Illustration by Sean McCabe The power went out in the neighborhood of Martin Luther King Drive and North Avenue on the night of April 3, dimming stoplights and street lamps outside the campaign headquarters of Milwaukee Alderman Michael McGee Jr. But inside the storefront office, this ominous detail went unnoticed. The lights were up bright […]
Illustration by Sean McCabe
The power went out in the neighborhood of Martin Luther King Drive and North Avenue on the night of April 3, dimming stoplights and street lamps outside the campaign headquarters of Milwaukee Alderman Michael McGee Jr.
But inside the storefront office, this ominous detail went unnoticed. The lights were up bright and a crowd of live-wire campaign workers waved banners and snapped cell-phone pictures of their candidate as he paced the room, awaiting results of his recall election. Around 10 p.m., poll numbers flashed on a TV screen and the crowd exploded into whoops and cheers.
McGee’s career had been on the ropes, his work as an alderman hobbled by controversy. Arrested after a scuffle with police at a Wauwatosa Blockbuster. Arrested again after threatening a woman who claimed she was pregnant with his child. In one bizarre episode, he inexplicably unfurled a poster of Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez as the press closed in at City Hall.
McGee had become Public Enemy Number One to talk-radio hosts and bloggers, and a pariah within mainstream political circles, prompting a campaign to recall him from office just three years after he was first elected.
Yet, to his supporters, the embattled alderman was something of a folk hero. He could be artless and unpolished, but also bold, brash, real. He worked hard for his constituents. He was a presence in their neighborhoods, a voice for the voiceless.
And so they showered him with support, giving him 64 percent of the vote – almost twice as many ballots as had been cast for the seven challengers.
He had beaten back the powers that be, winning the opportunity to provoke the community anew. No one could have imagined then that, in just eight weeks, the triumphant McGee would be in jail, charged with a laundry list of felonies.
On the contrary, as he stood before supporters on election night, McGee looked confident and all but unstoppable. Stepping before a row of TV cameras, his message was unflinching as ever. “Black people have got to stop killing each other,” he declared. “And when they do, we’re taking over the city.”
McGee was wearing a handmade strand of large wooden beads around his neck, an African necklace worn long ago by his father in his Black Panthers days. Mike McGee Sr. was not there that evening, but he seemed present in spirit, his son’s provocative rhetoric a thundering echo of the speeches his father would hurl down when he was an alderman.
Like father, like son, some observers might have thought. But in fact, Michael McGee Jr. never intended to become a copy of his father. “He was adamant that he would not go down the same road that his father did,” recalls Douglas Wolf, a high school friend of the son.
What made the boy who was going to be different change his mind? How did his life take such a wrong turn? The question is one that haunts his friends and family.
A two-story duplex once stood next to the post office on Third and Center streets. Painted bright red and green with black trim, the house was as much a community hangout as a home. Upstairs with their brood lived Penny and Mike McGee Sr., the one-time Black Panther leader who would win a seat on the Common Council in 1984. And downstairs housed the offices of McGee’s anti-crime program, Project Respect.
For black Milwaukee, these were heady days, the 1970s and ’80s, when activists were breaking down barriers and winning election to the legislature, County Board and Common Council. The McGee household became a headquarters for black movers and shakers. And always in the house, there were children.
“Whenever there was a rally or you needed a lit drop, the kids were around,” remembers state Rep. Annette Polly Williams (D-Milwaukee), who has held her assembly seat since 1980.
Mike McGee Jr. was the oldest of nine kids. When his father was preoccupied with a campaign or cause, the role of disciplinarian would fall to Junior.
“He was the big brother,” says sibling Justus McGee, an Army paratrooper
stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. “He helped keep the rest of us kids in line. I don’t
remember my parents ever having to
On Fridays, the family would host a fish fry for friends and neighbors. McGee Sr. would fish the rivers and ponds, and his wife Penny – the “calming influence” of the household, says Justus – fried up the catch. As the adults talked politics, McGee Jr. soaked it all in.
