The Long View: The 12-Year Job Review of Mayor Tom Barrett

As mayor for 12 years, Tom Barrett has been more of a manager-in-chief than a visionary. Is that enough to carve out a legacy? A report card on Barrett’s performance.

A gray sky hung over City Hall as a crowd gathered outside in the April chill. They came to hear the inaugural message from Milwaukee’s new mayor, one far sunnier than the weather.

“I’ll sell this product because I love this city and I believe in this city,” Mayor Tom Barrett declared from his windswept podium in 2004. “This is a great city, and I’m going to let the world know it.”

Beyond his new role as municipal cheerleader, Barrett laid out a plan for his first 100 days in office. He spoke of attracting jobs and revitalizing neighborhoods. He vowed to work for better schools and safer streets, and pledged to cooperate with suburbs and listen to employees’ ideas. And, in the wake of an election that split the city along racial lines, he promised diversity in his cabinet and in city contracts.

Those first 100 days were an ambitious start. But in a city that measures its mayors’ length of service in eras, they were merely a passing moment.

By the end of his current term, Barrett will have governed Milwaukee for 12 years, as long as the iconic Frank Zeidler. If he wins the April 5 election and completes a fourth term, Barrett would pass John O. Norquist (whose tenure was cut short after a sex scandal) to become the city’s third-longest-serving mayor, still well behind Henry Maier’s 28-year reign and Daniel Hoan’s 24-year epoch.

So what does Barrett have to show for his years in office?

In an interview with Milwaukee Magazine, he says he wants to be remembered for leading a city that “fought back” against economic, social and political forces to become a place “where people from all races and backgrounds could live together, thriving with opportunities for our kids.” It’s the challenge of any big-city mayor: They don’t control the economy and can’t singlehandedly end poverty, racism or crime. Yet those factors shape much of what city government does and how city voters judge their leaders’ performance.

That tempers how much credit Barrett can claim for the Downtown economic success that he trumpets, and how much blame he can accept for the social ills that continue to hamper the city’s progress.

It also makes it easy for Barrett’s detractors to suggest his legacy doesn’t extend beyond his congenial personality, a trait so universally acknowledged that any critical comment is almost always preceded by invoking the mantra: “The mayor is a nice guy, but …”

But not a fighter like Maier. Not an urbanist visionary like Norquist. And certainly not like Ald. Bob Donovan, the scrappy South-Side conservative facing Barrett and Ald. Joe Davis Sr., the longtime African-American community leader, in the Feb. 16 mayoral primary.

That critique may underestimate the impact of Barrett’s collaborative style. Interviews with public officials, business executives, community leaders and other observers suggest he has opened a path for progress on several fronts, even as some yearn for bold, inspirational leadership. All of which prompts this issue-by-issue look at the Barrett record.

Mayor Tom Barrett, City Hall, and the city they both serve. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Mayor Tom Barrett, City Hall, and the city they both serve. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.


The texts come at any hour, day or night. Each message represents another Milwaukee life lost to violence.

Barrett has asked police to notify him of every homicide. He says that’s a sign of his personal concern about violent crime. But it also helps him stay on top of the city’s hottest political issue.

After years of declining crime rates, killings rose sharply in 2015. That’s happening elsewhere, too, but Milwaukee drew national attention for the biggest increase in homicides of any major U.S. city.

The timing, however, plays right into Donovan’s hands. The alderman (who, when asked to be interviewed for this article, uncharacteristically declined) has repeatedly clashed with Barrett over police staffing, and he has made public safety the centerpiece of his mayoral campaign.

Yet while each death represents a personal tragedy, and while homicide as a crime topic grabs headlines and scares residents, it’s a small and often unrepresentative piece of overall crime trends. Among major offenses tracked in FBI statistics, Milwaukee property crime has dropped throughout Barrett’s tenure. Violent crime was headed in the same direction during the first few years after Ed Flynn became Milwaukee’s police chief in 2008, although it’s taken an upturn since 2012.

