By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 07, 2019 at 9:01 AM

Milwaukee is well-acquainted with Joel Brennan, who has served in most every level of government and has for more than a decade been the face of Discovery World, serving as its CEO, president and all-around ambassador. He’s also served on the Wisconsin Center District board and in many community groups for years, too.

When Tony Evers was elected governor in November, he selected the smart and amiable Brennan to serve as secretary of the Department of Administration.

In Milwaukee the morning after Evers presented his first biennial budget, we sat down with Brennan to ask about that budget and more.

Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks with Wisconsin Dept. of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan.

OnMilwaukee: So, Joel, do you miss Discovery World yet?

Joel Brennan: It's a total departure and a change from what I was doing. Although, in some ways it's a return to public policy, and even at Discovery World it wasn't that I was totally out of the public policy realm, because we were working on STEM education issues, workforce development, freshwater science.

Some of those are some of the big issues that the state faces, as well, and came up in the course of the budget – clean drinking water, a number of issues like that.

But the pace is different. The people are different. The aura of politics around everything makes it a different experience.

Obviously you were learning all the time at Discovery World, too, but is this a job where you're having to learn something every minute to be able to say what you're going to say the next minute?

It is.

Is there a lot of getting up to speed on all of these issues?

Absolutely there is. The department that I work in has complexity in and of itself, where there are issues related to human resources, information technology, the fleet, the buildings of the state, all of those kind of things. Then you add an additional layer of complexity ... a lot of what the department does has tentacles into the rest of the government, whether it be on issues related to energy, transportation, natural resources.

It just is a very complex animal. There's a test on it every day, too. Because there are a whole bunch of decisions to be made and lots of big steps to be taken. It's enjoyable and, intellectually, it's a great exercise.

At Discovery World you were out there in public, being quoted on things, but politics is more gotcha than that. You really have to be on your "A game" all the time, right?

Unfortunately, I think so. In a lot of the conversations that we have had with legislators all across the political spectrum in the first six weeks that I have been there, it's been "How do we find some common ground and how do we keep from just lobbing grenades at each across the transom?" I'm hoping that that's the tone that the governor has set. "Hey, there's more that unites us than divides us. Where can we find common ground?"

I think in the exercise of policy and what we're doing in the next several months related to the budget, I hope there are going to be those opportunities to do that, because I think people want that.

The budget will be a good test ...

It will be where the rubber meets the road.

You're going back to a world you were already in. You were in city government here.

I worked at the municipal level, at the federal level. Early on in my career I served as a lobbyist for the beer industry at the state level, so I have some background. It's exercising some muscles I hadn't exercised in a while. It's a return to doing it on a day-in and day-out basis at a time where there have been these dramatic transitions in the state.

You've had one party in control for the last eight years and not necessarily a lot of the checks and balances that are part of divided government have not necessary been there. And so reintroducing those things and having everybody understand that this is a process, that there are going to be voices that have different political perspectives, is, I think, something everybody around Madison is getting used to.

Was it hard for you to leave Discovery World?  You really were the face of it for such a long time.

Yeah, it was hard. My kids are 13 and 11 and I was there for 11 years. My son was an infant when I started there. Now we're thinking about high school for our kids. And so they quite literally grew up there and the members of the staff were people they knew as almost family, so all that made it very difficult to leave.

I'm still somebody who will always be a big fan. I've been back to see the new exhibit that just opened and I'm talking with them about stuff related to the annual gala. I've been through the last 11 or 10 of those, so that's something you can't turn the switch off on right away.

You're still living in Milwaukee, right?

Still live here. I stay overnight in Madison on average maybe one night a week. I have family that I can stay with when I'm there. And unfortunately, the weather's been so lousy in the first six or seven weeks of the administration that there have been days when it's been dangerous to go back and forth and so staying there makes a lot more sense.

Yesterday morning I drove about 100 miles from Madison to Monroe County to talk to people who were gathered for the Monroe County Regional Economic Development Conference. It's important that the people who are in state government get to hear from people out-state.