“My son Malik grew up sitting at the feet of those same black leaders that Mike did,” recalls Mikel Holt, Milwaukee Community Journalassociate publisher. (Holt’s son died in a car accident in 2003.) It fell to the kids, Holt says, to take up the baton.
“With Mike being the oldest child, it probably had the most significant impact on him,” says Walter Farrell Jr., a former UW-Milwaukee professor who is close to the family. “Not only the oldest, but he carried the name.”
But by the time McGee Jr. became a teenager, he seemed headed for a very different life than his father. He began high school at West Division, where he was a wrestler, and transferred to Bay View High when West became the High School for the Arts and dropped its athletic programs.
The distance between Bay View High and his North Side home became something of a buffer zone for McGee Jr., allowing him to step out from the shadow of his father, by then a controversial figure frequently in the news.
Wolf, a fellow student who befriended Mike Jr. at Bay View, says McGee “came in almost with a strike against him,” but quickly overcame it. “Mike was the nicest guy,” says Wolf. “Everybody liked him.”
Wolf’s father Pete, Bay View’s wrestling coach, remembers McGee as a standout athlete and model student who posted a B average.
“He was not an advocate for racial anything,” says Pete Wolf. “He was much more interested in sports. He downplayed the fact that his dad was in City Hall.”
McGee’s father often came to wrestling tournaments. “His dad would walk in with his entourage in his dreadlocks,” says the coach. “And his people would look at me, sort of like his enforcers. But he was not attention-seeking. He wanted to watch his son wrestle.” McGee Jr. made it to the state wrestling tournament in his senior year, pinning a wrestler from Rhinelander to take third place in the 126-pound weight class.
Junior was a big fan of professional wrestling. “I would meet Mike at the arena,” recalls Douglas Wolf. “He used to get dropped off there by his father’s driver. His father always got him tickets.” The two would elbow through the crowd to get near the arena runway and try to high-five the pros.
The friendship between the boys, though, never journeyed far from school. Wolf never was introduced to McGee
Sr., he says, nor was he invited to the McGee home.
“We didn’t talk about his father,” he says. “He wasn’t embarrassed of him, but he definitely made the point he was a polar opposite. He hung out with a very mixed crowd, he was a good student, he was well-respected. I never even heard the kid use foul language.”
Wolf now lives in Seattle and lost touch with his friend after high school. But he has a lingering image of McGee Jr. – as Prom King – wearing a white tuxedo with a bright red cummerbund, bright red socks, and bright red Chuck Taylor All-Stars on his feet. And balanced on his head, a gold crown.
“He wore it for the ceremony and then it was off,” says Wolf. “He didn’t want any part of that crown, I remember that.”
After graduation, according to brother Justus, McGee Jr. was offered an athletic scholarship from Northwestern University, an hour south of Milwaukee in Illinois. Instead, he chose UW-La Crosse on the other side of the state.
“I believe, for part of him, going to La Crosse was to get away from Milwaukee,” says Douglas Wolf. “I really thought he was going to break the chain.”
“Mike could have been a doctor, lawyer, astronaut… whatever he wanted,” adds his brother Justus.
At La Crosse, McGee Jr. joined the Army, serving in the ROTC and training on campus to become an officer. He lived in a dormitory, beginning college in January 1988. “He was probably one of five black students out of a hall of 280,” says Jay Scott, director of the resident hall at the time.
McGee roomed with an African-
American friend. One day, a couple of white students decided to give their two black neighbors a scare. Against school policy, the white students had stored hunting rifles in their dorm room. They burst into McGee’s room pointing the guns at the two black roommates.
McGee calmly told the students to
get out. There was no arguing and no
“Mike was a complete gentleman, and a good student, intellectually curious,” says Scott. He remembers debating McGee on the differences between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X after the movie Malcolm Xcame out.
