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The Governor from Milwaukee

Sep. 30, 2009
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Since it has hardly ever happened, the conventional wisdom is that a Milwaukee politician cannot be elected governor of Wisconsin. So is there a serious possibility that both political parties could nominate candidates from Milwaukee for governor in 2010? Probably not.

But that hasn’t stopped the hometown media from speculating about Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett as the Democratic candidate facing off against Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker as the Republican candidate.

The last Milwaukeean to serve as governor, Marty Schreiber, wasn’t elected. Schreiber was promoted from lieutenant governor after President Jimmy Carter appointed Democratic Gov. Pat Lucey ambassador to Mexico in 1977. Schreiber was defeated for election statewide the following year by Republican Lee Dreyfus.

Before that, the last governor from Milwaukee was Republican industrialist Julius Heil, who served two two-year terms beginning in 1939. According to The New York Times, Heil was known primarily “for clowning and silly antics.”

Then you have to go back to 1856, when Democrat Arthur MacArthur, the grandfather of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, served as governor for four days before being run out of office by threat of force after revelations of vote fraud.

With that meager history, why would anyone believe that a Milwaukee politician today could overcome the historic resentment of voters throughout the state toward big, bad Milwaukee?

Both of the possible candidates have to be aware of the odds against them. Both sought their party’s nomination for governor before— Barrett in 2002 against Jim Doyle and Walker in 2006 against Green Bay Congressman Mark Green—and both failed.

Expecting the unexpected was fueled by the surprise announcement that Democratic Gov. Doyle would not seek re-election.

That made Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, who quickly announced her candidacy, the most natural successor to the Democratic nomination. Despite the success of female governors across the country, the Wisconsin old boys’ club seems to regard Lawton’s candidacy as somehow unnatural.

Democratic powerbrokers first put their hopes on La Crosse Congressman Ron Kind, even though the gubernatorial races of Barrett and Green showed that congressmen with political strength in a single congressional district have difficulty running statewide.

When polling indicated that most state voters didn’t have a clue who he was, Kind announced he would seek re-election to Congress.

Now some Democrats are increasing pressure on Barrett to run for governor. It comes at both a fortuitous time and an awkward time for Barrett.

Barrett’s public image statewide and nationally has never been higher as a result of a courageous personal act in which he stepped into the middle of a domestic dispute to protect a grandmother and an infant. He ended up being brutally beaten with a tire iron.

The personal good will flowing from that shocking incident combined with his likable campaign style actually could give Barrett the best shot of any Milwaukee mayor in history of being elected governor.

And wouldn’t that be something? To actually have a Wisconsin governor who understood the needs of poor and working-class whites, blacks and Latinos living in urban areas.

Any such governor would still face major challenges getting Madison legislators to overcome anti-Milwaukee prejudices and provide adequate resources to attack long-neglected problems. At the very least, there would be much more awareness of needs at the top.

The tough part is Barrett continues to suffer from the serious injuries from the beating.

He’s still in pain. It may be months before he knows whether he faces another major surgery as a result of a crushed knuckle on his hand.

Family considerations also are very important to Barrett. Three of those children Barrett used to carry around at campaign events are now teenagers.

Besides, it’s politically awkward for Barrett to run for higher office while campaigning as mayor of Milwaukee to take over the city’s public schools. Is he going to stay around and run the schools or not? Would the next mayor even want to?

Protecting Wisconsin

Despite those obstacles, there’s one more very important reason why Barrett might decide to run for governor. If Walker has a serious shot at winning the Republican nomination, Barrett might feel compelled to run to protect Milwaukee and the rest of the state from financial chaos.

Since becoming county executive in 2002, Walker has perfected an extremely clever political trick. Every year, he submits a budget without a tax increase.

That’s not difficult to do if you neglect to provide enough money to run your county. Walker leaves it up to the County Board to increase taxes enough to keep important county services functioning.

A similar approach by Walker as governor could leave the entire state government and every city, county and school district in Wisconsin without enough state revenue to operate.

Barrett running for governor to prevent the Milwaukee vote from going to Walker might even be seen as another act of heroism on the mayor’s part.


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