The New Black Power: A Profile of Sheriff David Clarke

Critics say Sheriff David Clarke is “the acceptable Negro” for white conservatives, but supporters applaud him for having the nerve to take on the Inner City power structure.

This story appears in the July 2003 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Purchase back issues of the magazine at

The sheriff’s father was a soldier. Born and raised in Beloit, David Clarke Sr. joined the Army in 1948 at just 16 years old. He was assigned to a tank battalion at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

But tanks weren’t exciting enough for the gung-ho enlistee, so he signed up to be a paratrooper with the elite 2nd Ranger Infantry Company. When war broke out in Korea, he parachuted into combat along the front line.

The senior Clarke survived the war without a scratch and returned home with a chest full of medals. He moved to Milwaukee to take a job with the post office and soon married. He and his wife, Jeri, would raise a family of five children.

The couple’s second child was their first son, born in August 1956. They named him after his father, David Alexander Clarke Jr. Like father, like son, the young Clarke was taught to respect authority.

“One thing about Dave, he knew how to follow orders,” his father says. “He never bucked me. He was well-disciplined.”

So well-disciplined was the boy that when his father continued to sky dive recreationally, he asked 11-year-old Dave to help him pack his parachute before every jump.

Imagine the sense of responsibility, knowing that each fold in the nylon chute could mean the difference between life and death for his father.

But the boy had his father’s full confidence. “He had every crease and pleat in place,” says David Clarke Sr.

With his regimented background, Clarke, 46, was destined to wear a uniform. Indeed, he has worked in law enforcement nearly all of his adult life. In 1978, at age 21, he was sworn in as a Milwaukee police officer.

Clarke rose through the ranks at a slow but steady pace in his 24 years with the department, making captain in 1996. But he wanted more. A few years ago, he began writing a 34-page plan designed to be his very specific blueprint for succeeding Police Chief Arthur Jones.

But circumstances intervened. In January of last year, Milwaukee County Sheriff Lev Baldwin resigned unexpectedly to take a $300,000 pension payout before finishing his term. Capitalizing on the opportunity, Clarke applied for the job. Out a field of 10 applicants, Clarke was named sheriff on March 19, 2002, by then-Gov. Scott McCallum.

“We picked someone who we thought would make a difference,” says a former McCallum aide. “The ‘good old boy’ network needed some changing.” But as Clarke admits, the selection of a black sheriff was a good move by the McCallum camp to win minority votes in Milwaukee.

Clarke had come out of nowhere to win the job, but since then, he has become nothing less than a public sensation. It’s hard to name a public leader in Milwaukee who has risen to such a high profile with such lightening speed.

The sheriff has found mass appeal as a new face, as a reformer. People flock to hear him speak. They press close to shake his hand. Six-foot-four in black cowboy boots and GQ handsome, he cuts a commanding presence, a presence that played well with voters last fall in his first run for public office when he beat challengers hands down.

“It has been phenomenal,” says political strategist Bill Christofferson, who ran Clarke’s campaign while coordinating Jim Doyle’s race for governor. “It was almost hard to explain. He was kind of a natural.… He’s a fresh face, somebody who says what’s on his mind.”

Christofferson teamed up with political fundraiser Barb Candy; the two had worked together on past campaigns for Mayor John Norquist. Says Candy: “David has a clearer sense of who he is than just about anybody I’ve worked for in 20-some years.” When advising Clarke, Candy and Christofferson suggested that he make news once a week to raise his name identification with voters. “He ended up in the paper nearly every day,” she says.

Within weeks of his election, Clarke’s name jumped up as a possible candidate for Milwaukee mayor. He was suddenly a hot prospect, particularly within the business community. A citywide survey by the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors identified him as one of the three most popular contenders, along with former Congressman Tom Barrett and Common Council President Marvin Pratt. A survey by the Small Business Times put him at the top of the list. While Clarke has downplayed the flattering speculation, he has never dispelled it.

“Despite his ‘aw shucks’ approach, he’s very sophisticated about the media in Milwaukee,” says public relations executive Evan Zeppos, who supported Clarke’s campaign. In May, Clarke was photographed atop the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel building, City Hall at his back, posing in full uniform for a page-one story on his political aspirations. And for a photo shoot for this magazine, he brought along his private attorney.

“There needs to be new paint on City Hall,” says Clarke without divulging his plans. Early in the year, he twice visited the White House, on one occasion meeting with President Bush’s director of political affairs.

