The Promise

Posted on Categories Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public2 Comments on The Promise

The promise.  It’s long been a staple of political campaigns and it’s easy to understand why.  Candidates need to find a way to connect with voters, to cut through the messaging clutter, and nothing does the trick quite like a simple, direct “this is what I’m going to do” statement.  The promise, after all, is about much more than words.  It reflects a candidate’s vision and confidence.  I mean, who wants to vote for someone who’s not-so-sure what the future holds?  We want our candidates to be bold, decisive, and optimistic.

There’s just one danger.  What if a candidate gets elected and fails to deliver on a promise or falls short of it?  Is a broken promise fatal or do voters today see the promise as a different animal: more a statement of goals and aspirations rather than a contract with (as we say in television) no “outs”?

They’re questions worth asking, because in Wisconsin’s 2014 race for governor, a promise will almost certainly be front and center.  It’s the one Governor Scott Walker made in February of 2010, when he said Wisconsin would create 250,000 new private sector jobs in his first term in office (fewer Wisconsinites are likely to remember Democratic candidate Tom Barrett’s goal of creating 180,000 new jobs).  Then-candidate Walker based his pledge on numbers that had been achieved by former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson in his first four years, and he repeated it again and again to voters and media around the state.  When Walker appeared on my “UpFront” television show in late February, I asked him, “Is this a campaign promise?  Something you want to be held to?” Walker didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely,” he replied.  “To me, 250,000 is a minimum.  Just a base.” Continue reading “The Promise”

Milwaukee: The $5,000 House and Other Thoughts

Posted on Categories Milwaukee, Public4 Comments on Milwaukee: The $5,000 House and Other Thoughts

I was having lunch the other day with someone who works in city government, and we were talking about the serious foreclosure problem in Milwaukee. He was lamenting the fact that in some of the poorest sections of the city, the housing market is fundamentally broken. Homes, now owned by the city, can be purchased for as little as $5,000 and yet they still aren’t selling. If you want some sobering evidence of the magnitude of the nation’s housing market collapse and the impact of the Great Recession, check out the listings. They’re stunning, really.

Mayor Tom Barrett estimates the foreclosure crisis has cost Milwaukee $5 billion dollars in assessed value. The city has tried to get a handle on the problem, but it persists, eating away at once-stable neighborhoods. In 2008, the mayor launched the Milwaukee Foreclosure Partnership Initiative, which tries to prevent foreclosures and stabilize neighborhoods.  There’s a branch of city government that directly addresses housing issues. And last week, the mayor announced he would be committing another $2.3 million to address the foreclosure problem. As part of that initiative, scores of empty homes will be torn down because they’re a blight on city neighborhoods. As a longtime Milwaukee resident, I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say the specter of Detroit came to mind when I heard the news.

But the next Detroit is hardly the image thousands of newcomers have of my hometown. After losing 20 per cent of its population from 1960-2000, Milwaukee is growing again. It’s not a population explosion, but it’s growth. Recent census numbers show that from 2010 to 2012, the city added 4,000 residents. What’s most interesting is who’s choosing to live in Milwaukee. Reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (part of a collaboration with Marquette Law School) found that in the last decade, there has been a migration of young people to the city. Many are college graduates. They live downtown, on the city’s east side, and in “hot” neighborhoods like the Third Ward, Walker’s Point, Bay View, Brewers’ Hill and Washington Heights. Their presence has brought a new energy and economic vitality to parts of Milwaukee, with restaurants and shops racing to meet the demands of younger consumers. These newcomers are helping fuel a change in Milwaukee’s risk-averse entrepreneurial culture, and have created a dynamic arts and entertainment scene. Their arrival is also welcome news to established Fortune 500 companies like Northwestern Mutual, which is planning a new skyscraper for its downtown campus, along with hundreds of news jobs. Continue reading “Milwaukee: The $5,000 House and Other Thoughts”

That’s the Way It Was — and Is

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When I was studying journalism at UW-Madison, we would sometimes end our day at Vilas Hall by grabbing a cold one at a nearby tavern on University Avenue. Bob and Gene’s is no longer there, but a particular memory remains. One of the television sets at the bar was tuned each night to the CBS Evening News, and when anchorman Walter Cronkite came on the air, the place got quiet and remained that way until Cronkite’s signature standoff: “and that’s the way it is.” On the heels of Watergate and a long war that threatened to tear the nation apart, there was a sense that we had witnessed history.

