By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Sep 02, 2008 at 5:51 AM Photography: Whitney Teska

It's been four years since we sat down with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett for a Milwaukee Talks interview.

In the meantime, Favre left the building, the Brewers threaten to contend, condos have boomed and the Third Ward has continued to grow.

The debate about light rail has continued, a new police chief has arrived and the Marquette Interchange project is now complete.

So, it was high time we asked Tom Barrett, "what's up?"

Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks with your mayor, Tom Barrett, conducted in his office in August.

OMC: Are you having a good Milwaukee summer?

Tom Barrett: Summer's going very well. I'm having a very good Milwaukee summer.

OMC: Have you been getting out to the festivals?

TB: I do every year.

OMC: Do you go to all the festivals?

TB: I don't go to all of them. Actually, this year has probably been one of the tougher ones because there's been a couple of weekends when I've been out of town, but the one that's coming up, where I will certainly be there -- I will be tending bar at Irish Fest, as I have for most of the last 25 years.

OMC: So we know the answer to my next question: What is your favorite festival? Not to be politically incorrect ...

TB: I love all my festivals, but that's the one that I probably have the longest association with. I really do try to go to as many as I can.

OMC: What's going on these days with the festivals, that we're having so many issues with financial problems and sagging attendance?

TB: I think it's a reflection of the economy and gas prices. They always draw from people outside the city, so you might have people driving less often, but I think the uncertainty of the economy. Not just in this city, but throughout the entire country, frankly, has had an effect on them.

OMC: What do you think they'll have to do to survive?

TB: Oh, I think one of the most disappointing was losing African World Festival this year, but they've already said that they're planning on coming back in 2009, and just need to work through the financial issues and see how to stabilize their financial situation. But I don't see any of them other than that one being in danger, and again, I'm hopeful and optimistic that that one will be able to revive as well.

OMC: How great is it that the Marquette interchange is done -- finished early, and under budget?

TB: I think that's wonderful, and I will pay compliments to the State Department of Transportation, who I criticize at times. It has been, really, an impressive engineering and construction project, both from an engineering standpoint and a construction standpoint ... and from construction management as well. The fact that it really never closed down.

OMC: Do you drive through it on a daily basis?

TB: No. I live on the West Side, so I prefer to take the city streets, but over the course of the day I probably drive through it going somewhere, at some point.

OMC: So you're as happy as everybody else.

TB: I'm very happy. I'm getting used to getting off on the right.

OMC: What's Milwaukee's best-kept secret? Now that people can actually get here easily, what are people missing?

TB: I think the growing secret is going to be the comeback of Bradford Beach.

OMC: Everybody's talking about it. Have you taken the towel and the kids?

TB: I have not been down there swimming, but I have been down there. I love seeing people there, and so ... I have to give a lot of credit to MMSD, because they were in here several years ago and they said, "Look, we've got to get this beach back in play." So, I'd say that's probably the best-kept secret right now -- that Bradford Beach is back.

OMC: Maybe this is a question more for Scott Walker, but is that the kind of private / public partnership -- having people come in and run the concessions -- that is the key for the parks?

TB: Well, again, I think the initial key was the commitment from MMSD, and I think MMSD gets kicked around the block a lot, but MMSD stepped forward and put resources in and said, "We're going to clean up this beach." So I think that that type of thing is helpful.

OMC: Is there something you can think of then that Milwaukee is lacking?

TB: Something the city is lacking?

OMC: Every city needs something.

TB: Well, you'll have people say that we need a soccer franchise, but I don't know that we have the capacity right now to do that, but a soccer franchise would be something. I think we need to work on more retail, particularly Downtown. I think that's a shortcoming that's coming around.

OMC: Is there progress in that area? With the mall situation?

TB: There has been some. The mall situation is one that still we are paying a lot of attention to, and not just the mall, but West Wisconsin Avenue, West Michigan, East Wisconsin Avenue. But the Third Ward is picking up. It's not technically Downtown, but it's pretty darn close, so I think that that's been a public positive. OMC: Going back to the soccer franchise. Is that completely dead? From what I've heard about it at the moment, it's pretty much dead.

TB: I would say, right now, I haven't heard any conversation in over a year about it.

OMC: Do you think that there's this inferiority complex that you hear people talk about so much, that we want people to say how great we are?

TB: I don't know that I would call it an inferiority complex. I think it's that we're not a megalopolis. We're not -- we simply are not. And so to say we have to be like Los Angeles or Chicago or New York ... we're not. And what I've always said is that we've got the amenities that the "more glamorous" cities have when it comes to sports, the arts, festivals, music festivals, things like that, natural environment. What we lack is the hour commute, and we don't have hurricanes or earthquakes. And that's OK with me.

So, I think that in some ways we can still be considered cozy, and I don't think that's such a bad thing.

OMC: Does that work against us to outsiders; to people who still think of it as sort of a provincial town?

TB: It probably does to some extent, but also, we're probably the champion of the back-handed compliment. What I mean by that is that people come here and I hear it all the time, "Wow, I didn't realize you had all of this going on. This is a great city as it is." And then you have people who move here and don't want to move away, because it's a great place to raise a family, and more and more a great place for young people to be. I think the energy in young adults is very strong here.

