No More Mr. Nice Guy

by Kurt Chandler, photo by Corey Gaffer It’s a sweet summer day in August, and Mayor Tom Barrett’s older sister, Mary, is on the phone, nudging her brother. “There’s a band I’d like to see playing at the State Fair tonight,” she says. “Want to go?” “Why not?” the mayor thinks. It’s Saturday. His wife, Kris, is out of town and he’s tired of heating up leftovers for the kids. “Let’s stop for burgers at Sobelman’s before the Fair,” he says, and then calls his brother and younger sister to invite them along. No need for a security guard, he…

by Kurt Chandler, photo by Corey Gaffer

It’s a sweet summer day in August, and Mayor Tom Barrett’s older sister, Mary, is on the phone, nudging her brother. “There’s a band I’d like to see playing at the State Fair tonight,” she says. “Want to go?”

“Why not?” the mayor thinks. It’s Saturday. His wife, Kris, is out of town and he’s tired of heating up leftovers for the kids. “Let’s stop for burgers at Sobelman’s before the Fair,” he says, and then calls his brother and younger sister to invite them along. No need for a security guard, he thinks. His younger sister, Betsy, will drive and he’ll have lots of company.

A few hours later, Barrett is leaving the fairgrounds, walking with his family. It’s a beautiful night and he can feel himself unwinding. It’s been a hellish week.

Two days before, Barrett had gotten cornered by Journal Sentinel editorial writer James Causey, who said he had Gov. Jim Doyle on the record supporting a mayoral takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools. Barrett had been privately planning the takeover with Doyle for months, but had wanted more time. Now he had to come out publicly in favor of it or look like he was dragging his feet. So Barrett announced his support.

By Saturday morning, he was met with a blitz of phone calls from friends telling him Doyle had decided to not run for re-election. Barrett was blindsided. It left him holding a very hot potato – the takeover of MPS – with the suddenly weaker support of a lame-duck governor. Maybe his original caution on the issue was warranted. “Did we flunk Politics 101?” a worried Barrett lamented in a call to his chief of staff, Patrick Curley.

Suddenly a woman’s scream breaks the quiet of the night. It’s about 10:30 p.m., and the mayor is heading to Betsy’s car a few blocks from the Fair, an easy walk with her, his two daughters and his niece. The screaming woman is running through a yard carrying a baby. “Call 911! Call 911!” she shouts.

Barrett reaches for his cell phone and dials. But before he can push SEND, someone slaps the phone out of his hand. A man is standing in front of him. “Now I’m gonna have to shoot you all,” he yells. “Lie on the ground face down!”

This guy’s got a gun, the mayor thinks, seeing the glint of something metal beneath the man’s shirt. Barrett throws a punch and misses. He swings again and connects with the man’s face. It’s not enough.

Pulling a crowbar from under his shirt, the man slams it down, first on Barrett’s hand and then his head, knocking him to the ground. The man bends over Barrett and swings the crowbar again and again, six more times, and everything goes black.

Barrett awakes in a stupor. He’s in a bed at Froedtert Hospital. He’s lost two teeth, the back of his head is split open and his face is slashed. Four bones in his right hand are badly fractured, two bones poking through the skin.

He listens groggily as his doctors tell him they’ve scheduled surgery on his hand. Depending on the outcome, they add, they might consider amputation.

Amputation? Lose his hand? He can’t believe what he’s hearing.


For 25 years, Tom Barrett had carved out a comfortable political career as state legislator, congressman and Milwaukee mayor. But suddenly Barrett was the “hero mayor.” The national press lauded his bravery, the president called to wish him a speedy recovery – and Barrett’s name recognition jumped sky-high.

Before his wounds had healed, the White House, his one-time congressional colleagues, even his own doctor were all urging him to run for governor.

Barrett was slow in deciding. Those close to him predicted he would pass. His wife would never go along with it, they said. He was still hurting from the beating.

Yet the ground kept shifting. After U.S. Rep. Ron Kind and Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton dropped out of the governor’s race, there was no viable Democratic candidate left. The pressure was building on Barrett to run. President Obama offered Barrett a public shout-out during a visit to Madison.