Nor is crime equal citywide. If you’re Downtown, on the East Side, or in other “vibrant and healthy neighborhoods,” Flynn says, “this is an incredibly safe city.” But in central-city neighborhoods, says Fred Royal, president of the Milwaukee NAACP chapter, “there are pretty alarming figures on how much gunfire is going on.”

Choosing Flynn as chief was a pivotal move that ranks as Barrett’s top contribution to the city’s war on crime, observers say. Historian John Gurda calls Flynn “as intelligent and strategic a police chief as Milwaukee’s had since back in the Hoan era.” Norquist says Barrett “picked a really good police chief in Ed Flynn. He’s got an edge over me in that. I went through a series of police chiefs who weren’t that successful.” His new hires were Philip Arreola, Arthur Jones and Nannette Hegerty.

Flynn has used data analysis to target police strength where most crimes occur. And because those high-crime areas are typically minority neighborhoods, he has worked to build police-community relations, even in the face of protests over incidents like the 2014 fatal police shooting of Dontre Hamilton, an African-American man with a history of mental illness. (The officer who killed Hamilton was dismissed from the force.)

Yet Flynn’s approach clashes with the narrative promoted by Donovan and police union leaders, who argue that the city needs more cops to effectively combat crime. Although Barrett has typically budgeted money to hire enough officers to replace those who retire, overall police strength has dipped slightly during his administration. And to the police union’s outrage, uniformed officers have been required to take the unpaid furlough days imposed on other city employees as a cost-saving measure.

Firefighters, by contrast, were never furloughed. But over the opposition of Donovan and the firefighters union, Barrett has repeatedly reduced crew sizes on Fire Department vehicles, and he’s sidelined some units, as local and national trends show fires declining and more department time spent on emergency medical service.

However, the city has reduced staffing only through attrition, without laying off any police officers or firefighters. And civilian personnel have picked up some duties formerly handled by sworn officers, allowing Flynn to deploy more cops on the street, say Barrett and Ald. Terry Witkowski, chairman of the Common Council’s Public Safety Committee.

Some experts believe the police staffing debate ignores larger issues. Research shows “there is no correlation between the number of police and a city’s crime rate,” says criminologist Stan Stojkovic, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Social Welfare. Instead, crime grows amid poverty, drugs, racism and dysfunctional families, he says.

Barrett, Flynn and District Attorney John Chisholm see that connection. Flynn says his policing strategies are not a long-term solution, but they help create the safety needed to attract businesses and create jobs for people to work their way out of poverty.

That’s why Barrett says his jobs programs are part of his efforts to fight crime, along with such initiatives as Ceasefire Sabbath, when he preaches nonviolence at city churches; Safe Summer, which rewards children with Milwaukee Brewers tickets for attending nonviolent summer programs; and the Fatherhood Initiative, which helps connect men with education and jobs to support their families. Chisholm also cites Barrett’s funding for community prosecution units, which deploy city and county prosecutors to tackle neighborhood problems.

Royal says he’s not sure how effective those programs have been. But he agrees with the underlying philosophy. “I’m a strong believer that poverty and unemployment breed violence,” the NAACP leader says. “I don’t think you can ever police your way into safety.”

Strategy: Bring in new chief with new ideas.
Results: Crime is down in most areas.
To-do list: Stemming violence in the central city.


They are the tall symbols of concrete confidence in the city.

Throughout Downtown, cranes swing into action to erect massive new office, apartment and condo buildings, led by the Northwestern Mutual Tower & Commons and the 833 East office building. More projects are on deck, including a new Downtown arena and the Couture apartment tower. Together with earlier developments, like the Manpower headquarters and the North End apartment complex, Barrett counts about $5 billion invested in or near Downtown since 2005, including projects proposed or under construction.

It’s not just big buildings. The nightlife scene is flourishing as well, says Gary Witt, executive director of the Pabst Theater Group. It’s all interdependent, Witt says: Developers like the North End’s Barry Mandel build apartments Downtown because people want to live near nightlife, while venues like the Pabst present shows because people living Downtown want entertainment.

