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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

So, Mr. Mayor: Why Do You Deserve to Be Re-elected?

Q&A with Tom Barrett

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Four years after becoming Milwaukee’s top executive, Mayor Tom Barrett is making the case that voters should re-elect him on April 1 because he has added 10,000 jobs to the city while helping to reduce crime and the tax burden on homeowners. But more importantly, Barrett says, he has helped to give young Milwaukeeans a sense of optimism about the future. “I think we as adults have a moral responsibility to make sure the children in this city have hope,” he said last week in this exclusive interview.

Shepherd: Mayor Barrett, why do you deserve to be re-elected?

Barrett: I want to continue to do the work that I began four years ago. If you look at where we were four years ago, we had a City Hall that was essentially filled with scandal, we had a population that was continuing to sink, we were continuing to lose jobs. I have restored credibility to city government, I have brought over 10,000 jobs to this city. For the first time in many, many years our population has actually risen and I think people see hope for the city. And I want to continue to work on my vision of creating more jobs, of creating safer streets and providing hope for people who believe in this city.

Shepherd: When I talk to people, they say, “I like Tom Barrett,” but then they have a qualifier. One of them is that, “I like Tom Barrett, but he has no agenda for the city.” So what's your agenda?

Barrett: My agenda's pretty straightforward—it’s jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, safe streets, hope for our kids. We’ve put a lot of emphasis on creating summer jobs. I think we as adults have a moral responsibility to make sure the children in this city have hope. I think there are far too many kids in this city who don't have any hope, and we've worked aggressively to create hope. We've done it through not only the Summer Youth Jobs Program; we've done it through our Fatherhood Initiative, which is probably the thing that I have been most surprised by in my administration. When we put together the Fatherhood Summit, we were hoping to have 300 men who would show up on a Saturday. We had 1,200 men who showed up. The next year we were hoping to have 1,200 men; we had 2,500 men who came. And the purpose of that was to reunite them with their children, to provide them with opportunities for jobs, for health care, for driver's license restoration. So those are the types of programs where I feel we have made an impact on people’s lives and will continue to make an impact on people’s lives.

Shepherd: Here’s another comment I hear often: “I like Tom Barrett, but what has he really done in the last four years?”

Barrett: I point to what we've done in terms of jobs. There are more jobs in the city. If you look at the economic growth in the city of Milwaukee over the last year it outpaces the economic growth in every large city in the Midwest except for the largest city in Iowa. Do we need to create more jobs? Absolutely. Do I think we've done enough? No, of course not. But we were facing a situation where we were losing jobs every year and we've turned that around. Has the upward slope gone up dramatically enough? No, it hasn't. But we've turned that slope around. I think that's important.

Shepherd: Another qualifier is, “I like Tom Barrett, but he's just too cautious; he can't make a decision.”

Barrett: Well, again, I think you'll find lots of people who would disagree with that. I'll give you an example. One of the issues that has plagued this community for many, many years was the issue of police officers who had been fired and continued to receive pay. This is one [issue] where there was an entrenched support for it and [it] was there for many, many years. I stepped right up and said, “This has got to change.” And it took us several years, and we had some great support from state Rep. Barbara Toles and state Sens. Tim Carpenter and Spencer Coggs. We [created] a change, and now if you're a police officer and you've been fired and you've been charged with a felony or a Class A or Class B misdemeanor, you're no longer going to be paid. That's going to save the city $4.4 million [the amount of money the policy has cost the city since 1990].

Sometimes people say, “He's cautious about spending.” I view it a little differently. I'm actually very proud of the fact that we have run a very responsible government here on an economic basis. If you look at the county, where you have just a pitched battle between the Milwaukee county executive and the county board, to me that's not a prudent way to move forward.

Shepherd: What have you been passionate about in the last four years?

Barrett: I got passionate about a lot of things; I certainly got passionate when we lost on the PabstCity the first time around because I felt that we had to do something there. But again I think it demonstrates my form of leadership. I didn't go and sulk. I said, “All right, we lost that one, pick yourself up and come back with another plan,” and that's exactly what we did and I'm very pleased we're moving forward with that.

I got passionate over the issue of how Milwaukee taxpayers are being treated incredibly unfairly in the financing of choice schools. And regardless of whether you like the choice program or don't like the choice program, it now has been established that Milwaukee property taxpayers are treated extremely unfairly by the funding of this program.

I've been passionate several times over some of the violence that I've seen in the city—in particular, when I've seen a young person who is a victim of crime. I can recall standing in front of a group of individuals when a 6-year-old girl was killed because two thugs were involved in a gang shootout and they decided that what they were doing was so important that a little 6-year-old girl would die as a result of that.

So on a regular basis, do I go out and start screaming? No. But can I get my blood pressure up by getting mad? Absolutely.

Shepherd: So what can a mayor actually do about education? The Milwaukee Public Schools system is a completely separate entity not under your authority.

Barrett: I've tried to do a lot in the area of the financing of education. I was very disappointed in the MPS Board President [Peter Blewett] in particular for not stepping up to the plate and helping us to address the funding flaw for the school choice program. As a result, we've got city of Milwaukee property taxpayers who are paying a lot more for that program than they should be. And that, I think, has had an impact on the ability for other programs in the Milwaukee Public Schools to be funded. There's a limit as to how much the property taxpayer can pay and if they're being forced to unfairly pay for this school choice program because the ratio of spending is so different for that program than it is for public schools, inevitably it's going to start squeezing out funding for the kids who attend the Milwaukee Public Schools. So that's an area that I will continue to be passionate about and it's an area I'll continue to work on.

