Who’s (Going to Be) the Boss? A Look at Milwaukee’s Mayoral Race

The campaign for Milwaukee mayor looks familiar, but it’s not quite a rerun

Tom Barrett has been here before.

Running for re-election next spring, the Milwaukee mayor faces an African-American politician and a South Side alderman, as he did in winning his fourth term in 2016. But a lot has changed since that previous race.

Bay View’s Ald. Tony Zielinski isn’t the same as fellow South Side Ald. Bob Donovan, who took on Barrett in 2016. Where Donovan is consistently conservative – and sometimes racially divisive – Zielinski adopts a more centrist approach, lining up with Donovan on law-and-order issues and opposing streetcar expansion, while favoring workers’ rights, green energy and urban agriculture.

Zielinski also points to his campaign treasury – $572,336 at the end of June, compared with Barrett’s $811,074. “I’ve got some serious cash here,” Zielinski says, allowing him to communicate more effectively than Donovan and other underfunded Barrett challengers.

Nor is Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor much like Ald. Joe Davis Sr., who was eliminated in the 2016 mayoral primary. Taylor is a far more fiery orator than Davis, energizing some voters with her powerful words but turning off others with her in-your-face style. Like Zielinski, she’s not easily categorized, joining forces with Republicans on education and gun issues while speaking out against discrimination and poverty.

And while both Taylor and Zielinski are known for energetic door-to-door campaigns in their districts, Taylor has a broader political base; every mayor since 1960 has been a current or former state senator, while no alderman has won the mayor’s office since 1910. She also carried the city in her losing 2008 challenge to then-County Executive Scott Walker.

(Zielinski once launched a statewide campaign – seeking, in an odd twist, to become Barrett’s running mate when the mayor faced Walker in the 2010 governor’s race. However, the alderman said he dropped out of the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor at the urging of Barrett advisers who feared an all-Milwaukee ticket would lose. Barrett lost to Walker anyway.)

But carrying the city in a county race against Walker was easier than beating Barrett in a city race. Walker’s strength was in the suburbs; in three county executive elections and three gubernatorial contests, he won the city only once. Barrett, by contrast, has won four mayoral elections after representing the city’s North and West sides in Congress and the Legislature for a combined 18 years.

And in a majority-minority city, Barrett forged strong ties with the black community, helping him defeat several African-American opponents, most notably in his first mayoral race against then-Acting Mayor Marvin Pratt in 2004, says University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Professor Emeritus Mordecai Lee, a former Democratic legislator. Pratt’s slogan, “It’s time,” spoke to hopes he’d be the city’s first elected black mayor, “but Pratt’s gamble didn’t work,” Lee says.

Yet Milwaukee’s black and Hispanic neighborhoods are both a strength and a weakness for Barrett. He has been dogged by persistent criticism that he hasn’t done enough to address racism, poverty and unequal police treatment of the city’s minorities. It’s a vulnerability that his campaign acknowledges he needs to address.

“No mayor in the country should feel comfortable about their record” on those issues, Barrett campaign adviser Patrick Guarasci says. “You know we can do more, and the mayor does, too.” Barrett’s campaign will lay out a vision of bringing more jobs to all parts of the city and confronting violent crime, as well as his record of fiscal responsibility, Guarasci said.

Republican operative Craig Peterson has long pushed the theory that Barrett could be ousted if minorities and conservatives unite against white liberals. It hasn’t worked. After his primary defeat, Davis endorsed Donovan, only to be disavowed by Taylor and other black leaders. A year later, racial tension among organizers doomed an attempt to recall Barrett.

Perhaps the most successful conservative-minority coalition was the one that Zielinski joined in 2016 to elect Ald. Ashanti Hamilton as Common Council president. Even that has been a shaky alliance, and Hamilton took away Zielinski’s Licenses Committee chairmanship after allegations the South sider was pressuring license applicants for campaign cash – a move Zielinski denounced as political, at a time when Hamilton was considering his own mayoral bid.

Peterson, who backed Donovan, says he’s not sure if he’ll be active this time. If Taylor advances from the nonpartisan Feb. 18 primary to the April 7 general election, Peterson believes she could prove a more formidable challenger to Barrett than Zielinski would.

Two progressive groups – Wisconsin Working Families Party and Black Leaders Organizing for Communities –could play an important role. Neither is supporting anyone yet, and both are revamping their endorsement processes to involve more grassroots members.

Working Families opposed Taylor’s 2016 re-election bid, supporting her unsuccessful Democratic primary opponent, then-Rep. Mandela Barnes (now lieutenant governor). BLOC Executive Director Angela Lang praised Taylor’s outspoken advocacy for the black community, while saying Barrett has done a decent job despite frustration he hasn’t done more.

Lang says Zielinski’s pro-police stance is a concern for BLOC, which supports the Liberate MKE campaign to shift $25 million from police to community violence prevention, sustainable jobs and affordable housing. Working Families endorsed Zielinski for re-election in 2016, and he’s seeking its mayoral endorsement. But Working Families also supports Liberate MKE, and State Director Rebecca Lynch says she wasn’t aware of Zielinski’s police budget views.

With all that in mind, no incumbent has lost a Milwaukee mayor’s race since 1940. And as in previous races, Barrett holds advantages in campaign funding and name recognition, not to mention the generally positive public image that helped him win his last three re-election campaigns with 70% or more of the vote.

In that sense, the story of this campaign still seems familiar. His challengers will face an uphill battle to change the ending.



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.