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Politics & Government

Milwaukee Common Council Members Face Old Challenges in New Term

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Alderman Ashanti Hamilton / Facebook
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New Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton

Milwaukee's City Hall has a few fresh faces. Three new Common Council members took the oath of office Tuesday, beginning four-year terms. Members unanimously chose a new president, Ashanti Hamilton, who represents the city's far north side.

Hamilton succeeds Ald. Michael Murphy, who held the leadership post for two years.

Council members say they're embarking on a new beginning. Yet they're facing some old challenges.

Tuesday's meeting was, in large part, about ceremony and celebration. Potted flowers adorned each desk, while members sported corsages and boutonnieres. And family members crammed around their loved ones on the Common Council floor.

Each alderman had the chance to give a short speech. Many focused on gratitude for the people who helped them get elected. But Ald. Terry Witkowski supplied a reality check.

"For our three new members, welcome to the family here, where you now get to figure out how to do more with less, or less with less," Witkowski said.

The far south side alderman told colleagues that money has increasingly become tight since he first took office 13 years ago.

"The State of Wisconsin decided they were going to cap taxes forever in Milwaukee, so we still live under a tax cap here. State shared revenue got frozen, we have made do. In (Mayor) Henry Meier's day, we had 11,000 employees, today we have under 7,000. Today, in order to add people we have to cut people. We have to cut services," Witkowski said.

Even so, Witkowski said the city is moving forward. He cited downtown development as one area of growth. Yet he also pointed to major challenges, including poverty and unemployment. New Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton echoed Witkowski's concerns about poverty and jobs. And Hamilton added a couple, including high incarceration rates and racial disparities in education. Hamilton urged colleagues to push aside ideological differences and work together to solve those problems.

"Don't let this body be the cesspool of division that we see on every other level," Hamilton said.

Hamilton said some of his colleagues are already showing new signs of working together. He mentioned members on the near south side -- which once was mainly white -- and on the near north side, which is largely African American. Hamilton also referenced the viaduct that spans, and historically divided, those two sections of the city.

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Credit CHANTIA LEWIS
Milwaukee Alderwoman Chantia Lewis

"That bridge -- that they called the longest bridge in the world because it separated two cultures that could not even fathom working together on any issue -- that bridge doesn't have to be that long," Hamilton said.

Hamilton gave a special welcome to the three newest members. He pointed out that Chantia Lewis is now the second alderwoman. In recent history, MileleCoggs was the only one. Lewis told colleagues she's eager to take the plunge.

"We've got a lot of healing that needs to happen and so I'm going to be leaning on each and every one of you to make sure that it happens, because the city is looking to us, so let's get to work," Lewis said.

Lewis defeated incumbent Robert Puente to get the job. The other new members, Chevy Johnson and Khalif Rainey, were elected to fill open seats.

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