“We are a reflection of the success of the city of Milwaukee,” Witt says.

Is Barrett responsible for that success? Not all by himself. Broad economic and social forces are at work, including a nationwide construction boom as the country continues to rebound from the 2007-09 Great Recession, as well as a growing preference for urban living among young adults. Decisions on developments rest with businesses and their lenders.

But the city can provide “an environment that attracts talent,” not just in traditional business, but in sectors such as technology and the arts that “create a new wave of opportunities,” says attorney John Daniels, a former chairman of the Greater Milwaukee Committee. Witt agrees, saying Milwaukee has attracted what urban scholar Richard Florida dubbed the “creative class,” without an influx of jobs from a big tech company locating here.

Barrett and his supporters cite the mayor’s cheerleading role, city planning projects and a “customer-friendly” attitude as ways City Hall deals with businesses. Witt also credits the city for providing police patrols and street lighting that match nightlife pedestrian traffic patterns.

But the city’s biggest carrot is financial aid, particularly tax incremental financing districts, or TIFs, that divert a development’s future property taxes to defray part of the developers’ costs, and pay for street and other infrastructure improvements. The city created its largest-ever TIF district, $73.3 million, for the NML project, dwarfing earlier TIF districts of $29 million to redevelop the former Pabst Brewery and $26 million to move Manpower headquarters from Glendale to the Schlitz Park office complex. But the lure of a $100 million TIF district wasn’t enough to persuade Kohl’s Corp. to move to the vacant Park East Freeway Corridor in lieu of expanding its Menomonee Falls headquarters.

The 833 East building, part of Milwaukee’s latest development boom. Photo by Nicole Domanico.
The 833 East building, part of Milwaukee’s latest
development boom. Photo by Nicole Domanico.

Both Norquist and Barrett have approved TIF districts, though Norquist was more skeptical about the tool. He says he questioned the need for city assistance in areas like Downtown, where developers would be more likely to obtain private financing.

“What was bad when I came was there were a handful of developers, and they would only do things if they were paid,” Norquist says. Tightening up on city aid helped attract developers who weren’t dependent on it, he contends.

Still, Mandel says, the Northwestern Mutual TIF district was worth the city’s investment to keep the insurer’s headquarters –and thousands of jobs – Downtown, instead of watching the company expand its Franklin campus.

“There is a place for them [TIFs],” Barrett says, “but they have to be used appropriately.”

Outside Downtown, TIF districts have been a key tool in redeveloping the Menomonee Valley, the Reed Street Yards and the former Tower Automotive plant, renamed Century City. Renovating such blighted areas was supposed to be the original purpose of TIFs, not stimulating big Downtown and suburban projects, says Norquist, who voted against the TIF authorization law as a state legislator.

Marc Levine, senior fellow at UWM’s Center for Economic Development, and the NAACP’s Royal say the city should more strictly enforce its rule that developers who receive at least $1 million in direct city aid must hire unemployed or underemployed city residents for at least 40 percent of a project’s work hours. Barrett says he’s proud the NML project has exceeded that standard; the Century City, Reed Street Yards, and Manpower-Schlitz Park districts also met or exceeded the goal, city Administration Director Sharon Robinson told aldermen. The Milwaukee Bucks have agreed to give at least 30 percent of arena construction work to city residents and at least 10 percent to Milwaukee County suburbanites.

Not all city development plans have worked out. In 2003, Wispark LLC proposed redeveloping the long-vacant Pabst Brewery into a retail, entertainment and residential complex called PabstCity, with tenants such as the House of Blues. After Barrett took office, he opposed the developers’ original request for a $74.8 million TIF district, then threw his support behind the plan when they sliced the TIF proposal to $41 million. But fearing the new complex would siphon off their customers, existing Downtown bars and restaurants convinced aldermen to shoot it down in 2005.

