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Game of Thrones
Ald. Michael Murphy, the new Milwaukee Common Council president, arranges the chairs of the powers that be.


Left to right: Nik Kovac, Rocky Marcoux, Michael Murphy and Bob Donovan

illustration by Johanna Goodman

Milwaukee’s City Hall has been remarkably short on political theater for the past decade. With some exceptions – particularly the confrontational tactics and bribery conviction of former Ald. Michael McGee Jr., and the combative rhetoric of Ald. Bob Donovan – city government has avoided the acrimony and factionalism that increasingly defines its county, state and federal counterparts.

Insiders say much of the credit for keeping the city cool belongs to former Ald. Willie Hines Jr., who presided over the Common Council from April 2004 to Feb. 1 of this year. Hines agrees that his biggest accomplishment was getting the council to work together “for the greater good of the city.”

Now, with Hines’ departure to become associate director of the city Housing Authority, council members anticipate his successor, West Side Ald. Michael Murphy, will prompt the council to be more vocal and assertive, although not necessarily more contentious.

“I expect he’ll display the sharpness of his elbows a little bit more than I did,” Hines says, which could mean pressing Mayor Tom Barrett harder on carrying out council-
approved policies. Or, as Downtown Ald. Bob Bauman says, Murphy could attempt to “give the administration a stiffer backbone.”

Although Barrett, Murphy, Hines and most other council members agree on many issues, Murphy says he’s “a strong believer in checks and balances” who feels members should be able to disagree with each other and Barrett without personal attacks.

And whereas Hines was a low-profile supporter of Downtown and neighborhood development, council members expect Murphy to use the presidency to more visibly push his top issues. Murphy has already called for a regional summit on battling heroin abuse, and he’s a leading voice on the impact of mortgage foreclosures. He says his other priorities include addressing disproportionate black male unemployment and incarceration, and attracting residents interested in an urban lifestyle.

Both Murphy and Hines have said they’d like to be mayor some day, and the council president has a better platform than other council members for such a race. But where Hines once seemed to be positioning himself to run against Barrett, his move into the Barrett administration averts such a prospect – even though federal conflict-of-interest rules threw his Housing Authority job into doubt shortly after his appointment.

Murphy and Hines say they have no plans to challenge Barrett in 2016, leaving Sheriff David Clarke Jr., Ald. Joe Davis Sr. and possibly Donovan to ponder campaigns.

Meanwhile, here’s a look at whose stock is rising or falling as a result of Murphy’s first round of committee assignments:

(Rising) Nik Kovac
By naming the East Side alderman to succeed him as chairman of the Finance & Personnel Committee, Murphy has elevated Kovac, 36, to the council’s No. 2 spot. Kovac, a Harvard math graduate, says he wants to push back against state decisions that fiscally hamstring the city.

(Holding steady) Bob Donovan
The veteran South Side alderman is now the only council member without a committee chairmanship or vice chairmanship, extending his political isolation. But he’s still thankful that Murphy granted his No. 1 wish and returned him to the Public Safety Committee, which he once chaired, to pursue his signature issues of law and order.

(Dropping) Rocky Marcoux
Three of the city development commissioner’s critics – Bauman, Kovac and Walker’s Point Ald. Jose Perez – now dominate the five-member Zoning & Neighborhood Development Committee that oversees his department. Bauman and Kovac say they’ll press Marcoux to be more transparent.

Don’t expect a significant retreat from Hines’ collaborative style, Murphy says. After all, “as a middle child, I learned to recognize the importance of compromise.”

This article appears in the May 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. 
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