With his charismatic qualities, Clarke fills a leadership void within the public sector, says Zeppos, whose description of Clarke as looking like John Wayne was picked up in a Wall Street Journal column exalting Clarke for his critique of black leadership in Milwaukee.

Clarke has won backing from conservatives and liberals, minorities and non-minorities alike. In his campaign for sheriff, he raised more than $200,000 from a diverse crowd – from lobbyist and former Gov. Martin Schreiber and Ald. Angel Sanchez to tea shop owner George Watts and Brother Bob Smith of Messmer High School; from Johnson Controls’ PAC to the Teamsters.

While his support has been broad based, there have been glaring exceptions. Last November, he incensed members of Milwaukee’s African-American community when he lashed out publicly against the city’s black

Democratic legislators in an e-mail sent to conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes. In an outburst that sparked emotional reactions for and against Clarke, the sheriff charged that Milwaukee’s long-term black leaders’ “failed orthodoxy” uses racism as a blanket excuse for the black community’s shortcomings.

Earlier, his critical remarks about the sheriff’s department galled the rank and file and drew an unprecedented no-confidence vote from the Milwaukee County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association. And long before he became sheriff, as a commander in the police department, he made enemies of cops who regarded him as arrogant and spiteful. One retired police detective says Clarke “viciously” scolded him in front of a roomful of other officers for incorrectly filling out a timecard.

“You’ve got to have respect to be a leader. Clarke doesn’t,” says the ex-cop. “The people who love him don’t know him, and the people who know him don’t like him at all.”

Clarke accepts the criticism as par for the course for any leader. Transformation can breed provocation. “If you aren’t upsetting people along the way of changing an organization, maybe you’re not changing anything at all,” he says.

Like Chief Jones, Clarke has found himself at the hazardous intersection of politics and race. Following his appointment by the Republican McCallum, he declared himself a Democrat (in a city run almost exclusively by Democrats) but refused to join the state party. Instead, he espoused conservative views that cast suspicions on his political motives.

Raised in a white neighborhood, educated in a white high school and married to a white woman, Clarke has also faced claims that he is “not black enough.”

Clarke maintains again and again that he is not a politician and has no use for labels. As for skin color, he says people in this city are too preoccupied with race. “We can’t change the fact that somebody’s an African American,” says Clarke. “We can’t change that. We don’t need to change that. So why do we keep pointing to that?”

Yet it is through a lens of politics and race that he has emerged as a “new” Milwaukee leader, daring to speak against the status quo and unafraid to take on sacred cows. And it is through this same lens that his future will be determined.

Sheriff Clarke's parents, Jeri and David Sr.
Sheriff Clarke’s parents, Jeri and David Sr. Photo by Kevin Miyazaki.

As a young boy, Clarke lived with his family in Berryland, a housing project on the far North Side. When he was 12, his parents bought their first home, a compact house blocks from Berryland at 39th and Kaul Avenue. The neighborhood was made up of similarly compact houses clad in white aluminum siding and wide aluminum awnings.

Clarke went to St. Albert’s Catholic school. He was an avid reader and sports fan. He idolized his uncle, Frank Clarke, a pro football star with the Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys, and kept a scrapbook of his career. Frank Clarke was the first Cowboy receiver to score 1,000 yards; he played in the 1996 NFL Championship as a Cowboy, losing to Vince Lombardi’s Packers. Another uncle, Edwin Clarke, was a reporter for The Milwaukee Journal who went on to work as a public relations specialist for Schlitz, Manpower and United Way and hosted black public affairs programs on local television.

But without a doubt, David Clarke’s biggest influence was his father. The senior Clarke bought used cars instead of new and skimped on home luxuries and family vacations so he could send his five kids to Catholic schools.

“My dad was very unselfish,” says the sheriff. “Our vacation was piling into the car and visiting my grandmother in Beloit. We were never wealthy… but we had a decent home life.”

The young Clarke’s world was small and sheltered. He walked to and from school and came home every day for lunch. He was taught not to walk across the neighbor’s lawn and wasn’t allowed to roam. An empty field a few blocks from his home served as the neighborhood park and formed his boundary line.

