“I wish you wouldn’t hold back,” Mike Gousha told former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist at the end of an hour-long “On the Issues” conversation at Eckstein Hall on Feb. 5. That got a big laugh from the audience of about 200 because Norquist held back little in giving zinger-filled opinions on a range of subjects.
In nearly four terms as mayor, from 1988 through 2003, Norquist was known for speaking his mind. If anything, he is even more willing to speak out now that he’s a decade removed from that office. A few examples from his session with Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy:
On Waukesha’s request to get access to Lake Michigan for its water supply: Given the way some Waukesha officials have treated issues of importance to the City of Milwaukee, Norquist said, “If I were one of the elected officials, I’d be tempted to say, ‘you want our water, that’s too bad, you can dry up and blow away.’ ”
On the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, which Norquist has long-criticized for encouraging too much freeway construction and urban sprawl: He said he has dealt with regional planning bodies across the United States and SEWRPC “is the worst of any of them in the country. . . . They’ve been awful. I think they’ve done a lot of damage.” Abolishing SEWRPC would help increase regional cooperation, he said.
On action by Waukesha County officials years ago that blocked a light rail system from being built in Milwaukee: Norquist said the Waukesha County Board voted 16-9 to allow the project to go ahead, “which was a courageous vote.” But then-County Executive Dan Finley, “to his eternal discredit,” vetoed the resolution. “That was awful that he did that,“ Norquist said.
On polarization between the city and the suburbs: “If you’re the mayor of Milwaukee and the City Council of Milwaukee, you have to defend the interests of the city of Milwaukee. “ Norquist said he didn’t think he made the polarization worse and cooperated with some suburbs on specific issues. But, he said, “I think it would be a mistake for the city elected officials to think it’s really, really important to be liked by SEWRPC or someone like that.”
On the attitudes of some suburban officials toward Milwaukee: “This whole Republican suburban political thing, particularly among legislators, is this sort of racially-tinged, anti-Milwaukee attitude which is relieved temporarily when they show up at a school choice press conference.”
On congestion in urban areas: “Congestion is a little like cholesterol.” He said there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. “If you don’t have any cholesterol, you’re dead.” Congestion in urban areas is sometimes a product of having the kind of mixed-use neighborhoods that are attractive, vibrant places to live and work. One of the things not among the problems of Detroit, he said, is congestion because it built a lot of freeways and people left.
On tearing down freeways, including the Park East spur that was removed more than a decade ago: If anything, Norquist said, Milwaukee hasn’t torn down enough freeways. The problem with the Park East land, much of which is still vacant, is that Milwaukee County controlled a lot of it and put too many restrictions on potential buyers. Land and buildings near the Park East land have generally done quite well, he said.
On gentrification: Norquist generally dismissed criticism that “gentrifying” neighborhoods harms low-income and minority residents who lived there before the prices of homes and the cost of living rose. Milwaukee does not have gentrification problems, he said, and only a handful of spots in the country do. “It’s been one of those issues that in a lot of contexts is phony.” Some of the most fashionable neighborhoods in the country, such as Greenwich Village in New York, are highly congested, he said, because people want to be there.
On trends that have seen many urban neighborhoods revived in recent years: “It’s more of a return to the norm” of American living, he said. It was government policies in the post-World War Ii era that led to decline in urban life by promoting freeways, automobiles, and federally subsidized mortgages for homes in suburban areas. He said young people have discovered that “they really like urban living.”
Norquist generally spoke positively about how things are going in Milwaukee now and the work of Mayor Tom Barrett and the Milwaukee Common Council.
Since resigning as mayor, Norquist, now 64, has lived in Chicago, where he has been president and CEO of a non-profit organization, the Congress for the New Urbanism. He announced recently that he would retire this summer from that position. He told Gousha he intends to write a book and do some teaching.
Video of the session can be viewed by clicking here.