How Wauwatosa Became a Democratic Stronghold

Western suburb’s political evolution gives once-dominant Republicans the Tosa blues

Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride grew up with his hometown’s Democratic Party.

McBride’s mother, Marian “Toni” McBride, formed the party’s Wauwatosa unit in 1954, the year after he was born. And, like him, the local party was pretty small back then.

McBride estimates Wauwatosa was 80% to 90% Republican in the 1950s. “It was a hotbed of the John Birch Society,” the Appleton-based far-right group of anti-Communist conspiracy theorists associated with Wisconsin’s GOP Sen. Joe McCarthy and failed Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

Times have changed. In 2018, Wauwatosa’s Robyn Vining was the only Wisconsin Democrat to flip an Assembly seat from red to blue – and she did it by beating the outgoing state treasurer in the district that had previously elected such Republican standard-bearers as former Gov. Scott Walker and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Leah Vukmir.

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This month, Wauwatosa votes helped power Brookfield Democrat Sara Rodriguez to an upset victory over four-term state Rep. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield). Vining, whose district also includes a chunk of Waukesha County and part of Milwaukee, was re-elected by a comfortable 54%-46% margin over Republican challenger Bonnie Lee, in contrast to her narrow 138-vote defeat of the GOP’s Matt Adamczyk in 2018.

In the presidential race, Wauwatosa voted for Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden by a 2-1 margin over Republican incumbent Donald Trump. That compares with 62% for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vs. 38% for Trump (excluding third-party and independent candidates) in 2016.

Those results suggest that Wauwatosa not only has turned from deep red to blue but is getting bluer with each election. How did that happen?

Unlike some other suburbs, Wauwatosa’s population was quite stable for many years, with a high proportion of lifetime residents, McBride says. The stalwart Republicans of his childhood stayed there until they died or moved to assisted-living centers or nursing homes. But eventually, many of them did “age out,” he says.

“Over the last 20 years, things started to change in a big way,” McBride says.

Younger families have been moving into Wauwatosa, drawn by the city’s well-regarded schools, high-quality housing stock and booming restaurant scene, say McBride, Vining and Rodriguez.

Vining’s family was among them. She moved there 13 years ago and first became politically active during the 2011 protests against Act 10, the legislation that stripped nearly all collective-bargaining rights from most public employees, soon after Walker became governor and Republicans captured both houses of the Legislature.

In Wauwatosa, “People got very angry, because they care about public education and teachers,” says Vining, herself the daughter of a public school teacher. “My family marched at the Capitol.”

Issues like climate change, racial justice and now the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic also have influenced political views in Wauwatosa, Vining and Rodriguez say.

“The conversations that I had with people in Wauwatosa definitely (show) that they’re moving away from the Republican Party and their values align more with the Democratic Party,” Rodriguez says.

In many ways, Wauwatosa is part of a national trend of first-tier suburbs becoming more Democratic, McBride says.

Compared with some of Milwaukee County’s North Shore suburbs, Clinton carried Wauwatosa by about the same margin as she did Glendale in 2016, while Biden’s 2020 margin in Wauwatosa was similar to Clinton’s 2016 margins in Whitefish Bay and Brown Deer. Those North Shore suburbs became even bluer this year, voting more than 70% for Biden, while Shorewood went from 82% support for Clinton to 84% backing of Biden.

Democratic strength also has been rising in the Waukesha County parts of Vining’s and Rodriguez’s districts. Vining took 41% of the Waukesha County vote this year, up from 35% in 2018. Rodriguez picked up 42% of the Waukesha County vote in her district, compared with 38% for McBride when he sought that seat in 2018.

Together, those two Assembly districts account for 96% of Wauwatosa – and two-thirds of the 5th Senate District. That seat is now held by Vining’s predecessor, Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), who succeeded Vukmir in both the Assembly and the Senate. Does that mean Kooyenga’s seat could be in play in 2022?

“I thought it was in play last time,” in 2018, when the four-term representative won the traditionally Republican Senate seat by just a 51%-49% margin over first-time Democratic rival Julie Henszey, McBride says.

However, with all Senate and Assembly districts subject to redistricting after this year’s Census, nobody can predict what’s ahead for any legislative race, say McBride, Vining and Rodriguez.

Kooyenga, Hutton and Walker did not respond to messages seeking comment. Neither did representatives of the Milwaukee County Republican Party and its Wauwatosa unit.

Vining notes that she was drawn to Wauwatosa by its political diversity and cautions that it’s still far from monolithic in its political leanings. Several conservative aldermen hold seats on the officially nonpartisan Common Council, she points out.

But, as McBride says, “It’s not my parents’ Wauwatosa.”

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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 profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.