Stealth Campaign Targets Mayor Barrett
He would easily win the April election. But could he take third in Tuesday’s primary?
“This would be the perfect time for anti-Barrett conservatives from outside the city to run a credible candidate against him and put a couple million behind that candidate,” one veteran of Democratic campaigns tells me. “The mayor is clearly vulnerable on the crime issue. He’s vulnerable in being a 40-year career politician.” He’s also vulnerable on the city’s giveaway to the Milwaukee Bucks for their new arena, which a large majority of voters oppose.
But no such anti-Barrett money has materialized. The mayor has about $810,000 in his campaign coffers, 25 to 30 times more than his two main opponents, Ald. Bob Donovan ($28,000 on hand) and Ald. Joe Davis ($16,000 on hand), as Mary Spicuzza has reported for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Nor do Donovan and Davis seem to be working particularly hard. We are just a few days from the primary election and the mayoral campaign has been almost non-existent. Even Barrett hasn’t spent that much money.
But there is a sneaky effort going on to quietly squeeze Barrett between Donovan’s support on the far South Side and a potential support for Joe Davis on the North Side. Key to that effort are former alderman Michael McGee Jr. and Sheriff David Clarke. McGee is working on a get-out-the-vote effort in the black community, which includes radio ads on WNOV-AM (860) encouraging people to vote. Those ads were sponsored by a new group named “Milwaukeeans for Self-Governance,” whose leaders include Republican-leaning political operative Craig Peterson of the firm Zigman Joseph & Associates, as Spicuzza reported.
McGee is shuttling people to City Hall to vote early. Is he getting paid for his efforts, and if so, who is paying him? Peterson says he doesn’t know.
As for the radio ads featuring Clarke, they generated a story from WisconsinWatchdog.org, the conservative online publication mostly bankrolled by an organization affiliated with Eric O’Keefe, head of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, whom I’ve dubbed “the Third Koch Brother.”
Peterson has had great success getting the publication and its (I kid you not) “national First Amendment reporter” M.D. Kittle, to cover the PR man’s activities, including the failed attempt by Peterson and others to launch an anti-streetcar referendum drive. We learn from Kittle that the Clarke ads are “sponsored by” Peterson’s Milwaukeeans for Self-Governance, the same group that paid for the McGee ads.
Clarke’s message? “Are you better off living in Milwaukee than you were four, eight, 12 years ago? We’ve had the same city government in place,” Clarke says. “Your vote sends a message that the status quo isn’t working. Feb. 16, you get to decide the direction we’re moving in.”
When you combine these campaigns, McGee’s early voting efforts, plus the radio ads by McGee and Clarke, you probably get a higher black turnout than the usual February primary, and these voters could also vote for Davis for mayor, even as white, south side conservatives vote for Donovan. The hope of Peterson and other anti-Barrett folks (who apparently cannot be named) is that the mayor sleeps while this is going on and loses the primary, taking third.
There are, however, many problems with this game plan. For starters, Donovan’s appeal is limited to white conservative male voters. He does not do as well with white women voters. There are probably two districts — those held by Mark Borkowski (southwest side) and Terry Witkowski (far south side) where Donovan will do well. But Barrett is likely to take a strong second place. Donovan’s own district is increasingly Latino, and Donovan (who is also running for reelection as alderman) could lose twice in his own district, with Barrett winning the district for mayor.
As for the black vote, two African American legislators who talked off the record confirmed that “people are ready for something different,” as one put it. But neither felt there was a strong sentiment against Barrett himself. I’m told by someone close to Barrett’s campaign that its internal polls show impressive support for him city-wide, including in majority black districts.
And even if many blacks see a need for change, does that mean they will vote for Davis?
Not one black member of the Common Council is supporting Davis for mayor, nor for that matter is any black elected official in Milwaukee, which says something about his appeal to them. One black legislator who has been going door-to-door and getting feedback, says, “I can’t say there is great appreciation for Joe.” The legislator adds that Davis had “a couple young white guys” handing out campaign literature at a central city event, making the alderman seem disconnected from his own community.
As for those ads by McGee and Clarke, they do not even mention Davis and have run for awhile on one radio station (WNOV-AM). Democratic PR man Evan Zeppos dismisses the Clarke ads as something of a joke, saying “I don’t think they are going to make any difference. They don’t mention any politician and paraphrase the arguments of a Donald Trump.”
Peterson has done work for O’Keefe, squiring him around Milwaukee to meet various politicos, and recently appeared on WNOV with O’Keefe, where they discussed the mayoral election. That has fueled the rumor that O’Keefe’s Club for Growth is paying for the radio ads, which Peterson denies.
Since the ads carefully avoid mentioning Barrett and Davis, it seems likely they have been funded by a nonprofit, which can’t legally engage in such politicking. In short, the money could be coming from a foundation, say a group like the conservative Bradley Foundation or the Einhorn Family Foundation, who were both once involved in the creation of billboard ads warning that “voter fraud is a felony.”
At any rate, the size of the effort here seems way too small, and too generalized in messaging, to create a wave of support for Davis.
Meantime, Barrett does not appear to be sleeping through this race. His recent mailer touts his efforts to fight crime, and also positions him as someone opposed to Scott Walker and his “cuts” in funding that goes to “police and fire protection” in Milwaukee. And Walker is at this point toxic in the city, with horribly high negative ratings. That message is being repeated on radio ads and through social networking by the campaign.
Finally, I’ve been told the Journal Sentinel is coming out with a story containing negative information on both Donovan and Davis, which won’t help their cause.
My guess is that Barrett takes first, followed by Donovan and then by Davis, mostly because the white conservatives who support Donovan tend to turn out in low visibility elections like a February primary. For Barrett that would be the ideal scenario: he gets Donovan running to the mayor’s right, a no-win position for any challenger.
Should Davis take second, that would be a little more worrisome. If Peterson could make a case to some major Republican donors that Davis has a chance, the PR operative might be able to shake the money tree for the alderman. But given the casual way Davis is conducting his campaign, that seems unlikely.