On Nov. 15, three months to the day from his State Fair beating, Barrett stood on the sidewalk of his West Side home and declared he was healed and ready to run. Here was a man who’d come to the defense of a vulnerable citizen, suffered a brutal beating, and gotten back on his feet for another battle.

“It’s a helluva campaign commercial,” said one political pro.

And a remarkable turnabout. For up to now, there had never been anything tough about Tom Barrett. He had long been labeled a political lightweight, a lackluster leader, a vanilla nice guy. Now, literally overnight, his image had been transformed. Was it possible that underneath all that congeniality was a tougher, grittier personality than anyone had ever suspected?


It’s 7:20 a.m. on a Tuesday in November. Barrett steps out the front door of his Washington Heights home for a three-mile run. He’s wearing a nylon windbreaker and his right hand is wrapped in a cloth bandage. Before the State Fair attack, Barrett had run on 94 consecutive days. “Then it was 17 consecutive days of naps,” he says. But now he was back on his daily schedule. “It’s good for the mental health.”

Barrett, 56, jogs along the sidewalks of Washington Boulevard at an easy, loping pace. “It doesn’t appear that I’m moving,” he quips. Not unlike his pace as an elected official? “I smile and just keep workin’,” he says.

The jogging route is like a guided tour of his childhood. Passing St. Sebastian’s Catholic Church, the parish he’s belonged to since he was a boy, Barrett turns down Hi Mount Boulevard and points to a white brick-and-stucco house, his childhood home, modest compared to the nearby mansions once occupied by the city’s industrial titans, the Harleys and the Davidsons, the Treckers and Galluns. Less than a block away, he can look out a back window of his Washington Boulevard home and see the house he grew up in.

Along the boulevard, Barrett is a recognizable figure. A neighbor smiles, a crossing guard nods. “Hey governor!” someone yells from a car window, and another neighbor pulls to the curb to chat him up.

Throughout his life, Barrett has circled back to this West Side neighborhood. This is his home turf and he seems particularly at ease. On the morning run, between gasps for air, he talks cheerily about his boyhood roots.

Thomas Mark Barrett was born Dec. 8, 1953, the second of four kids – an older sister, Mary; younger sister, Betsy; and younger brother, John. Their father, Thomas John Barrett, was raised near Pittsburgh. A decorated World War II veteran, after his Army Air Corps service, he enrolled at UW-Madison, where he met Gertrude Koehn from Sturgeon Bay. “Gertie’s” family had deep roots in Wisconsin. Her grandfather was elected to the state Assembly and became known for pushing through the construction of the road that connects Green Bay with Bailey’s Harbor.

The mayor’s father took a job in Milwaukee as a salesman at Wisconsin Motors (now Teledyne Technologies) and later for Ditch Witch trenching machines until his arthritis forced him to retire. Gertie, meanwhile, was a substitute teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools.

The Barretts moved to Hi Mount Boulevard in 1961. Tom Barrett went to school at St. Sebastian’s, six blocks away. He liked history and Hardy Boys mysteries, and spent a little too much time talking to his friends in class, he says.

It’s hard to overestimate Barrett’s connection to the West Side. He played basketball in the alley behind his house and baseball at Wick Field on Vliet Street. At Marquette University High School, where he continued his Catholic education, he fell in with a circle of friends he’s still in contact with today, some of whom get together for games of sheepshead. His brother and a sister live blocks away from the mayor; the other sister lives in nearby Wauwatosa.

Beginning college at UW-Madison in 1972, Barrett received a bachelor’s degree in economics. After a year off from school, working as a bank examiner and unloading trucks at Harley-Davidson, he went back to Madison to get a law degree, then returned to Milwaukee to work at a law firm.

Barrett was elected to the state Assembly in 1984, representing the Sherman Park neighborhood. He commuted to Madison during legislative sessions and shared an apartment at 48th and Locust with Patrick Curley and another West Side friend.

Barrett was introduced to Kris Mansfield at a Downtown Milwaukee bar. Mansfield was an MPS teacher, and state Rep. Barrett, feeling brash, invited himself to speak to her class. “I tried to act like Joe Cool as I was leaving, saying, ‘I owe you a drink.’ And she thought I was a jerk,” he recalls. But she eventually agreed to go out to dinner. “We went to Albanese’s and then to Hooligan’s. Paul Cebar was playing,” he says. The two were married in July 1991. Tom was 37, Kris was 29.