“I didn’t know how big the city was because I rarely left the neighborhood,” he says. “We weren’t running the streets – my father didn’t go for that and he didn’t go for hangin’ out.” Going to the nearby train trestle or corner drugstore with his buddies was frowned upon, and he was expected home when the streetlights went on. If he was late, his father would drive through the streets to fetch him. To keep him under his watch, his father would hide his son’s shoes so he couldn’t sneak out.

“We had to keep him close,” says the senior Clarke. “We had to keep an eye on him. We kind of kept him in a circle.” The Clarkes were one of just two African-American families in the neighborhood. Nearly all of the boy’s friends were white. Once in awhile, he found himself on the hurtful end of a racial epithet.

“Heck yeah, I got called ‘Little Black Sambo,’ I got called ‘nigger,’ ” he says. “But it was the sticks-and-stones thing. People are cruel. I didn’t dwell on it.” He learned to shrug it off.

“I told him just to ignore that stuff, walk away from it,” says his father. Clarke Sr. himself had grown up in a white neighborhood in Beloit. He learned to disregard the racial slurs, shook them off “like water off the back.”

If his father was authoritarian, his mother was nurturing. Raised on the North Side of Milwaukee, Jeri Clarke was a stay-at-home mom until her children were in school, then worked as a secretary for Milwaukee Public Schools. She, too, downplays any prejudice directed against her son. Students who used foul language, she says, were dealt with swiftly by the priests and nuns at St. Albert’s.

Inspired by a teacher, Clarke went to Marquette University High School. He cleared tables in the dining hall to offset his tuition and tried out for basketball after failing to make the football team. Clarke was a center and forward in his junior and senior years and played on the team that won the state tournament in 1973. He was much the same person then as he is today, says a high school classmate, West Bend Police Chief Ken Meuler, who also served with him as a Milwaukee police officer.

“He was a very quiet leader, somebody who led by example,” says Meuler. “When in a group or class, everything he said was well thought out. When he talked, people listened. He was a very principled man from high school on.”

After Marquette, Clarke took classes at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee but dropped out in his first year and took a job driving a beer truck for a local distributor. He rented an apartment, bought a new car. But after two years of lugging quarter-barrels in and out of taverns, his life had no sense of purpose. Clarke’s father suggested that he apply for a job as a Milwaukee firefighter or cop. At age 21, he enrolled at the police training academy.

Clarke was a patrolman for 11 years before his promotion to homicide detective. He discharged his weapon only once, when he wounded a Saint Bernard that lunged at him while he was investigating a break-in. Over the years, Clarke was presented with two merit citations, including one for helping to catch “the ski mask rapist” in 1981. Promoted again in 1993 to lieutenant of detectives, he served in the Criminal Investigation Bureau as a shift commander.

Clarke’s career with the MPD was not without conflict. In 1983, he was fired for misconduct by then-Chief Harold Breier when officers reported him drunk in a Vliet Street bar minutes after closing. Though Clarke was on injury leave from the department, off-duty police officers at the time were not allowed to drink in public.

Clarke denied the allegations. He refused to answer questions without a union lawyer present or to submit a urine specimen. Months later, he appealed Breier’s decision and won. He was reinstated and his discipline was reduced to a three-day suspension without pay.

Eleven years later, in 1994, the mother of a 15-year-old boy filed a complaint alleging that Clarke used excessive force when arresting her son. According to public documents, Clarke was returning from a vacation when he spotted five teenagers heaving rocks at passing cars. Clarke chased down the teens, drew his service revolver and ordered them to lie on the ground. He told investigators he used his foot to turn one boy over as he searched for weapons. The boy’s mother claimed Clarke put a gun to her son’s head and kicked him in the side, causing bruised ribs that required medical attention. The complaint dragged on for four years before the Fire and Police Commission ruled there was insufficient evidence to charge Clarke and dismissed the case.

In 1996, Clarke was promoted to captain and soon became commander of the department’s First District, the Downtown business district. Along the way, he attended a leadership training program at the FBI National Academy in Virginia and received a degree in criminal justice management from Concordia University in Mequon.

In 1999, Clarke became commanding officer of the Intelligence Division. Much of his work involved protecting dignitaries – from Norquist and McCallum to presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush.

“When you’re in dignitary protection, you’re going to all the political arenas, so your exposure is high,” says Don Werra, who was Clarke’s supervising lieutenant in the department’s detective bureau. “You present yourself well and eventually you’ll be noticed.”

