Milwaukee is fortunate to have a person of Tom Barrett’s character and commitment leading the city.
“I love this job,” Barrett told WiG. “I love being the chief cheerleader for the city. Every day I get up thinking, ‘How will I make this a better city?’”
We believe him. With gratitude for all that he’s done for Milwaukee and the state, we heartily endorse Barrett for another term as mayor.
Perhaps his greatest strength is his ability to maintain a sense of confidence that is attracting new business and development activity. Unlike so many other elected officials in these turbulent times, Barrett is a unifier. His personal warmth and optimism are a balm for a city that has more than its share of challenges.
Development and jobs
We believe that Barrett’s strategic re-envisioning of Milwaukee — as demonstrated by the Northwestern Mutual Tower, the downtown streetcar line, and many other projects — is moving the city in the right direction. He’s not a showy person, and his efforts and successes often fly beneath the average resident’s radar.
But Milwaukee is not a showy place, and its residents don’t always embrace change. He’s a perfect fit, getting things done without stirring up the kind of vicious rhetoric we’re seeing in other political races this year.
Barrett has spearheaded successful efforts to expand downtown development and attract new jobs. Barrett has been instrumental in driving downtown’s incredible transformation. He’s the best ambassador the city could have for bringing in new businesses and helping existing ones to expand. His longevity on the job, his knowledge of the city, and his relationships with key players have made all the difference at raising investors’ confidence in Milwaukee.
Barrett says one of the proudest achievements of his current term is that more Milwaukeeans had jobs at the end of 2015 than during any other year since 2001.
The mayor’s office paved the way for the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons, which will bring hundreds of new jobs to the city. The $450 million spent to build the project came with a guarantee that unemployed and underemployed Milwaukeeans will work 40 percent of the hours at the construction site.
Under the Northwestern Mutual and Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership, 355 Milwaukee residents from underserved, low-income neighborhoods are working or have worked on the construction project, performing jobs in 21 trades, according to a press release last month from the mayor’s office. Thousands more people are in the partnership’s pipeline. In addition, about $105 million from the project’s budget will go to small area businesses.
New downtown residential developments include provisions for providing a certain percentage of low-income housing. Barrett has been at the forefront in negotiating such deals. Barrett also is working to create a new industrial zone on the north side.
Barrett helped to create the Milwaukee 7, which is a regional, bipartisan economic development collaboration among the seven counties of southeastern Wisconsin that has created and retained 5,700 jobs across the region.
While we differed with the mayor over details of the new Bucks arena project, he says that he looked it as “a $500 million public works project paid for by $250 million of private money.” Despite our reservations, we have faith that Barrett has reasons to believe it will be a great boon to the local economy, and we hope he proves us wrong. Still, we never questioned his integrity with regard to the deal, and while that should be a given for an American mayor, we have seen far too often that it isn’t.
Poverty and crime
As mayor, Barrett takes a lot of hits for the city’s poverty, racism, and crime — seemingly intractable problems that are his most frustrating concerns. “A mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child,” he said.
In fact, the entire state is suffering, both from the nationwide downturn in manufacturing jobs and the destructive economic policy of the state’s Republican leaders and their bias against Wisconsin’s largest city. The state hit its highest poverty level in 30 years from 2010 to 2014.
The mayor acknowledges that much more needs to be done to address the city’s dismal record on poverty and racism. To a large degree, Republican leaders in Madison have tied his hands on investing in new neighborhood programs. In 2009, Milwaukee got back 106 percent of the revenue it generated for the state. Under Walker and his cronies, the state now returns only about 86 percent of its revenue.
Shared revenue once covered both the city’s police and fire departments. Now it doesn’t even cover the police budget.
But Barrett hasn’t given up trying to address the city’s worst problems, and local leaders throughout the city have a good relationship with him.
Under Barrett’s leadership, Milwaukee won the White House’s Healthy Communities Challenge, a contest among 20 cities to enroll people in health plans sold on the marketplaces set up through the Affordable Care Act. President Obama came to town in person to deliver the award.
Barrett also has a strong, cooperative working relationship with the Milwaukee Police Department. Crime in pockets of the city remains unacceptably high, but Barrett said he’s given MPD the resources and leadership it needs to get the job done. Violent crime in Milwaukee has decreased by 20 percent over the past two years, and homicides are at the lowest levels in more than 20 years.
During the horrible police shootings of unarmed black men last year, Barrett was a responsive and unifying presence.
The company they keep …
Tom Barrett was one of the first mayors to endorse President Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007, and Obama has returned the favor, endorsing Barrett for re-election this year. Most major labor unions and prominent elected officials in Milwaukee have also endorsed him in the race.
In contrast, Ald. Bob Donovan — Barrett’s opponent — has been endorsed by whacko Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.
Donovan, who represents the 8th District on the city’s south side, is in many ways Barrett’s polar opposite. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin accurately summed him up in a press release as “someone with Scott Walker’s ideas and Donald Trump’s erratic behavior.”
On March 14, Donovan walked out of an endorsement interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel because he objected to the presence of Daniel Bice, the newspaper’s “gotcha” columnist. Bice had recently brought up Donovan’s 1992 citation for disorderly conduct stemming from his behavior in a UW-Milwaukee men’s room. Donovan denies having behaved lewdly but his explanation strains credibility.
Also according to Bice, Donovan paid a $2,500 fine in 2005 related to his financial ties to a nonprofit group at which Donovan’s wife worked. Recently, Donovan hired a man convicted of “theft-related charges” as his campaign’s social media director.
The south side alderman made an initial splash in the media last year for leading the charge against the construction of the downtown streetcar line, which Barrett strongly supports. Donovan calculated that opposition to the streetcar — a project that has come under fire from, among others, a local Koch-backed group — would give him an issue on which he could run for mayor. He was right, but he doesn’t seem to have much else.
With the wrong kind of leader, Milwaukee could be sliding into the chaos that has plagued similar cities in recent years. WiG urges Milwaukeeans to avoid that outcome and embrace a promising future by re-electing Tom Barrett as mayor.
(Full disclosure: WiG Publishing president and CEO Leonard Sobczak serves on Mayor Tom Barrett’s campaign finance committee.)