Milwaukee’s Reluctant Mayor Fails to Surprise

By Brian Fraley
A MacIver Perspective

When Palermo’s announced they were going to build a new production facility in the Menomonee Valley in 2005, Tom Barrett actually made the announcement. They were to be the first major employer to locate operations in the previously blighted corridor and the move put Milwaukee, and its Mayor, in the best possible light.

Yet, when Palermo’s was targeted by a notorious lefty activist group seven years later, Barrett was nowhere to be found.

Barrett’s lack of public support for Palermo’s should hardly have come as a surprise.

It would have been out of character for him to do, well, anything.

For background on the strife at Palermo’s, see Voces de la Frontera butts heads with Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

With a series of public, and it turns out baseless, allegations made against a major employer in his city, Barrett waited until the NLRB sided with the employer before offering a statement that said, well, nothing: Mayor Barrett calls for Palermo Villa union election.

He offered a weak tribute to the company, but made it seem like he was taking a hard line by calling on them to hold a union certification vote–something the company had agreed to long ago. Then Barrett explained that the activist group, which was entirely in the wrong on the matter, worked hard and was passionate (as if Barrett were an expert at either hard work or passion).

Finally commenting on this very public controversy that pitted a company he once lauded vs. a coalition of Big Labor and identity politics provocateurs was the least he could do.

And when it comes to Milwaukee’s mayor, we have come to expect no more than the least he can do.

Tom Barrett is not a caretaker mayor. If he worked hard, perhaps he could achieve as much. Caretakers at least keep things from getting worse. Barrett is merely a placeholder.

Grand Avenue Mall. The Park East. Northridge. His city is scattered with depressing reminders of his short attention span and lack of will. Not to mention the tens of thousand of kids who are ill served by Milwaukee Public Schools and, unemployed even if they manage to graduate, live in some of the worst neighborhoods in America. For three minutes several years ago Barrett made a show about pushing to reform his city’s abysmal schools. But then…nothing. Heaven forbid he upset the powerful Milwaukee teachers’ union.

But he has shown instances that were out of character.

Anyone who watched Barrett travel the country at a moment’s notice to flack for the President during the last several months was struck by Barrett’s sudden passion for action. When he really wants something, like, perhaps a presidential appointment, Barrett can show passion and work hard. Who knew?

The reality is Tom Barrett will go down in history as the nice guy who didn’t do anything. That white guy who served between Marvin Pratt and WIllie Hines.That’s it.

For someone who displayed a tremendous amount of personal courage in the face of real danger when he intervened in a fight near State Fair Park, Barrett has displayed zero political courage during his long and undistinguished career in Madison, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee.

I heard someone once say Mayor Barrett was passive aggressive. I think they were half right. Hell, in the Palermo’s situation he managed to make Chris Abele look like a decisive leader.

In July, as the harassment of an upstanding Milwaukee employer was reaching its peak, County Executive Abele penned an op-ed wherein he wrote:

Suffice it to say, Palermo is a pretty generous employer. Its wages are competitive; benefits (including health, dental and vision) start after 90 days; the company provides a 3% contribution to a 401(k), even without an employee match; 100% employer-paid short- and long-term disability coverage; 80 hours paid time off; and an employee assistance program. On top of that, it offers a scholarship program that has awarded over $100,000 to employees’ children for high school and college. And, of course, there’s free pizza every day.

Then there are the dozens of organizations around Milwaukee that are supported by Palermo. From the Milwaukee County Zoo and Milwaukee County parks to the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and the United Community Center, Palermo’s support is not hard to see.

Sadly, during the news coverage of these protests, those facts and many others have been ignored. Instead, people have focused on allegations that are questionable at best and outright lies at worst.

Tom Barrett, in contrast, made no such public statement of support for one of his community’s most respected job providers. Not in July. Not in August. Not in September. Not in October.

Perhaps the mayor, fresh off the recent recall election that made him a three time loser for statewide office, was still licking his wounds this summer. Or perhaps he was too busy shilling for President Obama to worry about a growing labor dispute back home. However, I’m inclined to think that, much like his short-lived support for education reform, he demurred as to not anger his Big Labor backers.

Only after the presidential election and the NLRB ruling did Barrett do his version of ‘stepping up.’

Russ Feingold, Scott Walker and Barack Obama all campaigned under the motto: Forward.

If Barrett had one, it would be: Reluctance.

I was born in Milwaukee. For the third time in my career, I work here. I know that Wisconsin’s fate is tied to that of its largest city.

By now it should be clear to all that if Milwaukee is to rebound, hell if it wants to avoid becoming Detroit, it will not be because of leadership from local politicians like Barrett. Rather, it will be the result of the commitment of companies like Palermo’s and leaders like Palermo’s CEO Giacomo Falluca.

From Falluca we saw no grandstanding. The company dealt with the recent union-backed turmoil head on, but without the hyperbole and threats we saw coming from Barrett’s Big Labor allies and their ‘community activist’ front group.

Palermo’s makes a great product. They are outstanding corporate citizens. They treat their employees exceptionally well. They are the pride of Milwaukee and deserve better from the City.

While Barrett’s apathy has become the norm, what’s actually surprising is that companies like Palermo’s bother to stay committed to Milwaukee despite the lack of support from City Hall.

At this point, let’s hope President Obama rewards Tom Barrett for his loyalty. Because thanks to the Big Labor machine to which he is beholden, Barrett is mayor for as long as he desires.

How can Milwaukee hope to stop its decline when the paralysis fueled by interest group politics trumps economic development and civic duty?

Don’t ask the mayor that question. It may be awhile before you get an answer. Developing and delivering such a message would take passion. And hard work.

Brian Fraley, the managing editor of RightWisconsin, is a Senior Fellow at the MacIver Institute.