Can Alderman Ashanti Hamilton Rise to the Challenge?

Ashanti Hamilton rose to power in a city hungry for political leadership. Will he rise to the challenge?

In 1990, Ashanti Hamilton ran away from home. He decided the house he’d been sharing with more than a dozen people, some of them family members, some of them drug addicts, was too chaotic a place for him to stay. “There wasn’t enough room for a high school kid who was full of himself and wanted to be an adult,” says the 43-year-old alderman who now represents a district on the North Side. A friend’s stepmother took him in and “opened up her home when I was a senior in high school, out on the street, just trying to find a place to lay my head,” he says. That’s what his drug-ridden neighborhood close to the intersection of First and Burleigh streets was like: “People outside of your immediate family became your extended family,” he says. “You helped each other to survive.

“I think part of that is really how I operate today: You recognize that the work you do requires a large tent.”

A year ago, Hamilton stitched together a tent big enough for a half-dozen African- American council members – and three white South Siders – to elect him Common Council president in an upset that toppled incumbent Ald. Mike Murphy, a council veteran. But more than once since then, their tent has looked ready to blow away. This past summer, the council’s public safety committee, headed by Hamilton’s pick for chair, tough-on-crime Ald. Bob Donovan, fired off a draft plan calling for more cops, more jail and “boot camps” for potential juvenile offenders.

The timing struck a nerve: Unrest had just erupted in the Sherman Park neighborhood, and the public reaction was withering. A hasty rewrite prioritized policy-community engagement instead, and Hamilton further insisted that future installments address such issues as “resident engagement” and job creation.

In November, the South Siders and Hamilton again collided when Donovan, Mark Borkowski, Tony Zielinski and José Pérez called on Police Chief Edward Flynn to add more patrols to their side of the city. Hours later, Hamilton countered with his own press release charging that the four had acted “irresponsibly” and “ignored their responsibility to represent the public safety concerns of the entire city.”

Although the November spat seemed to spell the end of a North Side-South Side alliance, Donovan and Hamilton both claim that everything’s just fine. “We met shortly after that, and I think ironed things out,” Donovan says. They followed the meeting with another that included Flynn.

“We have a very good relationship, and I can only see it improving,” Donovan says of Hamilton, who argues that the scuffle provided a civics lesson for the city. “I think everybody needed to see and hear the messy side of politics,” he says.

Not everyone agrees. Local Republican operative Craig Peterson says he’s “disappointed” with Hamilton’s performance, and the council president “demonstrated a lack of political acumen” in November when he came out against his own allies. The alderman has racked up “many, many missed opportunities,” Peterson says, to advance an agenda of “righting the problems in the central city.”

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Peterson has advised Donovan and Borkowski (who once called him “my Svengali”) and played some role in Hamilton’s election to council president, although Hamilton dismisses Peterson’s involvement and insists he first sought the backing of South Side members independent of any strategy by the operative.

Mayor Tom Barrett tends to avoid internal council politics and says he has “a solid working relationship” with Hamilton. “He brings a lot of energy to the position.”

Another City Hall insider acknowledges there’s been “more drama” surrounding the council as of late, but Hamilton insists you can have disagreements and still get things done. He points to the eventual consensus reached on the city’s crime-fighting plan and new city agreements to raise wages and elevate resident hiring standards for the new Bucks arena, among other achievements.

Pugnacious Ald. Bob Donovan

Hamilton says an urge to bring about change from the inside turned him away from his previous career in law and onto working as an aide in the late 1990s for then-Ald. Marvin Pratt, whom Hamilton succeeded. Hamilton demurs on the subject of running for mayor as Pratt did, predicting a wide-open field if Barrett retires. And anyway, he says, “Four years is a long time.”

“People want me to climb out on a limb a little bit more,” he says. But he’s gone far enough, he thinks. “I can hear the creak on the limb a little bit better than most.” ◆

Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” April 7 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.

‘Out on a Limb’ appears in the April 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.