Earlier this year, my former OnMilwaukee colleague Aaron Perry, who is now an alderman in Waukesha, wrote to say that he had been "breaking bread" with Wauwatosa Ald. Bobby Pantuso, West Allis Ald. Michael May and Milwaukee Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton.
In January, Perry, May and Pantuso met up at Champps in Brookfield. The next month, they visited Double B's in West Allis. Hamilton came aboard for the March meeting at the North Avenue Grill in Wauwatosa, and today the group met at DOC's Commerce Smokehouse in Downtown Milwaukee.
"Aldermen May and Pantuso have known each other for sometime," Perry told me. "A few years ago I interacted with them on Twitter, both on personal/current events-type stuff as well as city questions. I’ve contacted both of them about separate issues, since they are comparable cities of a size like Waukesha.
"We thought it would be helpful to get together once a month and kick around ideas, as well as just continue the friendship. I suggested inviting Ald. Hamilton. I knew he’d be a great fit and add a lot to the conversation. And with the purpose of getting some local leaders together it certainly makes sense to include Milwaukee."
Inviting me to today's gathering, Perry added, "It’s a fun group, for sure. These (conversations) are hilarious."
Often the best meetings we have, do not have an agenda. Fun sitting down with these leaders again to talk family, community, education and anything we want. The food at @NorthAveGrill is awesome! Thanks @WaukeshaFreeman for joining. @AldermanMay @BobbyPantuso @AlderHamilton pic.twitter.com/zlsHMCcNI8— Aaron Perry🇺🇸 (@AldermanPerry) March 8, 2018
But they can also be productive.
An early fruit of this unexpected collaboration was this op-ed penned by Hamilton and Perry and published at OnMilwaukee in February.
"When news broke late last fall that the City of Milwaukee had reached an agreement to sell water to Waukesha, one could almost hear a gasp of surprise heard across the region," they wrote.
"How is it possible that the leaders in the two historically opposed communities were able to reach across the 'divide' and agree on such a major deal?"
Maybe it's because they've gotten to know one another outside staid meeting rooms and beyond what they hear about each other in the media. Maybe it's because they chat about their kids and the kinds of things that make them see each other as people – as friends – rather than as opponents, or competitors.
By now, the group has expanded to also include Milwaukee Ald. Cavalier Johnson (who did not attend today) and Waukesha Prairie Elementary School Principal Dennis Griffin. And, well, me.
How could I resist a chance to see where this might go? Especially at an hilarious lunch with a fun group?
"All four of us are dads and we spoke about our kids and education last month," Perry said. "Personally, I’m getting more involved with public education in Waukesha, especially my sons’ elementary school. Their principal (Griffin) is a very positive and ambitious guy who I know will lend a lot to our conversation and he’ll enjoy it. So he’ll join us today and hopefully next month."
Between talk of pig wings, pulled pork and ribs, May asked the others if their cities have sober server laws, and I asked Griffin about his school enrollment and budget. Among other topics, Hamilton talked about Downtown development and block grants, and Pantuso raised the subject of law regulating vaping stores. We talked a bit about transportation, too.
But, we also spent time talking about barbecue – and Pantuso's experiments in converting old dishwashers into smokers (don't ask) – and sports, and making jokes.
Perry was right. It is a fun group. And it's the kind of group that can lead to friendships and collaboration. (I already asked for an invitation to visit Griffin's Waukesha public school.) Another meeting is already scheduled for next month, this time in Waukesha at a place of Perry's choosing.
I guarantee you that everyone around the table doesn't agree on politics, but it didn't matter. We all have kids and that provided so much fodder that we didn't have to dwell on – and get stuck in – America's great divide.
Perry says the group has no specific agenda, but it's clear that if smart, powerful people like these get together and become friends, it could change the way they see and approach the issues that can throw up walls around us in southeastern Wisconsin.
Griffin was quoted on Facebook recently as having said, "Sometimes you have to hang out where Change and Same Old intersect and let everyone know we can cross the busy street together," and I think these meetings are definitely where change can help us all get beyond the gridlock.
"I just want to surround myself with positive people and leaders who want to work together," said Perry. "That way when an opportunity presents itself I’m in a better position to maximize it. I feel these guys are talented, with a lot to offer and aren’t afraid to be public about what is right.
"Regional cooperation is more than a talking point."
Exactly, though we did talk about that, too.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.