Will Michael McGee be Re-elected?
The alderman runs for office from jail amid questions about fair
Nine candidates are running to represent the Sixth District on the Milwaukee Common Council, but the contest is marked by the one man who isn’t able to actively campaign for the seat—the incumbent alderman, Michael McGee Jr. He’s running for re-election from jail, a situation that has those watching the case crying foul.
The curious case
of Ald. McGee involves court-ordered wiretaps, an alleged beating-for-hire, a
possible vote-buying scheme and potential wire fraud. Clearly, the 12 state
charges and nine federal charges McGee faces are daunting. Even some of his
supporters have urged him to plea bargain, saying that no one, not even an
elected official, could prevail when facing so many charges. What’s more, they
say, he’ll never get a fair trial in Milwaukee, which has treated McGee as
either a thug or a martyr, depending on how you view not only him, but also his father, the equally controversial Michael McGee Sr. But McGee’s case is also
complicated by his status as an alderman who handily won a recall election just
last year. (Although his main rival alleges that if it were not for McGee-backed
voter fraud, she would have won more votes.)
McGee still draws an alderman’s salary and represents his constituents, even though he is unable to work on their behalf (his staffers do, however). He isn’t able to vote on matters before the Milwaukee Common Council, yet his campaign was able to collect enough signatures to put his name on the Feb. 19 primary ballot. (His trial on state charges is scheduled between the primary and the general election in April.)
Foremost among the complaints is whether McGee is being held because he’s black, and whether he’s seen as a true threat to the community—or whether the legal establishment wants to keep McGee quiet and unable to remain involved in city politics.
McGee has been held without bail since Memorial Day, even though he was able to make bail on the state charges and was almost released in June. (Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article.)
But federal prosecutors, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa—the member of the ultraconservative Federalist Society who presided over the politically charged Georgia Thompson case, which was later overturned—and a federal appeals court have prevented McGee from being released from jail, saying he’s a threat to the community because he has attempted to intimidate witnesses while in custody.
Observers say that these allegations are just an excuse to keep McGee out of the public eye, unable to campaign or fully defend himself, and unable to properly represent his constituents. “What they are doing to him is criminal,” said state Rep. Annette (Polly) Williams, who lives in the Sixth District and has supported McGee. “This is not Mississippi.”
Williams said that other elected officials have been let out on bail even though they faced felony charges. She noted that Scott Jensen, a white former Republican legislator from Brookfield who was found guilty of charges last year, is still a free man. Yet McGee, an African-American alderman who represents one of the most economically disadvantaged sections of the city, and who hasn’t been found guilty of any crime, has served eight months in jail.
“We have a dual justice system,” Williams said. “It’s so blatant.” Jerrel Jones, publisher of the Milwaukee Courier, said that the initial bail set for McGee’s state charges—$250,000—was outrageous.
It was later dropped to $50,000, which McGee met in June. “I have never heard of anyone being treated this way, politicians or anyone else,” Jones said. “When you talk $250,000, you’re talking terrorists, murderers—even they get treated better than this.” Williams argued that McGee is not a flight risk, unlike Manish Patel, who is accused of lacing his girlfriend’s drink with the abortion pill RU-486, and was charged with attempted first-degree homicide of an unborn child, plus six more felonies and two misdemeanors. Patel was released on $750,000 bail in December. Authorities believe that Patel fled to India, where his estranged wife may be, shortly after his release.
Longtime Milwaukee attorney Len Zubrensky said that McGee is being treated differently than those who have been accused of similar crimes. “I’ve never seen any public official held without bail in my 56 years of practice,” Zubrensky said. “I don’t think I’ve ever known of anyone being held without bail if it wasn’t a charge of murder or rape or some kind of charge that is heinous.”
WMCS radio host Eric Von said that the confusion about McGee’s case has led to questions about the fairness of it all. “I think the question that most people have is, ‘Is what happened to Michael McGee just, or is it not?’” Von said.
“Given the fact that no one can really recount or remember or recall a situation like this before, most people have concluded that he’s being treated unfairly.” Williams said there’s only one reason why McGee remains in custody.
“It’s racism,” she said. Von said that the way authorities are treating McGee is generating sympathy for him. “I think he’s already reached the martyrdom stage,” Von said. Dennis Jacobsen, pastor at Incarnation Lutheran Church at 15th Street and Keefe Avenue, said that McGee’s troubles may have made him more popular with his constituents.
Jacobsen, a white minister in a predominantly African- American parish, said that McGee’s constituents relate to his struggles. “There’s definitely a sense of identification with him as a leader, and perhaps as a targeted leader,” Jacobsen said. “I think it does have some kind of a racial relationship, that to be African American in that district is to live in conditions of poverty and extreme existence. I think it’s so different from being white and privileged that it creates a different perspective of who Michael McGee is and how he’s been treated by the system.”
To many of those who live in the Sixth District, McGee has been a responsive alderman who addressed their concerns and was involved in the community.