The couple spent their first few years in the West Side neighborhood of Enderis Park, but with the birth of their fourth child, ran out of living space. Barrett found a large house for sale on Washington Boulevard half a block from his family home. Kris hesitated. “I don’t want to relive your childhood,” she told him. Nevertheless, the Barretts moved into the brick-and-stone two-story and have lived there ever since.

Barrett’s early election campaigns were West Side social events. He won a seat in the state Senate in 1989. Organized in Curley’s dining room, the campaign recruited 200 friends and family members to do lit drops while Barrett’s father made campaign calls from his home. “You never had to worry about getting bodies to help,” Curley says.

In 1992, a year after he was married, Barrett decided to run for Congress. Again, Barrett’s siblings and friends pitched in, lugging their kids to a storefront office at 60th and Lisbon to stuff envelopes and work the phones. Midway through the campaign, a baby crib and changing table were added to the office.

“Everybody in the district knew Tom,” says Joel Brennan, a volunteer in the congressional campaign. Barrett estimated he had knocked on the doors of 70,000 voters in his eight years in the legislature.

As a freshman, Barrett shared a Capitol Hill efficiency apartment with another congressman. He played basketball nearly every day in the House gym, faithfully answered letters to his constituents at night and fled the capital nearly every weekend for his home in Milwaukee.

“He was not into the Washington scene,” says a former congressional aide.

After winning re-election in 2000, Barrett had had enough of the long-distance commute. “I loved the job,” he says. “[But] my first four election years, my wife was pregnant every time. … I knew I wanted to come home.”

The nation’s congressional districts were being reapportioned and Wisconsin would lose a district, with Barrett’s 5th district merging with the 4th, represented since 1984 by Democratic U.S. Rep. Jerry Kleczka. Rather than fight it out in a primary with Kleczka, Barrett folded his cards and began thinking about his next job.

“He didn’t fight harder to keep his district [during reapportionment]. He punted,” says a political consultant.

But Barrett seemed more interested in returning to Milwaukee. “It has everything to do with the opportunities that present themselves at the state level and my family,” he told the Journal Sentinel. His children were ages 2, 4, 6 and 8 at the time.

Barrett declared his candidacy for governor in May 2001, almost a full year after Jim Doyle entered the race. His defeat in the September 2002 primary was a disappointment, but it also returned him to his home turf.

In an unusual arrangement, Barrett took a job at Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren, working as a consultant to nonprofit organizations, his position underwritten at $8,500 a month by philanthropist and Democrat Chris Abele. (Barrett says the funding came because Abele was one of the firm’s clients.) But working in a law office apparently didn’t suit Barrett. Months later, he announced he was running for mayor. In fashioning his winning campaign of 2004, he once again drew on his many West Side acquaintances.

Aides say Barrett can remember names and addresses from his state Senate campaign 20 years ago. Says Brennan, a family friend since he was a boy: “It’s all about that personal connection with Tom.”

Among his closest advisors is Patrick Curley, his chief of staff and a friend since high school. Three weeks younger than Barrett, Curley has worked on every Barrett campaign except his first. Curley’s wife, attorney Anne DeLeo, ran Barrett’s Milwaukee office when he first went
to Congress.

Also among Barrett’s braintrust are Brennan, the president and CEO of Discovery World who ran Barrett’s gubernatorial and mayoral campaigns; Peter Bock, a former Democratic state rep from the West Side (and husband of Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk); and Barrett’s brother, John, the Milwaukee County clerk of circuit court since 1998.

Still others have been political aides for decades and now work in his administration. Among them: Sharon Robinson, director of the city’s Department of Administration, who was Barrett’s chief of staff in Congress; and Terry Perry, manager of the Office of Violence Prevention in the Milwaukee Health Department, who was his congressional district director. Rocky Marcoux, Barrett’s appointee as commissioner of the Department of City Development, lives blocks away from Barrett, as does Curley.