Barrett had harsh words for PabstCity opponents after the defeat of the $280 million project. But within months, he supported a different plan by the late Joseph Zilber to turn the same property into a mixed-use complex that would host UWM’s School of Public Health, an institution Barrett had fought to establish. The Brewery, and its TIF, won council approval in 2006. Levine, a PabstCity critic, credits aldermen for “sensible policymaking,” while Barrett says it was a lesson in how to move forward despite obstacles.

Developers and aldermen offer mixed reviews of Barrett’s Department of City Development and its commissioner, Rocky Marcoux. Ald. Jim Bohl, chairman of the council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee, calls Marcoux knowledgeable and enthusiastic, while East Side Ald. Nik Kovac says city development efforts lack vision and transparency.

Strategy: Welcome development – with cash if needed.
Results: Downtown is thriving.
To-do list: Spreading economic success citywide.

Revitalizing neighborhoods remains one of Barrett’s biggest challenges. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Revitalizing neighborhoods remains one of Barrett’s biggest challenges. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.


Milwaukee exists in what developer Mandel calls “dual realities.”

One reality, Barrett says, is “this great economic renaissance going on in the heart of the city.” The other, criminologist Stojkovic says, is that “parts of our city are like the Third World,” struggling with segregation, poverty and crime.

That dichotomy angers Keisha Krumm. As lead organizer for Common Ground, Krumm has led the grassroots community group’s protests against spending public money on a new arena while pressing social needs go unmet in central city neighborhoods.

“It seems like there’s crumbs directed to neighborhood programs,” she says. “There needs to be bold investment in neighborhoods like there’s been bold investment” Downtown.

This concern isn’t new. Ricardo Diaz says Norquist named him city development commissioner to revitalize neighborhoods, in response to accusations that Downtown was getting disproportionate attention. But Downtown also contributes disproportionately to Milwaukee’s wealth, accounting for nearly 19 percent of the property tax base on just 3 percent of the land, Barrett and Mandel say. In effect, Downtown businesses subsidize residential neighborhoods by paying taxes to keep city services intact while holding down homeowners’ tax bills, Barrett says.

At the same time, Barrett stresses, “I have never for a second abandoned my roots, which are neighborhood roots.” He says he recognizes the challenges facing Milwaukee’s poor neighborhoods and has been trying to address them.

One key challenge to homeowners – and to the city’s property tax base – has been the wave of mortgage foreclosures tied to the recession. Working with Common Council President Michael Murphy, Barrett has pushed the Milwaukee Foreclosure Partnership Initiative, which has set up a mediation program for homeowners facing foreclosure; established programs to reuse foreclosed homes; stepped up code enforcement on problem properties; and advocated for the rights of tenants and homeowners affected by foreclosures. He lashed out at Gov. Scott Walker and former Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen after the settlement of a nationwide lawsuit against major banks over the foreclosure crisis. Walker and Van Hollen kept part of the state’s share, instead of sending the money to the city for its foreclosure programs. The city, however, has been more successful in winning federal grants for neighborhood stabilization and housing.

Krumm says those efforts are good, but don’t go far enough: “If it takes $50 million to address housing issues, why have we not developed a strategy to make that happen?”

Poverty and crime have risen as the city’s economy has shifted away from manufacturing and the family-supporting jobs it provided, Stojkovic and Gurda say. The city has responded with a variety of efforts to help residents find jobs. Exercising a prerogative of big-city mayors, Barrett took over federally funded job-training programs, replacing the county’s Private Industry Council with the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board. He helped bring a federal Job Corps center to Milwaukee. And he launched such initiatives as Earn & Learn, which has placed 25,000 teenagers in summer jobs since 2005; the Mayor’s Manufacturing Partnership, which has trained 1,069 workers for specific jobs at 204 businesses since 2012; and, in cooperation with Walker, the Transitional Jobs program, which in the past two years has provided temporary jobs to ease 191 long-term unemployed residents back to work.

