By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published Feb 24, 2004 at 5:19 AM

{image1}Marvin Pratt and Tom Barrett have an historic opportunity.

We're not talking about just being elected mayor here, although that obviously is the main goal of both candidates in April.

Pratt and Barrett can make even a bigger contribution to this community by the way they run their campaigns -- especially on the race issue.

Milwaukee has long suffered from a racial divide. Some politicians choose to ignore it. Others have put spin on the issue, saying it was a stereotype and the problem wasn't that bad. Yet others have exploited it for political gain.

There's no ignoring that the divide played a role in last week's primary, with Pratt, an African American, drawing some 85 percent of the votes from that demographic group, according to an exit poll. The vote in April also can be expected to split in part by race.

But Pratt and Barrett can make sure that understandable split in how the votes are cast does not further divide the community in other ways. Both can appeal to their constituencies without making race a divisive issue that hurts the community in the long run.

This does not mean they should not address the racial gap in jobs, education and other areas. This does not mean they should ignore the differences in their constituencies. They simply should not exploit them in a divisive way to get votes.

That means keeping their rhetoric civil and focusing on the issues. That means campaigning in all areas of the city and communicating with all groups. That means while recognizing the differences between people in the city they should emphasize that they also have much in common.

Both Pratt and Barrett seem to understand this, and have demonstrated the kind of class in the past to not divide the electorate for votes.

In their first one-on-one encounter, at WTMJ Radio's Insight 2004 last week, Pratt asked Barrett to sign a "clean campaign pledge." Barrett consequently signed a version of such a pledge.

Clean campaigning does not mean a boring race. Pratt and Barrett sparred a bit over the ethical problems in city hall. It is obvious Barrett is going to position himself as an outsider, looking to bring integrity back to city politics.

In doing so, Barrett will point out that Pratt has been part of city government during the ethical problems. But Pratt can counter by saying he has not been personally part of the problems, and has not condoned the wrongdoings.

Can Pratt be held responsible for the sex scandal of former mayor John Norquist and convictions of three aldermen any more than Barrett, a former congressman, can be held responsible for the shenanigans of Bill Clinton and congressional colleagues while he was in Washington?

Such debates will happen, and are good issues for open discussion during the campaign. But, the race of the two candidates should never be made an issue by either of them. In avoiding that, both will make a big contribution to this city, even though only one can win in April.

Media Creations

In this "mediated" world, political candidates can be made and broken by the media. We recently saw two examples of that, on the national and local levels.

Howard Dean caught the fancy of the national media last summer, with his fiery rhetoric and use of the Internet to raise funds and interest. Ultimately, Dean became too fiery, especially for what Marshall McLuhan once called the "cool" medium of TV, and committed political suicide with his tirade in Iowa, the most ludicrous part which TV showed again and again.

In the mayoral race, Sheriff David Clarke also was a creation of the media, primarily of conservative radio talk shows and local TV. Clarke is a nice-looking, charismatic African American who dares to espouse conservative views. Early in the race, he looked to be the main challenger to Barrett.

But Clarke really had little political experience, being appointed to his first term as sheriff and being elected to the office only once. He has limited administrative experience.

This became graphically evident when his campaign almost imploded over the number of signatures on his nomination papers. There sat Clarke, who once smoothly manipulated TV and other media, looking rather perplexed and lost, as the Elections Commission held open meetings on the signatures question.

The conservative talk show hosts continued to hype their champion, but from that signature gaffe on Clarke was in free fall.

In reality, Dean and Clarke lacked substance and experience at the particular political levels they found themselves at. Dean was a governor from a small state trying to make the big jump to the White House. Clarke had run for one office, a rather specialized one at that, and suddenly was trying to say he had the qualifications to run the city.

Media coverage can initially overshadow such deficiencies, but in the end that same attention can expose them.

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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.