“Mike and I also spent hours talking about his father and how he couldn’t work within the system,” he continues. “Mike was frustrated that his father was not given credit for the positive things he did in the neighborhood.”
Back in Milwaukee, McGee Sr. was often following the combative tactics of Malcolm X. “I think Mike began to think, maybe this is how we can get some things done,” Scott says.
“Somewhere along the line,” says Wolf, “he obviously adopted the philosophy of his father – that the inner city of Milwaukee was not getting its fair shake and he would take the offensive. But if I could venture a guess, his dad drew
him in. And Mike had to go along for the ride.”
Late in 1991, in the middle of the school year, he moved back to Milwaukee, where he would take up the cause his
father had championed after a hardscrabble upbringing in the South.
Born on April 5, 1950, in Corinth, Miss., Michael Roy McGee never knew his own father. His mother, Geneva Jackson, told Milwaukee Magazinein 1989 that she bore Michael out of wedlock at age 15, the victim of “a form of rape.” She supported her son and her mother by working in a laundry. Three years after Michael Roy was born, she married Thomas McGee, a childhood friend.
Growing up poor in the segregated South left a profound impression on the young boy. McGee and a group of friends were shot at one Halloween night by a gang of roving whites. One friend was killed and another injured, he once told
McGee’s mother had friends living in Wisconsin, so in 1963, she moved with her three sons to Milwaukee. Soon after, she and her husband divorced.
Mike McGee attended Rufus King High School. He held down a B average and played varsity football. After graduating in 1968, he turned down a college scholarship and joined the Army. Sent to Vietnam as a combat medic, he saw friends killed in battle, one by mortar fire with McGee at his side.
“It really had a tremendous effect on him,” his mother said to Milwaukee
Magazine.“The Michael we knew that was gentle and sweet and kind was cold and seemed indifferent.”
On Oct. 7, 1969, while he was still in the Army, the first of seven sons and two daughters was born to McGee and his wife Penelope. Though he had a different middle name, Michael Imanu McGee would become known as Michael Jr.
After Mike Sr. was discharged, he joined the Black Panthers in Milwaukee. As one of their projects, the Panthers provided free breakfasts to school children. To address problems facing the black community, McGee co-founded the United Black Community Council and Project Respect.
McGee ran for Common Council in 1976, challenging Alderman Orville Pitts – elected in 1968 as the first black man on the council – who McGee characterized as “old and false and funky,” according to The Milwaukee Courier.But McGee placed third in the primary. He ran for alderman again in 1980 and lost.
It was McGee’s involvement in the Ernest Lacy case in 1981 that thrust him into the public eye. Lacy, a 22-year-old black man, died in police custody after being arrested (for a charge he was later cleared of). Teaming up with activist Howard Fuller – who later became superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools – McGee made the news night after night as he demanded an investigation. Lacy’s family ultimately won a $600,000 settlement in court.
In 1984, McGee finally won a seat on the council. Two weeks after being sworn in, a black gang leader was found hanged by his shoe strings in a jail cell. An angry McGee pointed an accusing finger at police, calling them “the KKK in blue.” Five officers sued McGee for $3.5 million. But the libel suit was dismissed.
In his early years at City Hall, McGee worked within the system. “He was able to work with city departments, to get things accomplished in his district,” remembers Milwaukee City Clerk Ron Leonhardt. Supporters say McGee was instrumental in getting the Center Street Public
McGee created the Warning Basketball League for inner-city youth, which turned out players like former Milwaukee Bucks coach Terry Porter and NBA guard Rodney Buford. He proposed a gun buy-back program to get illegal weapons off the streets. After resurrecting a Black Panther militia and threatening violence unless conditions improved for African-Americans, he negotiated quietly behind closed doors with business leaders to fund a youth jobs program.
“Mike Sr. was one of the most effective council people, in his short time,” says Fuller today. “Mike knew how to make deals. But he didn’t want to play within that framework.”