Levine and Royal say those programs are promising, but don’t add up to a comprehensive long-term strategy. Barrett concedes they are “micro solutions” to a “macro problem.”

Much of the city’s economic disparity falls along racial lines. Although Milwaukee’s 2014 poverty rate of 29 percent was twice the national average and fifth-highest among major U.S. cities, poverty rates were even higher for the city’s African-Americans, at almost 40 percent, and Hispanics, at nearly 32 percent, compared with less than 15 percent for non-Hispanic whites.

“We have not gained economic equity over the last 12 years of the Barrett administration,” Royal says of the black community. In the Hispanic community, people often work two or three jobs to get by, says Diaz, now executive director of the United Community Center.

“Over the next decade, there’s got to be as much focus on the Sixth Ward [on the North Side] as there is on the Third Ward,” Daniels says. “If you get to the right results, the benefits to the community are enormous.”

Strategy: Launch lots of housing and jobs programs.
Results: Comprehensive approach attacks foreclosure blight.
To-do list: Reducing poverty, particularly among minorities.



The streetcar is Barrett’s Obamacare. Like the president’s Affordable Care Act, the mayor’s quest to build a modern streetcar line Downtown is hailed by its progressive supporters as an overdue improvement and condemned by its conservative critics as an expensive boondoggle. Either way, it could turn into both a legacy-defining landmark and an acrimonious campaign issue.

Also like Obamacare, the streetcar has evolved over years of political battles and compromises into something more modest than originally envisioned. Earlier plans for a $330 million light rail system, or a $300 million guided electric bus network, have yielded to a $123.9 million streetcar line that will share lanes with cars and buses on busy Downtown streets. And unlike previously rejected ideas, that line would not reach the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Miller Park or the North Side – at least not yet.

As a result, the route has attracted opposition not just from those, like Donovan, who view any rail transit as an unnecessary burden on taxpayers. It has also drawn skepticism from transit supporters, like Davis, who consider it a poor substitute for a full light rail system on separate tracks, or who, like the bus drivers’ international union, fear it will divert funding and passengers from the Milwaukee County Transit System.

Noting transit backers’ concerns, Rob Henken, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Forum, wrote in an April 23 blog post, “We ought to be thinking about how and whether we can realize the line’s economic development aspirations, whether we can maximize ridership on a line that will operate in mixed traffic and provide few travel time benefits over buses, and the viability of the proposed route from a transportation perspective.”

Barrett says the initial 2.5-mile route is just a starter line. Based on other cities’ experience with light rail, he and Norquist say that once people ride the streetcars and see their benefits, the line will gain more popular support, building a case to extend it into other parts of the city. Barrett doesn’t rule out separating the tracks from street traffic for longer extensions. Once expanded, supporters say, the streetcar could help attract development and strengthen the bus system.

But all that depends on obtaining money to build more routes, and it’s been hard enough to fund the initial route. Since 1991, when $289 million in federal cash was allocated for a transit project, $234.1 million was sheared off for other transportation purposes, leaving just $54.9 million for the streetcar. And the federal government turned down six city applications for grants to extend the route, before finally awarding $14.2 million in October for the initial route’s lakefront leg to the Couture.

If the initial route is never extended, “the Milwaukee Streetcar, at this level, has zero hope of attracting [the] kind of development” touted by its backers, UWM’s Levine says.

Barrett remains optimistic the city will find money for streetcar expansion, but he adds, “I’m going to push it forward in a fiscally responsible way.” He also says his general persistence is reflected in the long struggle, which started when Norquist was mayor.

He hung in, Barrett says, because he sees the streetcar as part of a broader transportation vision, albeit a scaled-back vision. His original strategy called for the streetcar, high-speed trains, commuter trains and express buses to converge at the intermodal station, where the streetcar would provide connections for travelers arriving Downtown without a car. But opposition by Walker and GOP lawmakers killed high-speed and commuter rail plans, and the county’s express buses don’t serve the intermodal station, which remains a terminal for regular Amtrak trains and intercity buses.