The loyalists are “the hard-ass people that Barrett needs” to deliver the word “no,” says a public relations executive. The quick-tempered Curley in particular plays bad cop to Barrett’s good cop. “Why does Tom Barrett need to be a prick when he’s got Pat Curley?” says the exec.

While the Barrettistas provide political cover, Barrett has been insulated in other ways. As a legislator and congressman, he never called Madison or Washington his home. In Congress, he travelled internationally only once, he says, paying his own way on a trip to Israel. He was content as a low-profile backbencher, doing little to expand his political influence in Washington, says a former congressional aide. He occupied a safe seat and rarely brought in new, young talent to his Washington or district office staffs, relying instead on advice from people he had known from his earliest days.

“He’s always had his buddies, his inner circle,” says the aide. “It’s symptomatic of what he is.”


Tom Barrett is not the most direct politician. He answers questions in long, convoluted paragraphs. He can be opaque, sometimes to the point of
sounding inarticulate or indecisive.

As a college student in politically charged Madison, Barrett was more bookworm than activist, a bushy-haired honor student who lived in the remote Lakeshore dorms. “I was a kid who liked to read books about presidents and always thought it would be exciting to be part of government,” he says. “So it wasn’t cause as much as the idea of good government that attracted me.”

But John Barrett puts a little more passion into his brother’s motivation. He notes that at Marquette High, Tom’s best friend was his next-door neighbor, John Frisch. In Frisch’s senior year, he and two others were killed in a car crash while driving to a South Dakota Indian reservation for a class project. A few years later, another friend from high school, John Dessel, died in a motorcycle accident.

Those were defining moments for Tom, says his brother John: “I think Tom felt he needed to do something with his life to give it meaning.”

As a newly elected Democratic assemblyman, Barrett gravitated toward social issues. He helped push through a bill making it mandatory to prosecute drivers not wearing seat belts. He authored legislation creating the state’s first health care power of attorney. He worked to have 911
emergency services financed by a fee on telephone bills.

“He believes government can make a tangible difference in people’s lives,” says UW-Milwaukee political science professor Mordecai Lee, a former legislator from Sherman Park.

As a congressman, Barrett was a “deficit hawk and a military dove,” noted the Almanac of American Politics. He backed left-leaning measures: cutbacks in defense, increasing the minimum wage, supporting abortion rights. He opposed legislation allowing school prayer and a Constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning.

Barrett took congressional office in January 1993, near the end of a 40-year run of Democratic control. “Some of these Democratic stalwarts at the time would not know a freshman Democrat if they stepped on him,” he notes. Many were swept out in the 1994 midterm elections, and during Barrett’s remaining eight years, he was in the minority party, making it difficult to accomplish much.

It was the impeachment of President Bill Clinton that thrust Barrett onto the national stage. In 1998, there was an opening for a seat on the House Judiciary Committee, just as the impeachment debate loomed. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt called Barrett into his office to offer him the seat.

“I remember thinking, ‘You’re asking me if I want to sit in the front row for the heavyweight fight of the decade?” Barrett recalls. “Of course I do.’ ”

Barrett’s questioning of independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr in committee hearings apparently impressed the White House. In early 1999, Barrett says, he got a call from Greg Craig, Clinton’s special counsel, saying Clinton wanted him to give the opening statement at his impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. Barrett’s brother booked a flight to Washington to watch his big brother’s performance, but by the time he got there, the Senate had enforced a parliamentary rule disallowing any House member from addressing the Senate. “I call that my 15 minutes of nonfame,” Barrett says.

Among his congressional accomplishments, Barrett lists his support for a ban on assault weapons and his work to get a $6 million grant under the Violence Against Women Act for judicial oversight in Milwaukee courts.

But, in his five terms, he never authored one signature piece of legislation. His 10 years are remembered largely for his constituent work.

“He avoided the issues because issues are divisive,” says a former congressional aide. “He wants people to like him, and to elect him.”
As mayor, Barrett is painted the same way by critics, as the empty suit who lacks a strong vision.

