By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Aug 05, 2014 at 11:02 AM

Recently, columnist Dave Begel named Ald. Michael Murphy one of the most important people in Milwaukee. As Common Council President, Murphy is one of the top politicians in the city.

We sat down with the 10th district alderman -- who became the city's 47th council president on Feb. 11 -- to talk about a range of issues, from development to schools to crime and more. I would be remiss if I did not ask you about Ald. Bob Donovan's announcement yesterday that he is running for mayor.

Michael Murphy: Well, it's a long time between now and the election -- nearly two years -- and a lot can happen in that period. I think the mayor's taken the race, and he will take it, very seriously. It'll be a little more challenging here at my office, just because one has to make sure that we separate running the government and campaigning.

So, a practical issue I have to deal with is just to make sure that there isn't any commingling of political activity during the operation of our offices. I think it'll certainly be a very spirited two years, because everything will be a little bit higher energy.

OMC: It changes the complexion of the race a little bit, doesn't it?

MM: Yeah, it does. And you've got Ald. (Joe) Davis, who's got an exploratory committee, and I think Sheriff Clarke has pretty much said he's going to run if he's successful in his sheriff's race. It's good for the newspapers and the folks in your business. You're going to get a lot more people paying attention.

OMC: Are you comfortable now in your new office? How has this changed your day-to-day life?

MM: You know, I love my job. It gives me a much bigger palette to work off of and I've been in government quite a long time, and so I know all the players pretty well, but I love what I'm doing and, and I have a great bunch of people I'm working with, and I'm very excited about where I see the city's going. We have challenges, but there's a lot of wonderful things going on in the city, and getting that word out is part of our jobs.

OMC: Have you had something so far that you feel like has been a success for you so far? A big win as president?

MM: You know, I think there's legislative wins, but there's other victories that we're working on. I put together a large conference with regional partners and the five counties regarding heroin addiction, and the Zilber Family Foundation along with Marquette University were very great sponsors. We put together, I think, a pretty really thoughtful conference looking at opioid heroin addiction from a regional perspective, and now we're following up with all our partners to put in action steps, but it was an opportunity, really, to reach out to county and regional partners, to say we can work out things together that are in all our mutual interest. 

For example, just on how we wanted to do better promotion of campaigns to try and stop kids from getting into taking opiates or going into heroin. Learning from each other, so for example some of the outer suburban and other county partners have instituted drug, drug drop-offs at their police district stations.

I'll be implementing that in the near future. That's what's in parents' medicine cabinets or grandparents', so people can legally dispose of them, not just dumping them into the waterways, which contaminates the waterways. We have one or two days with MMSD we can drop off your prescription medicine, but I want to have something a more regular schedule. And then we were looking at more campaigns where we'll be educating people about what to look for (in) your children, if they're addicted. And also if you do have a problem, where do you go?

Legislatively, it's been pretty active. We just passed legislation on the taxi cabs which I co-sponsored. I've always been opposed to creating a monopoly for any one industry. (We're) letting the marketplace determine that equilibrium of how many cabs there should be. Lyft and Uber are now legally operating in the city, and I think they will add value for both (residents) and visitors.

And then, working with the mayor on other projects. So, for example, on housing initiatives. Making sure that these programs are all rolling.

I was on a tour yesterday with ACTS, which is an excellent organization, and I worked with the mayor to get an additional $250,000 into their budget to allow for an opportunity for more people of very low income and modest means who are paying more in rent than they would in a mortgage to get a home.

 Those things I take as success and victory.

I think we have a lot coming down the road. Obviously, you know, the city potentially has over a billion dollars' worth of potential investment in the Downtown Milwaukee area, and that's exciting. And, if we can get those things put together, I think it will spur more growth in the city.

OMC: Is Milwaukee really at that tipping point, that to use that phrase that popped up last week?

MM: I've talked to Barry Mandel and other developers who tell me that they plan on expanding and building more apartments. I think we see a big increase of young people wanting to be Downtown in Milwaukee -- the millennials and also a lot more people, very creative, wanting to be in the community.

