Zielinski Ramps Up Mayoral Campaign
"I want to run against Barrett," alderman says, laying out issues he will use against mayor.
Tony Zielinski is all about his campaign for mayor.
The longtime south-side alderman has promised not to run for re-election for his council seat, saying “it’s up or out.” To that end he’s made a $100,000 personal loan to his campaign account and solicited at least another $100,000 in contributions. Now he’s identifying wedge issues, locking in his stump speech, and dismissing concerns regarding his style of fundraising.
In an interview with Urban Milwaukee, Zielinski laid out the pillars of his campaign and hammered Mayor Tom Barrett for opposing some of the alderman’s proposals. “All he cares about is his political agenda. And his political agenda is to keep himself and his friends in office,” Zielinski contends.
As things currently stand, some 18 months from a potential primary election, the race will be a showdown between two career politicians. Zielinski announced his candidacy in November 2017, and Urban Milwaukee reported two weeks ago that Barrett will seek re-election.
Zielinski has so far laid out four issues he will push against Barrett. He’s against the streetcar, he’s for a focus on jobs and services for the “central city,” he’s against any more cuts in the number of public safety personnel and he’s for a pilot program to provide wraparound services to Milwaukee Public Schools students and their families.
“We have to turn around our central city,” says Zielinski. “We cannot be a great city if 43 percent of the population has it worse here than just about anywhere.” The 43 percent figure is a reference to the percent of city residents who identify as African American. A 2017 report pegs Milwaukee as the third worst city for African Americans based on racial disparity figures, while a 2015 NPR story asks “Why is Milwaukee So Bad for Black People?”
Referring to the streetcar project, which is expected to open later this year, Zielinski says: “I disagree with his lack of emphasis on the central city. When you have African Americans in Milwaukee that have it worse here than just about any other place in the country and one of the challenges for them is jobs and access, [the streetcar] wasn’t a priority.”
Zielinski voted for the streetcar project in 2011, but voted against the project in 2014 and 2015 when it was up for final approval. He has held a number of press conferences opposing the project.
Zielinski on Education
After ticking off a list of dismal statistics regarding student achievement in Milwaukee, Zielinski says “that does not bode well for the future of our city.” Zielinski promises to use his position as mayor to get involved in education, though Milwaukee Public Schools is governed separately from the city.
“A lot of these kids don’t even know if they’re going to have a roof over their head the next day,” says the alderman.
He has targeted Barack Obama School of Career and Technical Education, the former Custer High School at 5075 N. Sherman Blvd., for a pilot program to provide wrap-around services aimed at addressing trauma, improving school performance and reducing crime. He says he has singled out the school, well across the city from his district, because of the extremely high number of students living in poverty.
“As mayor I want to lead the charge to get foundations, outside groups, partnerships with different entities. They’re doing some of this stuff now, but nowhere near the level we need,” Zielinski contends.
Zielinski says he has already had success on this front but Barrett killed the idea. “I got $200,000 for an initiative at Barack Obama and the mayor used his to influence to derail that funding initiative.” It’s certainly true that Barrett opposed the idea, but also true that most of the Common Council questioned the proposal. The $200,000 matching grant is still being held in the council, more than a year after being introduced, following a letter of concern from Employ Milwaukee, which has a partnership with the school, and concern over the lack of support from Milwaukee Public Schools. The grant would go towards a Building Occupational Skills for Success program.
But Zielinski sees the opposition in personal terms. “You know why they did it? They didn’t want to see an initiative of mine go through. It doesn’t matter that 99 percent of the kids at Barack Obama came from poverty-stricken households and that that money could have helped them. That’s beside the point and you can quote me on that,” he says.
Tony and the Police
A Barrett challenger campaigning on a law-and-order platform is nothing new. Ald. Robert Donovan used the anti-streetcar, pro-police platform in his 2016 run, but managed to secure only 30 percent of the vote. Zielinski has extra ammunition this time around given that the city approved a budget that cut 27 cops and 33 firefighters.