Scott Klug went to Marquette High with Barrett and served two years with him as a Republican congressman from Madison. “I think he’s been a caretaker mayor, and I think that was his reputation in Congress, too.” Other than the mayoral takeover of the schools, Klug adds, “I don’t think there’s anything you can point to as mayor that he’s had a passion about.”

Barrett is inevitably compared to John Norquist, Milwaukee mayor from 1988 to 2003. Norquist was whip-smart and knowledgeable on all things urban. He tore down freeways and battled sprawl, favoring multiuse development that was neighborhood-oriented and pedestrian-friendly. He succeeded in dismantling the Park East freeway spur, building the RiverWalk, redesigning the Sixth Street Bridge and laying the groundwork for Menomonee Valley redevelopment. “These were bold, innovative ideas that took a lot of political ballbusting,” says one lobbyist. “I haven’t seen anything like that in six years.”

Barrett’s critics say he has little interest in urban design, is slow to make decisions and satisfied to play it safe.

“I like him; I want him to be successful,” says state Rep. Jeff Stone, a Republican whose district includes Franklin, Greendale and Greenfield. “But I’ve been disappointed because I haven’t seen a little more clarity out of his administration.”

Stone credits Barrett for reaching out to suburban legislators on issues affecting Milwaukee, like changing the state’s formula for funding Milwaukee schools. But he faults him for being unable to work out a method with the governor and legislature to fund a regional transit system.

Barrett’s reliance on his longtime friends can stifle creativity, some say. “You’ve got a mayor who’s kind of an old-style lefty thinker, and he’s surrounded by old-style 1960s and ’70s liberals,” says the lobbyist. “If someone has a good idea, the PC police will kill it.”

While Norquist was a theoretician who came up with innovative ideas, Barrett draws on others for inspiration. “He wants people to bring good ideas to him,” says PR consultant Jeff Fleming, a former Norquist aide who has volunteered as Barrett’s spokesman in the governor’s race.

Barrett backers say his vision is less obvious because he’s a consensus-builder. “Tom is deliberate,” says Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee. “He takes his time. He talks to people and weighs what they say.”

Taylor credits Barrett for helping create the Milwaukee 7, a seven-county economic development group. While Norquist’s urbanism was often antagonistic toward the suburbs, Barrett is a regionalist. According to Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, the Milwaukee 7 is responsible for creating up to 3,000 jobs that earn a total salary of $182 million.

“Most of the suburban leaders and even legislative leaders appreciate that Barrett is not Norquist and continuously looking for ways to stick them in the eye,” says a Democratic activist. “The question for me is, ‘So what?’ ” The suburbs, he says, “haven’t given an inch” on transportation or low-income housing. Norquist was an arm-twister. “Tom doesn’t seem to want to do that. There’s no consequence for not dealing with the city.”

Marty Collins worked for four Milwaukee mayors – Henry Maier, Norquist, Marvin Pratt and Barrett – before retiring as commissioner of the Department of Neighborhood Services in July 2008.

“Norquist had a very different style,” Collins says. “You’d be called over for a meeting, and think you were going to be discussing issues A, B and C, and you’d walk out with assignments for X, Y and Z. With Norquist, it was not a discussion. He’d go off on his own tangent. With Barrett, when you went in to discuss an issue, he’d say, ‘O.K., tell me the problem. Give me the pros and cons,’ and we would discuss the issue. I found him to be deliberate as opposed to impulsive. Snap decisions are sometimes not the best way to make decisions.”

Norquist himself (who would talk only on the record) gives Barrett good grades. “He’s done a good job as mayor,” he says. “He’s held the city together.”

Criticism of leadership style goes with the job, he adds. “You can be John F. Kennedy, but there’s always that attack: ‘Where’s the leadership?’ ”

Barrett agrees that Norquist paved the way on many projects. But while Norquist may have initiated plans for the Menomonee Valley, Barrett notes that he brought new businesses and a thousand jobs to the valley, and shepherded the completion of the Harley-Davidson Museum. He followed through on efforts to transform the Amtrak station into the Intermodal Station. He took the lead in convincing the UW Board of Regents to allow a graduate school of public health at UW-Milwaukee rather than just at UW-Madison. And he freed up federal dollars to pay for a long-delayed Downtown rail system that Norquist couldn’t make happen.

