Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Will Murphy Lose Council Presidency?

Race could be wide open and Ashanti Hamilton might have surprising supporters.

By - Apr 6th, 2016 11:32 am
Council President Michael Murphy. Photo by Jack Fennimore.

Council President Michael Murphy. Photo by Jack Fennimore.

“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.”

These are all valid issues, but in the past it has boiled down to the council and mayor supporting more money for police, while getting attacked by Donovan for not spending more, even as he voted against any budget increases. There hasn’t been any obvious tension between Hamilton and Murphy on these issues.

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.

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

3 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Will Murphy Lose Council Presidency?”

  1. Susan says:

    Murphy’s law columns seem biased… The community needs pure facts reporting
    Thank you

  2. M says:

    Hamilton and Zielinski are cooking up a scheme that would add their votes to the other if neither corrals enough.

    This strikes me as two alders seeking a bigger paycheck and more bragging rights. Has Murphy actually done less than his predecessor Willie Hines to improve things in the central city? (These issues date back further than Murphy’s two-year tenure—though clearly not enough is being done.) At least Murphy beat the bushes to get outside funding for new playgrounds. It’s not nearly enough, but it’s something. He has also resisted unconstitutional ordinances restricting free-expression rights.

    None of them voiced real concern about how much money the arena deal will suck from taxpayers. Murphy acknowledged that economists keep saying subsidized arena deals have no net econ benefits. Then he and 11 alders just ignored those findings and voted for giveaways that will produce mostly just construction jobs. Those 12 also supported tearing down a paid-off, incoming-producing parking garage so billionaires can build an “entertainment” mall with national chains that will cannabilize established LOCAL businesses.

    Zielinski voted against the arena deal (with Kovac and Borkowski) but never bothered to speak against it—not the sign of a leader. And none of the three has expressed concerns about the negative economic impacts (more “redlining”) of closing off 4th Street. Through streets enhance development along them—so this will just make 4th Street and those neighborhoods slower to develop and thrive and harder to pass through. Not a winning strategy to improve the central city.

    Zielinski’s most glaring example of grandiosity, dubious leadership and horrible design sense is the “Art Stop” in the center of Bay View. He wanted to create something artsy to draw people from miles around to see it (not something to make bus riders and others more comfortable in the neighborhood’s most visible triangle). Perhaps people might come to BV to see this pretentious eyesore, but I doubt it’s achieved even that level of notoriety. He was heavy handed and did not include transit riders on the project’s decision-making committee.

    Also, Hamilton may not have the equanimity to be an effective council prez:

  3. PaulS says:

    Both the ever-coiffed,never-miss-a-foto-op Zielinski and the will-never-be-father-of-the-year Hamilton claim Murphy shows no leadership on the Common Council.

    They apparently missed Murphy’s excellent work in tackling our serious and growing heroin/opiate addiction overdose problem in the City (and near-suburbs). It takes some bravery to brush off the bar owner donors to point out a serious problem and some guts to work to try to solve that problem. Neither Zielinski nor Hamilton have ever shown those qualities. Murphy has. You can read about his efforts–which are attracting interest from other urban leaders across the country–here:

    Funny that the two right wingers failed to read it.

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