OMC: Should we just ignore what these other people say?

TB: I just say "come, and you'll see. See for yourself. Let it speak for itself."

OMC: I have a list of issues facing Milwaukee right now and I'm just going to name them, and you can tell me what you think: Miller moving its headquarters to Chicago and the problems with Midwest Airlines?

TB: Well, I think the Miller situation, obviously, I would've preferred for Miller to have retained its corporate headquarters here. The decision was made not to choose either home city. I'm also quick to point out that it's not a Pabst or Schlitz situation, where they just started closing the doors and leaving. The jobs in the brewery are actually going to increase. We're going to produce more beer here than we've produced since the 1970s, so that portion's actually a win for us. And I will harbor desires to get our girlfriend back, if I can say that without getting in trouble ... that they may go down to Chicago and think it's not all it's cracked up to be.

OMC: They might not find a place to park.

TB: Yeah, and they might decide that 10 percent sales tax is too much and think, "Let's go back to Milwaukee." Stranger things have happened.

OMC: And the Midwest situation. Does that keep you up at night?

TB: I love Midwest -- I want it to thrive. I want it to survive. I understand, as everybody does, that that industry is just getting hammered right now. Just getting hammered, but they, historically, have been a survivor and they're going back to their basic business model, which is these routes that have been profitable for them, and hopefully, once they've re-established themselves they can take off on other parts as well.

OMC: The Emerald Ash Borer, which is something I've been blogging about for the last couple of years because the three trees in front of my house are ash trees, and if they go I'm terrified. I saw this morning that they found it in Mequon.

TB: I did, too. Not good news. It's interesting that we're fortunate that we're later than some other states. We're the 10th state, I think. We've got it located here, but I think the DNR and others are going to address it quite aggressively.

OMC: And probably we'll be able to learn from other places that have already had it.

TB: I think so, and I think that ... there are techniques now that you may not have to cut down every tree in a half-mile. But I think it's something that we all have to be concerned about. I grew up on the West side of Milwaukee when we lost our trees with Dutch Elm. We had this beautiful, beautiful canopy over Hi-Mount Boulevard where I grew up, and all of a sudden, they were gone.

OMC: Mass transit / light rail.

TB: I remain committed to rail. I remain committed to buses. I think it is -- it's amazing to me, and when I lived around this country, I cannot name a major American metropolitan area that's growing that does not have mass transit in terms of a rail component and busses. And I think that the county executive and conservative talk radio believe that rail is the end of Western civilization as we know it, and I feel the opposite.

I believe that if we get rail as part of our mass transportation structure here, it would create more economic growth for the area, it is environmentally a much better deal, and economically it's a much better deal. I just think that it's a shame that they can't change their tune.

OMC: There are so many people who are vehemently opposed to rail and mass transit ... maybe they're just the vocal ones.

TB: Well, what you have to do is you have to create a system. This is what I've said. I've proposed this Downtown streetcar system and I'm going to be honest. There are several things I want to do. One of them is I want to get something in the ground, and I believe that once you have something in the ground, the debate changes dramatically.

It's no longer the end of Western Civilization as we know it. It then becomes, "How do I get this connected to my next neighborhood? How do I move this to the next neighborhood?" So to me that's one component to it, and the other is, you have to look at the other mass transit systems around the country. You see ridership going up, and here you see ridership going down. Well of course it's going down, if you're raising fares and cutting routes.


TB: There are some very, very good schools, and there are some schools that are not doing nearly as well as they should. My kids are attending the Milwaukee German Immersion School, and I think they're getting a great education. I think it's a great program. My daughter, who's in fifth grade there, just read all of the Harry Potter books, and then she went back and read all of the Harry Potter books in German.

OMC: How do you get the word out on MPS, even to residents in the city? We live on the West Side, where it's all teachers and city employees, and a lot of them won't put their kids in MPS.

TB: Well, I think you have to be a smart consumer.

OMC: They think that they aren't good schools.

TB: But there are good schools. Again, take a look at the German Immersion School, the French Immersion School, both on the West Side of the City of Milwaukee. Those are very, very good schools. So, you've got good schools, but there's no question that we're facing problems on a number of fronts, the education front, the fiscal front. I mean, here we are, this year's budget for MPS is going to have $18 million less from the state than it did last year, so those are real issues.

OMC: Violence in the city.

TB: (I'm) very pleased with the start of the chief of police, I believe he's hit the ground running. I think he's doing exactly what I was looking for. I was looking for a police chief that would be proactive. He's certainly proactive. I was looking for a police chief that understood the nuances of a multi-cultural, multi-racial city. I think he does that. And I was looking for a police chief who really could garner the respect of the rank and file in the department. I think he's done that. The numbers for the first six months have shown a pretty dramatic decrease. Now some say that's the weather and things like that, but Chicago has the same weather and they're seeing increases.

OMC: Whenever something happens and the cameras are there, you can see that he's out there on the street.