It's a little further than my commute back and forth to Milwaukee, but driving 100 mils to get an idea from people in the more rural place with 45,000 people in that county to talk about what economic development means to them, what are the issues they are facing and how does that translate to the actions we're taking in Madison, is really important.

As to the commute that I have now, it's going to get better in the next several weeks because often now, I'll be leaving at 4:30, 5 a.m., and it's pitch black out, I'm coming home at night it's 7:30, 8 it's pitch black out. Psychologically, driving with some daylight is something that just adds a little energy.

What you said about going to Monroe is interesting, because I wanted to ask you about how we get past the divide that seems to exist between Milwaukee and the rest of the state.  How important is it to get out and about?

It's one of the most important things and when you get down to it, there are not Milwaukee issues and the rest of the state issues. There are Wisconsin issues and when it comes to economic development, they may be a little different on the margins, but if you're taking the long-term view of economic development, making investments in K12 education, in higher ed, in the technical colleges and then being able to be responsive on what's real economic development ...

One of the things that the governor has in his budget is for WEDC to increase the funding for all the regional economic development groups around the state. Because there's commonality in those and as the state enterprise, you should be investing with the people who have the boots on the ground and know those things.

So whether it's access to workforce, whether it's access to healthcare and improvements in healthcare, transportation issues ... those are not things that are core to one part of the state versus another. The scale of them may be a little different in southeastern Wisconsin versus other places.

Some of the best times that I've had in the first six weeks are when I do get out to other places. It's not just about what happens in the four blocks around the capital, but I think there is a commonality to some of those issues and part of our responsibility is that we've got to make sure that we're representing everyone.

There is a proposed budget now. Let's talk a little bit about that. I'm especially interested in the education issues ...

When you have someone who for the last 11 years has been the state superintendent and has proposed a number of initiatives to reform education and to make sure that there's some significant funding added for education and has been thwarted in most of those over the last several years, the fact that the superintendent who put together the budget last fall has transformed into the governor in January, you'll start to see some more continuity in those things than you've seen in years past.

And so the historic investments that are being proposed for special education, is one of the huge features of this and has been one of the governor's platforms when he was running. It's one of the things that he's truly committed to: the commitment to two-thirds funding that has waned in the past.

And part of the context for all of this is in the last election, there was something on the order of about $2 billion worth of referenda that were in elections or on the ballot ...

For schools ...

Yeah, across the state. An overwhelming amount of them passed, which is great in one way because it shows that people have a commitment to education, but in some way it's also a reflection that the state has abdicated some of its responsibility and that is being pressed down to the local level.

I think what the governor's trying to do is make sure that the state lives up to its commitments. I talked a little bit earlier about this is one of the pillars of workforce development in making sure that if you're playing the long game towards having employees and having a workforce that's well prepared, that's innovative, that's creative, you start that by making sure you're investing in K12.

But in the past he's hit a wall, is he going hit the same wall? Is it enough to have a governor proposing this if you have a legislature that's still opposed to almost all of it? 

Yeah, there are some of those issues around which there's more political swirl and I don't think the governor expects that he's going get 100 percent of the education budget he proposed or 100 percent of anything.

But it's clear, and the last eight years should be a reflection of this, that you're not going to get any closer to what a lot of people would like to happen, unless it gets proposed in the first place. And so the first stage is making sure that there's somebody who puts their stake in the ground that these are hugely important issues.

One of the things that interesting related to education is that there was a Blue Ribbon Commission that put out some recommendations, I think it was in either November or December and it had a bipartisan group of legislators and a lot of the things that were in the governor's budget are things that were proposed by that Blue Ribbon Commission. In fact in some ways, on a few things, he didn't go quite as far as it had proposed. So there's some widespread agreement on the fact that K12 education and the university system, education in general, is the engine for innovation and ingenuity in the state.

At the end of the day what's a win for him on education?

I think it's too soon to tell, but I think that for people who are involved in education, for people who have toiled in the schools in the last several years and felt like the teachers who didn't have enough respect or that in their classroom they're having to get their own supplies and they don't have the ability to have the state's support that they need, the fact that they've got someone who's in the governor's office who started his career as a science teacher, that, in and of itself, is a step forward.

