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Lessons On Service from Four Milwaukee Common Council Presidents

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Leadership in Milwaukee - at one level - has been pretty consistent for a long time. Since 1948, the city of Milwaukee has had only five mayors.

Four of them - Frank Zeidler, Henry Maier, John Norquist, and Tom Barrett - have spent nearly 70 years in office.

There has been much more turnover on the Common Council - and the presidency of the Council.  One person who has experienced both is Marvin Pratt, who served as mayor in the four months between John Norquist’s resignation and Tom Barrett’s election, and was common council president from 2000-2004.

"I went in, saying it’s going to make a difference," recalls Pratt. "I remember a distant relative of mine, saying, 'Oh, Marvin - it probably won’t make a difference,' the night of my election.  And I said, 'Boy...'."

Pratt says he was motivated to run after seeing so many vacant boarded up houses never changing in Milwaukee neighborhoods. The city was divided and the city workforce and federal departments didn't represent Milwaukee's population.

"You would go to certain departments in city government, probably there's still a few, that you didn't see any minorities or women in those positions. So that was my focus and push, but in doing so trying to remain fair and equitable to everybody there."

Pratt is the only African-American to serve as mayor here, but he and three other African American Common Council Presidents - Ben Johnson, Willie Hines, and current president Ashanti Hamilton - will all be part of a panel conversation Thursday organized by the organization Near West Side Partners. 

"That resonated with me - five decades that these men have sacrificed and tried to make our community better. And they're all alive and doing well...I said, 'I gotta get them in a room together' just to talk, to pick their brain," says Near West Side Partners executive director Keith Stanley.