So, for example, I was at the Flying Car event recently (and) I talked to a lot of young people who are just very excited about our city and feel this is the place they want to start their businesses and be.

And, you've got to keep in mind, there's 10,000 people a day turning 65 in this country. And a lot of people are just tired of owning a big home, or having a big lot. Their kids are gone, they're empty-nesters and they want to be where the culture is. So, quite honestly, I think we, we'll start seeing those numbers coming to our direction.

And, you know, we have a very safe Downtown. We have all these great cultural amenities. The big challenge is obviously in the (a fire truck passes outside, with siren blaring) ... you know, timing's perfect, you hear a siren. But that was fire, not police.

But the reality is our public safety issue is the perception of our community and how safe it is. The reality is, it's a very sad commentary, but the violence that you see in this community is in a very small, targeted area of our city.

But, it frightens everyone because of the randomness some cases, or the viciousness of it. So, you know, we're working hard and trying to, with new police strategies, change that perspective, and also provide opportunities for people to get into employment, which is a key issue.

But every major metropolitan city in the United States is facing those very same issues, some worse than others. Obviously, our neighbors to the south, Chicago, are having a terrible summer.

But, I think as we move forward, addressing those issues is also an important part, and we passed a living wage ordinance here and I sponsored that along with the key sponsor, Ald. (Ashanti) Hamilton, and I think those are ... I don't want to say that's going to have a major change, but I think it's in the right direction.

OMC: I want to come back to that Chicago thing in a little while, but before we go to that, I want to ask, is there such a thing as a tipping point? That makes it almost sound like there's one thing missing and when we get that, we're where we need to be. Is it more of an incremental growth? Like, maybe you tip to the next level?

MM: Yeah. I don't think there's any one point. I do think it is incremental growth, but I think it is going in the right direction. We're one of the few cities in the country, in the Midwest region for sure, when you look at census data, that didn't have a significant population drop. Now, this is on top of a terrible financial crisis that we've had, and that had an impact on our housing.

I think as more and more young people come here, and they realize what a great city we have, I think that word of mouth starts spreading. And with Northwestern Mutual Life, all those young people becoming employed there, their friends will want to come here. So, those points start increasing. Maybe it doesn't happen overnight, but over the next year or two years. I'm excited about the future. I think things are going to go well for us.

OMC: You talked a little bit about this already, but are there some things that prevent us getting to that next plateau? There's a lot of people who say if we don't build the new arena, then the Bucks go and we tip back the wrong way. Is it that simple? What are some of the things that could prevent us going forward?

MM: You know, I think we do a great job, we'll do a great job of bringing young people to our community and empty-nesters. It's the people in the middle that's been the difficult issue.

The young person loves being in the Downtown area. They get to 32 or 33, they get married and they want to have a family. And we have some great, wonderful neighborhoods in the city of Milwaukee, but one of the challenges has been where is a good school to send my children to? And so, MPS and charter and voucher schools -- we have some distinction between our governmental units, but they're all interconnected.

Working to try and get all the school systems to improve and have better choices for people to stay in our city, I think is something I'm going to be working closely with. And, I was just on the phone with the acting superintendent of MPS (Dr. Darienne Driver). I'm meeting with her next week. I'm trying to improve the dialogue between the two government units, and certainly, I think we want to see a strong school system. I think that will help attract and retain people in our city. We have some really wonderful neighborhoods in our community, where it's really those people in that age group trying to make sure that they have good choices.

OMC: Do you think one of the issues of the schools is perception? Obviously the numbers don't lie. The numbers tell a specific story, but do they tell the whole story? Because there's French Immersion, you can point to German Immersion, you can point the Montessoris ... all kinds of schools that are doing well.

