Milwaukee's Problems Leave Longtime Mayor Vulnerable

Most of the city's problems, the mayor argues, are out of his control. Will voters blame and oust him anyways?
by | January 20, 2016
Tom Barrett takes the stage after calling Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to congratulate him on winning the recall election. (Gary Porter/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)

Milwaukee has some real problems. The number of homicides increased 69 percent last year to 145, the highest number in more than a decade. It's the fifth poorest big city in the country, with 29 percent of its residents living in poverty -- nearly double the national average.

For those reasons, along with complaints about racial disparities in unemployment, health and education, Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett appears vulnerable as he seeks a fourth term. Still, most political observers in the Wisconsin city would be surprised if Barrett, who was first elected in 2004 and has run two unsuccessful campaigns for governor against the incumbent Scott Walker, ends up losing office.

Barrett faces a total of six challengers in the Feb. 16 primary, including two aldermen, Joe Davis and Bob Donovan. The top two candidates in the nonpartisan race will compete in the April general election. 

Davis and Donovan both announced their candidacies back in 2014, but each has been slow to launch a full-scale campaign. They've criticized Barrett extensively but haven't done much to define their own platforms. Barrett started the year with $810,000 stocked in his campaign treasury, compared with just $25,000 apiece for Davis and Donovan.

"The mayor's certainly not taking anything for granted," said Thad Nation, a political consultant in Milwaukee. "But I don't think anybody here sees them as very serious challengers."

Barrett argues that the city has been battered by forces beyond his control, such as the recession and a state government that's put roadblocks in Milwaukee's path. The state, for example, blocked funding for a streetcar line and eliminated the city's residency requirements for police and firefighters. (That state law, however, was thrown out by the state court of appeals last summer.)

Barrett boasts that Milwaukee is now on the rise, with some $5 billion worth of downtown development over the past decade and another $2 billion worth of projects in the pipeline.

"The city has made huge strides during the mayor's tenure," said Patrick Guarasci, a senior adviser to the Barrett campaign. "We're interested in explaining to the city of Milwaukee why the decisions he has made have set up the city for long-term success."

Some numbers do look good. Barrett has kept property taxes under control while increasing spending on police nearly 40 percent. Although the alarming number of homicides can't be dismissed, property crime has come down and the number of teen pregnancies have been cut in half since 2006.

"Tom Barrett is more the low-key, fiscally-prudent manager who’s tried to build strong, enduring systems in every part of city government," wrote Bruce Murphy, editor of the online news site Urban Milwaukee. "Year by year, in an incremental fashion, the Barrett administration has been steadily working and generally succeeding at making this a better city."

But not everyone's fortunes have been rising.

Downtown may be seeing the most activity in a generation, but many people in Milwaukee are mired in despair. A Brookings Institution study in 2014 showed that income inequality grew more in Milwaukee than in all but five other large U.S. cities from 2007 to 2012. Citywide, 42 percent of children are living in poverty.

Police and firefighters also aren't on Barrett's side. The police union has endorsed Donovan, while the firefighters' union is backing Davis.

"Over the course of the last 12 budget cycles, he has systematically reduced frontline staffing every single budget year," complained Dave Seager, president of the Milwaukee Professional Firefighters Association.

Both Davis and Donovan are reaching out to particular blocs of dissatisfied voters. Davis enjoys support among black voters, while Donovan has attracted more supporters from the conservative white precincts. So far at least, there's no evidence that either will be able to create a large enough coalition of Barrett skeptics to defeat him.

"If Barrett's judged by how he's managed the city, I think he'd have to be given a passing grade -- even by his opponents," said Mordecai Lee, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Barrett won more than 70 percent of the vote in both of his previous re-election bids. But even if he wins this time, he's unlikely to get such strong support again.

"All it takes is one good snowstorm or one horrible crime," Lee said, "and all of a sudden public opinion could suddenly change."