Mayor Barrett Says Goodbye to His Milwaukee Post After 18 Years

It’s official. Tom Barrett is no longer the Mayor of Milwaukee.

Tom Barrett’s nearly 18-year run as Milwaukee’s mayor officially ends at the close of the business day on Wednesday.

Barrett, who is set to become ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, signed a letter of resignation at City Hall in front of a group of reporters who gathered at his office on Wednesday morning. Barrett then handed over the letter to City Clerk Jim Owczarski, making his departure official.

“It has been my honor and privilege to serve the citizens of Milwaukee,” the letter states. “I am confident that that City will continue to grow and prosper in the years ahead.”

Barrett’s resignation is effective as of 5 p.m. Wednesday. At that time, Common Council President Cavalier Johnson will, by law and with no oath required, become acting mayor. Johnson will serve in that role until a special election on April 5. The winner will serve the final two years of Barrett’s current term. A primary will be held on Feb. 15. A special Common Council meeting is scheduled for Thursday to formally set the election dates.

Johnson is among eight candidates who have declared to replace Barrett.

Photo by Rich Rovito

 

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Barrett is expected to be sworn in as ambassador to Luxembourg at 9 a.m. Thursday at the federal courthouse in Milwaukee in front of Judge Lynn Adelman.

The U.S. Senate on Dec. 16 confirmed President Joe Biden’s nomination of Barrett to become ambassador to the small European country. As ambassador to Luxembourg, Barrett will fill the role most recently held by lawyer Randy Evans, a member of the Republican Party from Georgia who was nominated for the post by former President Donald Trump.

“I want to thank the residents of the city of Milwaukee for giving me nearly 18 years of the biggest honor and privilege of my life,” Barrett said in remarks immediately before signing his resignation letter. “I have absolutely loved being the mayor of this great city. With its challenges, with its opportunities, with its wonderful people, I have been blessed.”

Barrett, who said he expects to depart for Luxembourg in January, pointed to some of the accomplishments under his administration.

Photo by Rich Rovito

“You have seen a resurgence in the heart of the city and investments in the heart of the city,” he said. “You look at the Menomonee Valley, Reed Street Yards and the transformation of the old Pabst Brewery. You look at the literally thousands of new housing units that have gone up over the last 15 years. It’s because people have believed in this city and invested in this city.”

Barrett repeatedly expressed gratitude for having the opportunity to lead the city for nearly two decades.

A lifelong Milwaukeean, Barrett entered public service starting in the Wisconsin State Assembly and Senate and continued his legislative career representing Milwaukee in the U.S. Congress before his extended run as Milwaukee’s mayor, which began in 2004.

“This is the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life, and it is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’m leaving this job filled with optimism for the future of this city because I know the people of this city and I know that they believe in themselves.”

Photo by Rich Rovito

After signing his resignation letter, Barrett fielded several questions from reporters, the first, and perhaps most problematic issue as he leaves office, focused on the city’s rising murder rate, which reached record levels in 2020 and 2021.

Barrett noted that after several years of steady decline, the city’s homicide rate has jumped dramatically, coinciding with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without a doubt, many if not most major American cities have seen a resurgence of violence since 2020,” Barrett said. “There’s no question that’s a huge issue. I think that’s a challenge going forward.”

Gun laws also play a part in the increase in violence, he said.

“Cleary, we have to deal with the level of violence,” Barrett said. “That is something that weighs heavily.”

Here are Barrett’s comments on some other topics:

  • On whether he’ll endorse a candidate to replace him: “No. I’m covered by the Hatch Act, which means I can’t get involved in partisan politics. In the spirit of that, I think it’s prudent that I discuss this with people at the city but I’m going to take a break from politics.”
  • On the most significant accomplishments during his tenure: “I’m proud of a lot of things we have done. The work we have to done to reduce teen pregnancy, that was a community effort and something I thought was very meaningful. Transformations of areas like the Menomonee Valley. But I’m not in a reflective mood. My foot is still on the accelerator. Hopefully, I’ll have some time over the holidays to reflect.”
  • On whether he’ll keep his Washington Heights residence: “If I want to keep my marriage, I’m keeping my residence. Yes. Absolutely, yes.”
  • On the biggest challenges stemming from the pandemic: “The last 21 months have been extremely difficult. The pandemic itself has been very, very challenging. Bear in mind, in the summer (of 2020) we had a lot of unrest that followed. Then the loss of many events. That may seem like a strange thing, but in this job you get your energy from a number of places and one of the places where I always got my energy was being among people. When that’s taken away from you it’s a loss of an energy source. I’ve missed that. I think anybody in this job needs that personal interaction.”
  • On the seemingly smooth transition of power: “I want people to succeed. I want the city to succeed. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to have this smooth transition.”
  • On what skill set he brings to his role as ambassador: “I obviously know how to run an organization. I think a lot of times when ambassadors come into this role, they are either not familiar with running an organization or not familiar with interacting with the public. I have a huge learning curve in other areas. The nuances of international diplomacy. That will be the challenge.”
  • On leaving the mayor’s office: “There are some people that leave these jobs and they’re embittered and isolated. I’m a happy guy. I’m so thankful to have had this honor and this experience, but it’s a new chapter in life.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.