Meanwhile, Barrett has invested more money than Norquist did in city streets, now on track to be rebuilt every 72 years, down from 163 years a decade ago; added substantially to the dozen or so miles of bicycle lanes on city streets before 2004; built more than 4 miles of off-street biking and hiking trails; and, like Norquist, has battled freeway expansion, helping to defeat the option of double-decking I-94 on the city’s West Side.

“It all fits together” in a vision of a “livable, walkable city,” where residents have a balanced and sustainable choice of transportation modes, Barrett says.

Strategy: Champion alternatives to freeways.
Results: Downtown streetcar line approved.
To-do list: Landing dollars to expand streetcar.


Bad decisions about pensions wrecked Milwaukee County government finances. That could have happened to the city, too. But it didn’t.

Unlike the county pension scandal, which was triggered by granting extraordinarily generous benefits, the city’s potential crisis stemmed from the stock market’s Great Recession collapse in 2008, which wiped out one-third of the value of the city pension fund’s investments. That forced Barrett and aldermen to chop spending, and raise taxes and fees, to pump $49 million into the fund in 2010, after four years without any required employer contribution.

With the market rebounding, the city could have skipped pension contributions again for 2011 and probably 2012, but actuaries forecast even larger city contributions ahead for 2013 and beyond. Instead of waiting for that storm to hit, Barrett decided to start adding millions of dollars each year to an existing pension reserve fund. Aldermen backed the move, cushioning the impact of pension contributions on future budgets while the city retirement system returned to its place among the nation’s best-funded public-sector pension plans. That approach won praise from the Public Policy Forum in its reviews of city budgets. Murphy and Kovac say the city’s response was more responsible than the county’s choice, when Walker was county executive, to fund pension needs with borrowing.

“We were clear-eyed about what we had to do,” says Kovac, the chairman of the council’s Finance & Personnel Committee. “It was both smart and disciplined.”

Barrett was more cautious about a bolder option for shoring up municipal finances. In 2008, then-City Comptroller W. Martin “Wally” Morics called for a study of leasing the Milwaukee Water Works for 75 to 99 years, generating $550 million to $600 million that the city could use to avoid endless debates over cutting services or raising taxes and fees. Aldermen considered the idea for months before shelving it in 2009. Only then did Barrett weigh in, warning that privatizing city assets can backfire, as when former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley sold his city’s parking meters to a company that jacked up meter rates.

Of course, fees can rise for public services that aren’t privatized. Continuing a trend that started under Norquist, Barrett has increasingly shifted city public works costs from property taxes to user fees. During the Norquist administration, the city imposed fees for local sewers, garbage collection, and controlling snow and ice. After Barrett took office, the city established a stormwater fee and – over the mayor’s veto – a local vehicle registration fee.

Together, the municipal service charges more than quadrupled during Norquist’s administration, from $8.7 million in 1998 to $47.9 million in 2004, then grew another 117 percent under Barrett, to $103.9 million in 2015, while the “wheel tax” brings in another $6 million-plus a year. By comparison, the property tax levy rose 35 percent under Norquist, from $147.1 million in 1998 to $199 million in 2004, and 29 percent under Barrett, to $256.8 million in 2015. Counting the vehicle tax, major fee revenue rose an average of 8.4 percent a year in Barrett’s first 11 budgets, while property taxes rose an average of 2.4 percent annually.

Barrett’s office and desk: where the managing happens. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Barrett’s office and desk: where the managing happens. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

The shift has annoyed some city taxpayers who think their property taxes should cover such services as garbage pickup and snow removal, and who note that in Wisconsin, fees (unlike property taxes) can’t be deducted on federal income tax returns. But Barrett and Murphy say the move is necessary to preserve city services while the city’s revenue options are constricted.

