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Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009

The Call of History

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Opportunities to make history in politics rarely adhere to any candidate’s plans. They open up unexpectedly for those who seize the moment.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was an ambitious, young politician who almost certainly envisioned he would run for president one day. But it’s doubtful he originally intended to run before he’d even finished his first term in national office.

However, eight years of a disastrous Republican presidency combined with baggage-burdened veteran Democratic candidates provided the opportunity for Obama’s historic election years ahead of schedule.

The possibility of a mayor from Milwaukee being elected governor of Wisconsin can’t really be compared to electing the first African American to the presidency of a nation with America’s shameful history of racism. But anti-Milwaukee attitudes statewide are sufficiently strong to make Tom Barrett the first Milwaukee mayor in our lifetimes who even dared to run for the office.

Like Obama in 2008, Barrett almost certainly hadn’t planned to run for governor at this time.

Barrett sought the governorship in 2002 after leaving Congress, coming in second to then Attorney General Jim Doyle in the Democratic primary. After that, he put away any gubernatorial ambitions and was elected mayor of Milwaukee in 2004.

In recent history, Milwaukee mayors tend to have jobs for life, barring any midlife sex scandals. Barrett’s strong family ties, including four school-age children, made it a particularly difficult time for him to take on a statewide campaign. But, again, an unusual confluence of events made it exactly the right time for this particular mayor of Milwaukee to run for governor.

The job opened up unexpectedly when Gov. Jim Doyle announced he would not run for re-election. Other high-profile Democrats—Congressman Ron Kind and Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton—then decided not to run for their own reasons.

All the while, Barrett was growing in stature as a possible candidate. Barrett received statewide and national acclaim for a courageous personal act. Leaving the Wisconsin State Fair with family members, he intervened in a West Allis domestic dispute to protect a grandmother and an infant. He ended up being brutally beaten with a tire iron.

Barrett had been among the earliest elected officials to support Obama’s candidacy for the presidency, traveling to Iowa to campaign door-to-door for Obama before the Iowa caucuses.

President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden personally called Barrett in the hospital when the mayor was recovering from his injuries. White House political operatives let it be known they were urging Barrett to run for governor of Wisconsin, where Obama won 59 of 72 counties—more urban, suburban and rural counties than in any other state in the nation.

 

Representing Milwaukee

Besides strong support for Barrett from Democrats from the top on down, another factor that makes it an unusually good time for a Milwaukee mayor to run for governor is what is happening within the Republican Party.

There’s a strong possibility the Republican gubernatorial candidate also could be from Milwaukee. Statewide polls show County Executive Scott Walker leading former Congressman Mark Neumann for the Republican nomination.

If Walker were the only Milwaukee candidate, he might have drawn far more votes from Democratic Milwaukee County than Republicans usually do. Barrett as the Democratic candidate negates that possibility.

One immediate effect of Barrett’s candidacy could be to boost out-state support for Neumann, Walker’s Republican primary opponent. Neumann is the anti-Milwaukee candidate.

When Neumann ran against Sen. Russ Feingold in 1998, he didn’t even bother to campaign in Milwaukee, which he lost by 68,000 votes. Already, in the governor’s race, Neumann has used coded language to suggest there’s something scary about the people of Milwaukee: “In a statewide race, people will be asking the question, ‘Do we want for all of Wisconsin what is happening in Milwaukee?’”

Golly, what could be so different about what is happening in Milwaukee compared to what is going on elsewhere in the state? It almost sounds as if there are different kinds of people here other communities wouldn’t want to see moving in.

Neumann has a reputation as a mean campaigner. During his Senate race, he made a female student cry when she asked him a challenging question at a campaign forum. He can be expected to hone his anti-Milwaukee tactics as he tries to take out Walker.

Walker puts a more amiable face on his hard-right politics, but as governor his no-tax-increase, right-wing political ideology would slash state aid to every city, county and school district in the state.

Walker already appears ready to abandon his nice-guy personal style by addressing shrill hate rallies staged by tea-baggers and inviting the preposterous Sarah Palin to campaign with him.

That could allow Barrett to make history as the only rational, positive candidate in the governor’s race.