We witnessed history again in Wisconsin last year, and this time it threatened to tear the state apart. One year ago—June 5—Wisconsin went to the polls in the recall election for Governor. The protests of 2011 had been replaced by a political movement aimed at ousting Governor Scott Walker from office. It was an election that divided not just Republicans and Democrats, but friends and families, some of whom simply stopped talking about politics rather than run the risk of a nasty argument. Bitter and contentious, there was little middle ground. In the waning days of the race between Governor Scott Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (a rematch of 2010), the Law School found itself in the middle of the fray. We released our final Marquette Law School Poll of the election cycle, showing Governor Walker leading by seven points (ultimately, his margin of victory). The Law School also played host to the final debate of the campaign. As I moderated the event, I was struck not only by the sharpness of the exchanges between Barrett and Walker, but how the evening had a certain rhythm to it, each candidate giving as good as he got. The two men knew each other well. They had done this several times before, and their familiarity along with their fundamentally different visions for the state produced an hour of compelling conversation. But I also remember the overwhelming silence in a packed Eckstein Hall when both Barrett and Walker would briefly pause to collect their thoughts. Intense doesn’t begin to describe it.

When Election Day was over, Scott Walker had won. Again. And life went on in Wisconsin. So what has happened in the year since the historic recall? In some ways, the debate seems remarkably familiar. We’re still arguing over jobs numbers and the performance of the state’s economy. According to our latest Law School poll, the Governor’s job approval rating remains about the same, slightly more positive than negative. But one fact is beyond dispute: Wisconsin continues to undergo a rapid and fundamental transformation, one that could change its future course for not only years, but decades. With Republicans in control in Madison, the state is quickly moving away from its progressive past, plotting a future built on a philosophy of lower taxes, less government assistance, fewer regulations, and more school choice. Election laws are also likely to change in ways that could benefit Republican candidates. For now, Democrats can do little but watch and wait for 2014, the next major election cycle. And yet, in many respects, Wisconsin is still a purple state, neither red nor blue, as evidenced by the victories of Democrats Barack Obama and Tammy Baldwin in November.

About 18 months ago, Businessweek referred to us as the “republic of political unhappiness.” We may not be in the primal scream stage anymore. But our deep divisions remain, and it’s still probably not a good idea to talk politics at a family picnic. That’s the way it is in Wisconsin, one year after the recall.


The Mayor and His Map

Posted on Categories Milwaukee, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public2 Comments on The Mayor and His Map

The next time you see Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, ask him about his map. It’s the Mayor’s latest weapon in his battle to stop the state from eliminating residency requirements for municipal employees in Wisconsin. More than 120 municipalities have rules spelling out where their employees can live. But Governor Walker wants to change that. He says residency requirements are unnecessary and outdated, even counter-productive, and he has included language in his state budget that would end them.

Mayor Barrett says the Governor’s proposal doesn’t belong in the budget, since it’s not a fiscal item. But Barrett’s concerns go much deeper. In a recent e-mail to supporters, Barrett said an end to the city’s 75-year-old residency requirement could “destabilize” Milwaukee. I pressed the Mayor on that claim in a recent television interview. He said philosophically he agrees with the notion that people should be able to live where they want, but that local municipalities should be able to determine the conditions of employment for the people they hire. In Barrett’s world, that translates into a simple reality. If you don’t want to live in Milwaukee, don’t apply for a job with the city. He said there’s been no shortage of applicants.

Perhaps more important, Barrett said the value of assessed property in Milwaukee had fallen five billion dollars because of the economic downturn. He argued that based on experiences in other cities, such as Detroit, Minneapolis, Baltimore, and Cleveland, significant numbers of city employees were likely to leave the city should the residency requirement be lifted. Barrett was making the case that there was great risk to his city, and he wanted to show me a map he carried with him into the television studio. You can see it here. Because of the amount of data in the file, it takes about 10-15 seconds to present itself.