Werra, a former Milwaukee School Board member and head of the city’s housing police, was also a candidate – some say the odds-on favorite – for the sheriff’s post. He and others say they were stunned by Clarke’s appointment.

“How the hell did he get to be sheriff?” says one former police captain. “He lay in the weeds all these years. Who would’ve known?”

As a uniformed cop, Clarke was an unknown quantity, articulate and well-groomed but aloof. He seldom attended retirement celebrations or Christmas parties. “You couldn’t light a fire under him,” as one former MPD detective puts it. But when he became a commander, “You couldn’t put the fire out.”

As a commander, Clarke could toss out flashy ideas, says the former captain, but he didn’t have much success putting his plans into action. “Is he good to look at? Is he shining? Yes,” the ex-captain says. “But once he opens his mouth… there’s nothing beyond ‘Good morning.’ ”

Last year, Clarke failed to win an endorse-ment from the Milwaukee Police Association in the sheriff’s campaign, although he was the only former Milwaukee cop running.

From the day he was sworn in as sheriff by state Supreme Court Justice Diane Sykes, Clarke has been in the hot seat.

In his investiture speech, he invoked the words of Rudolph Giuliani, Mark Twain and Martin Luther King and talked about trust, dependability, respect and justice. Minutes later, at his inaugural news conference, a Fox 6 TV reporter dropped a megaton question: Have you ever been arrested for domestic violence?

Clarke answered “no.” But he was taken aback and McCallum stepped forward to defend the sheriff’s record. No such violation had turned up after a full vetting of the sheriff’s past, McCallum said.

The question of spousal abuse has long dogged Clarke. Four or five years ago, when he was police captain Downtown, word surfaced that Milwaukee officers had been called to Clarke’s home to investigate a call of domestic violence. A supervisor passed along the news and Clarke laughed it off.

“I thought it was a joke,” says Clarke. He told his wife, Julie, and she, too, laughed about it, he says.

But the story grew, taking on different versions, and soon Clarke began hearing stories that he’d been jailed for beating his wife, that police records of the arrest were missing, that the beating occurred outside Milwaukee County and was hushed up.

“It was one of the most devastating rumors that never happened,” says Clarke. “It was somebody inside the police department, there’s no doubt in my mind. That’s the thing that bothers me, that somebody hates me that much” to circulate the stories. “But it never happened.”

An open records request filed with the Milwaukee Police Department by Milwaukee Magazine produced no report of a police complaint against Clarke within the past seven years. Older police records are routinely destroyed by the department.

Clarke’s baptism by fire continued for months after his swearing in: One of his deputies got into a scuffle at the airport with Police Chief Jones; a convicted murderer wrestled a gun from a deputy in a Downtown courtroom, then wounded the deputy before being shot dead by a police officer; and at Waupun State Prison, two Milwaukee prisoners escaped from a van driven by two of Clarke’s deputies.

Clarke backed his deputies in each case yet made it clear he’d hold them accountable.

The friction was hard to ignore. There he was, an outsider telling veteran deputies and inspectors how to improve the way they did their jobs.

As Clarke’s election campaign kicked into gear, the controversies turn political: Sheriff’s Inspector Pete Misko, Clarke’s Democratic primary challenger, accused Clarke of playing politics by canceling a portion of vacation time Misko planned to use to campaign. One day before the deputy sheriffs’ association was to hold a vote questioning its confidence in the sheriff, Clarke opened an internal investigation of the union’s president, claiming he was conducting business on department time.

The association cast a vote against Clarke five days before the primary. Of 516 votes, just 23 backed him.

As he challenged the old guard, Clarke also provoked police chiefs in suburbs around Milwaukee County. A month after his appointment, he proposed that the sheriff’s department take over homicide investigations throughout the county. Then he proposed that his deputies beef up patrols at community parades and festivals and respond to cellular 911 calls in county municipalities.

Clarke says he knew there’d be discontent. “I let it be known from day one that there was a new sheriff in town.”

Historically, sheriff’s deputies have been responsible for patrolling the freeways, overseeing the jail and providing security in the courts. The role of policing the city and suburbs has fallen to local police departments. But when Clarke became sheriff, those lines began to blur.

“He’s imposed himself on some other law enforcement agencies, and it’s uninvited,” says Milwaukee County Supervisor Gerry Broderick, a former police officer. Because of budget cuts, Clarke’s proposal to expand was put on hold. But resentment lingers. “I don’t care what Clarke does, he’s not my boss,” says St. Francis Police Chief Victor Venus, a former Milwaukee Police captain who once supervised Clarke.