Instead, it was his confrontational tactics that caricatured his life. To dramatize his disappointment with fellow aldermen, he wore a paper bag over his head for the official photograph of the 1988 Common Council. To symbolize racism, he staged the symbolic hanging of a black baby doll in the City Hall lobby. To demonstrate disapproval of public policies, he would blow incessantly into a whistle, once disrupting a Martin Luther King birthday celebration in the Performing Arts Center and an appearance by Jimmy Carter at a Habitat for Humanity house. He vowed to egg the Great Circus Parade unless a jobs plan was created. He drew 15 days in jail for urging rioters to overturn a squad car while protesting the police shooting of a black man.
The grandstanding began to alienate council members and breed enemies, including talk-radio host Mark Belling and then-Mayor John Norquist.
McGee’s stuntsinvited scrutiny. In 1987, a friend of McGee’s, David Reynolds, was accused of seeking payoffs from tavern owners seeking liquor licenses. Reynolds, an ex-con, managed a company that did home rehabs in McGee’s district. It was funded with federal money that passed through the Common Council. Reynolds was acquitted of extorting money from three grocery stores, but found guilty of embezzling grant funds and sentenced to federal prison.
McGee was stained by the scandal but never charged with wrongdoing. Yet some constituents had had their fill, and, in his sixth year on the council, began circulating recall petitions. In a court challenge, McGee succeeded in halting the recall, however. And months later, he announced that militants had informed him they would inject rat poison into Usinger’s sausages because the company opposed renaming a stretch of Third Street to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The threat prompted a massive recall of Usinger’s products and led Norquist to condemn a “demented” McGee for perpetrating a hoax.
In 1992, after two terms in office, McGee lost his council seat to black police Sgt. George Butler, a candidate endorsed by Norquist. McGee’s district had been redrawn, its boundaries extended far west, stripping away more than half of his original base. McGee blamed Norquist for orchestrating his defeat and compared the redistricting to South Africa’s apartheid.
Out of office, McGee’s antagonistic style never abated. He became the daily host of “The Word Warriors” on WNOV-AM, owned by Jerrel Jones, McGee’s friend and one-time member of his Black Panther militia. McGee, known by the moniker “The Commander,” was pulled from the air indefinitely last May for deriding the mother of talk-radio host Charlie Sykes two days after she died. By then, McGee’s son had taken on his father’s cause with a vengeance.
On Dec. 31, 1991, Mike McGee Jr., barely 22 years old and still registered as a student at UW-La Crosse, called a press conference in Milwaukee’s City Hall to declare his run for mayor against John Norquist. At his side was his father, then in the last months of his tenure as alderman.
“The word revolution itself scares the hell out of most white people,” said the younger M cGee. “Right away they envision that black people will start killing off whites. This is not the revolution I’m talking about. The black revolution that we are staging is one of citizen participation.”
It was a quixotic campaign, a byproduct of the bad blood between McGee Sr. and the mayor. Norquist had once counted McGee Sr. as an ally, but the two had grown apart on the issues. In a droll jab at the mayor’s support of Usinger’s, McGee began to call him Mayor Norqwurst.
McGee Jr. did well enough in the black community to collect 2,300 names on his nomination papers, more than the 1,500 needed to qualify. But he didn’t make it past the primary, a distant third in a field of six, with 7,028 votes.
Junior had preregistered for spring classes at La Crosse, but he didn’t go back. Instead he became active in McGee Sr.’s Warning Basketball League and worked for Project Respect. More and more, his father’s influence seemed to take hold. In September 1992 he transferred to UW-Milwaukee as a political science major.
McGee Sr., meanwhile, had fallen on hard times. He ran for the County Board in 1994, losing to Michael Mayo, a black candidate who was endorsed by Norquist. During the campaign, McGee told a reporter he had been out of work since losing his aldermanic seat.
