In Upcoming Local Elections, Are the Choices Black and White?

In a historic first, African American candidates advance simultaneously for Milwaukee County exec, Milwaukee mayor and other top city offices.

Marvin Pratt’s campaign slogan echoes through the years, now more a question than a promise.

“It’s time!” the acting mayor’s supporters chanted – time, they thought, for Milwaukee’s first elected African American mayor. But most voters disagreed, picking former Congressman Tom Barrett instead of granting a full term to Pratt, the Common Council president who ran the city for four months after Mayor John Norquist stepped down in the wake of a sex scandal.

Now, 16 years later, voters will decide not only if it’s time for a black mayor, but also if it’s time for a black county executive, city attorney and city comptroller. Never before have African American candidates simultaneously reached Milwaukee’s general election ballot for all those offices and for city treasurer, where a black incumbent faces a black challenger in another first.

On April 7, state Sen. Lena Taylor faces Barrett in his bid for a fifth term, while Rep. David Crowley competes with Sen. Chris Larson to replace outgoing County Executive Chris Abele; lawyer Tearman Spencer challenges nine-term City Attorney Grant Langley; Rep. Jason Fields vies with Deputy City Comptroller Aycha Sawa to succeed outgoing Comptroller Marty Matson; and two-term City Treasurer Spencer Coggs faces token opposition from affordable housing developer Brandon Methu.

“It’s exciting to see so many black candidates for high offices,” says Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Taylor and Sawa also would be the first women to serve as mayor and comptroller. Only white men have been elected mayor and county exec. In addition to Pratt’s 2004 stint as acting mayor, then-County Board Chair Karen Ordinans and former Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske served as acting and interim county execs, respectively, in 2002, after a pension scandal forced County Exec Tom Ament to resign, while then-County Board Chair Lee Holloway and Pratt were acting and interim execs in 2011, after County Exec Scott Walker was elected governor.

In a city where people of color make up a majority of the population, Lang says this election could show “how much power black folks actually have.”

Yet all of the candidates who advanced from last week’s primary, both white and black, say they don’t expect voters to decide by race alone. Among the factors that could decide these contests:


Although incumbents like Barrett and Langley always have an edge, Milwaukee  is particularly incumbent-friendly. Barrett is the city’s third-longest-serving mayor, after Henry Maier (28 years) and Daniel Hoan (24 years). No incumbent mayor has lost a re-election bid since Hoan’s 1940 defeat, and only one incumbent county exec has been unseated in that office’s 60-year history.

Langley was the last person to beat an incumbent in his office – 36 years ago. He has served longer than any previous city attorney and is tied with Coggs’ predecessors, former City Treasurers Joe Krueger and Wayne Whittow, for the longest tenure as a citywide elected official.

Spencer bested Langley in the primary, but as Taylor points out, primaries don’t always predict general election results. Pratt finished ahead of Barrett in the 2004 primary, while Abele ran second to then-Rep. Jeff Stone in the 2002 special election primary and to Larson in the 2016 primary, only for all those results to be reversed in general elections.

Previous candidates of color who lost to incumbents include then-Sheriff Richard Artison, who fell to Norquist in 1996; Taylor, who failed to oust Walker in 2008; and then-Rep. Pedro Colon, who unsuccessfully challenged Langley in 2008 and is now a judge.  


Taylor, Crowley and Spencer say they would build diverse, inclusive coalitions to tackle issues like segregation, poverty and inequity, while Fields says he would redefine his office to focus on revenue and economic development. Larson also says he would forge coalitions, while Barrett adviser Patrick Guarasci touts the mayor’s “bold vision” as “a uniter.”

A change-themed campaign worked for Dave Schulz, the fired parks director who defeated his former boss, County Exec Bill O’Donnell, in 1988, but not for most other challengers.


Langley and Sawa stress their qualifications for the top legal and financial jobs.

As an assistant city attorney for 13 years before his 1984 election, Langley has nearly half a century of municipal law experience, while Spencer’s practice has focused on business, real estate and consumer litigation.

