Mayor Tom Barrett with a citizen at his office in City Hall.
by Yolanda White
We were just eleven months into the “recession.” (Bureau of Labor Statistics) Earthquakes rocked and re-rocked Pakistan. Barak Obama became the first black president of these “United States.” And according to the Website, Milwaukee Renaissance, 79 people had been murdered/killed in our city that year, by the end of November 2008 (69 people so far for this year, the website also reported).
I had the privilege of querying our Mayor, Tom Barrett. I promised him I’d take less than five minutes. He obliged me and Three Minutes with the Mayor, a Q & A, was published in the Milwaukee Community Journal (MCJ). Since that time much has happened and is happening in our city and so, I approached the Mayor yet again. He and his office obliged me again. And so, here is A Few More Minutes with the Mayor.
I see you personally, often in the community. Why is it important to you to be so visible, so approachable?
The fact that I am truly a “people person” is part of it and I feel that I can be more representative of the people if I get to know about people’s lives. To know, in an unfiltered matter, like at the Community Brainstorming Breakfasts.
Recently, I went out to Westlawn where they built a new play ground around 67th and Sliver Spring. Hundreds of kids were there. Afterward, I stopped at Kitts on 70th and Capital because I wanted an ice cream cone. I asked another customer, what their take was on the video of the young man who died in the back of a police car, on video? And they gave me their honest (unfiltered) reaction and for me that’s very important. I don’t want people to view me as unapproachable.
I’m usually open for good conversation about the little and more importantly, the big things that matter in the community. I care about the community. I think back to a saying my mother used, “A mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child.” And as a mayor there are things I need to know, the good and bad things in the city. Things we should keep and things we should not.
There were political ruminations about Madison and Milwaukee, and their commitment to “playing better in the sand” after the re-race for Governor of Wisconsin. How’s that going?
Politically it’s easy in the state of Wisconsin to talk badly about Milwaukee, and to score political points by talks about Milwaukee. The reality is that for certain reasons, whatever they may be; Milwaukee does have the highest rates for unemployment, especially people of color, and people with physical challenges.
We don’t turn people away and we have more diversity, and for people who are outside of those groups it’s easier to badly talk about one of those things. I have gone out of my way as Mayor to let Milwaukee people know that I wouldn’t just throw Milwaukee, or it’s people, under the bus, especially when I was running state wide – just to score political points. Others are more willing to do that. That’s probably a reason why I didn’t win, but that’s life.
They say good leaders inspire people, not command them to change. How do you hope/plan to inspire this city in the near future?
I’m not a heavy-handed leader. I try to lead more by example and listen.But I’ve had people say that I listen too much. They view it as a sign of being unsure. I listen because I want to know.
Your top three songs…
“Cupid Shuffle” (Cupid), “Thunder Road” (Bruce Springsteen) and “You Are So Beautiful” (Joe Cocker)
If you were told tomorrow you had to be on a new TV Reality Show “Mayor Swap” and swap cities with another Mayor (and you can’t stay in Milwaukee), what city would you choose to be the Mayor of and why?
I like it here. My roots are here. I was thinking about that, this morning as I jogged. I’m a Milwaukee guy.
As a child I lived on 40th and Capitol and remember driving around with my dad and seeing multiple car frames (A.O. Smith) that looked to me back then, like a combination of Tonka Trucks and Lincoln Longs.
I didn’t realize at the time that there were a lot of people, including African-Americans, who had good family supporting jobs in the area. As time passed, those rows gradually got smaller and smaller until it all disappeared. A.O. Smith sold to Tower Automotive then, shortly after, Tower Automotive shut down.
I remember when Tower closed, there was a man who had worked there since 1964 and he had come here from Mississippi because his dad told him there were so many jobs in this town. So he came here. Back in those days, if you didn’t like your job you could quit and find a new one and get hired same day, second shift.
This was especially true for factory jobs, Brewery jobs, etc. You could support your family. If you had a strong back and a good alarm clock, you could get a good family-supporting job – which means this, Milwaukee was full of jobs and hard working people willing to work.
As recently as 1970 Milwaukee had the highest per capita income, because of jobs at Master Lock, Miller Brewery, Harley Davison. But now the city is investing (or re-investing) millions of dollars to bring that back — dollars from the State of Wisconsin and from the Federal Government. Consider the Menomonee Valley Industrial Park. It is thriving.
We won’t necessarily replicate it in Milwaukee on 30th Street. Crime is an issue and plays a big role in trying to get investors to invest. We have to deal with poverty and public safety issues. Some businesses just won’t move in an African-American dominated neighborhood.
This is an issue and the objective is for us to deal with that head on! Of course, it would be better to have businesses closer to the area where the most people need jobs.
Your right hand security man is an African-American man. I think that demonstrates some degree of personal integrity, empathy and action, regarding the unemployment “numbers” above. Others disagree with me. What is it like to have every action, move and reaction scrutinized and discussed in the public? What keeps you focused?
Ah, yes…Greg Jones, Yes! His father was the gentleman I spoke of that came to Milwaukee for a better life. And you will always have to prove yourself to other people – it never stops. It doesn’t bother me though.
What have you learned about yourself as of late?
Never fight a drunk guy with a tire iron.
Is it “Pollyannaish” of me to expect that every neighborhood in this city should be safe and relatively crime free?
Not one bit. There has been a decrease in crime in New York and that’s amazing. I am working to find out how they (and others) did it.
What would readers of MCJ be most surprised to find out about you, personally?
People may be surprised to know how easy I am to talk to. I’m a nice, warm, funny guy.
There is plenty out there, written and spoken about the political side of Mayor Tom Barrett.
But before he was a politician, he was a man – still is. A man you will likely see, leading our city in a new direction, taking the heat for ALL that goes wrong here, and fielding requests to fire this or that person. But he is no lightweight and never scared.
It is my hope though, that the next time I see Mayor Barrett; he’s cutting the rug, doing the Cupid Shuffle. Keep your eyes open. I will.