Junior finished college in August 1999, finally getting a degree in political science from UWM.He was 29, a husband and father, and again running for office.
The city’s black community was migrating to the northwest side, a district represented by three-term incumbent Don Richards, a white alderman. McGee saw an opportunity and in April of 2000 challenged the incumbent, but lost by nearly a 4-to-1 margin.
McGee took it hard. “He thought that was going to be his moment right there,” says his brother Justus. “But eventually he came back. He knew he had a destiny to fill.”
A month later, McGee took a job as an academic advisor in UWM’s Gear Up program, helping at-risk middle-school students in Milwaukee Public Schools. For awhile, the $35,000-a-year post was a good fit. McGee was assigned to the Milwaukee Village Middle School, a smaller school housed within North Division High, where he worked to keep students
focused on preparing for college and avoiding trouble. Proudly wearing the McGee name, and mirroring his father’s past as a community activist, Mike Jr. even grew dreadlocks down to his shoulders.
“Mike was one of those guys that could transcend gangs, connect with people,” recalls Mark Briggs, McGee’s friend and colleague in Gear Up.
Briggs and McGee occasionally would take students on cross-country field trips – to colleges in Toronto, Florida and Nashville – sometimes packing 100 kids into a coach bus, Briggs says. On one trip they visited Sonny Carson, a legendary black nationalist in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a friend to McGee Sr.
In 2003, political opportunity knocked again when Alderman Rosa Cameron quit the council after pleading guilty to fraud. Cameron had succeeded Alderman George Butler, who had knocked McGee Sr. out of his 10th District seat 11 years earlier. The election for the open seat was a chance for the McGee family to take back the district.
In the primary, McGee Jr. topped the list of 12 candidates, with Willie Wade close behind. Calling himself “the new Mike,” a hopeful McGee told voters
his lifelong dream was to follow in his
During the campaign, McGee told a reporter of the very time and place he was first drawn into his father’s political world. It was his seventh birthday, 1976, he said. His father had taken him to a public safety hearing at City Hall. There, McGee Sr. had words with then-Police Chief Harold Breier, a hard-nose law-and-order chief. The discussion grew heated, and the chief suddenly placed his hand on the handle of his holstered gun as a show of authority.
“It was pretty frightening,” McGee
Jr. said. “I knew right then I wanted to
The elder McGee took to the airwaves to promote the campaign. “It’s the American way,” he said. “George Bush helped his son. Rarely does a black father get to pave the way for his son.”
But McGee Jr. was hampered by controversy. The principal of North Division complained that he had taken Gear Up students out of school without authorization to campaign for him. Again McGee Jr. went down in defeat, losing to Wade in the runoff. Months later, he was demoted to a desk job on campus.
Still, he was determined to get to City Hall. By February 2004, he had moved into the 6th District to run against Alderman Marlene Johnson-Odom, who had been in office since 1980. Harkening back to his father’s gripe with the “old and false” Orville Pitts, McGee Jr. told voters Johnson-Odom, then 67, had lost touch with constituents.
Redrawn in 2004, District 6 stretches from the pricey homes of Brewers Hill to the dilapidated neighborhoods of the inner city. It is one of Milwaukee’s most impoverished areas, with 84 percent of its residents black, and high rates of joblessness and crime.
“He caught Marlene cozying up to the developers,” says Walter Farrell, who now heads a research group at the University of North Carolina. “People got tired of that, and Marlene took the district for granted.” McGee pledged to champion the disenfranchised and start a neighborhood safety program to fight crime, similar to his father’s Project Respect.
McGee defeated Johnson-Odom with 53 percent of the vote. He had finally succeeded – and on his first campaign without his father’s help.
“McGee Sr. didn’t want to be seen as the father pulling the strings,” says a family friend. “Junior had his own people.”
Indeed, the new alderman seemed quite different than his father. Gone were the dreadlocks. Junior was soft-spoken among his council peers, dressed in a suit jacket and dress shirt.