But Clarke is far from past tense. He continues to raise eyebrows with his strong views, even on issues beyond the realm of law enforcement. He has weighed in on MPS students wearing hooded sweatshirts (he’s against them because of their identification with youth gangs), on school vouchers (he’s for them as an educational reform) and on the war in Iraq (he’s strongly supportive, as the son of a combat vet).

Others call on him frequently for help. One day in March, he had a meeting with representatives from the Milwaukee County Council of the Boy Scouts, who wanted him to join their board (he agreed) and took a call from Wauwatosa Mayor Theresa Estness, who asked his opinion on youthful troublemakers at Mayfair Mall (“Focus on the behavior, not race,” he told her. “You’ll get through this. You’ve got to be strong.”).

And he is called on constantly to speak publicly, receiving requests, says his staff, that far outnumber those made of his predecessor. His scheduling folder is thick with invitations – from church groups, grade schools, senior centers, business associations, the Women’s Fund, the Medical College of Wisconsin. “I knew, being in this public life, I was going to belong to the community,” he says. “That’s why I think I’ve had the impact I’ve had.”

On Saturday, April 12, three days after American troops toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, Sheriff Clarke joined in a Support Our Troops rally. Emceed by WTMJ’s Charlie Sykes and fellow talk show host Jeff Wagner, the rally drew about 1,000 people to the War Memorial. Speakers included Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and state Reps. Leah Vukmir and Mark Gundrum, Congressmen Paul Ryan and Mark Green and Sen. Herb Kohl, the only Democrat on the stage – except for Clarke.

The crowd was decidedly Republican. Egged on by the speakers, they heartily booed the mere mention of Democrats Tom Daschle, John Kerry, Russ Feingold, Jerry Kleczka and Bill Clinton, as well as France, the Dixie Chicks and the “Hollywood Halfwits,” as Congressman Green called the Susan Sarandons and Martin Sheens of southern California.

Clarke, the only non-Caucasian speaker and one of few blacks to attend the rally, was well received by the conservative crowd. In sunglasses and a black sweater bearing a gold sheriff’s patch sewn over his heart, Clarke took the microphone in hand and spoke without notes, smiling warmly at the throng of flag-wavers.

Repeating the rhetoric of the White House, he said he was “shocked” that there were still people in Saddam’s regime who thought they could defy the U.S.-led military forces and was “in awe” of President Bush’s “will and courage” to unleash the might of the United States against the regime.

“Someone,” he said, his voice booming, “forgot to tell Saddam Hussein there’s a new sheriff in town – at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

The crowd roared, and near the foot of the stage a chant began to build: “Run for mayor! Run for mayor!”

“Let’s not start that,” said the sheriff, flashing a broad winner’s grin at his admirers.

At press time, the sheriff had made no decision on a bid for Milwaukee mayor. His own father dismissed the idea as “that mayor crap.” But David Clarke can charge up a crowd like no other politician to come along in a very long time.

By far, Clarke’s biggest battles have been with members of his own political party and race. His unwillingness to join the state Democratic Party and his affinity with conservative Republicans – from the Bush White House to Sykes – have caused some to doubt his integrity. While he conveniently adopted the label Democrat in the Democratic stronghold, Milwaukee County, “David Clarke is no Demo-crat,” says one prominent party leader.

“He’s an opportunistic guy,” says Barbara Boxer, a Democratic activist and lawyer. Boxer supports Clarke as sheriff because it is effectively a non-partisan law enforcement position. But because of his “right-wing” and “militaristic” views – views that did not fully emerge before his election – she says she would not support him for a higher office, including mayor, a view shared by Christofferson, Clarke’s former campaign manager.

Clarke met with Christofferson in early May to discuss a possible mayoral campaign. “He said, ‘I can’t run if you won’t help me,’ ” says Christofferson. “And I told him, ‘Well, then I guess you’re not running because I can’t help you. I can’t work for somebody who’s for George Bush.’ ”

On race, Clarke splintered his standing among Milwaukee’s African-American community last January following a community forum on the use of force by police. Sponsored by the Milwaukee NAACP, the forum was called to address questions about the arrest of a black motorist after a high-speed chase on the freeway. One of Clarke’s deputies – a black deputy, as Clarke pointed out – placed a foot on the neck of the suspect as he lay on the ground, an act of force seen as excessive by some.

