By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Jul 31, 2014 at 5:04 AM Photography: Royal Brevvaxling


As the city of Milwaukee seems on the precipice of moving toward some kind of development renaissance I’ve been thinking about the people to this city who are important to the City of Milwaukee.

I have tried to be dispassionate about this, not letting my own personal prejudices enter into the equation. What I’ve come up with is a two-part series.

In this installment I’m going to try and identify the 12 most important people in Milwaukee. Part II will feature the people who think they are important but really aren’t. The real and the pretenders.

I’ve struggled with what it means to be important to the operation, spirit and future of Milwaukee. Initially I was defining importance just by position of influence. But after some thought I’ve come up with basically three qualities for important people.

One is that they have a sense of vision that they can communicate to people. The second is they have demonstrated ability to actually make things happen. And third is that they command attention.

So, in no particular order, the 12 most important people to the city.

Gov. Scott Walker

Say what you will, but the governor of the state has the ability to have a profound impact on the city. From funding for education to infrastructure repair to development proposals, the governor can provide money and gather forces to help make dreams come true. Of course in Walker’s case the dreams are more nightmares, but nobody can deny his influence.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele

A fairly recent player in the public panorama of the city, Abele has been a gracious philanthropist for many years and seems now to be developing a vision for what Milwaukee and the state can be. He’s a strict fiscal moderate and leans toward cooperation as a way to get things done. He can be very persuasive and is ery smart. Although he’s got a lot of money, one personal experience demonstrates his frugality. A number of years ago I was at the bar in the Astor Hotel with him and the cast from Milwaukee Shakespeare. We ran a tab for the gathering and I’ll never forget the amount, $211.55. When it came, he looked at me and said, "how about we split it." I’ll never forget that moment.

Common Council President Michael Murphy

Milwaukee government is structured for a strong Common Council and a weak mayoral office. As president of the council, Murphy is in a unique position to steer an agenda. He’s been on the council for a long time and I’ve always suspected that there is more depth to Murphy than meets the eye. He may not always be on your side, but he’s got a stiff spine and won’t be blown about by the latest wind. Plus, anyone who has a daughter named Maggie Murphy can’t be all bad.

Julia Taylor

President of the Greater Milwaukee Committee for a dozen years and has steered the organization of the rich, powerful and influential. For too long the GMC has talked a better game that it has delivered. There is a lot of money and brainpower in the GMC and it should become a much bigger and more serious player in the city. The potential is there.

Frank Gimbel

As the longtime president of the Wisconsin Center District Gimbel is truly the lion of Downtown politics and development. He controls some valuable land and some integral institutions and has a clear and well-defined view of what downtown should and can be. Gimbel also brings a historical perspective that may be unmatched in the city.

Angela Damiani, Jeremy Fojut and Ian Abston

I’m counting as one person Damiani who is president of Newaukee, Fojut who is chief idea officer and Abston who is the founder. The organization of young professionals has proven ability to get their members together for parties and cocktail hours and meet and greet stuff. If they can find a way to mobilize to solve problems the could easily become a force to be reckoned with.

Ted Kellner

Kellner is the head of a big money management firm and a dedicated public service leader. He is a perfect example of someone who puts his money where his mouth is and has the ability to generate lots of support around an issue. He’s got just one fault. Years ago he and his wife stood next to me and my wife at taking a lesson at a Fred Astaire dance studio. He can’t dance any better than I can. But he can do just about everything else.

Judge Derek Mosley

As a municipal judge he doesn’t have significant influence, but as an example for black men -- really all men -- he’s hard to beat. He understands the concepts of compassion, public service and personal development as well as anyone and he lives those concepts. At a time when when we sentence so many black men to prison, Mosley is an example to all young boys of what you can do with your life if you work hard and keep yourself clean.

Wes Edens and Marc Lasry

The two new owners of the Bucks seem intent on building a good basketball team and a nice arena but they also appear likely to help spur development efforts downtown. One of the things they can bring, beside investment, is a sense of focus about what we should and can be.

Marc Marotta

The Foley and Lardner partner operates behind the scenes a lot but he has the kind of star power and charisma that can rally the troops. One thing Milwaukee has missed over the years is stimulating leadership and Marotta can provide it if he can step out of his lawyer role.

John Schlifske and John Kordsmeier

Schlifske is chairman and CEO of Northwestern Mutual and Kordsmeier heads up the NML Foundation. The company has made a clear commitment to Milwaukee and the foundation is an incredible philanthropic source in this city and around the country.

Mayor Tom Barrett

Say what you want to about his laid back style, the office of the mayor is incredibly important to the city. The mayor doesn’t have much actual power, but he or she can be a thunderous voice for any agenda and has the influence to bring all kinds of support to any initiative. It’s time Milwaukee had a woman mayor and if we get one, this could mark a real progressive move in this city.

Viswa Subbaraman

Subbaraman sets a challenging tone for artists of all stripes in this city. He is a risk taker and an inclusive artistic director. I think having the arts, led by theater, step outside their "normal" comfort zone is very important. Because the arts are so expensive to stage music, ballet, theater, they are so often forced to do the conventional in order to make sure people come. He is moving beyond that theory.

Todd Gawronski

Nobody seems to know who he is but Gawronski is largely responsible for the most significant improvement at Milwaukee’s lakefront in decades. Before he came along the Bradford Beach area was a cesspool of trash, ungroomed sand and occasional trouble. Once he set to work, in the beginning largely on his own, he transformed the area into a great beach volleyball area, complete with tiki hut bars and a family friendly place for summer. He also brought professional beach volleyball to the city. We could use many more Gawronski’s who start with a simple idea and goal and then bust their butts to make it happen.

Next week people who think they are important but aren’t.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.