Freshman rep aims to change Milwaukee's image

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Evan Goyke, right, speaks with a voter during his primary race. - Photo: Goyke for Assembly

Assembly District 18 encompasses an economically struggling, relatively low-profile area on Milwaukee’s North Side. It’s not home to a wealthy population, important landmarks or major businesses and industry. Most of its residents are just getting by, and some are not even managing that.

Despite the district’s humble status, when Tamara Grigsby decided to retire as its representative to deal with health problems, eight Democratic candidates entered the primary race to succeed her. But not even the large number of candidates inspired voters to show up at the polls. Turnout was a dismal 13 percent, perhaps reflecting the general sense of hopelessness felt by many inner city dwellers.

Still, one candidate generated a great deal of excitement. Evan Goyke, a 29-year-old assistant state public defender, received 37 percent of the vote by running a sophisticated and impassioned campaign that included not only knocking on hundreds of doors but also sending handwritten thank-you notes to everyone who answered.

“I worked harder,” Goyke said.

His big win, coupled with his political pedigree, made him an instant rising star in Wisconsin’s progressive movement. His parents are former state Sen. Gary Goyke and Nancy Rottier, who served as legislative liaison under former Gov. Jim Doyle. Both are active – and widely respected – in the state’s progressive community.

It’s not surprising that Goyke wound up in politics. He grew up with a bust of Robert Kennedy on the television set in the family’s living room in Madison, he said. Family dinner conversations centered on progressive philosophy and politics.

At 18, Goyke attended the Wisconsin Democratic Convention in Stevens Point. It was the year that Doyle, Tom Barrett and Kathleen Falk were vying for the party’s gubernatorial nomination, and the experience convinced Goyke that he would some day run for office.

“That process of meeting (the candidates) and seeing the party’s energy and its movement solidified my resolve to run,” he said. “When I saw behind the curtain, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

But Goyke’s path to the ballot was not a straight line. After graduating from St. John’s University in Minnesota, he embarked on a four-month world tour with savings he’d accrued from part-time jobs. He began Marquette University Law School in 2006 and took a job as a public defender after graduation.

Living in the area and working in the public defender’s office convinced him that people on the North Side were in need. “I was exposed to what the real world is,” Goyke said, “and it really changed my perspective.”

Among his new experiences was being robbed at knife point on Wisconsin Avenue. While that might have discouraged most people from moving to the neighborhood, it only increased Goyke’s resolve.

After graduation, he decided to make the area his home, believing he could influence change there by becoming part of the community. In effect, he incorporated the concepts of diversity and urban renewal into his personal life.

Last year, Goyke solidified his commitment to the area by purchasing a 5,500-square-foot Victorian home in Historic Concordia. The neighborhood is something of a mishmash that includes blighted streets of boarded-up homes as well as tidy blocks that are lovingly tended by area homeowners, neighborhood associations and churches.

For much of the past century, the trajectory of Historic Concordia has been straight down. The opulent Victorian homes where Milwaukee’s beer barons once lived in luxury now stand in dusty desuetude, their gilded past barely visible.

“One of the things about this neighborhood is there’s nowhere to go but up,” Goyke said.

Goyke’s home, which he shares with his girlfriend, a law student at Marquette, embodies the area’s rich history and decline. Originally a single-family home, it was converted to a boarding house in the 1950s or ’60s. Each of the bedrooms still has a doorbell and an individual gas hook-up. 

A previous owner renovated the kitchen and built a four-car garage. But a lot of remodeling remains to restore the home’s original grandeur and add modern functionality. Goyke estimates that he faces a decade-long project to get the building where he wants it to be. In the meantime, he has plunged into neighborhood life, volunteering with a local church to remove trash from the streets and trying to recruit new homeowners into the area. 

His engagement in the life of the community brought him visibility that paid off at the polls. Goyke’s Democratic rivals in AD 18 included three other whites, three African Americans, one Native American. Three of the candidates were women. But defying identity politics to some degree, Goyke, who is white, won a majority not only in the predominantly white wards of Washington Heights and Story Hill, but in 12 primarily African-American wards as well.

The diversity that he embraced in moving to the district more or less embraced him back. 

As a freshman lawmaker in the minority party, Goyke acknowledges that his impact during the next legislative session will be muted, Goyke acknowledged. But he hopes that he and his newly elected freshmen progressive colleagues from Milwaukee – Mandela Barnes and Danny Reimer, both 25 – will bring new energy to the Democratic Party. All three, he said, are determined to improve the negative perceptions about Milwaukee at the Capitol.

“I really like the people I’m going to serve with in the Milwaukee caucus, and I think we’re going to be so much more united than the city’s representatives have been in the past,” Goyke said. 

High on Goyke’s list of legislative priorities is changing the criminal justice system to reduce prison populations and the harm that locking up large numbers of people for low-level crimes has on families and communities.

Grigsby was one of the Legislature’s most committed public transportation advocates, and Goyke intends to take up that mantle. He’ll also focus on public education, and he plans to introduce measures to support urban farming, including offering subsidies to urban farmers, he said. This would create new jobs in the city while making productive use of empty areas, he explained.

“I have a dozen pieces of legislation floating around in my head,” he said. “Call me a wide-eyed optimist, but I think we can go pretty far. I don’t think anyone should take office with the idea we aren’t going to get anything done. Some of the ideas that came out on the campaign trail deserve to be heard.”

One of Goyke’s major goals will not be achieved at the Capitol but by reaching out to individuals in areas of the state where people have a distorted view of Milwaukee as a crime-ridden, rust-belt city. As someone who shares a cultural background with rural white Wisconsinites, he believes he can get through to them and
change their views of his hometown.

“Part of my agenda is to rebrand Milwaukee,” he said. “We’re so easily the scapegoat and so easily put aside. I get to stand up as a fresh voice and say, ‘You got it wrong. Just come to my house and meet my neighbors.’”