Clarke attended the meeting but waited until two days later – on the observed birthday of Martin Luther King – to respond, writing a lengthy e-mail to WTMJ’s Sykes. In the e-mail, read by Sykes and posted on his Web site, Clarke took Milwaukee’s black Democratic caucus to task for “promoting the cult of victimology,” calling them out by name – state Sen. Gwen Moore; state Reps. Polly Williams, Johnnie Morris-Tatum, Leon Todd and Spencer Coggs; and Milwaukee County Reserve Judge Russell Stamper.

“Like sheep,” Clarke wrote, “one after another, they marched up to the microphone criticizing law enforcement, using words such as oppression, racism and accountability for law enforcement.”

Clarke’s statements elicited e-mails and calls of approval from Sykes’ listeners, white and black.

“Charlie, I am black and I agreed 100 percent with David Clarke,” wrote one anonymous listener. “This is not a black vs. white issue, this is good vs. wrong.”

Clarke’s e-mail incited a feud between Clarke and Eugene Kane, an African-American columnist for the Journal Sentinel. Kane in print accused Clarke of pandering to white conservatives.

“I seriously doubt,” wrote Kane, “whether it takes all that much courage – in this racially polarized city – to use a radio station with a predominantly white audience to slam black leadership.”

Clarke countered with another lengthy e-mail to Sykes, saying Kane reminded him of Mike Tyson – “intimidating.”

“I rarely agree with your slant on issues, but you are a good writer,” wrote Clarke of Kane. “However, even the best prizefighters need to get hit in the mouth and taste their own blood to know they’re in for a fight. I think I just heard the bell sounding the start of the round.”

The ill will remains. Many African-American leaders declined comment on Clarke, saying they didn’t want to acknowledge his views. “ ‘Mr. Charlie’ and the white press want to get him elected mayor,” said one legislator, declining to talk on the record.

Nevertheless, Clarke has found significant backing within the black community.

“We need more people like him; I’m tired of folks who are hustlers,” says Reuben Harpole, a black community activist now with the Helen Bader Foundation and friend of the sheriff’s uncle, Ed Clarke. “The sheriff’s opinions are healthy. That’s freedom of speech, that’s the United States.… By having differences, sooner or later, you come to the truth.”

Gerard Randall Jr., president of the Private Industry Council of Milwaukee County and a former University of Wisconsin regent, backed Clarke for sheriff. He likes Clarke’s vision, he says, especially his call for better training for deputies and a greater presence in the Inner City.

“There are many in the African-American community who have aspirations, who want good education for their kids, good-quality jobs, who want to experience improved lives,” says Randall. “They look at crime and poverty and… tend to be fairly conservative about approaches that will lead to improvement in their lives.” Like Clarke, they’re strong believers of personal responsibility.

Yet overshadowing Clarke’s outspoken opinions are the methods he used to deliver them, which have drawn rebuke even from like-minded conservatives.

“Things were taken personally,” says Randall, who supports Pratt for mayor, “and feelings were expressed that left more unresolved than resolved. We moved frankly nowhere in dealing with the real issues that were raised.”

It would have been “next to impossible” for a white politician to call out Milwaukee’s black leadership without being seen as racist, says County Executive Scott Walker. “He’s a proven vote-getter, as long as he doesn’t start contradicting his style.… But without second-guessing him, if I would have been in his situation, I probably would have let it rest and not followed through with that letter [to Sykes]. It was almost like throwing a grenade.… There’s a difference in being bold and being aggressive.”

Ralph Hollmon, president and chief executive officer of the Milwaukee Urban League, credits Clarke for raising some valid yet thorny issues. “With a number of things in this community, we’ve been reluctant to talk openly. We’ve been in denial.” But Hollmon, too, was bothered by how Clarke raised the issues.

Clarke has no regrets. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d do the same thing,” he says. He thought hard about broaching the issue of race, he says, and considered how people might respond. “And I said to myself, ‘We’re stagnant in this town. Somehow, we need to get over this discussion on race. We can’t get by playing the race card, with the race hustlers, with the demagogues.’

“The legislators who’ve been in office for 20 years need to take responsibility,” he adds. Rather than shading things in terms of black and white, they need to focus squarely on the problems faced by urban minorities – crime, dropout rates, truancy, teen pregnancy, failure in schools.

