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Former Mayor Tom Barrett’s tenure guided Milwaukee through major crises, but problems remain

Michael Sears
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tom Barett

After nearly two decades in office, Tom Barrett is no longer the mayor of Milwaukee. Barrett resigned last month after the U.S. Senate confirmed his new position as the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg.

At the time of his resignation, former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was the longest-serving mayor among major U.S. cities. His lengthy tenure speaks to his popularity among Milwaukee voters.

"Being a mayor is probably the only elected role where people can say what that person does," says Mordecai Lee a professor emeritus at UW-Milwaukee. "[It is a role that] touches me in my daily life, and I can make an evaluation, whether I want to vote for him or her to reelect them, based on my personal experience."

Lee is uniquely qualified to talk about former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Before his time at UWM, Lee was both a representative in the Wisconsin State Assembly and a Wisconsin State Senator, and in each case, he was replaced by Tom Barrett.

Barrett began his political career as a state representative, then a state senator, and a U.S. representative before becoming mayor of Milwaukee in 2004.

"He was very good giving speeches and addresses. He was very good at doing radio interviews," says Lee. "Those are skills that I think, if you add them up one at a time, are an indication of why he was such a successful mayor."

From Lee's perspective, Tom Barrett's legacy helped keep Milwaukee from being a failed city at a time when many Rust Belt cities were struggling. Unlike his predecessors, Lee says Barrett was an omnibus mayor. He cared not only about how the city looked but also advocated for issues like education.

Lee speculates that Barrett will most likely be remembered for his empathic response to COIVD-19 and the new trolly that survived conservative attacks. But he believes there's still work to be done in Milwaukee.

"We have problems with race. We have problems with violence and crime. We have problems with the quality of education and job opportunities. That is sort of the basket of the problems that America faces for cities to be successful," says Lee.

As Milwaukee the mayor's race begins, you can make your voice heard by telling ListenMKE what's most important to you. Click here to complete the survey: A Citizen's Agenda for the Milwaukee Mayoral Election.

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Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2016.
Kobe Brown is WUWM's Eric Von fellow.
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