The last time David Crowley worked in the Milwaukee County Courthouse, he was a County Board aide, playing a supporting role while his boss, then-Supervisor Nikiya Harris Dodd, was in the spotlight.
Now Crowley is at center stage, running the show as the new Milwaukee County executive. After three years as a state representative, Crowley, who turned 34 in May, is the first African American and youngest of the seven men elected in the 60-year history of the county’s top job. (Two other Black leaders, then-County Board Chairman Lee Holloway and former Acting Mayor Marvin Pratt, served as acting and interim executives after former County Exec Scott Walker was elected governor.)
With the office come the challenges of maintaining the county’s deteriorating cultural and recreational assets, tackling the chronic financial problems of its bus system, handling its transition away from running its own psychiatric hospital and building a new criminal courts complex to replace its antiquated Safety Building, just to name a few.
Before he was sworn in to face all that – in the middle of the global coronavirus pandemic – Crowley talked with Milwaukee Magazine about his journey to this point and his plans for the four-year term ahead.
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How have your life and your career prepared you for this role?
I’ve been through a lot, being born and raised here, in the city of Milwaukee, in the 53206 ZIP code. Growing up, we had to rely on many types of county services. When my mother was struggling, when she was going to be evicted, when she was on food stamps, we had to come to Milwaukee County. Because I’ve relied on those services, but also having worked there later on, I understand both sides of the coin – the operations (and) what those services mean to a lot of people.
And before even getting involved in politics, I was a community organizer, doing things with young people. I was helping people find different kinds of resources, whether they needed to get food stamps, whether they needed health care. And then after working there, seeing the inner workings of the Milwaukee County Board, [I moved] on to the state as a staffer [also for Dodd, then a state senator, now an alderman], understanding the relationship between county government and the state.
How is being the first elected African American county executive going to inform your perspective?
We have large health disparities. We are one of the most segregated places in the country. If you want to talk about breaking down the disparities, when you talk about health care, when you talk about incarceration, when you talk about education, a lot of that starts with health. And a lot of those services are delivered from Milwaukee County.
The barriers, the challenges that so many people of color and low-income people go through, I’ve experienced, I’ve witnessed. This COVID-19 crisis has put a magnifying glass on the disparities, when we see how graphically this has directly affected the African American community. On equity in general, you have to focus on those health disparities, but more importantly, making sure that we are prioritizing whom and what we lift up.
The Milwaukee County Parks face what the Wisconsin Policy Forum described as “a seemingly insurmountable backlog” of deferred repair and replacement needs). How do you plan to address that?
We need to bring more state and federal dollars to our parks. We have to create new partnerships, working with the parks foundation and with many of our businesses. We don’t need to sell any of our parks, but it doesn’t mean they can’t sponsor things like a flower bed or events in the park.
What federal dollars are you talking about?
One thing is the partnership with (the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District). They could come into some of our parks to help with stormwater, making sure that we don’t have floods, making places much more environmentally friendly. That would help put off some of the costs of deferred maintenance. (To obtain) dollars at the federal level, we focus on becoming a more healthy community. Some would say I’m recklessly optimistic about the dollars that (will) be available, but I think it’s going to be about how creative and innovative we can be.
What is your position on the Mitchell Park Domes renovation plan?
I haven’t reviewed the plan in its entirety, but it’s better than nothing. We have to do everything we can to preserve our Domes. I remember going to our Domes when I was a little kid, but also that’s who hosted our prom when I went to Bay View High School. I want to make sure that future generations can enjoy the Domes.
If the Milwaukee Public Museum doesn’t get state support for its new building, should the county help?
They definitely need to find some new space. It is not doing Milwaukee County any justice where they are. I don’t want to commit to saying what we’ll be able to do. We’re going to work with the Milwaukee Public Museum to go after those state dollars. This is an investment in education. It’s an investment in history and civilization. It is the largest public museum in the state. It’s not just the city that gets to enjoy it. Many schools and children all over southeastern Wisconsin enjoy the Public Museum.
The Abele administration has moved toward privatization, divestment and greater nonprofit involvement in county cultural and recreational assets. Do you think that’s the right way to go?
I’m a firm believer that all these things should stay under Milwaukee County. These are public services that the people deserve. I’m not looking to privatize any county services, because we’ve been doing a good job. We have a great zoo. We have great parks. A lot of people may say you should sell them and help with the fiscal issues, but that’s just one-time funding. It doesn’t necessarily solve our problems in the long term.
How do you plan to address the Milwaukee County Transit System’s declining revenue and ridership?
Milwaukee County Transit is the most equitable service we have – no matter what you look like, no matter how much money you make, whether you are able or disabled, many people utilize our transit system to get to and from work, to their doctors’ appointments, to go to school. We have to do everything we can to strengthen our transit system, not cut. We need a regional transit authority. Even though the state Legislature stops us from creating that, it doesn’t (stop) us from coordinating with (neighboring counties). We need dedicated funding. We can’t just fee or tax our way out of this. But it’s not just the state Legislature. It’s going after federal dollars.
The County Board rejected the Abele administration’s strategy of protecting a core urban transit service area while cutting back on suburban and Freeway Flyer service. What’s your view?
We also have to take into account where the revenue (is) being generated. I don’t think you can pit suburban Freeway Flyers (against) urban areas. Many people who live in urban areas rely on those Freeway Flyers to go to and from work. This is about making sure that we have a balance, that folks can get to those jobs that aren’t necessarily in the city or in Milwaukee County.
What should be the relationship between the bus system and the city’s streetcar line, The Hop?
I will support whatever the city wants to do. We need to have some conversation about how The Hop aligns with the Milwaukee County Transit System as they think about expansion. I don’t see anything happening anytime soon as far as Milwaukee County trying to take over The Hop.
What’s your view about renovating Concourse E at Mitchell International Airport to attract more international flights, and the broader strategy of getting people to fly out of Mitchell rather than drive down to Chicago?
I support that. We need to grow Mitchell International. We need more people to utilize it. We are competing with Chicago, (which) has two airports. That’s going to be key, to make sure we can do business across the country and across the globe, to grow our economy. (Getting) as many people (as possible) to utilize Mitchell International is going to be a key priority for us.
With the Mental Health Complex shutting down, what should the county do about its emergency room, the Psychiatric Crisis Service?
We have to have emergency rooms for (emergency psychiatric detentions by police) and things of that nature. We know that we’re probably going to have to serve a lot more people once this COVID-19 crisis is over, and we have to be prepared. Whether it’s this private company (Universal Health Services, which won a county contract to provide non-emergency service in a new psychiatric hospital) or Milwaukee County, we’re going to make sure that we take care of folks that come through the door, (and that) we’re providing as many services as possible in the community, so folks don’t necessarily have to come through those emergency doors.