The careers of local politicians often exist in a weird limbo between obscurity and intimacy. Aldermen in Milwaukee can receive up to 100 calls a day from constituents complaining about government services — and some might claim more. During campaign season, candidates for the Milwaukee Common Council and County Board often rely heavily on “doing doors,” which means knocking or ringing the doorbell and literally, actually speaking to potential voters. But locals also get limited media attention in Wisconsin, where political coverage is instead defined by the state and the dealings of a governor who frequently inspires controversy.
It’s something of a shame because serving in local office tends to attract a rather direct, energetic and, occasionally, bizarre strain of politician. Any number of these people could end up running for mayor someday, and, even if they lose, they’ll have had a serious chance to influence the local conversation. People like aldermen Nik Kovac or Jose Perez can impress at a community meeting one day and fade back into the ether — until they come rap, rap, rapping at your door.
If only someone were producing a Sunday show sort of like Meet the Press or Face the Nation but focused narrowly on the city, where these people could sit under some bright lights, Charlie Rose style, and make some utterances. (UpFront with Mike Gousha is a blockbuster but draws from all levels of government: state, local, federal, and perhaps soon, astronomical.) Oh wait, there is such a thing. But catching it requires either a really bad case of insomnia or punching a dastardly alarm on Saturdays (6:30 a.m.) or Sundays (7:30 a.m.).
“Our Issues Milwaukee,” hosted by Andrea Williams, who’s a morning host at WJMR-FM in Milwaukee, has the most Milwaukee-centric list of guests you’re likely to find anywhere in Milwaukee, or the world. During the streetcar debate, she had aldermen Kovac and Joe Davis on to lay down some opposing positions, and Kovac was his usual mix of contrasts: brainy, a little folksy, relaxed and yet brawling, tough one moment and buttery calm the next. Davis was decidedly more diplomatic and calculating, which makes sense as he’s running for mayor.
You can dip into the archives on YouTube and, for anyone interested in rising political stars, it’s a unique resource. State Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee), who is as buzzed about as anyone in town, was on the show in June, when he was just 28 years old. Other local leaders, people like Patricia McManus, president of the Black Health Coalition, are interesting to hear from without the narrow filter of a reporter’s notebook: McManus says people want to help and “empower” others, but the challenge comes in “having folks understand they cannot empower a community that they are not a part of.”
Another line: “The United States does not have a health system; they have a medical system.”
Howard Fuller, the former MPS superintendent and school choice supporter, appeared on the show in late September and, like a true educator, indulged in some extended storytelling. His tale was set in 1940s Shreveport, Louis., where he grew up. (Fuller’s autobiography, No Struggle, No Progress, came out in 2014.) Howard and his mother were sitting on the family’s back porch when a cop came by and accused the mother of harboring a wanted thief inside her home. When she denied this, he kicked her, and shortly thereafter, someone called Fuller’s grandmother at her workplace to tell her what had happened. Her reaction? Go home, grab a firearm, and show up at the police station to find out who was responsible. (Spoiler: this story has a happy ending.)
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated Barnes’ age.