Tamara Grigsby: ‘Light Always Prevails’
The outgoing legislator on her personal and political battles
The bad news is that Grigsby is leaving the state Legislature after serving Milwaukee so ably for eight years, although she says she’ll still be very involved in issues that are close to her heart.
Grigsby, a former social worker, said she doesn’t regret fighting high-profile battles with the powers-that-be, even when those in power were her fellow Democrats. Grigsby bucked then-Gov. Jim Doyle and some in her party when she harnessed public sentiment against the attempted mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools and when she tried to find a common-sense way to revamp Wisconsin Shares, the state’s publicly funded child care program.
Grigsby spoke to the Shepherd last week about her legislative career and what Milwaukee’s new legislators will face in the coming session. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.
Shepherd: How are you feeling?
Grigsby: I’m feeling great. I’m feeling wonderful. I’m very blessed to have come through what I’ve come through and still be in a place where I can still do what I do—maybe in a different capacity, but I’m doing what I do. I’m very pleased about that.
Shepherd: Was it difficult for you to make the decision not to run again?
Grigsby: Oh my god—it was probably harder than the decision to run. It was a very, very emotional decision. I did not want to leave the Legislature, especially at a time like this, as frustrating as it was. But I did realize that stress was a large contributor to a lot of the things I was going through. I thought it was time to take a hiatus—that’s what I call it, a hiatus—and try to really focus on myself for a little while.
Shepherd: It seems like you found your voice when Doyle was governor and the Democrats were in the majority but you didn’t always support what they were trying to push through. You bucked leadership many times. Did you get a lot of blowback or pressure to fall in line?
Grigsby: There was some of that. I kind of established early on that I am going to say what I am going to say and I am going to represent my constituents and if you don’t like it then that’s unfortunate.
There weren’t a lot of people who would say to my face that they were unhappy [with me]. I would get some of that. But I felt very strongly—and I’d get in trouble for saying this too because I’ve said this several times—that we [Democrats] did not do as much as we could have done when we had that brief opportunity to do it. People were afraid. Obviously I had the advantage of having a safe district, as far as it being Democratic. But at the same time, if we’re not here to stand up for what we believe in and to take the opportunity to push the agenda we believe in, then why are we here?
So that was what I always tried to push, to make them do more. I was very vocal about that. And as a result, I had some run-ins, certainly. Gov. Doyle and I had some very strong differences of opinion on a few things. It may have hurt me at times. But I could go to sleep at night. All that mattered to me was whether my constituents would be proud of me when I came home.
Shepherd: When you look back at the attempted mayoral takeover of MPS, what do you think it was really about? Was it a way to privatize the school system or was something else driving it?
Grigsby: I think that was probably the most difficult time of my personal and professional life. It was an extremely divisive time. Friendships were lost. It was really hard. But I believed very strongly that that was not the direction we needed to go. Certainly we have things that we need to improve as it relates to public education, but to me that was in the direction toward privatization. That’s certainly not something I support. I still feel that way.
I think that it was a victory. It was probably my biggest victory, to be able to go up against the governor and the mayor and MMAC [Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce]. There were only a few colleagues on my side. To win based on the merits and to be able to get the community involved, which was really the key, to get the community to understand what was happening—I don’t regret that [fight] for one minute. I’m glad that it didn’t pass and I’m glad to say that I played a role in making sure that it didn’t.
Shepherd: Let’s talk about partisanship. Are the Republicans in power now more partisan than the Democrats were when they were in power?
Grigsby: I think that whoever is in power will defer to their own party and their own colleagues to try to get their agenda passed. I think there is some truth to that. However, I think that we [Democrats] were much more amenable to getting input. I never closed my door to anyone.
I remember when the whole child care thing happened. Robin Vos was livid and he had his own thing that he wanted to do. As much as he and I don’t agree—like, 150%—I still opened my door and had several meetings with him to try to see if there was a way that we could come up with something that was still acceptable to the people I represent and address his concerns. I never, ever had that experience while they’ve been in the majority. No one’s ever said, “Hey Tamara, let’s talk about your concerns so you don’t have to be such a loudmouth about it.” No one’s ever extended that offer to me. I think that we at least tried—and with the child care thing with Vos, it didn’t work. His feelings were to me so far out that I couldn’t consider them. But at least I made the attempt.
Shepherd: What are the long-term effects of what transpired in the last session?
Grigsby: Outside of the policies, which will have a lot of long-term impacts, relationships were affected. It may be getting better. I don’t have a good read on it. But there was some real damage done. There are several Republicans who I worked with who are good people. I don’t agree with them, but I can still have lunch with them or joke with them in the hallway. But a lot of that changed and it became very personal and it also set the tone for intolerance, which to me is unfortunate. We should all be able to sit down at the table. But now the culture is, “We’re going to do what we’re going to do because we’re in charge and if you don’t like it you don’t have a say in it.” It’s changed the whole dynamic of how we create laws. It’s a very one-sided process.
Shepherd: Milwaukee has just elected a number of new people to represent the city in the state Legislature. What advice do you have for them?
Grigsby: I was a very, very big backer of Nikiya [Harris, who was elected to the state Senate in November]. That’s the Senate seat I would have run for had circumstances been different. As soon as I thought about her, I said, “She has to be the one.” I have a very good relationship with her and we’re in close communication.
The one thing that I got early on is that when you walk into a completely foreign environment, take the time to figure out what’s going on before you decide you want to act. We have two ears and one mouth, which means you should listen twice as much as you talk. I took the time to do that. In the beginning, people might have said, “She’s quiet.” But I was observing my environment. I was trying to figure out who the players were and what was the most effective way to get something done. Walking into an environment thinking that you know what’s happening and you don’t is absolutely a formula for disaster. I’ve told them—the ones that I’ve talked to, my successor [Evan Goyke] and Nikiya and Mandela [Barnes]—that you really do have to figure out what’s going on around you and then you’ll have a better sense of how to proceed, instead of going up to the wrong person and saying the wrong thing and then you’re banned for the next four years and won’t be able to get anything passed. You have to be very strategic. This is a very strategic business.
The other thing is to try as hard as you can to find the humanity in somebody, which can be hard at times. It was very difficult last year. But even if I’m sitting across from someone who absolutely makes my blood boil, I try to find a human connection with them. That gets you to a place where you can at least have a conversation instead of a contentious fight every time you see each other.
I learned that even more when I got sick. A lot of people that I actually thought that I couldn’t stand came out and really expressed very kind words and kind gestures outside of anything political that was going on. At the end of the day, that matters more. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them. But it certainly is an approach that garners more respect than going in like a bull in a china shop.
Shepherd: What do you think is the biggest lesson you learned in the Legislature?
Grigsby: I guess I would say that change is slow. As a social worker, as a community person, I could see the immediate impact of the work that I was involved in. It doesn’t happen that way [in politics]. But I do believe that light always prevails. I have to believe that. That’s the only way I can keep doing what I do.