Welcome to a new series featuring S. Sorrina Beecher chatting and coffee-klatsching with multifarious Milwaukeeans. "414, let's have one more!"
The first time I interviewed Mayor Tom Barrett in 2010, I was sure it would be my last.
Nervously awaiting for the politico to arrive for a short interview about the new "green roof" being installed on the Downtown Milwaukee Public Library, I instinctively outstretched my hand, offered a laconic — "Mayor, pleasure to meet you" — and firmly grasped ... his heavily bandaged hand.
If Barrett was bothered by my blunder, he never showed it. Instead, he smiled down from his six-foot, four inch frame, tenderly adjusted his bandage wrap, and we headed for the roof, making pleasant talk along the way.
So it was, that I took a similar cotillion-esque approach when I met the Mayor for coffee and conversation one recent Friday morning, and the coffee — much like I imagine municipal governments aspire to be — tasted rather "efficient."
Our brew is practically filtered from a bag of Starbucks Breakfast Blend, though the Mayor’s staff takes turns bringing in an array of coffee brands, Special Assistant to the Mayor Jodie Tabak says. Today (everyday?) it’s scalding hot, and as I lift my mug to my lips and sip, I immediately want to spit it out. It’s advertised as having "smooth and rich flavors," but I’m met with something more of a full-bodied bitter. To be fair, Tabak did send me a cautionary email: "Drinker beware! : )"
Tabak helps me find the cream and sugar, and lets me in on a secret: In the 14 years that Barrett has served as Cream City’s mayor, he’s only started drinking coffee in the last six months.
"Now, he walks around with a mug looking like a poser," Tabak jokes.
We saunter into Barrett’s stately office and settle into a circle of brown leather chairs. After 14 years in office, he feels he has much to be proud of but remains determined to get so much more work done. We chat about his vision for a unified Milwaukee, the renaissance underway and then put politics aside to discuss the night he came face-to-face with the "local knucklehead" who threatened to end his life.
OnMilwaukee: You grew up on the City’s West Side. How would you describe your neighborhood and upbringing?
Mayor Tom Barrett: "Leave it to Beaver." (laughs) Dozens and dozens of kids on the street. People wondered what was wrong with our family because there were only four children. Other families on the block had 11, 12, seven, five. But my mother had actually been widowed at 23 years old, so she met my dad after her first husband was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. They met in Milwaukee. So, she was older than a lot of the other mothers. But it was a wonderful childhood, to the point where my wife and I now live about 100 yards from the home I grew up in. So, I don’t have this tortured tale to tell you — I was just a happy kid growing up.
What is your earliest memory of politics?
It probably before you were born! Probably the Cuban Missile Crisis. Just seeing it on TV and wondering what was going on. Several years later, it was probably the (John F.) Kennedy assassination. Then Medicare, or Medicaid. I remember Civil Rights. I was still a teenager, yet.
Was there any specific moment in your life where you thought, "I want to go into politics?"
I had an uncle who lived in Door County, who had a book on the presidents. I just thought it was the coolest book in the world, and I memorized all the presidents and just thought it was neat, and interesting. So, I just started following government more, in general.
Were you one of those kids that liked to go to town council meetings?
Oh, no! Absolutely not. (laughs) Reading, just reading.
What was your first job as a kid?
I had many first jobs. I was a paperboy, I worked at a drugstore. I was an usher at the very first ever Milwaukee Brewers game. I was a sophomore in high school. The Brewers lost that game. The Brewers job was cool because the Brewers came to Milwaukee with, like, a two-week notice. Because they were in Seattle, then went bankrupt. They came to my high school, which was not far from the stadium, looking for kids who would be ushers. I like baseball, so I’m thinking, "I’m all over this!"
So, you served in the State Assembly, served in Congress. What motivated you to take your earlier experiences (in politics) and come back to the city you were raised in to become Mayor?
I had the passion for it. And this is a vocation where you have to have the passion for it. It felt as though I still had a lot to contribute, in terms of making it a better city and a better community. The jobs I’ve had, I’ve never left with a bitter taste in my mouth. Some people say, "Oh, I hated that." I would say the Congressional job was in many ways the most illuminating in that I loved every moment of it, but I don’t miss it all. Because you’re in Washington, and it’s exciting but you can see that in many ways you could have more impact here than you can there.
You mentioned the word "passion." What were some of your earliest causes you took up as Mayor?
Actually, I would say good government — just making it work. Some people come on with a burning issue, but I’ve always felt, and still feel, there is incredible value in having a functioning, competent, progressive government, and I wanted to be part of that.
What accomplishments are you most proud of as Mayor?
There’s a number of them I think we’ve made significant progress on. If you look at, for example, the Menomonee Valley. The transformation of the old Pabst site has been remarkable. You see the work being done in the Reed Street Yards. There’s a lot more housing in the heart of the city, so we’re proud of that. Those are all very visible signs in the city. We’ve invested a lot into neighborhood libraries, to make them into community centers. Those are things that are important to me. I’m also proud that we’ve seen a decrease in the teen pregnancy rate.
We remain challenged on infant mortality, which is something that bothers me. We still have way too much poverty. And public safety remains a concern. But I think the trajectory of the city is in a much better place now than it has been.
