, We Changed Our Mind – Dave Reid – September 27th, 2012
- Battle of the Bobs: Donovan vs Bauman Streetcar Press Conference – Jeramey Jannene – May 18th, 2012
- Important Hoan Bridge and Milwaukee Streetcar Meetings This Week – Dave Reid – November 14th, 2011
- Milwaukee Streetcar Passes Common Council – Jeramey Jannene – July 26th, 2011
- Keep the Milwaukee Streetcar Moving Forward – Jeramey Jannene – July 8th, 2011
- Milwaukee Streetcar at Apex – Jeramey Jannene – June 16th, 2011
- Milwaukee Streetcar Takes Key Step Forward – Jeramey Jannene – May 6th, 2010
- Milwaukee Streetcar Meeting This Thursday – Jeramey Jannene – October 5th, 2009
- Milwaukee Streetcar Routes Unveiled by Mayor Barrett – Jeramey Jannene – September 21st, 2009
- Milwaukee Streetcar Round-Up – Jeramey Jannene – April 19th, 2009
- Vote for your Favorite Milwaukee Streetcar Route – Jeramey Jannene – March 25th, 2009
- Design Your Own Streetcar Route – Jeramey Jannene – March 23rd, 2009
- Streetcars Coming to Milwaukee – Dave Reid – March 14th, 2009
Project Renderings and Maps
For more project details, including the project timeline, financing, route and possible extensions, see our extensive past coverage.
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- Transportation: Art Campaign Highlights Milwaukee, New York Teens - Jeramey Jannene - Aug 1st, 2022
- Transportation: City Seeking Grant For Streetcar Convention Center Extension - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 15th, 2022
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- Transportation: Streetcar Service Goes From Bad To Worse - Jeramey Jannene - May 3rd, 2022
- Transportation: Should National Avenue Rebuild Include Plans for Streetcar? - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 8th, 2022
- Transportation: Maintenance Issues Reduce The Hop’s Schedule - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 4th, 2022
- Transportation: Congress Extends Streetcar Grant - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 16th, 2022
- City Needs Act of Congress Because of Couture-Streetcar Delay - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 1st, 2022
- Transportation: Streetcar Study Draws Controversy - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 27th, 2021
Read more about Milwaukee Streetcar here