|In 2017 Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett delivered yet another|
well accepted state of the city speech
His personal bravery – demonstrated in a famous 2009 incident outside State Fair – has been combined in public life by a caution that some interpret as cowardice and others as a habit of reflection from a lifetime of political realities.
Some of Barrett’s problems may be self-inflicted but much of it has to do with a growing attitude in society that progressives have to be extreme to be taken seriously. Over the years as an opinion journalist I have taken Barrett to task on moments of what he would call political balance and I criticized as trying to please too many sides at once.
Those moments have now led to something I think ugly and even despicable – an unfair depiction of his methods and skilled service.
Nowhere was this clearer to me than in the recent concern about language changes in immigration policy imposed by a skittish city attorney and quietly agreed to by the Fire and Police Commission without the due process of asking the immigrant community first, particularly the outspoken advocates of Voces de la Frontera.
It should be worth noting that while Barrett along with police chief Ed Flynn was savaged for these changes, since reversed, there was never any evidence of initiation. Barrett never wavered in his support of the immigration community and even applauded the change back in language.
The real history here seems that the independently elected city attorney, frightened by how Trump AG Jeff Session had been moving harshly against sanctuary cities and independent local policing, wanted to put belt and suspenders on city policy – and never understood how stridently immigration defenders would react to any change in language, a reaction I found understandable.
Barrett was victimized in the public mind as weakening on defense of immigrants, though he remained an outspoken articulate leader on immigration causes. Privately he seems to understand that, while the reaction may seem hysterical to outsiders, if you live in the immigration community and are aware of how remorseless the Trump administration can appear, a little paranoia doesn’t mean Sessions isn’t out to get you.
But no question, there is a history of Barrett talking one way but then not speaking out for the principles he subscribed to in the minds of constituencies that had supported him. That certainly influences the reaction to current events. Much of this may be his way of operating but it has seemed to me in the past that voucher school advocates and building contractors have been pretty good at picking the mayor’s pocket whatever principles he thinks he stands for.
Some examples. Barrett made a major error in my opinion in seeking control of Milwaukee public schools eight years ago, taking his cue from Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle without recognizing how ferociously the city felt about local citizen control -- even if the voters didn’t always turn out in big numbers for MPS board elections.
Both Doyle and Barrett, either knowingly or not, were reacting to outside privatization and business interest pressures, where Barrett often doesn’t find the right point of balance. Neither, of course, do many of his current critics.
His vacillation here, much like County Executive Abele’s more recently, speaks to a confusion about education policy that the community itself has had difficulty deciphering. What do you do with programs that are popular with parents but may actually be hurting children’s education?
Similarly, in 2008 when Milwaukee voters overwhelming supported a modest paid sick leave ordinance, Mayor Barrett joined the business community in opposing it, even using their argument that “voters just want free stuff” and such a law would isolate the city with higher standards than hungry business-stealing suburbs. His opposition shortly brought a state law under Gov. Scott Walker preventing any policy stronger than the state’s – while around the country, my contrary argument was winning. The city passed up the chance to be an oasis of good corporate citizenship.
When he was elected mayor in 2004, Barrett was actually riding some high regard in the black community. It traced back to his excellent service in Congress and his refusal in 2002 to primary fellow Democrat Jerry Kletzka when Milwaukee lost a congressional seat in the 2000 census. Since Kletzka was from the whiter south side, Barrett support was vital in the black community.
Handing his district over to Kletzka was a moving ceremony in 2002 when Barrett invited his good friend, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, to speak at the Black Holocaust Museum and join hands with him, Kletzka and many noted local names such Marvin Pratt in a march to the Martin Luther King statue.
|In 2002 newbie David Clarke was|
sucking up to the Democrats.
Later that year, Barrett lost a primary bid for governor, coming in second behind Doyle and ahead of Kathleen Falk – a race he ran well but may have lost because of that lingering outside resistance in Wisconsin to anyone from Milwaukee, even anyone clearly accomplished.
|A mustachioed Barrett campaigning for mayor at a 2003 gathering.|
The myth that blacks are better for blacks and Latinos are better for Latinos regardless of ability dies hard. Barrett’s early support for Obama, his record of fighting for civil rights, his refusal to be cowed on immigration rights, his ability against odds to pass important legislation, all seem to count for little.
I also recall interviewing Frank Zeidler before his death. The last Milwaukee Socialist mayor emphasized that city government was an ongoing tale of a strong common council (by law) and a weaker mayor. So reporters should be better than the public in differentiating who is responsible for what – and which camp is making the most mischief.
The best and most amusing criticism I ever heard of Barrett came years ago in an inner city church after the mayor bravely faced down critics and the Rev. Willie Brisco, leader of MICAH, took the lectern. “I love Tom Barrett,” he said, comparing him to a “great kid” at shortstop he played pickup baseball with in his youth. “Wonderful guy,” Brisco said, before laying down the stinger. “But he couldn’t pick a ball.”
Brisco was describing the difference between what Barrett said and what he did. But note he was speaking after Barrett, overriding his own advisers, openly defended his actions before a hostile audience.
|Barrett speaking in 2006 at labor's Mourn for the Dead|
annual event at then named Zeidler Union Square Park.
The GOP delays in the streetcar have gone on for decades and have cost both the inner city and the east side the expansions planned long ago, again demonstrating how these anti-transit and anti-community forces have set Milwaukee and Wisconsin back generations.
A lot people still take the statewide Democratic losses out on Barrett. Perhaps the party should have moved more rapidly to younger standard bearers. Perhaps the electorate should have woken up harder and faster.
But even in 2002, many think in terms of administrative skill, caring nature and personality he would have made a better governor than Doyle. Who can doubt that even his multiple losses to Walker cost the state far more than it did Barrett? Who today thinks Mary Burke was a candidate improvement on Barrett?
The latest bizarre efforts to recall Barrett brought immediately to my mind the curious mixture of right wing money organizers and left-wing agitation behind the Swanigan effort against DA John Chisholm, again much of the same tired racial simplicities that have injured city politics before and clearly will again.
Even as in Pratt’s time, there is new evidence that political critics circling City Hall are willing to make deals on the left and the right, with workers and corporations, with big suburban money and street agitators – while hypocritically criticizing Barrett for his compromises.
They are now engaged secretly in areas Mayor Tom was at least honest about.