One of your biggest things is protecting the citizens of Milwaukee. You’ve walked the talk, when in 2009 at State Fair you …
Oh, my boxing career! (chuckles)
Yes, your boxing career! I was trying to express some decorum here. How did that experience affect you? You made international news. I remember following the news, thinking "Wow, our Mayor is badass!"
Well, I wasn’t paying too much attention to that at the time. (laughs) I was staring up at the hospital ceiling. But it was not planned! I was very glad I wasn’t drinking. Every year, I tend bar at Irish Fest. And the night before, I was tending bar. It’s the one night a year I tell security, "Just so you know, I’m going to have a couple beers." So Saturday night, I get a random call from my sister, who said (our family) was going to see this band at State Fair, and did I want to join them? My wife was in California visiting cousins. I thought "This is great, I don’t even have to make dinner!" My two younger kids were at home, and my two older kids were working at State Fair, at Saz’s. I didn’t call security – I just went. I’m not sure it changed me, exactly.
Do you remember the moment you jumped in to help?
Yes, yes. When he said "Now, I’m going to have to kill all of you." I turned to my sister, and my nieces and my daughters, and I said, "Get out of here." He says, "No, everybody stay here." And then with my eyes, I was telling them to get away. He says, "Lie down, face down on the sidewalk." I thought, "You just told me you’re going to kill me, I’m not going to lie on the sidewalk!" And then things just went from there. It didn’t last a long time, it was just so fast.
How long were you recovering from the hospital?
I think three, four days.
So, the first time I interviewed you was not too long after that. We were on the green roof of the Downtown library, you came in and I shook your injured hand. How often did that happen to you?
(Laughs) Well … hey, I’m all good now — shake my hand! I’m good.
I see, you’re all good now!
I had three or four surgeries to try to get things back. And a lot of therapy – a lot of therapy. There’s no pain, now.
Were you surprised at all the coverage?
I was really in a different place at that time. I wasn’t paying attention.
You created the Walk 100 challenge a couple of years ago. What was behind that idea?
I love going into different neighborhoods in the city of Milwaukee. You drive a lot of places, and I thought it would be much better to walk through the neighborhoods and, if possible, walk with the people who live in those neighborhoods. So, we launched it and sometimes there’s a handful of people, and the largest one was close to 1,000 people. It’s a great way, in a very casual way, to see things and talk to people.
Milwaukee has received negative attention for the Sterling Brown case and the Sherman Park unrest. There’s this prevailing idea that Milwaukee is a "tale of two cities." You spoke out about the (Brown) video. What are some of your ideas for improving police-citizen relations, and how can Milwaukeeans promote unity?
My vision is to create a relationship. The way I describe it, we’re always going to have the police. We’re always going to have people of color. And we’re always going to have low-income areas. And so I envision as a long-term relationship – like a marriage. Where you have to keep working at it. It’s never done. I need this to be a city where our residents can work with and respect our police officers. I also need this to be a city where our police officers can work with and respect residents. It has to be a two-way street. That’s one of the reasons I get upset about the State lifting the residency requirement. I want our police to be a part of our community.
You’ve been Mayor for 14 years. What is something you still want to achieve?
I want to see more family-supporting jobs in the city. And I need the business community to step up and help with that.
You recently announced that you will not be running for governor, but said you plan to serve as mayor for many years to come. Can we expect a fifth term in 2020?
Well, I still love this job. I still have a burning passion, so I certainly intend to. I’m not making an announcement today. (Laughs) But, I do hope to serve in this job as long as I can.
What are some of your favorite Milwaukee-centric activities? How do you like to unwind?
Well, I’m a sports fan so Brewers, Bucks. I’m certainly fans of those teams. The Admirals.
What’s the best thing about being the Mayor of Milwaukee?
You get an opportunity to see every single neighborhood of this city and see how, in every single neighborhood, there are really good people who love their children, and want to be safe, and want to have a family-supporting job. There’s a common denominator in every neighborhood.
You were not a big coffee drinker and only recently made the switch.
Prior to this year, I had fewer than five cups of coffee in my life.
I’m pretty sure I’ve topped that in one day.
Well, the reason is – and this goes back to "Leave it to Beaver" – my father traveled a lot for work, and my job was to simply plug in the coffee maker. I was nine years old. And one morning, I forgot to plug in the coffee maker. My mom came downstairs and saw there was no coffee. And she didn’t yell at me, or get mad, but she started to cry. In retrospect, there was probably other stuff going on. (Laughs) But in that instant, I thought, " If not drinking that stuff makes you cry, I’m never going to drink it." And I never did.
It’s hard stuff.
(Laughs) Right, I was just never going to drink it. And so I didn’t drink it at all. Until this year. I used to drink a lot of Diet Coke, but then I started reading all of these articles. So, I wasn’t Holier than Thou on caffeine, but I thought I was better off drinking coffee than Diet Coke. I completely weaned off, but for part of the day, I moved to coffee. This year is the first time I ever ordered a cup of coffee in a restaurant. Ever.
So, are you experimenting with different types of brews?
No, I just stick to the regular stuff. Maybe a little creamer. But I’m thinking I’d rather stick with the regular stuff because people spend so much money on coffee! I don’t want to go there either.
Spoken like a true municipal politico.