MM: Oh, yeah. The analogy I'd make is that, you know, everybody hates Congress, but they all seem to like their congressperson, because they always return him to the office.
But here, when I go to the neighborhoods and I talk to people, you know, people are actively engaged in their children's education, their children's schools. They're satisfied, because, for example, you're right.

I was just on a neighborhood walk in Enderis Park, and a lot of people over there are sending their children to the German Immersion School, and they sing the praises. And, and many of them are traveling to Germany in the next two weeks for a trip. And their kids, by the age they're in the fifth grade, are fluent in German. The same with the Spanish, the same with the Italian, the same with the French. So, we have some excellent, excellent elementary schools. It gets tougher and harder with middle schools.

And then you get to high schools, and we have some really good high schools. Reagan was rated one of the top schools in the country by US News and World Report, and King's a very good school and Riverside, but it's the middle schools where it gets really challenging. And so, that's where we're trying to work with, and help improve the system.

OMC: On the West Side, you have the people who go to French Immersion, people who go to German Immersion. But then there's 81st Street School sitting there and people really want to see that become more of a neighborhood school again. There's this push for neighborhood schools, but is that a problem in Milwaukee when you have one of the most segregated cities in the country? 

MM: Well, yes and no. I'm a graduate of Milwaukee Public Schools. I was one of the first students who volunteered to do the 220 program. I really think that right now it is a segregated school system; 80 percent of the students going to MPS are minorities.

So, I mean, I've gone to schools in this city where it's 99 percent African-American. So, we're there right now. I think for certain neighborhoods -- Enderis Park is fairly diverse -- so if it is a neighborhood school and if all the people sent their children there, it wouldn't become all of a sudden an all-white school.

When we talk about segregation, and certainly there's certain pockets of the city where there's maybe a higher percentage of white, but when they're talking about that, people forget it's really this outer ring, where you have communities that were started in 1958 or 1959. They were incorporated. They were 98 percent white. They're 96 percent white.

The city is becoming much more diverse. It's the outer ring where it's, where it's hyper-segregated. And that's always been a challenge, because the housing patterns and restrictive policies by zoning by some of these communities, which is to their folly in the long-term. But the city itself, I think, is, is becoming much, much more diverse.

OMC: Let's go back to Chicago. Last last week everybody in my neighborhood woke up at 1:45 in the morning when they heard what was either fireworks or gunshots. Turned out it was probably fireworks, but, coincidentally, the same night right in front of District 3 (police station), there was apparently a ...

MM: Shooting.

OMC: A shooting with an AK-47, which led all the neighborhood groups to start talking about how there's been this influx of gang members from Chicago who have been feeling the heat there and have started to move up here. Have you seen that?

MM: No, I haven't heard that from the police department, but I had a meeting with neighbors over in the 2300 block of (North) 51st Street, which was on Friday night. And, unfortunately I would say a lot of the incidence of the violent crime, if you look at the homicide review task force, or just talk to the police officers, some of it has nothing to do with criminal activity.

It's behavior activity ... I had two young women get shot in the back of their car because they were arguing about the car seat. And I can't put a cop there. Part of the problem is we have a very young population, if you look demographically, and, we know that young people have easy access to weapons and they have not been brought up in an environment where the conflict can be resolved without resorting to violence, and they first thing they think, whether it's for their machoism or whatever, their first response is to take a weapon.

It's frightening. And that's what I think scares everybody, that there's less of a conscience about their long-term impact. There used to be a rule that you wouldn't shoot at a police officer. An unwritten rule from bad guys. And that's being broken.

So, yeah, that frightens everybody, and that's our challenge as a city, how we get at that. Those are a lot of social issues that the city is not able to address. We can create an atmosphere to try and change that. A lot gets back to families. And it gets back to how do you address poverty? And it's a complex issue, but that's what our biggest challenge. How do we change that decision making, for somebody not to think that they should pick up a gun to resolve the dispute?