TB: And I think that's great. I think the people will relate to that; I think he's a straight shooter; I think he wants to make this very transparent, wants the people to know what's going on. And he's doing it, I think, because he wants to have a partnership with the community.

OMC: Was that something that was lacking in, and I'm not naming any specific police chiefs, but with previous chiefs in general?

TB: I think that each era and each police chief has their different requirements at the time. There was some push back when I wanted to look outside the department. When I say that, when we had the decision by Chief (Nan) Hegerty to leave, I said I wanted to find the best person I could find, and it didn't matter to me if it was a person from inside the department or from outside the department.

There are going to be times where you say, "Well, absolutely we have to have someone from inside the department." There are going to be times where you say, "I absolutely want to have someone from outside the department." This was, to me, that wasn't the case. In some ways, that was a little bit liberating, because it was like, "Let's bring in everybody we can who's interested, and decide who we think is best person is for the job."

OMC: Was there the thought, too, that maybe bringing in somebody from outside brings a different mindset -- someone that hasn't been working in the same framework?

TB: I think that that is what has happened. It was not necessarily the goal. It wasn't like I wanted to distance myself or the department from the past. Again, based on our numerous interviews with the candidates, we felt that Chief Flynn was the strongest candidate. So, for me, my goal in terms of public safety is really pretty simple, and I say this all over.

What I'm looking for is a city where in the summertime grandmas can sit on their front porches and grandkids can play in the front yards. That's what I want. Give me a neighborhood where I can walk down and see the grandmas sitting out on their porches and the kids playing out in the front yards, and I think, "OK. This is good."

Just last night we were driving home with my security and we heard a call that there was a fight on 22nd and Brown, and I said, "Let's go over there and see what it was." Well, there wasn't a fight, but there were grandmas sitting on their front porches and grandkids playing in the front yard, and I remarked to the security, "This is what I want."

OMC: Do you do that a lot?

TB: Yeah. Just drive around -- just check things out. Sometimes we get out of the car and walk around, and people are ... they're amazed. They can't believe that I'm out there, doing that. No press, no nothing, just hey, let's just stop here and check things out.

OMC: Well, there was talk, toward the end of the previous administration, that Mayor Norquist had sort of gone missing for a while. Do you think it's important to make sure that the city doesn't perceive that you've gone missing?

TB: Well, yeah, absolutely. But it's also fun (going out), because they're just so amazed. One of the women was out working on her lawn and she actually works for the Milwaukee Police Department and she was just surprised that I was there.

OMC: Do you sign a lot of autographs?

TB: No, I don't sign a lot of autographs.

OMC: Condo boom. Is it ever going to end?

TB: I think it will ultimately slow down -- and it has slowed down to some extent. It certainly has not stopped, but what you're seeing now are people who now are saying, "Alright, we're still sort of coming down, but in 18 months, we're going to be back up." So ...

OMC: So, they're speculating a bit on the future.

TB: I think so. And I think that's a positive development. This sort of goes back to something I learned in this office probably three years ago now. I had the British Consul here and he said he wanted to visit Milwaukee and talk about Milwaukee because Milwaukee's economy and size was probably more suited to many English cities than New York or Chicago or Los Angeles.

OMC: Right, because they don't have too many cities that size.

TB: Yeah. People think London, they think Chicago, but it's Manchester, Birmingham, places like that that have a manufacturing past, so he wanted to look at us to see how we were transforming ourselves from a primarily manufacturing-based economy to one that still had manufacturing but was moving on.

And so we were talking about that and I decided of course that I wanted to turn the tables on him, and I said, "Well, what do you find the common denominators to be for those cities in England that had made the transformation?"

OMC: ... and there are some like Glasgow and Bristol that have done basically what we're doing, but a little earlier.

TB: Right, but what he said was ... there were two things: very good higher education and water. And I thought, "Eureka. We've got it." And that's what you're seeing. You're seeing along the river, close to the lakefront -- people love, love being near the water, and we're blessed. We've got water here, and so I think that's kind of what attracted people here. Then you start getting that critical mass Downtown, and people start going, "I want to go to the restaurants; I want to go to the shows; I want to be Downtown," and it's been very positive.

OMC: Brett Favre. What do you think of this whole thing?(Note: not long after this interview took place, the Packers announced that Favre had been traded to the New York Jets.)

TB: I think that there's a chance that we might have the same conversation 15 years from now. Well, I'll say this is a split in my family. I have a 15-year-old son who's "come back," and I have three daughters who are 13, 11, and 9, and they all say "I'm so tired of this." So, the boy wants him back, and the girls say, "Let's move on, let's move on."

OMC: Finally, the Brewers. Are you excited?

TB: I'm very excited. I think it's very exciting. I think that Mark Attanasio has really injected enthusiasm into this franchise. I think Rick Schlesinger had done a good job. I think the fans, our players, he relates to, and they're playing great baseball.

OMC: Are you going to make a prediction you may regret?

TB: I predict they'll make the playoffs. They may not make the division, but if they don't win the division; I think they'll get the wildcard spot.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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 episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," 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 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 has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.