“I knew at some point that I would have to challenge some entrenched politicians.” He could have delayed, he says, “but I thought, well, maybe the Lord wants me to deal with this now.… The opportunity was there and so I seized it.”

Clarke defends his use of talk radio. “To play it out in The Community Journal or The Courier or Milwaukee Times [all minority newspapers] plays into the orthodoxy – the idea that it needs to be dealt with ourselves, by only African Americans,” says Clarke. “If it just goes on in ‘the backroom,’ as I call it… I would’ve gotten beaten up. That was a challenge to them: ‘If you want to beat me up, you’ve got to do it in public.’ ”

WTMJ radio provides a wider audience for his views, says Clarke. “There can be more than one African-American viewpoint, including a conservative one.” Clarke, for instance, is against abortion and doesn’t like affirmative action, he says. His political heroes are Colin Powell and conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. And he listens more to country-western than rhythm and blues. To be stereotyped “does a disservice to black people.” Mainstream Americans understand that, he says.

Michelle Bryant, an African-American community activist, calls Clarke’s approach divisive. “There’s nothing wrong with appearing on Sykes’ show. I welcome diversity of thought.… But diplomacy has to play a role. He [Clarke] doesn’t have any.”

Outside of his job, Bryant asks, what is Clarke doing for the black community? “I hardly go anywhere and see David Clarke. I think his wishes are sincere, but… he has problems with black people.” It’s telling, she says, that Clarke was asked to throw out the first pitch at a Milwaukee Brewers game. “Not Art Jones but Clarke. He was the acceptable Negro.”

Unlike Jones, Clarke “has been seen by the majority community as ‘he thinks like us, he lives like us, we can work with him,’ ” says Bryant. “But as far as we’re concerned, he’s just another white guy. He’s not going to be an effective unifying leader because he’s pissed too many people off.”

Rep. Coggs says he feels betrayed by the sheriff. Coggs met Clarke when he was sworn in, offering the sheriff his support and cell phone number minutes after his less-than-welcoming opening press conference. While some had warned Coggs that Clarke was a right-wing conservative in a Democrat’s clothing, “I saw him as a well-meaninged person,” says Coggs. “I considered him a friend – up until that e-mail.”

Clarke used inflammatory labels for black leaders – “demagogues” and “race hustlers” – “to pump up his image in the conservative community,” says Coggs. But their constituents have been well served, he says, and have re-elected the legislators by wide margins. Williams, for instance, was an originator of Milwaukee’s school choice program, and Moore helped fine-tune W-2.

“How do you unburn a bridge?” asks Coggs. “I’ve never seen an elected official so flagrantly malign himself with other elected officials. These things that Sheriff Clarke is saying are about some stereotypical black legislator.… It just doesn’t fit the truth. It does fit the sound bites. David Clarke is trying to make a name for himself and he doesn’t care who he tramples.”

Is Clarke remarkably tactless or refreshingly candid? A real leader or a publicity seeker? It depends on who you ask. Clarke’s longtime friend, West Bend Police Chief Meuler, has seen the sheriff’s strident side. “He’s a friend of mine and I can tell you sometimes he can rub me the wrong way,” says Meuler. “But he’s not a guy who’s going to shoot from the hip. He’s not going to make a decision that’s not thought out.”

Still, Clarke has alienated some of the very people with whom he must work – from county supervisors and state legislators to suburban police chiefs and his own rank and file – all in the name of change.

“David has always been what he says, a loner,” says Lenard Wells, former head of the League of Martin, a black police association. “You know what’s wrong with being a loner? You don’t learn.”

David Clarke and his wife, a for-mer court reporter who now sells real estate, live down a dead-end road in the northwest corner of Milwaukee, about as far away from Downtown as you can get without leaving the city limits. A thick woods around their large contemporary home provides seclusion.

The sheriff drives himself to most public functions. His Chevy Tahoe sports an American flag decal and “Support Your Local Sheriff” sticker. A crucifix hangs from the rearview mirror. Clarke, a deeply religious Catholic, always carries a prayer book. He keeps a Bible in his truck and desk drawer.

The sheriff bristles at the notion of being an administrator. He’s not a paper shuffler. His aim is to put the office of sheriff on the radar through his brand of leadership. As he moves to “professionalize” the department, he is big on presentation. He has no tolerance for a missing uniform button or patrol cars errantly parked on public streets. He has instructed his 1,000 employees to use the term sheriff’s office rather than department because “department” conveys an image of government bureaucracy, he says.