Despite the trend, Milwaukee fees remained 29 percent below the average of comparable cities, on a per capita basis, in 2009, Morics wrote in a 2011 report. Property taxes were 47 percent above average, but total taxes were 42 percent below average, because the other cities levy local sales, income or other taxes, the report found.

In Wisconsin, state law prohibits cities from levying local sales or income taxes, and limits how much local governments can raise property taxes. The city’s state shared revenue has declined 5.3 percent, from $240.4 million in 2004 to $227.7 million in 2015. And while Walker’s controversial Act 10 limits on public-sector unions helped the city save some money on employee wages and benefits, the measure preserved bargaining rights for the police and fire unions, whose members represent a major chunk of city personnel costs.

Barrett and Murphy say the municipal service charges are fair because they are assessed not only on residents and businesses, but also on hospitals and other nonprofit institutions that use city services while being exempt from property taxes.

Strategy: Focus on fiscal responsibility.
Results: Avoided pension crisis while raising fees.
To-do list: Fighting for more state aid – or new revenue options.

If Barrett wants another term at City Hall... he’ll have to convince voters that his track record deserves it. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
If Barrett wants another term at City Hall… he’ll have to convince voters that his track record deserves it. Photo by Lacy Landre.


Milwaukee city government, officially, has a limited role in schools. Barrett seems content to leave it at that: Lack of educational leadership is a recurring criticism, even from his allies.

And yet, it could have been exactly the opposite. Spurred by concerns about Milwaukee Public Schools finances, Barrett joined then-Gov. Jim Doyle in pushing a 2009 plan to let the mayor appoint the MPS superintendent without Common Council or school board confirmation; empower the superintendent to set the school district’s budget and tax levy without council or board approval; and reduce the elected board to an advisory body. If that measure had been approved as written, Barrett would have become “one of the most powerful education mayors in the country,” Hunter College public policy professor Joe Viteritti told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time.

But in the face of opposition from board members, the teachers union and others, the bill never reached the legislative floor, even when the lame-duck governor called a special session to consider it. And unlike the persistence he showed in pushing the streetcar, Barrett quickly retreated from the school takeover issue as he campaigned unsuccessfully to replace Doyle.

“The governor kind of dropped that in his lap,” former MPS Superintendent Howard Fuller says of the mayor’s role in the takeover plan. “I don’t know if his heart was really in that.”

Barrett had a second chance to become a school czar, on a smaller scale, earlier this year, when Republican lawmakers revised the state budget to transfer control of some struggling MPS schools to a commissioner independent of the school board. One of the amendment’s authors, Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), says he talked to Barrett about designating the mayor to appoint the commissioner. Barrett gave the idea serious consideration, but also recounted how much heat he took during the 2009 takeover debate, Kooyenga says.

“It was clear he wasn’t very excited about it one way or another,” Kooyenga says, so lawmakers instead gave the appointing power to County Executive Chris Abele, who embraced the idea.

Barrett says he stayed neutral because he wasn’t convinced Republicans were serious about helping MPS succeed, noting how they didn’t appropriate any money to pay the commissioner. As of early October, Abele was still soliciting donations for the commissioner’s salary.

The city does have the power to charter schools – and to revoke the charters of schools that don’t meet its standards. Barrett has not been active in that process. Murphy says that’s because state law assigns the chartering power to the council, not the mayor.

But unlike Norquist, who was a vocal advocate for school vouchers, Barrett has taken a lower profile in supporting charter schools, while also joining the Milwaukee Succeeds effort to improve student performance, and encouraging students to read more and use city libraries. He has surfaced only occasionally in debates over selling unused MPS buildings – officially owned by the city – to competing private charter and voucher schools. Perhaps Barrett’s signature education accomplishment has been convincing the Legislature to phase out the “funding flaw” that results in Milwaukee property taxpayers paying more for each voucher school pupil than for each MPS pupil, although he remains dissatisfied with the state school aid formula.

