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Q&A with Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic (TRANSCRIPT)
Part of our coverage of the race for mayor in Milwaukee. The primary is Feb. 15. If you live in the city, you'd better be voting.
The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
The City of Milwaukee is going to have an election for mayor. On February 15, we'll have a primary that could prove to be the most competitive mayoral primary in a generation.
Here at The Recombobulation Area, we’re going to be covering that election and getting into the issues. As part of that coverage, we are interviewing the candidates. Paid subscribers will be able to listen to full audio of those interviews and read a full transcript of what each candidate had to say.
This is part of our interview series with the candidates for mayor of Milwaukee. Each candidate was asked the same series of questions on topics including local control, the covid-19 pandemic, segregation and racial disparities, economic development, population growth, immigration, transportation and infrastructure, reckless driving and vehicles thefts, public safety, and education. At the end of each interview, we had a “lightning round” with some more lighthearted, Milwaukee-specific questions.
Free subscribers will be able to read many of these answers in stories in the coming days. Paid subscribers will have access to the full interview as a podcast and as a transcript.
Below is a full transcript of The Recombobulation Area’s interview with Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic. Listen to the interview as a podcast here.
Dan Shafer, The Recombobulation Area: Greetings and welcome to The Recombobulation Area. My name is Dan Shafer, the City of Milwaukee is going to have an election for mayor in less than a month on February 15. We'll have a primary that could prove to be the most competitive mayoral primary in a generation. Before we all cast our votes, we're going to be talking to the candidates. There are seven people on the ballot, and it's time for us to get into the issues.
Joining us today is Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, who represents the 14th District on the Milwaukee Common Council. Alderwoman Dimitrijevic. Thank you for joining us.
Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic: Happy to be here.
Dan Shafer: So let's get right into it here. First question, why are you running for mayor?
I'm running for mayor of Milwaukee because I love this city. Born and raised here, went to public schools, my kids are in public schools. And I've had the complete honor to represent my neighborhood since 2004 in elected office. From the County Board, as County Board Chairwoman, and now alderwoman, that elected experience delivering for my neighborhood and the city, I think puts me ahead of the game and gives me the experience and the vision to move our city forward in this really critical time. I offer bold, innovative ideas and progressive values. So I do think I'm the woman for the job, and I'm excited to be part of this conversation.
So one of the biggest issues facing the city, and one that I've written a lot about is local control. The City of Milwaukee is not very far away from being in a very difficult situation with its budget. And that situation is very much tied to the state of Wisconsin, which has shrunk the city's portion of shared revenue and denied options for new revenue sources like a sales tax increase. What would be your big picture strategy for addressing this issue as mayor?
Yes, I feel the same way. Being a local government official for many years, like I mentioned, nearly 18, it's been a constant thing. I mean, when I was on the County Board, I had to deal with Scott Walker there as county executive. And on top of that, it's consistently been an issue that Republicans in Madison think they know best. And they've taken away our local control and many aspects. Even though they say they're the party of local control, they don't let us control our local affairs very often.
But not having our fair share of shared revenue is so problematic. As you mentioned, we have pension challenges, we could face cuts to city services in the next one to three years if we can't figure this out. I'm not asking for anything more than we deserve. But our fair share is reasonable. And that's a problem. If we don't fix that going forward, or have the ability locally to implement something like new revenue options, like a sales tax, or even the full legalization of marijuana – which Tony Evers proposed and could produce new revenue – it's gonna be really hard for Milwaukee to survive and thrive. And we are the economic engine of the state. So we need to do well for the state to do well.
DS: So do you think Milwaukee should raise its sales tax?
Yes, yep. I'm one of the candidates that's really clear about it. I think voters spoke out many years ago. I mean, we'll probably put it – if we're allowed to – to another referendum to see what that amount should be.
But I just kept thinking about all the people across the state and nation that drove into Milwaukee for the great Bucks championship, and may have (driven) right out. Hopefully, they grabbed some food and a beer. And a couple cents on that really could have (gone) a long way. It could have made those roads they drove in and out on smoother. And it can help us solve some of the challenges that we have going forward. I mean, whether it be education or housing, I want the options to raise local revenue, because in light of not getting our fair share, we only have so many options.
So another big issue facing the city, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic. Hard as it is to believe we will soon be entering the third year of this pandemic in America. How would you evaluate the city's response these past two years? And what would be some of your priorities going forward? Obviously, you've been very closely tied to many of these issues in your role on the Common Council.
It's been an honor serving as Chairwoman of Public Safety and Health. And when I asked for that position in my election, I did not think necessarily that this would be dominating the two issues really of our lifetimes and generations of we're all in the same age range here. But you know, police reform and accountability as well as the pandemic. I mean, those are the two things that come to my committee at this time. So it has been quite a moment to be part of.