Yet the father’s legacy was never far behind. Occasionally, when the new alderman’s constituents would visit the council chambers, he would lead them to the city clerk’s office to show off the infamous 1988 Common Council photograph with his father wearing a bag on his head. Many of Alderman McGee’s plans mimickedhis father’s: He initiated a gun buy-back program and formed the Rapid Response Team, patterned after dad’s Project Respect.
As he grew into his job, McGee’s focus stretched beyond the 6th District. He began to wear a walkie-talkie on his belt and monitored a police radio in his council office. Among his proposals, he called for postings of warning signs along the Milwaukee River following the drowning of two African-American girls. He promoted a cruising zone at Miller Park for young motorists. He sponsored an ordinance that required companies who do business with the city to reveal whether they profited in the past from the slave trade. He led rallies to pressure prosecution of the police officers who had beaten Frank Jude Jr., mirroring his father’s campaign for Ernest Lacy.
And to his constituents, he was accessible, helping elderly residents with health care needs, speaking to church groups, meeting with grieving families of shooting victims.
“McGee brought some major issues to the forefront – whether people want to give him credit,” says state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee). “But people don’t like confrontation. People don’t like being called on the carpet and not getting sugar with it.”
McGee’s combative style sometimes backfired. In one incident, after calling the police who were charged with beating Frank Jude “faggots,” he was confronted by state Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee), who is gay. McGee had called a City Hall news conference to demand a boycott of all non-black-owned businesses, and Carpenter showed up demanding an apology, to no avail.
McGee’s style was a stark contrast to the four other black aldermen who represent the inner city, most notably, Willie Hines, the low-key council president. McGee had become Al Sharpton to Willie Hines’ Vernon Jordan, all polished and diplomatic. Like the headline-grabbing stunts staged by his father, McGee’s ideas were condemned as theatrical diversions from serious council business.
“Whether people want to admit it or not, Milwaukee is very racially divided, and it’s not just race, it’s also class,” says Fuller. “There’s a segment of the African-American community who base their view of leadership on how often and how effective you are at taking on the white community. That’s where Mike Jr. is. In a lot of ways he’s very similar to his dad.
“People don’t grasp the disenchantment, the disconnect between black people and the rest of this community,” Fuller adds. “Many people see Mike as a way to represent that.”
McGee was idolized by young people in particular. “He gave them hope when nobody else gave them hope,” says Holt, a founder of the United Black Community Council. “Most work within the castle, but there’s a handful who stand up and throw rocks at the castle wall.”
Like his father, the controversial alderman had created enemies throughout the metro area. Supporters tried to warn him. According to one family friend, Jerrel Jones told Junior to be careful, to watch his back.
The young firebrand was walking a fine line, says Holt. “You just can’t keep spitting into a strong wind.”
If Mike McGee’s career echoed his father’s, there was one key difference: his personal scrapes with the law.
The son came of age at a time when the African-American community had changed markedly. The homicide rate topped 165 in 1992, a dubious city record, with most murders occurring in the inner city. Rates of teenage pregnancy and single motherhood rose. Black male unemployment soared as manufacturers cut back their work forces or moved from the city. Many turned to crime, and a disproportionate number of young black males were incarcerated. Junior’s peers faced a tougher economy with starker choices than those his father’s generation faced.
In October 1992, just months after moving back to Milwaukee from La Crosse, McGee Jr. was arrested by UWM police after fleeing the scene of a parking lot hit and run. He was found guilty of providing false information to police officers, having given a bogus birth date and claiming he was someone other than Michael McGee Jr.
At age 22, he had become the father of a child and lived with the child’s mother. But the relationship didn’t last, and soon he was paying child support.
In July 1994, the woman filed a restraining order against McGee, claiming physical harassment. A month later, he was arrested again – this time for taking a baseball bat to a motorist’s car, denting the driver’s door and smashing the windshield. Pleading no contest to a charge of criminal damage to property, McGee received a stayed sentence of four months in jail and 18 months probation. He spent 20 days in the House of Corrections.
