Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Should Barrett Worry About Reelection?

Another easy win seems certain. Which may not be so good for Milwaukee.

By - Aug 29th, 2019 10:16 am
Get a daily rundown of the top stories on Urban Milwaukee
Mayor Tom Barrett speaking at the groundbreaking for the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Mayor Tom Barrett speaking at the groundbreaking for the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The last alderman who ran and won for mayor of Milwaukee was Emil Seidel, as a sentinel of the city’s sewer socialist uprising in 1910. That was more than a century ago. Which is to say aldermen aren’t very formidable candidates for mayor. 

And which suggests there’s not much reason for incumbent Mayor Tom Barrett, who began telling supporters he will run for reelection more than a year ago, to worry about his opponents.

Yes, Ald Tony Zielinski is running against Barrett. And maybe Ald. Ashanti Hamilton, though most City Hall insiders doubt it will happen. But council members represent one-fifteenth of the city, a pretty small base of voters and power. Winning candidates for mayor have typically represented a bigger chunk of the city: Barrett (first elected 2004) had previously been a congressman representing at least half of the city, John Norquist (first elected 1988) and Henry Maier (1960) had been state senators, and Daniel Hoan (1916) had been the city attorney. 

And it’s hard for an alderman, who tends to be consumed by constituent issues (garbage pickup, snow removal and the like) to project much leadership on city-wide issues. Hamilton is also council president, which has given him a platform to display some big-picture thinking on city-wide issues, yet he hasn’t distinguished himself all that much from Barrett since filing to run last November. Since then he’s dithered back and forth as to whether he will run, telling my colleague Jeramey Jannene he would announce a decision by early August. We’re still waiting. 

There is a Hamlet quality to Hamilton, an inability to strike the decisive blow. Some say he’s not that happy as a politician and would prefer a different career. (He has a law degree and worked for some years as an MPS teacher.) Whatever the reason for it, Hamilton has done so little to build momentum for a mayoral run in the last 10 months that it’s hard to imagine him doing so in the five months or so before the primary election in February. Some insiders expect him to drop out and simply run again for alderman. 

A poll done last December (and probably paid for by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele), found that in a three-way race Barrett received the support of 42 percent of city residents surveyed, while Zielinski got 23 percent and Hamilton 19 percent, as the Journal Sentinel reported.

The poll also showed 53 percent of people felt Barrett hadn’t done a good enough job of handling problems in the city Health Department versus just 25 percent who felt he had. But all signs suggest the department is greatly improved under the new health commissioner. 

Meanwhile, Barrett had already raised more than $800,000 for his campaign by July and seems likely to hit well more than $1 million, which may add more reason for Hamilton to avoid a run. Zielinski has loaned his campaign $300,000, has $500,000 on hand, and has talked of loaning himself more, but talk is cheap. The December poll found his support was strongest among conservatives, Republicans, south siders and white males, pretty much the same group that supported Ald. Bob Donovan, which got him just 30 percent of the vote against Barrett in 2016. Those kind of numbers might scare a candidate away from spending all his money. 

And if by some chance Zielinski begins to gain any momentum in the race, Barrett’s campaign can reach back to the alderman’s early days as a politician, when he proposed a county study to sell the organs of dead welfare recipients, and promoted ordinances banning coffee for County Jail and House of Correction inmates and requiring them to repay the county for the cost of their room and board while in prison. Not to mention Zielinski’s vote in favor of the infamous county pension plan of 2000 and 2001, which has cost taxpayers $400 million to date. Those are merely some of the highlights, all documented in this Urban Milwaukee story from 2014.

The wild card in the race is State Sen Lena Taylor, who ran for county executive back in 2008 and whose state senate seat encompasses a large chunk of the city. Taylor doesn’t like Barrett and has been telling people she intends to run, but has yet to announce her candidacy — or raise any money. Weirdly, the only attempt to raise money for her has been by a group she has disavowed, as Urban Milwaukee reported yesterday.

Adding more weirdness is Taylor’s controversial style, which has antagonized both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature. Her astounding press conference back in May 2018, where she attacked a long list of politicians and groups, does not seem like fertile ground upon which to grow a campaign for mayor.

The only possible obstacle for Barrett would be if Abele decides to bankroll a candidate against the mayor, but a Barrett campaign insider tells me Abele’s campaign has promised that won’t happen. In short, I don’t see any reason for Barrett to fear any of these potential candidates or any scenario whereby he doesn’t win again in a walk.

Which is too bad. The city is too important and Barrett has served too long to not have a real electoral battle with a fierce debate of the issues and a real choice for voters. 

Milwaukee has been a city where mayors tend to serve a long time: Maier for 28 years, Hoan for 24, John Norquist for 16, Frank Zeidler for 12 (and he would have kept winning if he hadn’t decided to resign). If Barrett is reelected, he will have served for 20 years. 

Norquist once told me that he thought city’s political culture “started to dry up” because Maier served so long as mayor. Cities at their best are dynamic entities driven by a ferment of ideas, and that’s less likely to happen if you have the same leader for too long. 

It’s not that Barrett’s been a bad mayor. I think he’s been pretty good. And there are many positive things happening in the city, along with significant problems. “It’s a tale of two cities,” says Democratic state Rep. Daniel Riemer, whose south side district is mostly city based. “Milwaukee generates a lot of wealth. But it also has deep poverty.” Riemer doesn’t foresee any area politician of his generation rising to run against Barrett this time around. 

And really, that’s what Milwaukee could use, a fresh-faced Millennial politician willing to take on Barrett. After 16 years under the same leader, Milwaukee would benefit greatly from some fresh eyes, a fresh voice on where the city needs to go. Instead we seem likely to see a dispiriting debate between Barrett, who turns 66 in December, and Zielinski, 58, that may be more about the latter’s lackluster past than the city’s future. It’s a dismal scene to contemplate. 

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

2 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Should Barrett Worry About Reelection?”

  1. Thomas Martinsen says:

    I agree that Barrett has been “a pretty good mayor.” “Pretty good” is okay with me in contrast with abysmal state senate leadership, terrible leadership in the U.S. Senate, a president so far from any sort of good …

  2. Lee Bitts says:

    “And really, that’s what Milwaukee could use, a fresh-faced Millennial politician willing to take on Barrett.”

    Are there any Millennials out there who might be interested??

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us