By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published Mar 16, 2004 at 5:08 AM

{image1}Just one week ago, Marvin Pratt's biggest problem seemed to be that he missed a forum on the region's economic future. What a difference a week can make.

At that Hyatt Hotel luncheon, Pratt's opponent for mayor, Tom Barrett, mentioned a 2000 party Pratt threw for the city finance committee after the Common Council had raised taxes. That party, which cost a little more than $600, was on the taxpayers' dime. Barrett's campaign took out a commercial criticizing the party and other Pratt-supported fees later in the week.

Pratt countered that by saying the parties were a tradition after a city budget was passed, and that he would end the practice. But Pratt's problems were only beginning.

A report surfaced that Pratt knew he should not have been at a polling place on primary election day. A police report, said earlier to not exist, turned up.

Then, another report surfaced that a discrepancy of around $116,000 existed in Pratt's campaign coffers. That led Barrett to call for a full disclosure by Pratt of his records. Pratt ordered up an internal audit and said the campaign owed him, not the other way around.

But questions abound. Authorities are looking into the bookkeeping of the Pratt campaign. And now a John Doe probe has begun.

In one week, Pratt's campaign has virtually unraveled and seems in free fall. Only Howard Dean might rival Pratt's rapid decline, after he did his comical cheerleading act in Iowa.

In fairness, at this point, we still do not know if Pratt has done anything unethical or illegal. But even if he is clean, this series of negative things raises some real questions about the competency of his campaign staff, and about the candidate himself.

It certainly has allowed Barrett to strengthen his position as the City Hall outsider who can bring integrity back to city government while portraying Pratt as an insider who has been part of the problem.

Some Pratt supporters have fallen back on a couple excuses -- first that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is treating him unfairly because it has already endorsed Barrett, and second that he is being put under a microscope because he is African American.

These are not valid. First, every media outlet has reported on these stories. Media would be just as quick to report any such discrepancies in Barrett's records.

Second, it is extremely unfortunate that Pratt joins a list of recent high-profile African-American candidates who have been involved in campaign controversies. First came Gary George's signatures controversy when he was running for governor in 2002. It led to his eventual removal from the ballot.

Then Sheriff David Clarke, one of Pratt's opponents in the primary, also had a controversy over the number of signatures on his nomination papers. He survived, but was definitely hurt by the incident.

Now Pratt finds himself struggling with these controversies. There is no denying that several national studies have found that African-American candidates and officials often are scrutinized by the media more intensely than white candidates and officials. It's part of the institutional racism that still exists in our society.

But the controversies of the last week merited reporting no matter what the race of the candidate involved. Pratt should have known he would have to be squeaky clean on his financial reports since - as Council president -- he was part of developing new rules for reporting and record-keeping after aldermen Paul Henningsen and Jeff Pawlinski, both of whom are white, were indicted and convicted for misusing campaign finances.

Just a week ago, Pratt seemed to be in the middle of a campaign on the issues with Barrett. He had seemed to energize the African-American voters in town. Now he faces a major loss of credibility among voters of all backgrounds. What a difference a week can make.

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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.