Fuller, Diaz and Milwaukee Succeeds Executive Director Danae Davis all say they appreciate Barrett’s efforts but wish he would exert more leadership, because inadequate education is closely linked to poverty, crime and other urban problems. By contrast, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association – which opposes vouchers and independent charter schools – would prefer Barrett focus on attracting jobs and leave school issues to the school board, union President Kim Schroeder says. Diaz says that’s because the union wields disproportionate power in low-turnout board elections.

Barrett dismisses the suggestions that he’s not providing school leadership: “There’s not an issue in education where I have not been directly involved.”

Strategy: Pivot from MPS takeover to hands-off approach.
Results: Funding flaw fixed; learning flaws remain.
To-do list: Exercising educational leadership.

If Barrett wants another term at City Hall... he’ll have to convince voters that his track record deserves it. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.


Norquist campaigned for his first term under the slogan, “Milwaukee’s next great mayor.” Barrett started his first term by declaring, “This is a great city.” That’s not just a rhetorical difference.

Kovac says Norquist, Maier and Zeidler all wanted to be mayor, loved being mayor, and never had any higher political aspirations than mayor. Barrett, by contrast, ran for mayor in 2004 after losing the 2002 governor’s race, then ran again unsuccessfully for governor in 2010 and in the 2012 recall election. Kovac says that shows Barrett would have rather been governor than mayor.

Barrett, however, says he loves being mayor.

To Norquist, who became president of the Congress for the New Urbanism after leaving office, leadership meant guiding the city toward his urban ideal. “My big push was urbanism is good, cities are good,” says Norquist, now a consultant. To that end, he adds, he wanted development to be urban “and not have Milwaukee be like a suburb.” While Maier defended the city’s status quo, Gurda says, Norquist was “almost a New Urbanist ideologue.”

Kovac adds, “Love him or hate him, I don’t think it’s even controversial that John [Norquist] was a visionary. I don’t think anyone feels that way about Tom.”

Barrett sees it differently. “There may be other mayors who loved cities,” he says. “I love this city. … I’m a Milwaukee guy.”

Norquist says Barrett’s emphasis may differ from his, but he still thinks Barrett is doing a good job. And Barrett’s supposed lack of a comprehensive urban development vision has allowed aldermen to pursue their own development visions, with positive results, Kovac says.

That points toward yet another difference in style: More than some of his predecessors, Barrett focuses on collaborating and listening to ideas. Where Maier and Norquist frequently crossed swords with the suburbs, Barrett brought them together with the city in the Milwaukee 7, a seven-county regional economic partnership that emphasizes working together to compete against other metropolitan areas for business, instead of trying to convince businesses to move from one southeastern Wisconsin community to another.

Barrett also says he enjoys listening to differing points of view, whether it’s a debate among his own cabinet members or among community and business leaders. “In terms of being willing to listen to a variety of voices, the mayor gets extremely high marks,” Daniels says.

Does that make Barrett a great leader? Not to those who define greatness as being big and bold, instead of low-key and careful. But some say greatness isn’t everything.

“He tends to be more a manager than a visionary,” Gurda says of Barrett. “That makes him quite different than Norquist. But good managers are hard to find.”

“I think he’s a good mayor,” says Kovac, who lauds Barrett for “impeccable integrity, remarkable honesty and competent far-sightedness,” but adds, “I don’t think he even wants to be a great mayor.”

True to form, Barrett listened to those viewpoints and responded in terms that are focused as much on his beloved city as on himself.

“I think I’ve gotten stronger [as a leader] in the last 12 years,” Barrett says. “I have consistently and ethically and progressively moved this city forward,” in the face of recession, poverty and conflict with GOP state leaders. “There are more good things going on in this city than in any other city in the state.

“I get my energy from the people in this city. … There are really, really good people who live in really challenging situations. And they deserve someone who’s not going to give up on them. And I’m not going to give up on them.”

Larry Sandler is a Milwaukee-area freelance writer. Write to him at

‘The Long View’ appears in the December 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the December issue on newsstands Nov. 30.

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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.