Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s expected departure to Luxembourg could temporarily hand the city’s top job to a millennial and set off a free-for-all in the special election that would follow – that is, depending on the speed of the U.S. Senate.
President Joe Biden nominated Barrett on Wednesday to become U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. In brief remarks at his office, Barrett pledged he would continue to focus on his job as mayor until the Senate acts on his nomination.
“I’m confident about Milwaukee, and as you all know, I care deeply about the future of our city,” Barrett said.
Barrett was first elected mayor in 2004, after serving as a state legislator and congressman. With more than 17 years in office, he’s currently the nation’s longest-serving big-city mayor and the third-longest-serving in Milwaukee history.
When Barrett steps down, Common Council President Cavalier “Chevy” Johnson would become acting mayor. Johnson was first elected to the council’s northwest side 2nd District seat in 2016, rising to president by an 8-7 vote in 2020. At 34, he’s the youngest council president in more than a century and slightly more than half the age of 67-year-old Barrett.
In a written statement, Johnson congratulated Barrett and said he would continue working with him until the Senate votes.
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Johnson is part of trio of young city and county leaders of color, with County Executive David Crowley and County Board Chair Marcelia Nicholson. Barrett is the only white male among the top four local elected officials.
But as Milwaukee evolved into a majority-minority city, Barrett was able to keep winning elections because of his strong relations with the Black community, which he had represented in Congress and the Legislature, says University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Professor Emeritus Mordecai Lee, who served with Barrett as a Democratic state legislator.
The last time a Milwaukee mayor resigned, a Black council president also took over, but under somewhat different circumstances.
In late 2003, then-Mayor John Norquist had already announced he wouldn’t seek a fifth term in 2004, in the wake of a sex scandal. When Norquist unexpectedly left early to take another job, Common Council President Marvin Pratt became the city’s first Black acting mayor. Pratt ran for a full term and came in first in the primary, but lost to Barrett in the general election.
Norquist “left under a cloud,” Lee says. “Tom is leaving office with his head held high, and he could have stayed as long as he wanted.”
That primary was a 10-way race, and the prospect of an open mayoral seat again could draw a large field. Recent history also suggests that field likely would include Black, white, progressive and conservative candidates.
In 2020, Barrett defeated state Sen. Lena Taylor, who is Black, after the more conservative then-Ald. Tony Zielinski was eliminated in the primary. Four years earlier, Barrett easily overcame a challenge from his right by then-Ald. Bob Donovan, after eliminating Black then-Ald. Joe Davis Sr. in the primary.
The Common Council would decide when to call a special election to fill the remainder of Barrett’s term, City Clerk Jim Owczarski says.
But that won’t happen until Barrett is confirmed, and the Senate has been unusually slow in confirming Biden’s ambassadorial nominees. It wasn’t until earlier this month that the president’s first envoy, former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, was confirmed as ambassador to Mexico. Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz has single-handedly held up dozens of State Department nominations in a feud over imposing sanctions on Russia.
Depending on when the Senate acts, the special election could coincide with the regular spring 2022 election and its February primary, or a special primary could coincide with the April election, Owczarski says. It’s even possible the special election could be held together with the regular fall election, Lee notes.
The timing of the election also could favor some elected officials over others, Lee notes. For example, state legislators could run in a spring election without giving up their seats, while county supervisors would have the same advantage in a fall election. Milwaukee aldermen aren’t up for re-election until spring 2024.
Since 1960, all three of Milwaukee’s mayors – Barrett, Norquist and Henry Maier – have been former Democratic state senators.