Where it ends on a policy standpoint, I think the process in some ways is going to determine that. We just took the first step in the process, which was the governor putting together and then introducing that budget. The next step is the legislative action and then the negotiation.

But it's too soon to determine what success looks like. I think that success hopefully looks like something different than what we have today. I think people expect and voted for a difference. They voted for not the same-old. And I hope that as we move forward, the dialogue moves away from the immediate reaction from the Republicans in legislature to the governor's budget: "Oh, this is the Democratic wish list and we'll just throw it away and scrap and start something else."

I don't think that that's the most constructive thing, because it is a compilation of voices that he's heard from around the state. Voices that live in their districts too, and so just to dismiss that, I think is something that nobody should do. We should actually have a dialogue about it.

The governor in his speech (about the budget) talked about how he started the budget process by going around the state and actually listening to people. In the last several budgets, there were fairly closed sessions or no public input at all into the creation of the budget. This turned that on its ear.

Let's talk about some of the other issues in the budget. There's money for clean drinking water in terms of replacement of lead pipes and other things. That's a big issue everywhere but in Milwaukee at the moment, that's definitely a big issue.

It is. That's an example of an issue that is statewide. In Milwaukee, it's the lead laterals. In Kewaunee County, or in other places, it's well water and it's non-point source pollution. I think what the governor's trying to do is to be able to, from a statewide perspective, look at these things and make investments in the right way for the right source.

In Milwaukee, it's bonding for replacement of some of those lead laterals. In other parts around the state, it's going to be other ways that we can address that because it's not exactly the same issue. But everybody wanting access to clean, healthy, drinking water is a Wisconsin issue.

And same with the labor issues, right? It's multifaceted, isn't it, the right to work discussion, the minimum wage discussion ...

Yeah. I think that what the governor has tried to do both when it comes to the tax cut for truly middle class working people, the increase in the minimum wage, getting all state workers to at least $15 an hour. Those are some of the pillars of continuing to build more and to make sure that the middle class gets their share of the prosperity.

And in some ways I think one of the challenges and something that people have observed over the last several years, is that while things have been going better for lots of people, a lot of people felt like they were getting either left behind or staying in the same place. I think what the governor's trying to do is make sure that everybody can have some benefit when we do well.

Another city issue has been shared revenue in recent years. If this budget passes as it is, that would go up. Is that correct?

Yeah. I think one of the things that people at the local level should be excited about – shared revenue has been one example that's been frozen in place for a long time, more than a decade – is that the governor added about 15 million dollars, about 2 percent in the second year of the biennium, to just move that forward.

At the local level, people would I'm sure argue that that's not enough and they're probably right, but it's an example of at least listening to local elected officials, trying to give them some additional authority. There's also some ability to have about 2 percent in the levy limit that can go up. So a little bit more local control when it comes to those types of things.

But that's only one part of making sure that the local units of government have a little bit more tools at their disposal. A lot of the transportation budget is making sure that local roads get the attention that they deserve. That's another issue that wherever you are across the state, people have been saying – whether it's potholes in Milwaukee, or on a state highway in Wausau where there are challenges – that's an area that's been neglected.

It's not only reflected in the state, but there have been national studies that have moved Wisconsin down closer towards the bottom in terms of how well we're doing on our infrastructure. And so we have to make those kind of investments both at the local level and at the state level.

Is there something in the budget that you find especially exciting that nobody's really talking about?

Here's an issue that in some ways is a return to a focus I think that hasn't been a focus for the last eight years: Creating an office of clean energy and trying to make sure that there is the investments in renewables and setting those targets, but also making sure that we can do even some of the simple things about using state office buildings and making sure that we're upgrading the sustainability inside those buildings.

And then looking across the state at how are we going to continue to build a more sustainable approach toward energy. And I don't think that that's necessarily a partisan issue. I think that whether its WE Energies here in Milwaukee or MG&E in Madison or others across the state, it's becoming a financial issue for them. They're interested in investing in these things and the state needs to be a partner in that. And in some ways I think the state has fallen asleep at the switch in the last several years.

