Here’s Why Critics of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett Are in a Lose-Lose Position

The recall effort against Barrett is just the latest in a series of so-far-unsuccessful attacks by the two distinctly separate strains of opposition to his administration. In theory, they could bring him down if they united — but in practice, they can’t.

They don’t like Milwaukee’s fourth-term chief executive. But they dislike each other even more. That disunity among Mayor Tom Barrett’s opponents — largely white working-class residents to his right, African-Americans frustrated by their community’s lack of economic progress to his left — has guaranteed the failure of ouster attempts that would have been long shots to begin with.

The latest example came this week, when a drive to recall Barrett fell more than 40,000 petition signatures short of the 51,332 required by Tuesday’s deadline to force a special election. Retired firefighter Allen Jansen, backed by Original Black Panthers leader Darryl “King Rick” Farmer and the firefighters’ union, had cited the mayor’s planned streetcar line — already under construction — and his handling of the crime and lead water pipe issues as reasons to vote him out.

In a letter notifying the city’s Election Commission of the end of the petition drive, Jansen wrote, “It became obvious that I overestimated the demand for changing the direction of the political leadership of Milwaukee. With the successes of downtown growth, there seems to be a lack of appetite for change.”

The recall drive’s failure was far less surprising than the fact that it was mounted at all. Jansen started gathering signatures slightly more than a year after Barrett won re-election by defeating Ald. Bob Donovan by a 70%-30% margin.

“I have no idea what the premise was behind it,” Donovan said of the recall push, in which he was not involved. “Obviously I disagree with the mayor on a lot of things, but he won the election overwhelmingly.”

Because Barrett won with 110,437 votes in a city of almost 600,000, Jansen said in an interview, the recall leader thought he could find 51,332 people unhappy enough to sign recall petitions, but “to the mayor’s credit, I couldn’t find them. That was an abject failure on my part.” Jansen also said the recall drive “was a lot of work that I was unprepared for.”

Donovan had campaigned heavily on the crime and streetcar issues. Opposition to the streetcar was already a proven losing cause: Donovan and other rail transit critics had fallen short in three previous petition drives targeting the plan.

And Barrett has long enjoyed the advantages of incumbency and of a campaign treasury that has dwarfed the resources of any opponent to date. During the 2016 race, Republican operative Craig Peterson argued those advantages could be overcome by forging a coalition between African-Americans and conservatives, isolating white liberals like Barrett.

That didn’t work for the mayor’s race. Then-Ald. Joe Davis Sr., the leading black candidate, refrained from criticizing Donovan in the primary, then endorsed him in the general election. But Donovan’s history of racially divisive rhetoric guaranteed he wouldn’t win the black vote.

The Common Council’s white conservative bloc then joined forces with African-Americans to elect Ald. Ashanti Hamilton as council president, replacing Ald. Michael Murphy, a frequent Barrett ally. But that has been an uneasy coalition.

A similar dynamic was at work in the recall drive. Peterson has said he didn’t have any role in the effort, but in an interview with Milwaukee Magazine, he said the diverse players opposing Barrett “wanted to meet each other, so I brought them together. … Other than introducing them, they were out there by themselves.”

On the streets, racial tensions swiftly divided the anti-Barrett factions, with white South Siders distrusting black petition circulators, according to a source close to the effort. Asked about that, Jansen responded only that Milwaukee remains a highly segregated city. Peterson conceded “there’s been some difficulty working together, because they’ve never worked together before,” but added “the leaders personally like each other” and “could be a force going forward.”

Donovan has his doubts. “To get a group like the Black Panthers to sit in the same room with some conservative outfit, that’s beyond me,” the veteran South Side alderman said. “Getting those groups together, that’s easier said than done.”

Indeed, some observers suggest the recall drive was less about unity than division. One Democratic strategist speculated conservatives were trying to “sow chaos” and “just make life difficult for Tom Barrett” by splitting his base. The effort forced Barrett to draw up contingency plans, but the mayor was careful not to overreact by launching a massive fundraising push that could have taken money away from Democrats on the 2018 ballot, campaign adviser Patrick Guarasci said.

In the end, says University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Professor Mordecai Lee, who served with Barrett when both were Democratic state lawmakers, the recall drive didn’t amount to any more than a way for the mayor’s opponents to say, “We still don’t like the guy, even if we’re only 30% of the voters.”



Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.