Plow Politics: How Milwaukee Winters Might Play a Role in the Mayoral Election

Plow Politics: How Milwaukee Winters Might Play a Role in the Mayoral Election

To secure another term, Tom Barrett will have to defeat two challengers. But Old Man Winter might be his most unpredictable threat.

This year’s mayoral race won’t be hotly contested, insiders say. Tom Barrett will cruise to victory on April 7, after the Feb. 18 primary, despite a modest degree of competition, the story goes.

What could go wrong? Just ask Dave Cieslewicz, the former Madison mayor who has a lot in common with Barrett: He’s a nice guy who seems responsible.

When he faced nemesis Paul Soglin, a past mayor of a more bruising style, in 2011, Soglin dredged up a 2-year-old blizzard, casting the temporarily crippled city as an emblem of mayoral incompetence. After 14 inches of snow, subzero temperatures and ineffective plowing, UW-Madison closed its campus for the first time in more than 30 years, and the city’s cleanup extended into a second week. In the end, Soglin won by 710 votes.

Old Man Winter – or, depending on your perspective, the cruel, howling vortex – can be as important a political player as economic development or the police department. City funding for snow operations is boosted by a tough-to-miss surcharge on local water bills totaling $10 million, an amount that has doubled in the past decade. While the budget is pretty green, so is the staff; turnover meant that about 40 new plow drivers would start this year, replacing people who left to apply their CDLs to easier, more regular or more lucrative jobs.

Aside from holding the occasional snow-related press conference, Barrett’s firm-but-background role is a common one for him. According to Laura Daniels, head of the Department of Public Works snow and ice program, the department keeps him up to date as the winds whip, especially during the four or five major “plow events” that happen each winter.

Milwaukee has about 7,000 lane miles of street, and it takes city crews 18-24 hours on average to clear a 6-inch snowfall, says Daniels. That’s on par with Green Bay and Madison, which both required 24 hours or less to clear their streets, and Milwaukee has about four times those cities’ lane miles. (The Green Bay and Madison data were reported in 2017 by KREM-TV in Spokane, Washington, which surveyed peer cities’ performance and found its not-all-that-unsnowy home city required an average of four days to clear a 6-inch snowfall. Yikes.)

Even well-run street departments are stressed when blizzards rage, or snows hit back-to-back, as four did in Milwaukee in February 2019. Clearance times can sag outward, and people get pissed.

Barrett’s snow armada is in good enough shape, but it only takes one storm.


ANGER FIRST FILTERS into City Hall through the aldermanic offices in the form of phone calls from angry constituents. Many don’t even know who their County Board member or state representative is, but they know who just plowed the snow into their driveway: the city.

From there, the angst percolates into committee meetings, where aldermen grill representatives from the city Department of Public Works, most notably Daniels.

The leading grillers: South Side Ald. Mark Borkowski and Downtown Ald. Robert Bauman, the Guy Fieri of City Hall grilling, no matter the topic. Both had bones to pick with how the city handled last February’s snowstorms. Great mountains of snow had accumulated and turned crosswalks into an alpinist’s trek, and navigation was particularly difficult for the disabled.

By an October meeting, Bauman was still angry about it. “The sidewalk program is totally inadequate,” he said.

Ahead of the 2019-20 winter, the department had doubled its capacity for clearing crosswalks, Daniels replied, using small Bobcat-like vehicles.

Borkowski, once a mild-mannered County Board member, rose to arms over the plowed-in issue. Can it be avoided?

“I wish there was a way to do that,” Daniels said. “There is not” – not with 89,000 residential driveways. She recommended that residents shovel snow to the right of their driveway entrances so the plows don’t push it back in. “I don’t know how you can tell people to shovel snow in a certain direction,” Borkowski said. “It’s heavy and our backs are hurting.”

After the February 2019 snows, DPW re-evaluated how it plows snow, and it split some routes up. It also installed road temperature sensors in several places around the city to detect drops in temperature – especially below 15 degrees, when salt becomes less effective. And to help the new drivers, four retired ones agreed to come back and serve as mentor drivers.

Counting support staff, as many as 750 employees may work to clear the city’s streets. “We are first responders,” says Daniels. “We are emergency operations.”


The Worst Snowfalls in Recent Memory

Good Friday Storm
March 21, 2008

15″

The Day the Hoan Closed
Jan. 21-22, 2005

15″

Groundhog Day Blizzard
Feb. 1-2, 2011

17.6″


CITY GOVERNMENT GETS to do the good-guy services: police, fire, fresh water, filling potholes, plowing snow. County government, in many ways an offshoot of state government, is mired in the impossible: the court and jail system, child protection services, the aging Domes. But when the city screws up, the fallout is often worse, the story better-suited to TV news – perhaps a city drowning in snow. So Barrett is crossing his fingers (at least he should be) for a mild winter this election season.

He faces two challengers for mayor: South Side Ald. Tony Zielinski and state Sen. Lena Taylor, both gunslingers. The longtime alderman representing Bay View, Zielinski ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2010 while burnishing his love-him-or-hate-him image. No one doubts his energy, but his new three-story modernist house in the neighborhood angered some residents, and concerns about aggressive fundraising practices have angered others.

Because of the latter, Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton, himself a brief candidate for mayor, removed Zielinski from chairing the Licenses Committee in 2018. “That removal was completely and totally politically motivated,” Zielinski says.

He’s raised close to $600,000, including a $300,000 loan from himself, and has bought advertising around town. Barrett has more than $800,000 and greater name recognition than that of Zielinski, which one political insider pegged at about 10 percent in the city.

Taylor’s announcement in September came after a serious misstep, a 2018 brouhaha that unfolded in a bank; and a major demotion, the loss of her seat on the powerful Joint Finance Committee. Her stock is in decline, and some speculate she’s following a “get right back in the game” strategy to turn the nadir into an inflection point. As of July, the most recent reporting period available at press time, her campaign had next to no money on hand, leaving it far behind Zielinski and Barrett.

Barrett faced a similar primary matchup in 2016 versus two underdog candidates, both aldermen, and he won 70% of the vote in April. The city hasn’t had a fiercely competitive mayoral contest since 2004, when Barrett defeated acting mayor Marvin Pratt to take office.

Barrett’s soft-power persona may fit the mold of down-to-earth Milwaukee, but not that of a Milwaukee mayor. He comes at the end of a long line of bold ones – Daniel Hoan, Henry Maier, John Norquist. Is that what voters want? Or do they want someone who won’t forget to plow their street?


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s February issue. 

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.