By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published Mar 09, 2004 at 5:14 AM

{image1} Marvin Pratt was busy "running the city" during the noon hour Monday.

Apparently the acting mayor, and a candidate for the job long range, was too busy to take the time to join a forum on the economic future of the city and the region. The forum included three of the top names on the ballot next month: his opponent, Tom Barrett, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and county executive challenger David Riemer.

Some audience members took it as an indication he's tiring of directly engaging his increasingly aggressive opponent. The calendar between now and April 6 is full of forums, and there's talk hizzoner might be better off running a Rose Garden campaign than allowing direct comparisons.

Any criticism of Pratt's absence Monday might be taken as gratuitous, since two Web sites I write for -- and -- helped organize the event at the Hyatt Hotel. But a slew of important Milwaukee groups were involved: the Milwaukee Wisconsin Innovation Network chapter plus UW-Milwaukee, MMAC and the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors. Members of those influential groups could be miffed at Pratt's absence.

The circumstances of Pratt's absence were a bit uncertain. First it was a schedule conflict. Then it was because he double-booked. Finally, a Pratt aide maintained after the forum that he had cancelled from the event two weeks ago. But organizers said they didn't find out he would be a no-show until Monday morning. And at least one Pratt adviser said close to the start of the forum that it was possible the mayor would show up late. He didn't.

In fairness, there are many candidate forums. It is inevitable that any one candidate will not be able to make them all. But the varying reports on why he missed Monday's event raises some legitimate questions about his organization.

Missing the event also could prove costly for a couple other reasons. First, it gave Barrett an opening. He referred twice to the fact "I'm here" while Pratt was not.

Barrett didn't over-exploit the situation, but in a brief interview after the event he did say "that's twice in two weeks. I'm a little perplexed." So, while showing taste, Barrett also raised a question about Pratt's willingness to debate directly about the city's future.

The topic also was a very important one for Milwaukee. Walker, Riemer and Barrett all referred to a recent Wisconsin Policy Research Institute report that indicated Milwaukee has dramatically slipped economically in the last three decades.

That report urgently called on the next mayor of Milwaukee to make necessary changes for an economic turnaround. By being MIA, Pratt might have sent a message to some in this business-oriented audience that he does not share that sense of urgency.

Barrett played off this point by saying that the people in the city were ready for those changes, but he questioned whether "city hall is ready." It allowed Barrett to strengthen his position as an outside reformer while portraying Pratt as part of the same city hall that keeps engaging in "business as usual" while Rome burns - or Milwaukee sinks into economic oblivion.

It allowed Barrett to make a call for bold, aggressive leadership and for taking a stand. "I learned a long time ago that the longer you sit on the fence the more the pickets hurt," he said in perhaps the best line of the forum.

The audience members also represented the very demographics that could lead a turnaround in the community's economy. These were entrepreneurs, high-tech people, the very "creative class" of people the WPRI report and others say Milwaukee needs to move from the old to new economy.

In all honesty, Barrett, Walker and Riemer didn't come up with anything earth-shaking that will immediately turn the economy around. There were what by now have become familiar calls for cooperation among the county, city and private sectors. All three candidates have their ideas on how more venture capital can be attracted into the city. Of course, there were the calls for lowering taxes, to avoid chasing businesses elsewhere.

Pratt already has put forth economic development ideas in other forums. He will have other chances between now and April.

So it remains to be seen if Pratt's MIA move on Monday influences anybody to vote differently, or just ends up a short blip on a very long campaign screen.

But it sure seems like a missed opportunity by a man who is in a very tight race for mayor.

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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.