Tony Zielinski, the first candidate out of the gate for Milwaukee’s April 2020 mayoral election, loves telling the story about the closing of Johnny Club Carnival. The dilapidated bar on Kinnickinnic Avenue served its last beer in 2015, and not long after the doors closed, someone called the Bay View-area alderman to express interest in reopening there.
“How much money are you going to spend to fix up the place?” Zielinski said.
“About $10,000,” the man said.
“No you’re not!”
“What are you talking about?”
“There’s no way I’m supporting you.”
“The days of dive bars in Bay View are over with.”
And Zielinski meant it. Not long after that, George Mireles, owner of Café Corazón in Riverwest, contacted him and said he was hoping to put $500,000 into the building, which now holds the restaurant’s second location. Kinnickinnic is Zielinski’s string of pearls, although opinions differ as to how much credit he deserves for its revitalization over the past decade.
Welcome to Tony’s Bay View. He’s the former South Side Milwaukee County Board member who in 2000 voted for the golden pension plan that triggered a scandal (although Zielinski largely avoided its fallout), won election to represent the 14th Aldermanic District in 2004 and tacked to the left as the years went by, becoming a hype man for urban agriculture, renewable energy and public art. Before all that, however, circa 1990, he was known as a young county supervisor who had ghoulishly proposed that the county sell the organs of the deceased poor in order to repay the county for social services. “If they can’t help society while they’re alive,” he said of the idea – which was covered in The New York Times – “maybe they can help it while they’re dead.”
Forever tough on crime and cuts to cops, Zielinski figures to challenge four-term Mayor Tom Barrett, who at press time hadn’t yet announced whether he’ll run for re-election. “As mayor, I’ll be able to magnify what I’ve done in my district many times over for the whole city,” says Zielinski. “You name the issue, and I’ve been active on it.”
Political insiders in the city often describe Zielinski as an “interesting combination” of law and order and Bay View liberal, and as he ramps up his mayoral campaign, he’s doing what he can to find common ground between the two. Fixing potholes will be a higher priority under Zielinski, he says, and he’ll extract whatever funding he can from the streetcar to spend on public safety. He also has an outline of a plan to improve Milwaukee Public Schools: first by helping a single, pilot school with intensive, trauma-informed services, and then using the data to convince the wider community to spend more to expand the program. “I’m going to make turning around the central city one of my top campaign issues,” he says. In recent months, he’s been a busy bee at City Hall, putting together new initiatives, including a plan for a fund to which individuals and businesses could donate to pay for more cops.
As of January, Zielinski had raised a healthy $240,000 for the race, and built up a good head of steam, but foes were already beginning to pop up. According to Patty Pritchard Thompson – the former treasurer of Zielinski’s past two aldermanic opponents and the president of the Bay View Neighborhood Association (although she stressed she wasn’t speaking on behalf of that group) – there’s an adage in the neighborhood: “If you want to do anything in Bay View,” she says, “a check needs to go to Tony first.”
Zielinski dismisses the idea. “Those are unfounded allegations,” he says. He raises “a lot of money” and hasn’t done “anything that’s inappropriate.”
The Bay View alderman chairs the city Licenses Committee, which holds sway over tavern, restaurant and other licenses in the city. It’s a demanding but powerful post with great fundraising potential: In 2017, 34 of the 154 people who donated to his campaign fund did so either before or after they sought approval from his committee in 2016 or 2017. Some of these folks appeared before the panel more than once, making for a total of 54 occasions in 2017 when past or future donors were on the agenda for license matters, the vast majority of which were approved.
About 80 percent of the donations, which totaled $13,000, came after meetings, typically within a few months. In an interview, Zielinski said he does most of his fundraising himself, and he didn’t deny approaching business owners after they had appeared before the Licenses Committee. Out of the 34 donors mentioned above, only four had license issues in his district.
“I approach people at all different times,” he says. “What I’m doing has no bearing on any licenses or what I do.”
He emphasizes that donations prior to meetings make him uncomfortable. “I tell people if they’ve got something coming up,” he says, “I don’t like that happening before any committee meeting.” Yet on seven occasions in 2017, donations fell within the 90 days prior to a meeting in which the donor was on the agenda.
Zielinski has critics, but even they admit he’s a formidable opponent. “Tony’s strength is he knocks on doors and does the work,” says one Democratic insider. ◆