Milwaukee was once a political powerhouse. What happened?

Seeking to dispel the notion that Milwaukee is an economic leech sucking life from the state of Wisconsin, Mayor Tom Barrett took to the bully pulpit earlier this year to announce plans for “a charm offensive” seeking to impress upon outstate residents and political leaders our overall … greatness. Consider it Barrett’s shot across the bow to a state government fully controlled by Republicans, and it comes at a time when the city’s influence in Madison and Washington would appear to be a shell of its former self. Barrett’s hope is “to begin a conversation that dispels this old stereotype that somehow the city is a drain on the state,” as he told the Business Journal in January, a job for which the mayor is both a natural and unnatural fit. His unsuccessful races for governor in 2010 and 2012 lowered the city’s stature in Madison, if anything, and tainted him among Republicans, explains one Democratic insider, who says the mayor suffers a dynamism deficiency and has little ability to work across the aisle.

It wasn’t always this way. During the 1970s, when Democrats reigned supreme in state politics, Milwaukeeans wielded political clout befitting a big city, according to one longtime Democratic strategist. There was a time in the 1970s and ’80s, in particular, when Assembly and Senate leaders couldn’t be elected without the support of the Milwaukee delegation, and city pols were mainstays on the powerful Joint Finance Committee. For a time, a Milwaukeean, Martin Schreiber, served as governor.

Today, Milwaukee’s influence in both Madison and Washington appears to have greatly dwindled, particularly when it comes to dollars and cents. According to a city budget document, Milwaukee’s portion of shared revenue from the state peaked at $249 million in 2003 and subsequently slid to about $225 million, where it remains today – a level about a third less than in 1988, if adjusted for inflation – although Milwaukee County contributes about one sixth of all state taxes (including both income and sales taxes). Shared revenue is typically used by local governments in Wisconsin to pay for basic operations.

Barrett photo by Adam Ryan Morris; Clarke photo by Barry Morgenstein

Thanks to redistricting and demographic changes, there are simply fewer Milwaukeeans serving in the Assembly and Senate, and with Republicans holding a lock on both the state Legislature and governor’s office, Democrats from the city, still a liberal stronghold, can’t speak with the same voice they once had. “It’s the difference between night and day,” says Mordecai Lee, a Milwaukee Democrat elected to the Assembly and Senate in the 1970s and ’80s and now a professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “The population declining along with the majority shifting has really given the city delegation the political weight of a feather in Madison.”

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When Schreiber sat in the governor’s mansion in 1977, there were 17 Milwaukeeans in the 99-member Assembly and six in the 33-seat Senate. In the two-year session that began in January, there were 11 state reps from the city and 4 state senators, all Democrats. And while Gov. Scott Walker once served as Milwaukee County executive, he’s generally not seen as a hearty advocate for the city.

A similar situation has unfolded in Congress, where Milwaukee for decades had two seats, long occupied by Democrats. With the 2001 reapportionment, Wisconsin lost a seat, and the North Side district that Barrett last held was eliminated. Today, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore is the city’s long delegate in the House.

Redistricting is partly to blame for Milwaukee’s political atrophy. David Riemer – a senior fellow at the Milwaukee-based Community Advocates Public Policy Institute and former official in the Doyle and Norquist administrations – says Wisconsin Republicans engaged in “packing and cracking” while drawing new state maps after the 2010 Census in an effort to produce the smallest number of Democrat-leaning districts; Republicans defend them as fair. In January, a federal judge ordered the Republican-controlled Legislature to redraw the one sided maps, pending an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The main thing is sort of a raw political power grab that’s going on,” Riemer says, in addition to the notion that cities take from the government more than they give.

One local legislator who wished to remain anonymous claimed to foresee a day when the tide will turn: “When Democrats come back into power, that’s when the talent pool in Milwaukee, which I say is pretty deep, will shine.” ◆

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‘Washed Up’ appears in the March 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning February 27, or buy a copy online.

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