Amidst one of the most divisive presidential primaries in recent history, the city of Milwaukee turns its eyes toward the exercise of democracy at the local level. This year’s mayoral election is gearing up to be as polarizing as what we have seen in the national landscape.
Today’s debate was hosted by the good people of the Public Policy Forum. The incumbent, Mayor Tom Barrett, faced the challenger, Alderman Bob Donovan, a 16-year veteran of the city’s Common Council. Opening remarks were done away with and the first question came before the small contingent of electors had fully settled. “What will your top three priorities be in your first one hundred days?”
Mayor Barrett spoke about jobs, new developments and took the opportunity to bash the City of Chicago “for having to borrow $220 million to make its pension payments”. In contrast “his city” did not, thanks to “the strong fiscal stewardships we’ve had for the last 12 years”. As if Rahm Emanuel wasn’t having a hard enough time as it is, his counterpart in Milwaukee has chosen to throw him under the bus while seeking reelection.
Alderman Donovan on the other hand chose the Trumpian approach. “We have some horrendous statistics …violent crime has gone up 99%”, Milwaukee is “the 5th most violent city in America [according to the FBI]” and “without safety folks, nothing else truly positive can occur”. Scaring the electorate is always the most expedient way of getting attention and Mr. Donovan gave it his best shot.
Despite a lackluster start to the debate, it became obvious rather quickly that both candidates are well versed in Milwaukee’s city politics. Alderman Donovan pressed further on the public safety issue by calling for more “boots on the street” in the form of new Police Department hires. In contrast, Mayor Barrett praised the Milwaukee PD for “the outstanding job they are doing”. It was politics as usual, the incumbent lives in a city as close to utopia as it can be, while the challenger lives in a post-apocalyptic Milwaukee where law and order has given way to anarchy. If it sounds familiar, it is because you’ve heard a very similar rhetoric on the national stage from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Later in the debate, Mayor Barrett pointed out that you don’t improve things “by having a mayor who says this city stinks!” perhaps forgetting that when he ran for mayor back in 2004, that very attitude was a big part of his political arsenal. In conclusion, Alderman Donovan reminded us that “murderers continue to walk our streets” and Mayor Barrett that “we just won a national competition to see which city could do the best job in making sure people have health insurance”, the takeaway being that if you live in Milwaukee and you are lucky enough to escape death, your wounds will be treated free of charge.