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Nice-Guy Politics

Aug. 26, 2009
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Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett deservedly is receiving an outpouring of good will from all over the country, including from President Barack Obama, for an act of good citizenship that resulted in the mayor being brutally attacked.

After being beaten with a tire iron as he attempted to summon assistance for a grandmother and a young child being threatened in a domestic dispute, Barrett understandably has reduced his public activities as he recovers from serious injuries.

But it happens to coincide with an uncharacteristically audacious proposal from Barrett in which he would seize control of Milwaukee Public Schools, replace the elected Milwaukee School Board with his own appointed board and choose the next superintendent of Milwaukee schools himself.

Since his election as mayor in 2004, Barrett has been anything but an arrogant, power-grabbing politician. In fact, one of the frequent criticisms of Barrett is that he is too nice to aggressively shake up the status quo. Barrett just smiles and shrugs off those “nice guy” accusations with lines like: “Enough of this name-calling already.”

Barrett is who he is, and his amiable style has won him strong local support. It is not at all clear how well that style would transfer statewide if he decided to run for governor. Since Gov. Jim Doyle announced he would not seek re-election, Barrett has been mentioned prominently in the Milwaukee media as a potential candidate.

That probably says more about the lack of political expertise in the Milwaukee media than it does about Barrett’s real chances statewide.

Any candidate from Milwaukee faces significant obstacles in a statewide race based on historic, regional prejudices against Milwaukee throughout the state. Even a conservative Republican from Milwaukee County, County Executive Scott Walker, failed to attract enough money and support statewide in 2006 to mount an effective campaign for the nomination for governor.

Barrett came close to testing the viability of a Milwaukee candidate statewide in 2002 when he ran a strong second to Doyle in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. But Barrett’s campaign then was based on his experience in the state Legislature and the U.S. Congress. Running as mayor of Milwaukee stirs up far more suburban and rural animosity toward the state’s largest city and the people Barrett represents.

Besides, if Barrett really is serious about radically altering state law to allow the mayor of Milwaukee to run Milwaukee schools, a run for governor wouldn’t be a smart move: He wouldn’t even have a chance of success if people thought he was looking for another job.

Unless, of course, Barrett has suddenly developed a monumental ego and believes he can simultaneously run Milwaukee’s schools and the governor’s office.

The power grab of the schools is so uncharacteristic of Barrett that many people wonder how aggressively he would be campaigning for the takeover even if he weren’t temporarily sidelined.

MMAC Behind the Push

The truth is, even though Barrett is the frontman for a mayoral takeover of the schools, the latest push did not originate in his office. For more than a year now, the proposal has been discussed behind closed doors in meetings hosted by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC).

When I wrote a column about those secret meetings a year ago, Barrett publicly disavowed being involved. Barrett personally asked me to run a correction because I’d suggested otherwise. He said neither he nor anyone from his office had participated in the private meetings of the MMAC.

Obviously, that has changed. Besides the mayor, the only other prominent elected officials voicing support for a mayoral takeover are Doyle and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers.

Doyle’s endorsement almost immediately lost any power it had when Doyle announced he would not seek re-election. The ability of a lame-duck governor to pass a radical change in state law abolishing an elected school board and turning its power over to the mayor of Milwaukee is questionable.

At a public hearing on the mayoral takeover called by School Board President Michael Bonds—the first public hearing ever called on the proposal—legislators, aldermen, school board members, clergy and leaders of civil rights and social service organizations attacked the idea of abolishing the elected school board as undemocratic.

The real driving force behind taking control of MPS away from a school board elected by the citizens of Milwaukee stems from corporate business leaders of the MMAC who do not live in the city and have never advocated for increasing educational resources for the city’s public schools.

It was perfectly in character when niceguy Barrett didn’t hesitate to step forward when someone vulnerable was being threatened by a violent bully.

And many believe Barrett’s natural tendency would be to work with Bonds and the new Milwaukee School Board to improve MPS instead of adopting the MMAC’s bullyboy tactics himself.


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