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Looking at the nuances in Joe Dudzik’s political career, and the coming special election for his Common Council seat.

Joe Dudzik embodied some of the highs and some of the lows of Milwaukee politics.

Until his death in a motorcycle crash last month, you may have heard only the low points. On two of his rare appearances in the headlines, the southwest side alderman came under fire for racially charged comments. And recently, he triggered a different kind of controversy when he unsuccessfully tried to ban food trucks in his district.

If you followed the news closely, you might also have known that he helped catch a pair of bank robbers and once sponsored a resolution urging civility in public discourse.

None of that would have told you why, when he died at 56, his Common Council colleagues reacted with genuine grief — and why some of the most distraught were those most opposed to his politics.

“I don’t think the few public statements where he was in the media were representative of the man,” Council President Michael Murphy said. “He was much more nuanced than that. He was the kind of guy you could disagree with one day and the next day have a beer with.”

East Side Ald. Nik Kovac agreed, saying, “I voted against Joe many times. He voted against me many times. (But) we had mutual respect.”

In his 13 years on the council, Dudzik had earned that respect through his diligence, studying all available material to understand issues more thoroughly than some better-educated colleagues, Murphy said. Unlike most politicians, Dudzik shied away from the limelight, even chewing out his friend Murphy for publicly praising his work on a complex issue, the council president recalled.

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Representing a largely blue-collar district heavily populated by municipal staff, Dudzik was a city public works employee, a second-generation union leader and the son of a police officer.

But Dudzik was not so easily pigeonholed politically. He was a fiscal conservative who opposed the planned streetcar line while also advocating for recycling and accessibility for the disabled. He went against the wishes of the police union that his father once led when he fought state legislation to end the city employee residency requirement and when he backed Mayor Tom Barrett’s restructuring of the city Pension Board.

Dudzik also figured in the city’s racial tensions. After black youths attacked predominantly white State Fair visitors in 2011, he joined Ald. Bob Donovan in blaming “a deteriorating African-American culture in our city,” drawing denunciations from black leaders. In January of this year, Dudzik offered a racially tinged prediction of rapes and assaults aboard streetcars, prompting every other council member — except Donovan — to condemn his words.

Yet he broke with Donovan, his closest ally, over council redistricting and what Dudzik considered Donovan’s interference in Dudzik’s district.

Now the special election for Dudzik’s seat is attracting a typically large but unusually colorful field. Among those circulating nomination petitions are:

  • State Sen. Tim Carpenter, a Democrat who has sometimes broken ranks with his party. Carpenter lost bids for Congress in 2004 and city treasurer in 2012.
  • Michael Lutz, a lawyer who leveled allegations of political bias against Democratic District Attorney John Chisholm’s secret investigation of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign. When Lutz was a police officer, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported he used force more often than nearly any of his colleagues over a five-year period.
  • Police Officer Alexander Ayala, who was suspended after the Fire & Police Commission overturned then-Chief Nannette Hegarty’s 2007 decision to fire him for lying about the citizenship of his brother, also an officer. Ayala is active in Hispanic groups.
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Also running are accountant Michael Sugden; Tim Kenney, an Air National Guard technician supervisor; and Dennis Bach, a city public works employee who lost to Dudzik in 2008. Sugden had already launched a 2016 challenge to Dudzik, while Bach, Kenney, Lutz — and, insiders say, Ayala — were considering doing so.

Candidates say they expect debate to focus on public safety, street maintenance and economic development.

But for the most familiar names in the field, the challenge could be whether they are judged by their past controversies or whether they can show voters that they — like Dudzik — are more than the sum of their most infamous choices.

Talking Politics is Milwaukee Magazine‘s weekly political column. For more commentary and insight, visit milwaukeemag.com/politics.

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