Milwaukee Talks: Common Council President Michael Murphy
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.
OnMilwaukee.com: 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 ...
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.
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Caretaker Barrett will not be running for re-election in 2016. You can take that to the bank. My money would be him not even finishing out his term and snagging a cushy federal position via his BFF in the White House. Regardless if that happens or not, he won't want any part of having to campaign in 2016. That'd mean actually having to do something, which is not his strong suit.
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