The Color of Power

Although minorities make up nearly half of Milwaukee’s population, the city has never elected a person of color as mayor. And after Ald. Joe Davis came up short in Tuesday’s mayoral primary, that will be the case again in 2016.

After 12 years, it’s apparently not yet time.

“It’s time” — time for Milwaukee to elect a black mayor — was then-Common Council President Marvin Pratt’s slogan when he sought the office in 2004. But voters chose former U.S. Rep. Tom Barrett. In Tuesday’s mayoral primary, Ald. Joe Davis Sr. was the latest minority candidate to fall short, as Barrett and Ald. Bob Donovan advanced to the April 5 general election with 45 and 34 percent of the primary vote, respectively.

Although minorities make up nearly half of Milwaukee’s population, the city has never elected a person of color as mayor. That frustrates minority leaders in a community that regularly ranks as one of the nation’s most segregated metropolitan areas. Yet political observers say the results reflect less on the candidates’ race than on the quality of their campaigns and the power of incumbency. At the same time, they say, slow but steady minority gains in other offices suggest the top job remains within reach.

Davis — who did not return a call seeking comment — was a prime example. He’s been an alderman since 2003, after three years as a county supervisor, and has been involved in various development initiatives. Some voters, however, know less about his accomplishments than about his travels. As South Africa’s honorary consul, Davis has stronger foreign policy credentials than some presidential candidates. But he lost his spot on the council’s finance committee after he skipped a crucial budget meeting for a $4,500 trip to the African nation.

More to the point, insiders say, Davis ran an ineffective and underfunded campaign against a three-term incumbent in a city where no incumbent mayor has lost a re-election bid since 1940. He also made an unusual choice to campaign almost as the running mate of the ideologically opposite Donovan. They never attacked each other and joined forces to blast Barrett’s streetcar project. Observers suspect conservative forces were using Davis to strike at the liberal Barrett — a suspicion that grew when Republican operative Craig Peterson, a leader of the anti-streetcar campaign, helped mount an effort to mobilize black voters.

Davis attracted just 18 percent of the primary vote, concentrated in largely minority wards on the city’s north side. But minorities are unlikely to support Donovan, because “we’re a city that remembers everything” — including the south side alderman’s history of racially divisive statements, says fourth-place finisher James Methu, who endorsed Barrett.

Methu joined other black leaders — including state Sen. Lena Taylor, at one time thought to be a potential mayoral or city attorney candidate herself — at a news conference Friday to distance themselves from the Davis endorsement. Led by former Ald. Michael McGee Jr., they vowed to work together to ensure the economic plight of the city’s minorities is a campaign issue.

Pratt had a better shot at the mayor’s office in 2004. As acting mayor after John Norquist’s resignation, he was a virtual incumbent who finished ahead of Barrett in the primary. But Pratt’s poor record-keeping triggered campaign finance violation charges that doomed his candidacy. In a recent interview with Milwaukee Magazine, he took personal responsibility for his defeat.

The list goes on: Former Sheriff Richard Artison couldn’t unseat Norquist in 1996. Current Sheriff David Clarke Jr. and former Police Chief Arthur Jones finished behind Pratt and Barrett in the 2004 primary. Barrett’s 2008 opponent, Asian-American attorney Andrew Shaw, was ridiculed for trying to appeal a lawsuit over a burned steak to the U.S. Supreme Court. University of Wisconsin-Extension professor Ed McDonald ran a serious, issue-oriented 2012 campaign but lacked political experience.

Former Common Council President Willie Hines Jr. was positioning himself for a mayoral run, and insiders believe he could have been a strong candidate, but he instead decided to leave politics to become a housing official in Barrett’s administration.

Further down the ballot, former Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler said he was seriously considering a race for city attorney, but he never filed, leaving incumbent Grant Langley unopposed for a ninth term. Butler did not return a call seeking comment.

But former Supervisor Johnny Thomas could mount a strong campaign for city comptroller. Thomas was the 2012 favorite until he dropped out to fight bribery charges, and pension official Marty Matson won by default. Thomas was acquitted and Matson is running scared; the comptroller loaned his campaign $50,000 just days after labeled him “perhaps Milwaukee’s most vulnerable incumbent.”

Meanwhile, City Treasurer Spencer Coggs is expected to easily win a second term against perennial candidate Rick Kissell. And the city’s three municipal judges — none of whom is up for re-election — are all minorities.

One of those judges, Derek Mosley, commands the kind of support that could make him a viable mayoral candidate one day, says Alex Runner, a former top aide to Hines. A political consultant active in city campaigns agrees, adding, “The pressure to elect a mayor of color would be extraordinary in 2020 if Barrett does not run.”

“I think it’s just a matter of time before we do elect a mayor of color,” Methu says.

This column has been updated from its original version.



Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.