This is an initiative that both the governor and the lieutenant governor have taken on as one of their charges. And as we get deeper into the budget process, I think people are going to be enthusiastic about that, because it's not only about doing right and saving money, but as you move forward the stuff related to climate change and what our kids are going to have to inherit. That's part of what the state should be thinking about.

All right, last thing about the budget: the legalization of marijuana ... do you think that's got a chance?

There's widespread agreement that medicinal marijuana is something that there's good science behind and that it's something that most of the public is ready for. I think there is widespread agreement or widespread support not only for medicinal marijuana but also for some of the recreational marijuana use. I think what the governor is trying to do is move in the direction of where the public has come and legislatures maybe have not been as ready to follow.

I think it's a healthy debate to have and I think it's one of the areas where you're not going to have as much partisanship as you are in some of the other areas. I think it's where the public is going.

What's your take on Foxconn? Do you think they're going actually manufacture like they initially said or are they actually going to backtrack and do more research and development, as was more recently reported?

Well, your question reflects some of the changing landscape just in the first six weeks of this administration. What we have done is develop the relationships that are necessary for there to be the right kind of communication with Foxconn. In some way I'm working on Foxconn almost on a daily basis.

So, one, create those relationships. Two, make sure we all have access to the right kind of information because there was a deal that was negotiated and done 18 months ago. The parties who were involved in that deal, most of them changed as of January of this year, and so making sure that everybody gets familiar with those things, everybody's comfortable with that information and then reacting when there are potential changes that have been discussed just in the last month.

We are continuing to work with Foxconn. We are going to be adding staff to be able to directly deal with the project on the ground, because it's not just the stakeholders at Foxconn at the state, you've got the local elected officials in Mt. Pleasant, in Racine County and the City of Racine and they're out ahead in terms of their investment. They've invested couple hundred million dollars already in infrastructure. And so the potential of the project changing has a big influence on them and an influence on the work that they've already done.

So there has been work that's been going in even in the past few weeks in terms of planning on Foxconn side. I think we're going to hear more about that in the next several weeks and then we'll be responding about where that takes this project moving forward.

Are you optimistic based on the directions you have had with them?

I'm optimistic that they are truly working on what the project is going to look like. The changes in the marketplace I think dictate some of those things and I don't think anybody can blame them for being responsive to the global marketplace.

What I'm confident of is we'll have more details about this in the next several weeks that will help us all start to make more informed judgments on this. I think the best thing to do is to make sure that there is an opportunity for everybody to sit down face to face, have the kind of healthy communication that you need and that doesn't happen if you're lurching from one crisis to the next.

The previous administration famously turned down money for high speed rail, but now Foxconn is going to have people working who are coming from Milwaukee and coming from maybe Kenosha and other places, what's the governor thinking in terms of development of transportation?

Some of it may have to do with Foxconn, but it has to do with the whole of the state's economic development platform moving forward. Other places have made investments like this and I think the state needs to continually look at where is the future in terms of overall economic development. How are people choosing to move themselves around?

There's a whole host of people who are less likely to buy automobiles and we need to make sure that we're looking forward to what the landscape is going to look like there. Self-driving cars and all of those things are part of the discussion of where things are going. Having a little wider variety and looking less just at how wide can we make roads all over the state, but how can we invest in transportation at the local level, how can we have a broader more global view of something? I think this governor is going to be focused on more so than the last administration.

You're still on the Wisconsin Center District Board. When will the convention center be finished?

I've been on the Wisconsin Center District Board for I think almost a decade, but most of that time I was on as a representative for the mayor of the City of Milwaukee and now I am on the board because the secretary of the Department of Administration has a seat.

Throughout that time, I think there has been an evolution and a consensus has developed over that time that absolutely we need to finish the convention center. Because really at the beginning of the construction way back in the late 1990s, they talked about the first two phases were going get it to where it is now and then there was a phase three that was truly a completion of it to make sure that we could compete in our peer set. Here we are, 20 years later and we're still waiting for that completion.

So I think what's valuable about it is from Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, the majority leader, has been on the Wisconsin Center District Board for several years, he and I have gotten to know each other through that process. He is somebody who has expressed his support for the completion. Robin Vos, the speaker of the Assembly, he's also expressed support generally for just making sure this gets done.

