Will Murphy Lose Council Presidency?
Race could be wide open and Ashanti Hamilton might have surprising supporters.
“My death is greatly exaggerated.”
So says alderman and Common Council president Michael Murphy, mangling the rhythm of the Mark Twain quote (“reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”). And no, the alderman is unrelated to me.
As he concedes, there are rumblings of a coup in the offing; Murphy faces a likely challenge after just one term as president. Ald. Tony Zielinski has reportedly been claiming he will have nine votes for his bid, but no one I’ve talked to takes that seriously. His popularity on the council isn’t necessarily that high, he has a reputation for being hotheaded and storming out of city committee meetings, and his politics are bizarrely unpredictable, as I’ve reported.
A more credible opponent is Ald. Ashanti Hamilton. While Murphy was selected unanimously four years ago, there was voting done unofficially before this and just one African American council member, Joe Davis, voted for Murphy. All the rest supported Hamilton. (Davis’ vote might help explain why no black colleague supported his quixotic run for mayor.)
Counting Hamilton’s own vote and including newcomer Chantia Lewis (who defeated incumbent Robert Puente), that makes six black council members who could be likely supporters of Hamilton. So where does he get two more votes?
Here’s where things get weird: his support may come from South Side conservatives. I’ve been told that PR man Craig Peterson, a longtime GOP operative, might support Hamilton and could deliver the votes of council members Mark Borkowski and Bob Donovan, both of whom received help from Peterson in their campaigns (in Donovan’s case for his mayoral campaign). Borkowski, in one of the funniest quotes in years, described Peterson (in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story) this way: “he’s been my svengali.”
Peterson’s plan was also supposed to include aldermanic candidate Chris Wiken, who many mistakenly believed would defeat 13th District Ald. Terry Witkowski (that includes me, ouch, my worst prediction). Wiken ran as an anti-streetcar candidate, and it’s likely the majority of voters in that district agreed with his stand, but they like Witkowski and may have resented that Wiken was a carpetbagger from Brookfield who moved in to run against the incumbent.
Peterson, Borkowski and Donovan are all anti-streetcar, but it’s unlikely they could get Hamilton aboard that issue. Nor is it clear that Peterson’s agenda is really about the streetcar; rather it seems like an issue to help get certain people elected. Peterson described his policy concerns to the newspaper this way: “The crime rate, the issues with the police chief, the drug trade, the drug economy… But you have to have a mayor and the leadership in the Common Council that’s willing to tackle it.”
The longer-term goal of Peterson has been to build a constituency in the black community that will oppose the “white liberals” that allegedly run Milwaukee. Peterson has mostly had success stoking the anger of black voters over the killing of Dontre Hamilton by a Milwaukee police officer and other abuse of black men in the custody of police officers. He used that issue to help get David Clarke reelected, with ads noting his opponent was a white Milwaukee police officer.
But is it likely Hamilton would sign on to the extremist views of someone like Borkowski, who defended anal cavity searches of black suspects by the police? It’s difficult to imagine how you forge a coalition of the city’s black council members with Borkowski and Donovan.
Meanwhile, the low-key Murphy, when asked about a possible challenge offers this: “I worked with all my colleagues to give them the tools to succeed.”
He notes that he used his clout as council president to successfully apply for grants from a long list of organizations — Bader Foundation, Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Fund for Lake Michigan, Burke Foundation and others — to raise $1.2 million in private funds to build 12 new playgrounds in inner city neighborhoods, something that groups like Common Ground have identified as a dire need. One of the playgrounds was in Hamilton’s district.
It’s worth noting that former alderman Willie Hines served for some time as Common Council president. It’s a majority minority city (near South Side alderman Jose Perez supported Murphy last time around) and you might expect a minority to rise to the leadership. But Murphy is not convinced that identity politics will rule the day.
“I don’t think African Americans vote just based on the color of their skin,” he says, “but on the content of your character.”
Odds are, Murphy, Zielinski and others are already behind the scenes making their sales pitches. Should be interesting to watch.