Urban Theorist As Mayor: Secrets of a ‘fiscally conservative socialist’
John O. Norquist
Mayor, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Anyone who has sat through one of Milwaukee Mayor John O. Norquist's New Urbanist slide shows knows that he is one of America's most interesting and provocative urban theorists. What might surprise them is that, as a mayor, he is also among the best practitioners. In his presentations, Norquist seems too blunt and sarcastic to be able to successfully navigate the minefield of ever-aggrieved big-city constituencies. He holds strong views not only on urban design but also on education, welfare, free trade, federal assistance and even on the role of government. Most of these opinions, it is worth noting, are not widely held among his peers.
Norquist has been called, not unadmiringly, a "fiscally conservative socialist," a description that is about as accurate as any for his iconoclastic politics. Although a Democrat and a social liberal, he blasts the federal role in urban policy as misguided at best, and rails against "tin-cup federalism." He is a strong supporter of mass transit — and in particular, light rail — who has reduced the property-tax rate every year since he was first elected in 1988. Annual city budget increases have been kept at or under the rate of inflation.
Norquist's most conspicuous departure from big-city liberalism is on education issues. Norquist is a strong advocate of school choice; his criticism of the "public-school monopoly" and his support for vouchers — even for use in religious schools — puts him at odds with the education establishment. Illiteracy, he contends, is a far worse threat to kids than religion.
That stand and his efforts to rein in police benefits have earned him the enmity of public employees' unions. "He has poked at all the constituencies. They may be grumpy at times, but the tax rate is going down, government costs are going down, the garbage gets picked up, the snow gets plowed, he's putting cops on the street and the city is not going broke," says David Meissner, executive director of the Public Policy Forum, a Milwaukee-based good-government watchdog. "He's tried to change the whole concept of how to look at the urban environment."
Part of the change Norquist advocates is directed at the physical environs of cities. These days, few dispute the argument that high-speed, limited-access highways carved through the middle of cities have been pointlessly destructive. Norquist would actually like to see some of them torn down, and he insists the feds need to make it easier for like-minded cities to do so. "The tendency of freeways to disperse people works directly against the natural advantage of cities," Norquist explains in his recent book, "The Wealth of Cities." In Milwaukee, plans to replace a local freeway with a boulevard are on the drawing board, and the city is exploring the idea of demolishing a nearby interstate highway.
Another institution working against the best interests of cities, Norquist argues, is zoning codes, which he says are no longer city- or pedestrian-friendly enough. In his slide show, Norquist advances his case by juxtaposing pictures of traditional urban design with unsightly suburban sprawl. "The urban form can work, and people will choose it," Norquist tells audiences, "but it will die if people don't recreate it."
Revamping municipal governance is Norquist's other venture in altering the urban environment. A pioneer in virtually all of the major governmental management reforms of the past decade, from performance budgeting to quality management to competitive contracting, Norquist has won nearly as much praise for administrative efficiency as for his ideas on the design of cities. "John will be credited with having a consistent sense of fiscal responsibility and for establishing a strategic budget and planning process that's truly policy-driven," says Meissner. "He runs a good city."
— Charles Mahtesian
Photo by Thomas Fritz