In 1998, his temper boiled over again. According to court records, a no-contact order was filed against McGee after he allegedly made threatening remarks to a coworker at an unidentified job.
In the ensuing years, while working at UWM, McGee apparently had no involvement with police – until he was elected to the Common Council and had his infamous run-in with Wauwatosa police in 2005. After shouting obscenities at employees of a Blockbuster video store, he was arrested for disorderly conduct. McGee called the arrest racially motivated. In a plea agreement, he pleaded no contest to resisting and obstructing an officer.
In May 2006, McGee admitted to having an extramarital affair with 23-year-old Kimley Rucker. Days earlier, after a judge denied his request for a restraining order against Rucker, McGee was arrested for making threatening comments. “If you drive by my house, I’m gonna kill your ass,” he allegedly said to her. The woman claimed she was pregnant with his child.
McGee’s negative press became an embarrassment for Common Council members. More than once, Alderman Hines took him aside and told him to tone down his actions. But McGee was uncowed. In October 2006, ViAnna Jordan launched an effort to recall McGee. One of her key allies was Leon Todd, the outspoken former Milwaukee school board member.
For many years, Todd had feuded with McGee Sr., who had once assailed Todd (an African-American married to a white woman) for sponsoring a resolution to ban Afrocentric teachings in MPS. McGee publicly presented Todd with an “Oreo Cookie Man of the Year Award.”
“We’ve got history,” Todd says. “It’s like the Hatfields and McCoys, the Todds and McGees.”
On a December night in 1996, a Molotov cocktail landed at the doorstep of Todd’s home while he was at a school board meeting. Inside the West Side house were his wife and their four children.
The fire did minimal damage. But two days later, McGee Sr., on his WNOV radio show, praised the unknown arsonist, who was never caught. “My wholehearted congratulations to the guerrilla who issued a little warning shot to Todd,” the Commander announced. “I know where it came from.”
Now McGee Jr. was getting drawn into this feud. On WNOV in December 2006, two months after the recall effort had been launched, he lashed out against Todd, saying Todd has “got to be hung, you know, straight up, for his betrayal of the community.”
Todd demanded an apology. Junior refused. Today Todd carries in his wallet a copy of a restraining order that prohibits McGee Jr. from making contact with him.
Though he filed numerous legal challenges to the recall petition (parroting his father’s successful challenge of a recall effort years earlier), McGee Jr. and his lawyer were unsuccessful. A recall election was scheduled for April 3. Seven challengers were on the ballot. But against a backdrop of outrage and embarrassment, McGee prevailed.
His victory enraged his critics. “I guess he can do anything,” fumed former WTMJ-AM radio host Jessica McBride, “because he’s already done everything and keeps getting elected.”
To many constituents, however, McGee had been vindicated, defeating the outsiders who had attempted to take away their representative.
“Politics in the black community is played different than in the majority,” says Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who, as a conservative black candidate, has struggled to win the black vote. “There’s an emotional attachment to elected officials. The black electorate sees beyond all the foibles. They see him as one of us, almost as taking on the role of a crusader.
“It doesn’t matter how outsiders view him. McGee Jr. doesn’t play both sides of the fence,” Clarke adds. “What’s more important to him is maintaining his solidarity with constituents.”
With 64 percent of the vote, McGee had accomplished that. With so much wind in his sails, says a close friend, McGee began considering a run for mayor. But his resurrection didn’t last long.
Just days after the recall election, McGee moved with his wife and children into a Beerline apartment on the eastern edge of his district. He had sold his house on East Burleigh Street for $142,500 and rented a two-bedroom apartment, complete with underground parking and a private workout room, for about $1,500 a month. From the third-floor corner balcony, McGee could look up at the city’s glimmering skyline and the luxury condos of Brewers Hill.
