Milwaukee Notes


Now that the Democratic mayor of Wisconsin's largest city is battling in the governor's race with the Republican administrator of his city's own county, several thousand city and county employees, as well as dozens of elected officials, face an unusual situation.

Those who work for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and for Milwaukee Co. Exec. Scott Walker know one of their bosses could become governor, provided Walker wins the GOP primary against Mark Neumann, who has also announced his candidacy to succeed Gov. Jim Doyle.

And local elected officials know that overlapping issues are more likely than ever to become politicized or scrutinized.

County supervisors say they're already seeing a negative effect even though city and county department heads pledge to continue working on joint day-to-day issues and special projects, while trying to stay neutral. Barrett and Walker will need to appear unified at times, such as at Thursday evening's joint event to light the community Christmas tree at a county-run park located in the city.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Lynne De Bruin foresees what she calls "partisanization" of local issues.

"Where the city and county mainly work together are on the day-to-day things," she said. "In a situation like this, where the city's mayor and the county executive are running against each other for the same office, as a local elected official, I would really be trying to watch to see if either party was trying to politicize those day-to-day functions."

De Bruin says she's already seen issues stalled because of conflict between Walker and Barrett.

"One of the big times it happened was the $91 million in federal money set aside for years to use for mass transit," she said. "The federal government's been waiting for agreement between the governor, the county executive and the mayor on how to spend that, and the executives could not come to an agreement and eventually, the federal government decided to split it actually more in the city's favor. Because those three couldn't agree, we had this money sitting for years and years. The legislative and the executive branches should have been working together and they didn't."

She said another big issue was a referendum on a 1 percent sales tax boost for parks and transit.

"I think it would have been better if the people who supported this revenue source actually worked together because then there'd be a united voice. I voted against it, but as a political observer, it did hurt that cause moving forward that the mayor and the members of the County Board who were supporting it did not speak with one unified voice,'' said De Bruin. "Those who supported it still do not have this in place."

De Bruin said such conflicts might not always be initiated by Walker and Barrett themselves.

Referring to the state's decision in February to strip Milwaukee County of its role in administering food aid, child care and medical assistance programs, including the county's public call center, De Bruin said most board members believe a wish to embarrass Walker was behind the move.

State officials have said the decision was made in response to the county's poor performance, including failure to answer calls from the public and delaying or denying benefits to a substantial percentage of deserving applicants.

But Walker has been critical of the move amid continuing problems under state control.

County Supervisor Patricia Jursik agrees the governor's race is affecting local politics.

"A lot of us working on the county budget, we're getting so much political pressure that we don't normally get during budget," said Jursik. "I understand this is a recession and it's a difficult budget, but even that being said, there is clearly some political posturing going on with the budget in the fact that we have a county executive that's running for governor. It clearly has affected the budget process. It's gotten so much more political and adversarial, rather than trying to work together on behalf of the best interests of our county, which is upsetting to me.

"I don't think anyone's going to be going forward with any major new initiatives at this point. That's for sure," Jursik predicted.

Jursik and De Bruin speculated that county and city staff would be feeling more pressure during the gubernatorial campaign.

"As a department head, they have a department to run, and just the day-to-day administration, you hope it's not political," Jursik said. "The closer we get to this governor race and the primaries and so on, you start to question any decision making. Is it political, or is he really doing his administrative job?"

De Bruin said, "Departmental staff will have to be cognizant of what they're saying and the decisions they're making ... department heads, of course, now are going to be worried about things they're saying, you know, will it make their boss look good or bad, in the context of the race?"

But city and county department heads interviewed are optimistic they can remain out of the fray.

Sue Black, Milwaukee County's Parks director, who frequently works with city of Milwaukee staff, said the relationship is collaborative and she doesn't expect the campaign to change that.

"We work with so many different departments on different levels. We just keep working for the good of the community," she said.

"I've been doing this for 25 years and worked for three different governors in different states and cities and mayors and all of that. If you're doing the right thing, you just keep working and let the political process work as it should, (while) giving my best product to the taxpayers. Seriously, I mean it."

Jeffrey Mantes, Commissioner of Public Works for the city of Milwaukee, said, "We've always had a good working relationship with Milwaukee County's Department of Public Works, and I don't expect that to change at all. Certainly, our bosses have different political views, but in general, I think our goals are still all the same, and that's still providing citizens with services we provide, such as snow and ice controls, leaves, water, transit and all that."

Mantes predicts that rail transit will be a heated issue during the campaign.

"It's no secret that County Executive Walker is not a rail fan, while Mayor Barrett is a rail fan," he said.

Mantes, who has worked for the city since 1977, when Henry Maier was mayor, says he has talked with his staff about focusing on day-to-day services during the gubernatorial campaign, but hasn't issued any formal guidelines on the matter.

"We need to keep the city and the county running, and that's not going to change because our two leaders are seeking the governorship," Mantes said. "We're here to keep the city open for business and running smoothly, and we're going to continue to do that during the race."

While he cites "fairly productive" cooperation on homelessness, Milwaukee Ald. Michael Murphy predicts a contentious campaign.

"The county executive is certainly supportive of dismantling the county, in terms of turning over some of their services to other municipalities," Murphy said. "That, I think, may be a very hot political topic. Another issue that will crop up during the campaign is the development of the Park East area. The county executive recently put money into his budget -- $400,000 to set up an economic development team, which they haven't had in many years; and certainly, jobs will be an issue during the campaign."

Currently the longest-serving alderman, Murphy has seen turnover in both mayors and county executives, but says this is a unique situation.

"In the past, it's generally been a Democratic county executive, so they usually have supported the party," he said.

This time, he says, "I think the county executive's going to run a campaign where he tries to distance himself as much as he possibly can from Milwaukee, even though he is the Milwaukee County executive, which is not a good sign for the city and the future.

"I saw him on the news the other night -- and this is the first time I heard him say this -- he said, 'I grew up in Delavan,' He never said that when he was running for county executive. It's like, 'I'm not really from Milwaukee County, I'm from Delavan. I'm one of you, not one of those terrible Milwaukee County, Milwaukee city people.' Which isn't a good sign for the city, to be running on 'Milwaukee's this big, bad ... terrible people here,' which is ridiculous, but it seems to sell."

De Bruin, the county supervisor, said one positive aspect to having Milwaukee candidates from both parties in the governor's race is that it might neutralize the perceived "anti-Milwaukee bias" among voters statewide. At the same time, she hopes Milwaukee-area issues won't suffer.

"They're certainly both qualified to run; I'm not opposed to it," De Bruin said. "I just realize that there are some ramifications that we've got to try to avoid, and I just hope that the state Legislature and the governor are willing try to work around that issue as the campaign goes on. I think I have enough belief that those individuals running don't really want the city or the county to get hurt by that, but at the same time, they are in a campaign."

-- By Kay Nolan
For Milwaukee Notes

MKEpolitics Weekly
Milwaukee, WI

--Compiled by WisPolitics Staff

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