“Barrett’s the anti-Norquist in every sense,” says Mordecai Lee. “Norquist was not a Milwaukee boy. He was monomaniacal on issues of urban design,” and as a result, Lee argues, ignored basic responsibilities of municipal government, such as boulevard maintenance and the repaving of streets.

Norquist seldom ducked controversy. Barrett does. He stayed out of the discussion on where to locate UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences. And he was publicly mute on the possibility of replacing the Hoan Bridge (but says he privately told Doyle he’s open to a state study of the idea).

Though Barrett opposed an ordinance requiring Milwaukee employers to give workers paid sick days, he was slow to do so, says the MMAC’s Sheehy. MMAC went to court to stop enforcement of the ordinance last year.

“I wish [Barrett’s administration] would bounce ideas off MMAC more,” laments Sheehy. Barrett’s relationship with the business community has
been distant, says one business leader: “He keeps at arm’s length. And that translates to business community leaders as, ‘He just doesn’t get it.’ ”

Barrett has been more willing than Norquist to support business development through the use of tax incremental financing. “What you’ll see is people who brought jobs here got a lot more favorable treatment than people who just wanted to build buildings,” Barrett says. He cites Bucyrus International, Manpower, Direct Supply and Palermo’s Pizza as examples. Interestingly, he counts the city’s summer youth-job programs as one of his most important commitments.

His achievements aren’t the glitzy additions to the skyline Milwaukee saw from Norquist. Says Barrett’s friend Lee: “Tom has said: ‘I’m perfectly happy hitting singles and doubles. I’m not swinging for the fences.’ ” But as with his running style, sometimes it may seem like the mayor isn’t moving.

Yet, in his deliberate way, Barrett had far more success than Norquist in finding a strong police chief. For starters, Barrett did nothing to retain Chief Nannette Hegerty, hired during the Norquist administration. And his choice to replace her, Ed Flynn, has steadily driven down the crime rate.

One close observer says credit should be given to the Bradley Foundation for hiring the consultants who found Flynn, not Barrett. “This didn’t happen because Tom drove it,” he says.

But the hiring wouldn’t have happened if Barrett hadn’t agreed to add latecomers (including Flynn) to the list of candidates. Barrett was criticized for prolonging the search process, but stood fast. “That was big,” says Common Council President Willie Hines. “The mayor stepped up and took the flack.”

It’s not the only time Barrett has capitalized on other people’s ideas. Alderman Jim Bohl began holding town meetings in 2001 in his district about converting Hartung Quarry into a city park, he recalls. When Barrett came in as mayor, Bohl briefed him on the idea. A week or two later, while Bohl was on vacation, Barrett put out a press release announcing the “city’s” plan to build the park. Bohl says he was not mentioned.

“I was miffed,” Bohl says. “I thought about going to the mayor about it, but some of the others on the Common Council told me, ‘Don’t even bother. He does that to everyone.’ ”


Tom Barrett likes to be liked. He’s 6-foot-3, yet seldom imposing. “Tom’s very friendly, and sometimes people interpret that as not being strong,” says the GMC’s Julia Taylor. His supporters see him as the regular guy with a Jimmy Stewart conscience. His critics say he lacks toughness.

“Tom Barrett is one of the most sympathetic guys I’ve ever met, and that’s rare in public officials,” says Alderman Bob Bauman. “He cares so much about people that I think he’s sometimes too soft with people” – particularly his own staff, he says. Bauman gives the mayor “a B-plus to A-minus,” but rates his staff at a C-minus: “They don’t have a lot of political competence or policy competence.”

Norquist was far tougher on his staff. “He was a wartime consigliere,” says one former Milwaukee alderman. “He surrounded himself with young, smart people who could get things done.” And he frequently replaced aides, going through chiefs of staff like Kleenex.

Barrett, by contrast, has had the same chief of staff since he was elected and replaced few department heads. When embarrassing problems arose in the city’s handling of the 2004 presidential election, for example, Barrett delayed in firing the embattled executive director of the Election Commission, Lisa Artison, until she finally resigned under pressure four months later.