When he was young, Clarke watched his father press his postman’s uniform every Sunday before the start of the work week. The sheriff, on his annual salary of $121,040, could easily afford to send his clothes to the laundry. Yet, like his father, he irons his own uniform, pressing a sharp crease into his pants every morning before work.

Self-discipline and personal responsibility have been the underpinnings of his life. When asked what his biggest success as sheriff has been, he answers: “Having established myself.

“I’m a student of leadership,” he says. “I love leadership.”

As sheriff now for more than a year, Clarke has shaken up his staff, reassigning veterans from freeway patrol to jail duty. He’s beefed up training, anticipating a greater role for “community policing” by placing deputies on city streets, his “urban initiative.” He has promoted a new policy that would be more punitive toward kids who are truants. Along the way, he has bumped heads with county supervisors over budget cuts and new policies.

To much fanfare, Clarke in May introduced a gun reduction task force made up of 16 deputies who will ask motorists throughout the county for permission to search their cars when stopped for minor infractions. Supported by the mayor, county executive and U.S. attorney, the task force was denounced by Chief Jones, who said he was concerned that the searches would violate civil rights. After one month, deputies reportedly confiscated five guns and made 80 arrests during 2,200 hours of patrolling.

But overall, the results of Clarke’s tenure are hard to measure. With a $3 million budget deficit, his department doesn’t have money to put community policing into place. “It’s a sexy item for him… showing he’s doing something about crime,” says a county supervisor. “It looks good to the voters.”

As the top law enforcer in the county, Clarke has fallen short at consensus-building, says Democrat Barbara Boxer. “David’s made a big splash. The question is, can he swim the length of the pool? He’s got to get beyond the racial issues. You need someone who gets the cooperation.”

Clarke has yet to prove himself effective, says Lenard Wells, now chair of the state Parole Commission. “I’m still waiting for [him] to give us his solutions” on race relations.

Beyond law enforcement, beyond the City of Milwaukee, Clarke’s experience is narrow, adds Chris Abele, a Milwaukee philanthropist and political contributor. “What’s Clarke’s record? He’s got all this swagger and this near-all-knowing authority. But what’s behind it?”

Judging by Clarke’s popularity, his past doesn’t seem to matter. In a time of recalls and mistrust of elected officials, the sheriff has captured the public’s imagination. He’s got the pizzazz many voters admire. As one African-American leader puts it, “He looks good on a horse.”

“I’d like him to be a U.S. senator,” says Michael A.I. Whitcomb, a former chief of staff to Mayor Henry Maier who helped run Clarke’s campaign for sheriff. “He’s head and shoulders above all the ones I’ve dealt with. I put him on par with Henry Maier in the early days.”

As Clarke shaped his campaign, Whitcomb helped him touch all the right people. “He’s a pretty humble guy, and foisting himself on others was something absolutely foreign to him.” But with a little coaching, Clarke learned to work a roomful of potential voters like a pro.

“He was the perfect candidate,” says Whitcomb. The perfect candidate in a city of imperfect leaders.

The sheriff’s own transition from candidate to leader, though, is incomplete; his political future – mayor? county executive? United States senator? – is indefinite.

“Only God knows, and I don’t say that rhetorically. I pray every day,” says Clarke. “I’ve never wanted a political career, I’ve just wanted to lead.”



Kurt Chandler began working at Milwaukee Magazine in 1998 as a senior editor, writing investigative articles, profiles, narratives and commentaries. He was editor in chief from August 2013-November 2015. An award-winning writer, Chandler has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine writer, editor and author. He has been published in a number of metro newspapers and magazines, from The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Minneapolis Star Tribune, to Marie Claire, The Writer, and He also has authored, coauthored or edited 12 books. His writing awards are many: He has won the National Headliners Award for magazine writing five times. He has been named Writer of the Year by the City & Regional Magazine Association, and Journalist of the Year by the Milwaukee Press Club. As a staff writer with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and chosen as a finalist for the Robert F. Kennedy Award. In previous lives, Chandler worked construction, drove a cab and played the banjo (not necessarily at the same time). He has toiled as a writer and journalist for three decades now and, unmindful of his sage father’s advice, has nothing to fall back on. Yet he is not without a specialized set of skills: He can take notes in the dark and is pretty good with active verbs.