We've worked with the superintendent and some members of the school board and the union again on trying to improve safety in the schools; we'll continue to do that. And we look for places where the city and the schools can work together so that we can create efficiencies in scale in terms of budgeting.

We also have several charter schools that are chartered by the city, and just in the last week I've visited two of those because I want to make sure that the schools that are being chartered by the city are quality schools as well. So on a very limited basis, we do play a direct role. But I'm going to continue and probably pick up the pace of being involved in analyzing public schools, and choice schools for that matter, because I think this is so important to the future of the city of Milwaukee.

I've also, on a very personal level, gotten involved in it and I never thought this would happen, but oftentimes I'll walk into a school and I'll say, “Hi, my name is Tom Barrett; I'm the mayor of the city of Milwaukee and I'm here and I'm begging you to stay in school and I'm begging you to work hard.” […] I do that because I really think that if there's an issue where Milwaukee is asleep at the switch, it's how much the world economy has changed and how important education is. And if there's one issue where I would like to shake the collective shoulders of this city, it's on education.

Shepherd: I talked about criticisms by people who like you. Now let's try some criticisms by people who don't like you. The right-wingers on the radio will talk about the “milk carton mayor,” that you're missing in action and they might have to put your picture on a milk carton so the city can find you. What do you say to that?

Barrett: Well, I chuckle when I see that because in my 20-plus years of public life I've never seen Charlie Sykes in the city of Milwaukee [when he’s] not behind a microphone or at a WTMJ event. Mark Belling—I've seen him at a basketball game, a Bucks game, I've seen him at several Brewers games. But I don't see him in the city of Milwaukee, I don't see him at community meetings, I don't see him at the work that I do in schools.

Again, there's disconnect between what they're saying and where they're saying it. They may have a lot of listeners who like to criticize the city of Milwaukee, but they really don't see the good stuff that's going on in the city. Oftentimes I'll be at a community event and I'll say, “I want you to picture a TV screen around my head because this is good news.” And because no one's getting killed here and there's no scandal, you're not going to see TV cameras and you're not going to see radio talk-show hosts because this is how cities are built, by people who believe in neighborhoods, who believe in communities. And that's the positive stuff that is often not told in the media.

Shepherd: Different topic: The former district attorney [E. Michael McCann] and the U.S. Attorney [Steven Biskupic] both found that there was no pervasive voter fraud in the city. Yet the Milwaukee Police Department somehow did their own study and found irregularities, and on top of that they made policy recommendations that basically correspond to what the Republican Party wants in terms of policy changes. Nowhere in the world in any kind of government would they let the bureaucrats propose policies like that. What are you going to do about it as mayor?

Shepherd: I can tell you that when I saw that report, I looked at it and was mystified because I had never seen an investigative report from the Milwaukee Police Department. And I thought back and asked, “What's the practice of doing reports like this?” And I have no quarrel with their findings as to the number of people who were not registered to vote ... I think their interpretation of them I would take issue with, but the factual findings I had no problem with. I did find it amazing that there was no date on the report and there was nobody's name listed on the report. And you had this report that just appeared out of thin air and no one wanted to take responsibility for it.

The chief [MPD Chief Edward Flynn], I felt, responded appropriately when he said that the Milwaukee Police Department is not in the business of making policy recommendations. And I am confident that he is going to take the steps that are necessary to make sure that that will never be repeated or anything like it will ever be repeated. Again, if they want to make recommendations, then I want to know who's making the recommendations, when they're making the recommendations; but to have just nameless, dateless recommendations undercuts the credibility of whatever they're trying to do.

Shepherd: There's a Fire and Police Commission. So how much control does a mayor really have over the police? And as mayor, what are you doing about crime?

Barrett: I can tell you that I meet on a regular basis with the police chief and with the fire chief as well. And we have both management meetings and discussions about deployment. In the last two months I have appeared with the new police chief probably a dozen times at community meetings or press events. So my office is very involved in coordinating activities with him.

There's no question I want the police to do the policing work and I think that the vast majority of police officers who work for the Milwaukee Police Department and the vast majority of firefighters who work for the Milwaukee Fire Department are incredibly talented and dedicated public servants. But I certainly work closely with the leadership in both departments because I think it's very important to the city. And one of the things that I said when I was elected mayor is I thought it was important that the mayor and the police chief have a good working relationship, and I believe I achieved that with the former chiefs in both departments and with the new chiefs in both departments. In terms of what can we do about crime? We're starting to see a drop in crime right now. I think that that's very, very important to this city.

Shepherd: Let’s talk about a smoke-free Milwaukee. Reputable studies have shown that when a city goes smoke-free, it doesn't hurt business because more people go to bars and restaurants who had been staying at home because they don’t like smoke. So why aren't you pushing hard to make Milwaukee a smoke-free city?

Barrett: Actually, in the last two weeks I've appeared with both Gov. [Jim] Doyle and Lance Armstrong right here in Milwaukee to push for a statewide ban on smoking. I think a statewide ban on smoking is a good way to go [because] it takes away the argument that bars or restaurants located on the border of a community will be adversely affected if, for example, Shorewood has it and Milwaukee doesn't, or Milwaukee has it and Greenfield doesn't. So I've advocated for a long time for a statewide ban and right now we're faced with the prospect of not being able to get it through the state Legislature. […] So I am supportive of a ban, and I would prefer to do it at the state level. If I am convinced that that's not going to work, I'll work to have it achieved here at the local level.

 

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