Now the vehicle for doing that, that's where I think there's still is some disagreement. And we've hit a little bit of a pause in there, because the Bucks arena got inserted into that and a lot of the opportunity for doing that under the existing resources, some of that was taken up by the fact that the Wisconsin Center District became the vehicle for helping do the state share of the Bucks arena.

But I think those conversations are now coming back around. As an example, the governor went to talk to the board about two weeks ago. There were representatives from the business community, representatives from the hotel community, hospitality, any number of other places and every one of them finished by saying, "It's time for us to complete the convention center."

So the community is speaking with a unified voice. I think the Legislature in Madison has heard that and the people in the Wisconsin Center District who are part of the Legislature are also interested in doing this.

I think the next several months will be the feeling out period of how do you actually get this done? Is it a potential increase in one of the existing taxing authorities that the district has now? Is it another vehicle entirely? And this also I think is part of the overall discussion that the community is having now about investment in all the cultural assets too. This is now been put into that. The thing that's distinct about the Wisconsin Center District is there's the existing taxing authorities that are there now for the room tax, for the food and beverage, for the car rental tax, and so those vehicles already exist potentially to do that if the Legislature were to give the Wisconsin Center District the authority to do that.

Do you think the talk is expanding The Hop those couple blocks up to Wisconsin Center is going to be a game changer in this?

As a city resident and as somebody who used to be in one of the cultural facilities here, I have long been a big advocate for the streetcar. The two-mile starter route is only the start and I think getting it to the convention center, getting it up MLK Drive, having it move elsewhere in the city is the inevitable outcome and the inevitable growth pattern for this.

How quickly that can happen, I think it does depend some ways what other anchors are we putting down, where else can we do it, and unfortunately some of it also depends on what happens at the federal level. Because you have to have a federal partner that's interested in investing in these things, as well.

Where does the Bradley Center site fit into the Wisconsin Center District future? Or does it?

I don't think it does. It is controlled by the Bucks. I think it becomes the bridge between the convention center and the UWM Panther Arena and the Fiserv Forum and what happens there. I think the Bucks have a bigger plan for what's going to happen on those couple of blocks around the Fiserv Forum, whether it's more retail or hotel development or commercial, whatever it is, I think that will happen.

But one of the things it could have some immediate impact on is when the Bradley Center site is cleared you have that open space for the potential Democratic National Convention in 2020. I know that's the kind of space that they covet; big open spaces. So that's immediate, only for that next year-plus, but it will be valuable real estate for that.

So in the short term, it would pay in terms of having the convention here, to have that stay empty space.

Yes, I think that's the plan. I do think that they're starting to look at that in terms of staging and what kind of event space that can be during that time.

It's such a key potential key connector, isn't it?

Right, I hope they will look at it in terms of how you can tie all those assets together in some way.

Last question for you. We touched on this a little earlier, but is it enough to have a governor who we feel like might be finally paying attention to Milwaukee? Are you optimistic based on the meetings you said you had with lawmakers? Do you see some holes in the wall?

Part of what's happening that is of great benefit in Milwaukee is that there is a more cohesive and unified voice. The City, the County are starting to work more directly together. People at the County, the county executive and the chair of the County Board have come together to work on things. I think that's the first step in making sure that Milwaukee has a unified collective voice in Madison no matter who's the governor.

Then you add to that, they you have a governor who's less likely to blame Milwaukee for things and who respects and sees Milwaukee as one of the economic engines, truly the economic driver in the state.

I've been to almost every state senator, 33 senators across the state. I missed one so far. In none of those cases did anybody say, "Oh, you're from Milwaukee." I think all of them had a respect and regard for what I've done in my career which is economic development in Milwaukee, running a cultural institution in Milwaukee. None of them thought that that was something that was against being able to represent statewide issues.

Is it enough that you have a governor that has a higher regard for Milwaukee? It's something. But you and everybody else here still needs to hold us accountable and hold the rest of the legislature accountable, too. Making sure that Milwaukee is not taking things away from the rest of the state, but being able to add to the vitality and the richness in the state. That's the way it should be.

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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.