The 2019 and 2020 budgets aren’t likely to be any easier given that the city is facing a squeeze from increased pension costs for public safety personnel and stagnant or falling state aid. And in announcing his mayoral campaign, Zielinski aligned himself with the police unions.
The Milwaukee Police Association hosted the November campaign kickoff and union president Mike Crivello enthusiastically endorsed Zielinski. Crivello’s peer at the Milwaukee Police Supervisors’ Association, Carmelo Patti, also endorsed the alderman.
When pushed how he would fund more cops and firefighters, Zielinski was short on specifics. “We need a mayor that has a good working relationship with the state,” he says. When asked for specifics on what he would ask the state for, Zielinski says that’s “premature right now.” When asked if he was open to a city sales tax, Zielinski says “I’ll have to think about that.”
One thing Zielinski is certain about is that the streetcar is hurting the relationship with the state. Speaking about the streetcar operating expenses, which are entirely covered by Potawatomi Hotel & Casino sponsorship in the 2018 budget, Zielinski says: “The $600,000 that could have went for the cops, didn’t go for the cops because the council members used that for other things.” He notes that long-term the money for the streetcar will come from the parking fund, and that’s money that could have gone for police.
How many police officers should Milwaukee have? “I don’t know, but he’s cutting too many right now,” says Zielinski.
Why Was Zielinski Removed From the Licenses Committee?
Rumors have swirled about why Zielinski was removed as the powerful chair of the Licenses Committee on June 21st, but Council President Ashanti Hamilton shot down any conspiracy theories Tuesday morning.
“There were a number of issues, some have been reported on already… He was very clearly running for mayor, not present enough to be able to take on these responsibilities.” When asked if he consulted the mayor’s office before the move, Hamilton says: “absolutely not.” Hamilton says the move was spurred by the resignation of Ald. Jim Bohl who chaired the Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee, which opened the door to changes.
Zielinski isn’t pleased with how Hamilton backed out of what he said was a promise to block the reappointment of Rocky Marcoux as commissioner of the Department of City Development. “I can tell you that President Hamilton promised everybody he was going to vote Rocky out. When we voted for the council president, he pledged to us over and over that Rocky was going to be out,” Zielinski tells Urban Milwaukee. The council did vote to reject Barrett’s re-appointment of Marcoux in 2016, but then the matter was reconsidered, sent back to committee and resolved in the commissioner’s favor three weeks later after a full court press by the mayor’s office and Marcoux himself.
When asked what else Hamilton promised, Zielinski declined to comment. Multiple sources have indicated a key component of securing the votes of Zielinski, Donovan and Mark Borkowski was Hamilton promising to remove Nik Kovac and Robert Bauman from their committee chairmanships. Both were removed, but are now back. Bauman again chairs the Public Works Committee and Kovac replaced Zielinski as the chair of the Licenses Committee.
Is Tony Zielinski Being Investigated?
When I asked Zielinski what was wrong with a June 22nd Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article that said he was ousted “amid concerns that he pressured business owners for campaign contributions,” the alderman offered a quick response. “Number one, I’ve never pressured anybody for a contribution this is all based on anonymous allegations.” The article reported that “nearly a dozen” sources were in touch with the newspaper regarding Zielinski’s “aggressive fundraising tactics.”
The article claims federal authorities have contacted City Hall officials about Zielinski in the past month, but Zielinski says he knows of no such inquiry: “No one has talked to me. I’m not aware of anyone coming into my office looking for records.”
Asked if he thought the article was part of a political attack on him, Zielinski responded: “obviously.” Multiple sources told Urban Milwaukee the Journal Sentinel article likely came from someone close to the mayor, but his spokesperson Jodie Tabak says that Barrett had no involvement. “The answer is no.”
But Urban Milwaukee has also heard from multiple sources that have been subject to aggressive fundraising tactics from Zielinski. All declined to speak on the record.
The alderman’s campaign finance reports indicate regular use of a Square reader, a mobile credit card processing application. Such technology is not illegal, but does allow fundraisers to easily accept contributions when a checkbook isn’t present.
New fundraising data for the period from January 1st through June 30th will be available by the end of July.
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