On Monday, May 28 – Memorial Day – Milwaukee police officers and federal agents arrested McGee as he was leaving the apartment building. He had been the target of a joint public corruption task force for months. But based on a wiretap of his telephone days before, they believed he was about to harm another person. They moved in fast.
McGee was charged with a raft of felonies: in state court, with conspiring to cause bodily harm; in federal court, with extortion and bribery.
The news cut through the black community like a knife. Callers flooded the lines of WNOV the next morning. “They’ve been out to get Michael McGee and his father for a long time,” said one caller.
“After the recall election, it was pretty much the consensus (among black insiders) that he would be brought up on some charges,” says Holt. “You had this fiery black militant, always getting in the face of the status quo. In some way, shape or form, they were going to get him. Now he’s become a martyr. Even if he’s proven guilty, there will be people who say he was done in.”
District Attorney John Chisholm and U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic decline to be drawn into this discussion, letting the charges against McGee speak for themselves. The allegations paint a picture of a person unrecognizable to many who knew McGee: that he shook down business owners in the 6th District in exchange for approving liquor licenses; that he helped plan to “beat down” a young man who had burglarized a friend; that he bribed voters in the recall election, misused campaign funds and failed to report campaign donations.
“I’m hoping it’s not true. But if it is, it’s like my own son,” says state Rep. Williams. “I know his family, his wife, his mother-in-law, his sister-in-law. I know them all. But this is not the person I knew.”
For Williams and the generation of black activists who attended the fish fries at the McGee home and knew Junior since he was that trusted, well-behaved child, there is a deep sense of sadness.
“If he did it, that’s a bitter pill to swallow,” says Fuller, who donated to McGee’s defense fund after his arrest. “Because no matter how you cut it, he didn’t do the right thing. He didn’t do the right thing by his constituents or to himself and his family, and quite frankly to his history and what he’s been part of… That’s something Mike would have to live with.”
McGee remains in jail, held without bail. Prosecutors in July convinced a federal judge that McGee tried to influence witnesses even while behind bars. He is expected to go to trial in December. His allies expect him to serve time in prison. They say his political career is over.
“His father is devastated,” says a family friend. “He told him, don’t do anything that wouldn’t be approved by the election commission. But Junior’s campaign did it anyway. He didn’t surround himself with the right people.”
The lives of the two McGees have run parallel courses, with the son emulating the father’s work while separating himself from his influence. As McGee Jr. made himself into his own man, that separation may have done him in.
“If his son would’ve paid closer attention to his father as a role model…” a friend of the family laments. “They say the apple don’t fall far from the tree, but in this case I think the apple rolled down the hill.”
Mike Jr. wanted to carve out his own legacy, says his brother Justus.
“I think Mike wanted to do things different than my dad,” says Justus. “And in a way, that might have got him in trouble. My dad had years and years of experience dealing with politics in Milwaukee. He was pretty cunning, he knew how to manipulate things, he knew how far he could go.
“But Mike took some risks, and he’s paying the consequences,” Justus continues. “So maybe he thought my dad’s advice wasn’t relevant anymore.”
In the end, the son trumped the father in notoriety.
“When you’re controversial, you better be extra careful of how you handle things,” says Farrell. “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. He had absolute power in that district. And a pattern emerged… an implosion of what happened to his father.”
In July, his father called a press conference to denounce what he called the unjust incarceration of his son. Stirred from semiretirement, the man who was once Milwaukee’s most infamous activist demanded due process.
“I am telling you, we aren’t going to take this,” McGee Sr. bellowed into a bullhorn on the steps of the federal courthouse.
It had been 23 years since his election as alderman and 15 since he was banished from office. But as supporters gathered around, waving “Free Mike” signs and pumping clenched fists into the air, the once fearsome political leader told the assembled media that if his son is ultimately removed from office, he would run for the position again and win back the McGee seat. n
Kurt Chandler is a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine.Write to him at