Can Anybody Beat Mayor Tom Barrett?

Can Anybody Beat Mayor Tom Barrett?

The mayor’s race is starting to take shape, and there are wild cards aplenty.

Is Tom Barrett destined to become Milwaukee’s next 20-year mayor? Or will someone rain on his parade?

Ald. Tony Zielinski’s campaign is certainly trying, although it’s hit a few bumps along the way. Questions first raised in these pages about his aggressive fundraising practices led to his losing the chairmanship of the city Licenses Committee. Then a drone video of his three-story modernist home made him look out of touch with his bungalow-dwelling neighbors. Not shy by nature, the alderman had previously trumpeted the house’s solar panels and green, energy-efficient design.

Nevertheless, Zielinski is in a unique position to seriously rattle Barrett next spring. Depending on who you ask, a serious campaign for Milwaukee mayor requires $500,000 to $700,000; Barrett spent $611,000 on his 2016 landslide victory over one-on-one opponent Ald. Bob Donovan, who ran a $237,000 campaign. Zielinski, as of a January reporting period, had already raised about $470,000 (albeit with $200,000 in personal funds). And included in his war chest are large contributions from former Barrett stalwarts, showing that Zielinski has begun to chip away at Barrett’s base.

Despite defections, Tom Barrett’s campaign had about $720,000 on hand earlier this year, comfortably ahead of his challengers. The closest was Ald. Tony Zielinski, who had raised $470,000.

“Tom Barrett has become ripe to the point the fruit is about to start rotting,” says Craig Peterson, a local political consultant allied with Zielinski. Until now, “The guy has been so lucky,” Peterson says, dodging major political hits despite the city’s struggles with crime and the lead poisoning epidemic.

Among the prominent Barrett defectors now backing Zielinski are Keith Mardak, CEO of Milwaukee music publisher Hal Leonard, who gave Zielinski’s campaign $5,200 last May, and Dennis Klein, a business development executive with C.D. Smith Construction, who gave $5,000 in December 2017, shortly after the alderman announced he was running. Both donated large amounts to Barrett in the run-up to the April 2016 election, but not since.

The challenge for any alderman running for mayor is the need to build a citywide political operation while the incumbent has (or at least should have) one already humming along in the background. Barrett’s, led in part by political consultant Patrick Guarasci, had about $720,000 on hand earlier this year, and Zielinski’s fellow challengers have trailed far behind in fundraising. Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton reported just $6,000 at the close of 2018.

Before Hamilton became council president, he was seen as a middle-of-the-pack alderman, smart but lacking in impact. His candidacy has a number of problems, according to insiders: He’s been very cozy with Barrett for someone now claiming to offer a contrast, and the alderman’s long history of personal money problems could come back to bite him. “Like many Milwaukeeans, I have had some financial challenges with my family that have been resolved,” he says, “and in no way have affected my performance as alderman and president of the council.” His other legal trouble – a 2009 abuse case in which he whipped his daughter with a plastic hanger – seems likely to rear its head as well.

But Hamilton has County Executive Chris Abele in his corner, the deepest pair of pockets in local politics. Abele is said to be on the outs with Barrett, his former friend and ally, and an Abele-funded independent group throwing its weight around could scramble the current prospects.

Barrett himself is reportedly thrilled with the election of a mild-mannered Democrat, Tony Evers, as governor, and optimistic about running for another term, although he hadn’t made a formal announcement as of press time.

Other names bandied about at this writing were Milwaukee golden-boy state legislators Evan Goyke and Dan Riemer, popular Municipal Judge Derek Mosley, and state Sen. Lena Taylor, who was rumored to be planning a February announcement. While Taylor is noted for her energy, she’s derided by even Democratic insiders for her, um, reliability. Last May, Taylor was cited with disorderly conduct after she got into a racially tinged argument with a bank clerk.

Barrett may be vulnerable this cycle, but can anyone capitalize on it? “Running for mayor is a very difficult thing,” one insider says.

By the numbers: Milwaukee mayor’s office


Years in office for the longest-serving mayor of Milwaukee, Henry Maier. He held office between 1960 and 1988 and was no friend to the Civil Rights Movement – including Milwaukee’s open housing marches.


Months in office for the shortest-serving (non-acting) mayor of Milwaukee, George Wilbur Peck. He was elected mayor in the spring of 1890 and governor that November.


Number of people who’ve served as mayor (not including acting mayors). The first, Solomon Juneau, was inaugurated in 1846.


Number of African-American mayors. Common Council President Marvin Pratt (now a close adviser to Ashanti Hamilton) served three and a half months as acting mayor at the beginning of 2004.


Number of Socialist mayors: Emil Seidel (1910-1912), Daniel Hoan (1916-1940) and Frank Zeidler (1948-1960).


Mayor’s approximate salary

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the job title of Zielinski donor Dennis Klein. 

“Sizing Up the Field” appears in the March 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning Feb. 25, or buy a copy at

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.



Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.