While Norquist used intimidation to push through proposals, Barrett turns on the nice-guy charm. “There’s no question,” he says, “that I try the diplomatic route before I pull the trigger.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean shying away from controversy, he contends. Barrett points to his 2010 city budget, which proposed trimming fire truck crews from five to four firefighters to help meet a shortfall of $90 million. Firefighters packed Common Council chambers to protest. But after the yelling died down, Barrett approached the firefighters with an olive branch. “So when are you guys going to bring something back to me that we can work on?” he asked.

But Barrett has gotten a little less Jimmy Stewart-like in recent years, some say. “There’s a darker side that creeps up behind the nice-guy image,” says one City Hall insider.

Go back to Barrett’s loss in the 2002 race for governor. According to a Doyle campaign insider, Barrett made several mistakes: His campaign was headed by two loyalists, Joel Brennan and Patrick Curley, neither of whom had ever run a statewide race. When the Doyle campaign went negative, directly undercutting Barrett’s nice-guy image, he was forced to take the defensive and chose not to fire back. Doyle made an issue of Barrett transferring his congressional war chest to his gubernatorial campaign, painting Barrett as unfair and improper. Doyle also alleged the Barrett camp had privately filed a complaint against state Sen. Gary George, another Democratic candidate, for accepting falsified signatures on his nomination papers. Barrett denied this, but George, the only black candidate in the race (and a high school classmate of Barrett’s), eventually was removed from the primary ballot by the state elections board. Barrett was hurt by the allegation and lost African-American support, with Doyle carrying the black vote in Milwaukee, Barrett’s own backyard.

Brennan concedes the Barrett campaign was outmuscled by Doyle’s hard-edged campaign, led by campaign managers Susan Goodwin and Bill Christofferson, a veteran campaigner who ran Norquist’s mayoral campaigns.

“We didn’t go negative,” Brennan says. “Tom decided no.”

A year-and-a-half later, the gloves came off. The April 2004 campaign for mayor pitted Barrett against acting Mayor Marvin Pratt. Pratt was the city’s first black mayor, appointed after a sex scandal forced Norquist from office. After finishing second to Pratt in the primary, Barrett brought in fresh blood – including campaigners who had worked to elect Doyle. Capitalizing on a John Doe investigation into campaign financing irregularities by Pratt, Barrett went on the attack.

“We made sure people knew about it,” says Brennan. “Tom was willing to take many more risks. He wanted to win and saw it wasn’t going to happen if it was with the traditional Tom Barrett.”

Just days before the election, Pratt was charged with five civil campaign violations and fined $2,500. His campaign went down in flames, his support softened by negative reports in the press. “We helped,” Brennan says.

More than five years later, some resentment lingers within the black community. After his loss to Doyle in the governor’s race, Barrett promised Pratt and others he would not be a candidate for mayor, says Hines, who backed Pratt. “Tom Barrett led the African-American community to believe he wasn’t going to run,” says Hines. “He went back on his word.”

In his years in the Assembly and Congress, Barrett had the support of the black community. In 2002, he was endorsed for governor by Pratt, “and he subsequently drove a stake in Marvin’s heart,” says Hines. “That was a pretty hefty blow.”

After the election, however, Barrett made a point of reaching out to black churches in the city, repairing the breach. “We’ve all come to appreciate the mayor,” Hines says. “It’s hard to stay mad at him.”

But Barrett had meanwhile gotten the taste of blood. “One of the things about people in politics, when they get a little taste of toughness, they tend to stay tough,” a public relations specialist says.

Last year, Barrett displayed a Machiavellian touch in his tug of war with Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker over federal transit dollars. The money for Milwaukee had first been approved in 1991, but after years of haggling by local officials on how to spend it, had dwindled to $91.5 million. Barrett wanted to use the money for a local rail system, while Walker wanted it for the county bus system.

Barrett maneuvered behind Walker’s back. Last March, he teamed up with Wisconsin Democrats Sen. Herb Kohl and U.S. Rep. David Obey, who slipped a provision into a federal spending bill that would give 60 percent of the funds to the city of Milwaukee for streetcars and 40 percent to the county for buses. This broke a stalemate that had lasted 18 years.

