By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published Apr 07, 2004 at 5:29 AM

{image1} A campaign that started with both candidates vowing to not widen the racial divide ended up a graphic demonstration of the division that does exist in this community.

Nobody can ignore the facts in Tuesday's mayoral election. According to exit polls, 92 percent of African-American voters cast their ballots for Marvin Pratt, who became the city's first African-American mayor when John Norquist resigned. The winner, Tom Barrett, a white man who served in Congress and ran for governor, drew 83 percent of the white votes.

Many Pratt supporters feel he was a victim of racism -- via biased coverage by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other media, by what they feel was a politically motivated investigation into Pratt's campaign finance records by the district attorney and by the very tone of the race.

"The racial tone became so negative that it will take a long time for this city to heal," said Sen. Spencer Coggs, who has represented a district of Milwaukee in the state legislature for years. "The media became part of the problem. We saw negative coverage of the black candidate while on the surface giving the white candidate a pass.

"The district attorney has never used the kind of language he used about Marvin before, not about Mayor Norquist, not even about Tom Ament. Words like `stupid,' `foolish,' to be used about a sitting mayor.

"Tom Barrett said he wouldn't take a negative tone and then he did. It will take time to heal from those things."

Coggs spoke for many of the Pratt supporters who jammed the Empire ballroom in the Hilton hotel Tuesday night. They clapped their hands and chanted, "Pratt, Pratt" in what the acting mayor himself later declared the first Milwaukee political clap. At one point, many sang, "We shall overcome" -- a familiar refrain from the civil rights movement.

Most were African Americans, but not all. In fact, the group was probably much more integrated than many stereotypes would have suggested. There was bitterness, and disappointment. But there also were expressions of hope.

"I think it was very unfortunate that the race took the turn it did," said Matt Flynn, a white political vet who hopes to represent Milwaukee in Congress next fall. "But in the long run, I think the city will come out stronger.

"The face is we had two very strong candidates in this race. I happened to support Marvin Pratt, but Tom Barrett has a very strong record and is a fundamentally decent person. There will be a period of mourning, but in the long run we will have a very strong city."

Pratt himself emphasized "moving ahead as a city" in his concession speech. "Don't despair or have a lack of hope," he said. "This campaign has shown there is hope for us and for this city.

"We're going to be peaceful. We're going to be cooperative. We're going to move ahead as a city."

Barrett also emphasized reaching out to all people in the city and bridging the racial gap. He said the diversity of Milwaukee is its richness and "we will either move ahead together or we won't move at all."

He also said that he hoped the 46 percent of the voters who voted for Pratt demonstrated not so much a "rejection of Tom Barrett as an embracing of Marvin." Barrett said he hoped the Pratt supporters would join him in moving the city forward.

Of course, all of this is Election Night rhetoric, and won't mean much if there isn't substantive changes in things like employment opportunities, education, access to health care and other areas.

Right before Pratt started to speak, Lowell Thomas, a veteran freelance photojournalist, turned to this columnist and said, "I just hope our (African-American) young people don't start moving out of town by the busloads."

Many young African Americans got involved in Pratt's campaign. For many, it was their first journey into politics. Fifty-eight percent of first-time voters cast their ballots for Pratt, according to his campaign.

It's now up to Barrett, Pratt and other leaders in the community to make sure Thomas' fear doesn't come true, by converting the Election Night rhetoric into substantive change.

Gregg Hoffmann Special to
Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, author and publisher of Midwest Diamond Report and Old School Collectibles Web sites. Hoffmann, a retired senior lecturer in journalism at UWM, writes The State Sports Buzz and Beyond Milwaukee on a monthly basis for OMC.