The map shows the gravity of Milwaukee’s foreclosure crisis. Foreclosed properties are in red. As of last week, there were nearly 2600. Blue represents where the more than 7,000 city employees live. Besides helping stabilize struggling sections of Milwaukee, city employees are the backbone of a number of healthy, middle-class neighborhoods, including Bay View and the southwest, far south, and far west sides. These neighborhoods are home to hundreds of police officers and firefighters. But what happens if, as the Mayor believes, 40 to 50 per cent of those blue dots—city employees—move outside the city? Will there be a dramatic downward pressure on property values?

The Mayor contends the end of residency was a promise Governor Walker made to the Milwaukee police and firefighters unions in an effort to gain their support during his bid for Governor. Walker argues that personal freedom should trump conditions of employment, and that at the end of the day, it’s up to the city to become a more attractive place to live. Neither man knows exactly what will happen should the requirement be eliminated. Nor do they know what Mayor Barrett’s map will look like 10 years from now. But if Barrett is right, it will be a lot less blue, and Milwaukee could be a very different city.


Metro Milwaukee Is Doing Better Than a Lot of Residents Think

Posted on Categories Marquette Law School, Milwaukee, Public, Speakers at MarquetteLeave a comment» on Metro Milwaukee Is Doing Better Than a Lot of Residents Think

A couple of years ago, I was talking with one of the boosters of the effort to brand the Milwaukee area as a global water technology hub. He told me the biggest challenge the initiative would face would be Milwaukee’s inferiority complex, or at least our unwillingness to brag about our assets.

I was reminded of that conversation recently, when the Law School collaborated with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on two major projects. On April 8, we hosted a conference in Eckstein Hall exploring the pros and cons of building a new downtown sports and entertainment facility. Those in attendance heard the president of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce describe how his city had been dramatically transformed by a series of projects that had broad community support. Then, this past Sunday, the newspaper published the first in a four-part series examining the economic future of metropolitan Milwaukee. Called “A Time to Build,” the series was reported by Rick Romell of the Journal Sentinel, under a six-month Law School fellowship established by the Sheldon B. Lubar Fund for Public Policy Research.

As part of that current series on the metro area’s economic prospects, the newspaper created an interactive graphic that allows the reader to compare the nation’s top 50 metropolitan areas. It’s easy to use, and educational, too.

After hearing so much about the Oklahoma City success story, I thought it might be interesting to see how metro Milwaukee stacks up against Oklahoma City in several key categories. It turns out, we do pretty well. We have more college graduates, higher per capita income, and a slightly lower poverty rate. I then added the metropolitan Dallas area to the mix, given Dallas’ reputation as one of the stars of the Sunbelt. Again, the comparison was favorable. Milwaukee and Dallas had remarkably similar numbers in several key indices. The comparative data are available here. Continue reading “Metro Milwaukee Is Doing Better Than a Lot of Residents Think”

Is Governance Reform in the Future for Milwaukee Public Schools?

Posted on Categories Education & Law, Milwaukee, Speakers at Marquette4 Comments on Is Governance Reform in the Future for Milwaukee Public Schools?

There is growing consensus that the Milwaukee Public Schools are at a critical moment in their history.  Faced with daunting fiscal challenges last year, some school board members talked openly about dissolving the district, only to later amend their comments.  It was a symbolic protest, they said, an attempt to draw attention to the district’s dismal financial outlook.  But the horse was out of the barn. The board’s “dissolution discussion” opened the door to new debate about MPS’s future.  An independent review of the district’s fiscal situation, paid for by local foundations, was commissioned and should be made public soon.  Once that happens, Governor Doyle is expected to weigh in on the district’s future course.  What that path will be is still uncertain, but last week, we had a fascinating discussion here at the Law School about the possibility of changing the way MPS is governed.

The event was co-sponsored by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, and came on the heels of a study that examined five other districts that had changed their governance.  The study was funded by the GMF and conducted by the Public Policy Forum.  We’ve posted a transcript of the event, which featured MPS Superintendent Bill Andrekopoulos, former Superintendent and Distinguished Professor of Education at Marquette University Howard Fuller, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy, Milwaukee School Board Director Jennifer Morales, State Representative Polly Williams, Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association President Dennis Oulahan, and Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines.

You can always listen to the webcast of our event, but the evening had a revealing dynamic to it that makes for equally interesting reading. Continue reading “Is Governance Reform in the Future for Milwaukee Public Schools?”

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