Sawa is a certified public accountant who joined the comptroller’s office as an auditor in 2010, rising to audit manager and accounting director before becoming deputy comptroller. Fields isn’t an accountant, although he has worked in various financial service jobs.


Since his initial victory over Pratt, Barrett has been re-elected three times with at least 70% of the general-election vote, a wider margin than Norquist, Abele or Walker ever racked up against any opponent. In the primary, Barrett drew more than 50% of the vote, up from 46% four years ago.

But what may be more significant is where those votes came from. As in past races, Barrett rallied citywide support, not just in white neighborhoods but also in the African American areas of the North and Northwest sides that he long represented in the Legislature and in Congress, say Guarasci and local political scientist Mordecai Lee.

By contrast, all 131 voting wards that Taylor carried were on the North and West sides. Except for one South Side ward where she and Barrett tied, she didn’t win a single ward on the South or East sides. Most other citywide and countywide candidates drew more diverse support.

Crowley carried the city and the most affluent suburbs, with a clear win in Whitefish Bay and razor-thin victories in Bayside, Fox Point, Hales Corners and River Hills. Larson led in overall and suburban votes, dominating Shorewood and the southern and western suburbs, while County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb Sr. carried only his hometown, Glendale, and neighboring Brown Deer.


While the city’s 23% turnout was high for a February primary, the April general election is expected to draw more than twice as many voters, pumped up by the Democratic presidential primary and a hotly contested state Supreme Court race as well as the mayoral and county executive elections.

Both major parties are mounting major get-out-the-vote efforts to turn out their supporters in the officially nonpartisan high court race. Combined with BLOC’s work in the black community and the array of African American candidates, the April election could see a big turnout of voters of color, say Lang, Lee and Republican operative Craig Peterson. Taylor and Crowley say they expect that turnout to help them. But Larson says he learned in 2016 that many presidential voters weren’t interested in local politics.


Crowley benefited from $240,054 in independent spending by Abele’s largely self-funded Leadership MKE – nearly half of it for digital ads targeting the black community – with more likely to come in the general election.

That’s money Abele was expected to spend for his handpicked successor, county child support director Jim Sullivan. But after Abele nemesis Lipscomb convinced election officials to knock Sullivan and Glendale Mayor Bryan Kennedy off the ballot for flaws in their nominating petitions, Abele switched his support to Crowley, citing the lawmaker’s collaborative style – an unspoken contrast to the outgoing exec’s history of clashes with Larson and Lipscomb.

Crowley says he didn’t ask for Abele’s money and doesn’t need it to win – a point disputed by Larson, who was swamped by Abele’s big spending in 2016. Fields, by contrast, says he welcomes the support of Abele, who personally donated $6,000 to his campaign and also endorsed Spencer. On Tuesday, Leadership MKE announced its backing of Fields and Spencer, signaling a planned infusion of independent cash for both candidates.

Lee and Peterson say Abele’s cash could give Crowley an edge, just as Barrett’s huge campaign treasury gives him an advantage over Taylor. However, Abele’s big-money approach has been most successful for his own campaigns. His record is mixed when supporting other local candidates, particularly those opposed by progressive grassroots groups like BLOC and the Wisconsin Working Families Party.

For the primary, BLOC endorsed both Crowley and Larson; stayed out of the mayor’s and city attorney’s races; and backed teacher Alex Brower, the third-place finisher in the city comptroller’s race. Lang says general-election endorsements will depend on candidates’ positions on racial equity in criminal justice – a top issue for Taylor and Spencer.

Working Families, undergoing a local leadership transition, wasn’t active in the primary. The organization is discussing its general-election stance with such partners as Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Voces de la Frontera Action and the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association – three groups that have endorsed Larson.

Taylor and Fields have alienated progressives and pleased conservatives by supporting school vouchers, along with Taylor’s backing of pro-gun measures. But voucher advocates spent $34,592 opposing Larson, even though Crowley says he’s against vouchers, too.

Overall, this election is still an uphill battle for Taylor, while the low-profile city attorney and city comptroller races are hard to predict. But the county executive campaign could be the closest match between black and white candidates since the Pratt-vs.-Barrett contest, giving Crowley this spring’s best shot at a place in local history.




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.