But Barrett’s most controversial and tough-minded move may have been his proposal for a mayoral takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools. Barrett started it off in his most mushy style, proposing the idea in his 2004 mayoral campaign but quickly dropping it when it was pilloried. He revisited the idea in the fall of 2008, he says, and privately approached Doyle, who agreed to partner with Barrett on the issue. While the media may have forced Barrett’s hand on this, he’s stuck to his stance, angering many.

Milwaukee School Board members say they felt betrayed. Board member Terry Falk says he asked Barrett point-blank in the spring of 2009 whether he wanted control of MPS. “No way do I want to take that on,” the mayor said, according to Falk. “He just gave this pushing-away motion, like he didn’t want to deal with it.”

Board President Michael Bonds has known Barrett since 1986. Bonds agreed to sit on a community advisory panel set up by the mayor in May 2009 to work toward MPS improvements. But when he found out the takeover plan was being hatched in private between Barrett and Doyle without his input, Bonds resigned from the panel.

“I felt betrayed because I had briefed the mayor almost biweekly and he told me how much good work I was doing,” he says.

One MPS observer was appalled by Barrett’s “autistic” political sensibility. “Barrett is a guy of relationships,” says the source. “He thought he had this relationship with Bonds, but it was way out of whack with where Bonds was at.”

Says Bonds: “I felt kind of blindsided. The Tom Barrett I used to know, I wondered if he had changed.”

As Hines notes, it’s always been hard to stay mad at Barrett. “In some ways, that’s the brilliance of Tom Barrett,” says a former aide.

But as Barrett toughens his approach, will that stay true? “Sometimes it takes more political courage to do things that people are against,” says Barrett loyalist Brennan. “That’s what he’s starting to realize.”

Perhaps the most telling thing about Barrett’s attempt to change the governance of MPS was his willingness to anger some of his core supporters – from Milwaukee liberals and African-Americans to the teachers unions. “Once you become an executive, you’ve got to be tougher,” says Dan Grego, a longtime Barrett confederate and executive director of TransCenter for Youth, a school for at-risk kids. “Sometimes you’ve got to piss people off.”

Barrett has always been very self-contained, the nice homeboy from the West Side. The first and only time he went beyond that comfort zone was in 2002, losing the statewide governor’s election to a much tougher candidate.

Since then, he’s learned how to throw a punch or two.

The bandage on his hand is an instant reminder of how close he came to losing his life. Oddly, he refused to look at the bare, unbandaged hand until the last of the 10 surgical pins were removed in mid-November. “Pretty ugly,” he says.

Now, after living as a southpaw and learning to tie a necktie with one hand, the prognosis is good, he says. “I fully expect to be able to write and I hope to be able to able to throw a baseball.” Is he imagining throwing out the first ball at a Brewers game as a sitting governor?

Immediately after Barrett declared his gubernatorial candidacy, Republican opponent Scott Walker began an effort to turn niceness into an epithet: “Tom Barrett is a nice guy, but in the end, he’s spent his entire career in the legislature, in the Congress, and now as mayor raising taxes,” Walker declared.

How will Barrett respond? Will it be the Barrett of old, who was a patsy for Jim Doyle, or the tougher guy who beat up on Marvin Pratt.

As if to answer the question, Barrett assumes a confidential tone and volunteers a subtle but image-shattering warning: “Don’t let all this nice guy stuff fool you.”

Kurt Chandler is a senior editor for Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at

Big Scoop: Mayor Picks Up After Dog

After his morning run, it’s Mayor Tom Barrett’s job to walk the family dog, Bailey, a Portuguese water dog. The beauty of the breed, the mayor explains, is that the dog doesn’t shed hair. “The same breed the Obamas have,” Barrett says, “only we got Bailey three years ago.”

With his right hand still bandaged, Barrett has to struggle a bit with this duty; the leash can get tangled around the mayor. But he seems to enjoy himself.

Never one to miss a chance for a punch line, Barrett has informed Robert “Chairman Bob” Mariano, the CEO of Roundy’s Supermarkets, that he always uses the company’s product to clean up after Bailey. Sure enough, as we set out to walk Bailey, the mayor’s pocket is stuffed with plastic produce bags from Pick ’n Save.