Delores Haslem, who is active with the Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH) core team at the Incarnation Lutheran Church, said that McGee was concerned about neighborhood safety. “We’re around gunshots, we’re around break-ins, and Michael McGee was very adamant about trying to get things together,” Haslem said. “He had formed a group that we could call when we were having problems, when people were fighting and shooting.”
Doris Owens, who also is active with MICAH at Incarnation Church, said that McGee was always accessible to his constituents. “When I called him for different things, he was there,” Owens said. “We did walks through the neighborhood. He wasn’t the type of person who was afraid to go out. He would speak to some of the young people. He was there.”
Owens said that she’s still in contact with his staffers, who are trying to keep his office running. “They’re doing the best they can,” Owens said. “But he can’t vote on things.” Jones, of the Courier, said that McGee was a good match for the district, which faces serious safety, economic and education challenges, especially since the demise of the Opportunities Industrialization Center of Greater Milwaukee (OIC). He said the uniqueness of the district has led to the white community’s misconceptions about the residents and their alderman. While the white community believes that McGee’s controversial personal life and public statements are over the top, Jones said that’s because the district itself is “over the top.”
“It’s a district like none other,” Jones said. “There are different customs, a different language, different priorities. It’s a perfect case of two worlds. And it takes a special kind of person to be effective. Michael McGee was that person.
He—without all of the other
things—was a perfect alderman. He cared about the community. He was out in the
community. But unfortunately this came along.” Jacobsen, of Incarnation Church,
said that McGee took the lead on many issues of importance to the district, such
as the Frank Jude Jr. case, which involved off-duty police officers beating a
biracial man. The police officers were acquitted of state charges in April 2006;
McGee led a prayer rally to protest the verdict.
“He actually quieted the crowd down and reminded them that the tone of the event was intended to be prayerful,” Jacobsen said. “I was pretty amazed by that.” Jacobsen said that although McGee personally inspired many of his constituents, he could have been more effective on the Common Council.
“The other side is, ‘Where is the actual delivery as a legislator, in terms of the conditions here?’” Jacobsen said. “Not just things that grab the headlines. But actually deliver jobs, better schools, safety, things like that.”
But other constituents are more critical of McGee’s stint as alderman. ViAnna Jordan, who organized the recall of McGee last year, said that McGee himself was the problem, and the charges against him are proof of his corruption. “It’s as corrupt as you can get,” Jordan said. “People don’t have jobs. We have one of the highest unemployment rates.
So no wonder nothing is happening over here—you’ve got to pay the alderman first in order to get anything done.” Jordan said that McGee’s perceived support is illegitimate, and that those who attend pro-McGee events receive kickbacks from McGee’s corrupt practices.
“The ones who are really hard-core and really a part of it, and probably afraid that he’s going to tell on them, they’re the ones who show up,” Jordan said. “Because they’ve got a lot to lose.”
McGee’s absence has meant that the district has not been represented on the Common Council since June, leading many observers to say that McGee is more of a political prisoner than an alleged criminal.
“I’ve heard from people on both sides of the issue,” WMCS’s Von said. “Some say that they are still being well represented by his office, by his aides, by [Milwaukee Common Council President] Willie Hines, who has done some pinch-hitting for him. But at the same time I’ve heard from people who say that they clearly don’t have representation and they want someone down there pushing the issues that are important to the district, and someone who is speaking to the issues that are relevant across the city. I think I’ve heard more of that in the past several months than I was hearing early on.”
Even Jordan says that the
case has dragged on too long, and she believes that McGee should have been
kicked out of office after charges were brought so that the district could have
a voice on the Common Council. She called it “taxation without representation,”
and dismissed the argument that McGee is innocent until proven guilty.
“I don’t understand how they sit there and let it go on like this,” Jordan said. “This is a mockery of democracy. This man is in jail. Why did the Common Council not get rid of him?” Although McGee can’t vote on Common Council matters, he is able to run for re-election. McGee faces a crowded field. Candidates include African World Festival founder Mike Brox; Milele Coggs, of the politically prominent Coggs family; El-Louise Games; former Ald. Fred Gordon; Milwaukee Public Schools Board member Charlene Hardin; Jordan; Adel “Jack” Kheirieh, a businessman who is expected to testify against McGee at trial; and former Department of City Development official Una Van Duvall, who ran in the recall election last year.
But the unusual race doesn’t have the spark that last year’s recall election did, residents say. Jacobsen said that his church does a lot of work to encourage residents to vote, but McGee’s treatment has made the volunteers’ efforts more difficult. “I think there’s a strong sense of disenfranchisement and political alienation,” Jacobsen said. Von said that he expects a strong show of support for McGee in the primary election, even though a felony conviction could prevent the jailed alderman from serving.
“I’ve said all along that if Michael McGee is on the ballot, which he will be, he’ll win the race,” Von said. “The tricky part comes after the election.” What’s your take? Write: firstname.lastname@example.org.