We have a really good police department. They're very good at making an arrest. The reason I put up the opiate and heroin task force was partially because I do see that as a bigger issue that may drive (violent crime) ... because I was here during the '90s when crack took up, the '80s and '90s, and what happened there was the gangs figured out there was a lot of money to be made. What I'm fearful of is that they will realize heroin's cheaper to pack, it's cheaper to make, it's cheaper to convey, and I don't want that spreading.

We see what's going on out in Vermont. The governor there, in his state address in February, he said there's only one issue, and that was heroin. And I think that shook everybody up. I think we got to be proactive in addressing these issues before it hits us. Chicago is the feeder of a lot of controlled substances illegally into our area and HIDTA works very well on that. I am nervous about gangs bringing it here. So, we're working with the vice squad and others to try and reverse that.

OMC: In a sense, is all this stuff tied up together  ... what you talked about family and poverty, and education is in there too, isn't it? I mean, all these things affect schools, too.

MM: Yeah, they do.

OMC: Everybody says, "Let's fix the schools," but can you fix the schools without fixing poverty, without fixing joblessness, without fixing ... this hopelessness that comes from poverty and joblessness?

MM: And you have generational issues there, too. And, you know, I've heard some people blame teachers for everything, and I said, "Listen, you should spend a day in the life of a teacher." And I have. And, you know, you have kids coming to school who, you know, their brother was shot. Well, they're not paying attention for a pretty legitimate reason. And then you got kids who are coming to school hungry. And kids who come from an environment where violence is the norm. And they're traumatized by this. So, I don't think we should shy away from discussing these very difficult problems, and because there are lot of good people trying to make a difference and changing this behavior.

But we didn't get here overnight. It's going to be a while to get over it. Our country is unfortunately is a much poorer country after the last five years. Yesterday a report came out and said 35 percent of Americans have debt collectors after them. That's a pretty scary number.

Family Dollar is being purchased. And these are telling things that I think say about a community. There's more Family Dollar and Dollar Tree stores now, and Walmarts. The reason is because we have more and more people that are poor. As a country we've got to start working at how we are going to change this. We have a growing schism of between very rich and poor. That's not a good future.

That impact is felt first in urban areas. But, you know, there's a lot of poverty in the suburbs and you just don't see it as much. It's hidden. We're going to do what we can as a city to change that, but sometimes these are issues beyond our control.

But I do think cities are still very viable and I think cities will become more attractive as time moves on. It's how we position our city to take advantage of those opportunities is what's important. And, so I have great hope for the city.

OMC: I saw you at the Enderis Park neighborhood walk that you mentioned. I was impressed by the turnout. Tell me a little bit about what you get out of those and how those help you relate to the community.

MM: Yeah, I do neighborhood walks quite a bit, and I did one, like two of them last week. One in the, the Enderis Park, one in the valley. 

I get a lot out of it, because people are willing to share with you ... Some people are very uncomfortable giving out their name and number about a certain issue. And so I get a lot of information out of it that way. So does the police department. But there's a lot of positives, too. People start walking around their neighborhood and go, "Oh, this is a great neighborhood." They get to know their neighbors.

They realize we all have a vested interest in keeping it a good neighborhood ... Every night I go out for a walk in my neighborhood and it's just, like, part of the routine.

OMC: Do you encourage your fellow alders to do the same?

MM: Yeah, and I think more aldermen do it more than they have, and the big issue is for me is time management and balancing ...  I have a nine year old, and a wife who's very busy, and she has a big job. I can do a neighborhood meeting every single night and I can have five activities every weekend. And so, you've got to balance that with wanting to see your children, you know? So she comes with me a lot of the meetings. But, yes, I get a great deal out of it.

OMC: I know you live on the West Side, but tell me a little bit about your, where you grew up and where you went to school.

MM: My parents were immigrants. They came here in 1960 from Ireland (Dublin). I was the first of my brothers to be born here, and we grew up on 24th and Kilbourn, baptized over at St. Rose, so I was always kind of a West Side kid. And my parents migrated from there to 55th and Wright Street, and then further northwest. So we always grew up on the West Side, and I have a pretty big Irish Catholic family.

I had three brothers and a sister. Two of my brothers are still here in Milwaukee and one's the vice president at Marquette and the other is an executive for one of the financial firms. My dad was a laborer his whole life, and my parents stressed getting working hard and getting a good education. We were all blessed with great parents, but we were very lucky they chose to come to the United States and even more so to come to this city.

My parents always instilled the sense into us that you've got to give something back. And so, every one of us volunteers or do something that is keeping in my parents' memory of what they (believed) ... you owe a lot to this country. People just don't realize the opportunities that are available when you're born here and you live here. When you travel around other places around the world, -- my daughter's adopted from China -- and you see a lot of real poverty ... For all the problems the United States has we still -- and I say this greatly and I know it's maybe a little sappy -- but the reality is we have a great country.

And we have great challenges but wonderful opportunities for our people to take advantage of. All five of us graduated UWM, and so we love our city.

OMC: I want to circle back to Downtown. I want to hear your thoughts about the arena discussion and what, what you think.

MM: Yeah, perfect timing, because I'm meeting with the owner tomorrow.

You know, they have a very impressive timeline. They said they want to their groundbreaking in May. You know, there's no big surprises here; 65 percent of the public has said, no way, over their dead bodies, do they want any new taxes using for this arena, so ...

OMC: People want things, but they don't want to pay for them.

MM: Right, I think it's partially due to the campaigns you see now, where they spend millions of dollars saying no new taxes, I don't want to pay any taxes. We've lost a little bit about the collective good of our society, and that's a really dangerous thing that's happening as we mistrust and distrust our government and (think) that somehow government's bad all the time. Many people rely upon government for many reasons.

OMC: I think what we forget is that those of us who don't rely on it for certain things forget that we rely on it for other things. We've all determined that the things we rely on it for are okay.

MM: Right.

OMC: And the things that other people rely on it for are not.

MM: Oh, yeah. It's all become self-interest. It's pervasive now. So even with larger employers, you know, they want the taxes they pay used for their interest, and not to be used for anything else, like schools or anything else.

And that's a dangerous trend. When President Kennedy said, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country -- that attitude is gone based on what I've seen in the last few years, and I'm trying to tell people, trying to help change people's attitudes on that. But, the reality is, it is a big challenge.

So, as we work towards finding a fair solution, I've made it very clear to them, I have an open door, and I will work with you to try and find a solution that is respectful for all parties. They are going to (make) a pretty significant contribution, right up the front, it's $200 million. That's not insignificant contribution. Finding what else we can do after that is going to be the challenge for all of us. But I don't think it's insurmountable, but I do think it's going to be difficult with the political climate we're in right now.

OMC: Do you have a preference for where it would be built?

MM: I'm more concerned about keeping as much land around it that would be taxable. I'm not tied in to one location, per se. I see the argument why they want to be closer to Wisconsin Avenue to bring more attention to Wisconsin Avenue, rather than break up and have two or three different downtowns. You know what I mean?

But I want to maximize the economic tax base. So, whatever that location is, and if I can maximize the taxes in terms of the ... when I mean taxes, I mean development. For new jobs ...

OMC: Residential, commercial.

MM: Yeah. I want to see commercial development. I want to see office development. I want to see something that is a three- or four- or five-times multiplier of the investment for that function. I want to see that spread of the wealth going around; creating jobs for other people in our city, whether it be construction or long-term permanent jobs. I think those are the things I'm more concerned about.

OMC: Is this an opportunity for Downtown to kind of connect some of those already existing districts?

MM: Mm-hmm. Yeah, and they think transportation will be a big issue -- connections -- but I think, in addition to this, you have the Wisconsin Center District looking at expansion, too. So, you know, you're literally talking potentially between that, maybe a new hotel, other development on Wisconsin Avenue, over a billion dollars in potential investment in the next two years. That's a huge amount of money.

A lot depends on a lot of dominoes falling in the right place.

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.