My number one goal in the pandemic is that families and children can be safe and that children can be in school safely. We've learned that when children can't be in school safely, it hurts already what is a broken economy. I have spoken out consistently as a parent of young children, a three and five year old, I have older step-children, that is the lens that I use. I have a child that cannot be vaccinated by age, not by choice. And we have to make decisions every single day, like many Milwaukeeans, based on analyzing that risk.
I refuse to normalize the spread of disease. I think we have tools to mitigate it. And we should use every single tool possible. Because, I get asked often what would you do on day one, if you're mayor. First of all, it'd be a very long day, I probably wouldn't sleep – good news, as a parent, I barely sleep as it is, so I think I'm down for the game there. But my point is, is that we've gotta get out of the pandemic, we have to get the city off the ropes, and we need to do better. It's a public safety and health concern. The economy is not working when people and parents can't go to work. And I think I've really shown leadership when it comes to paid parental leave, when it comes to policies that help working families, and that's the way that Milwaukee can thrive.
The pandemic isn't the only crisis the city has faced in recent years, Milwaukee declared racism to be a public health crisis in 2019. This is a city that's often referred to as the nation's most segregated and it continues to see some of the worst racial disparities in the country, on economic inequality, on education, mass incarceration, housing, the list goes on. What have you done in your current role to make a positive impact on these issues? And what would you do as mayor to address segregation, and address those racial disparities that we continue to see?
So first and foremost, we declared our slogan to begin with, “We are one.” It should not feel like five or six or seven cities in one. And everyone deserves the absolute same level of safety, peacefulness and city services, no matter where you live. Your ZIP Code certainly shouldn't define what your future is. And it does right now, unfortunately, in Milwaukee and it has. We declared an anti-racist agenda when we announced our campaign. In my platform, which you can view on my website at MarinaforMKE.com, I detail a vision for Milwaukee that really exemplifies progress.
One of the most important things is openly being transparent about our challenges and problems. You're right. I mean, it's one of the worst places for an African American family to live and succeed right now. We've lost population. It's broken. And I often refer to it as a pandemic before the pandemic. And because your last question was about the pandemic, it's not enough to just get out of the pandemic, and say, “Oh, we made it!” Because guess what? Milwaukee wasn't working for folks before the pandemic either. That normal that we want to go back to wasn't good enough for most Milwaukeeans. It's why I'm running. It's why I'm challenging the status quo.
I have a record and one that stands out in this race that's over and over again, fighting for immigrant rights – I have the endorsement of Voces de la Frontera – raising wages, family-supporting initiatives, like I said with paid parental leave. Every moment that I've been confronted with working for the 99%, not just the 1%. I have stood up and led. I've walked picket lines. I have labor endorsements.
And lastly, Dan, on housing. I think housing is one of the most important intersections of racial and economic injustice. And I have a record of providing more and more funding, both at the county and the city, to make sure that every citizen and resident in the City of Milwaukee has access to safe, clean and affordable housing that is setting every family up to succeed.
The Black Lives Matter movement, and the protests we saw in 2020, especially, made a big impact on the city. How do you see it continuing to impact policies and conversations in the city going forward?
Yes, I walked along with the protests that came right through Bay View in my district, when we were out there in the streets, with the George Floyd incident. And you know, it's not enough just to walk and protest and put a sign up. We have to, as legislators, produce policy that makes changes and this next mayor is going to need to really challenge the status quo and like I said, confront racism, segregation, and some challenges within the way that we police our streets.
The mayor has appointments to the Fire and Police Commission, which is one of the most independent citizen-led authorities in the nation. We've already seen a big changeover, but I'm committed to appointing people from the community, people who are committed to a community policing model and building trust. Just recently, they banned chokeholds, which was an important issue. And again, the group Voces de la Frontera that's endorsed me in this race has asked for changes in policies to the standard operating procedures, which really look at when people are pulled over and questions are being asked. These are things that matter. And I mean, as public safety is probably the biggest issue in this race right now, and at the top of everybody's minds, we have to be really careful and considerate about how we use our resources and how we go forward.
I've also committed and co-authored, with Alderwoman Coggs, the largest investment in our Office of Violence Prevention, over $16 million. And we are going to see the largest amount of federal funds coming into Milwaukee – infrastructure bill, Build Back Better, and COVID ARPA American rescue money. So who's leading City Hall in the mayor's office matters. And what is their vision for peace and justice for all? I have come out and said we need to aggressively adopt and implement the Blueprint for Peace. It's a great model to interrupt violence and trauma. And I think that's a good way to move forward.
Switching gears a little bit, I want to talk a bit about the mayor's role in economic development in the city. Mayor Barrett often used TIF districts for big projects. The city often uses grants for various projects. There's obviously many different approaches we've seen over the years. But when you look at the big picture for development, do you want the city to be more proactive about what's going to happen? Or do you prefer more of a hands off approach, letting business or developers make those decisions?
Well, I want to start off with the support that I've received from small businesses in our community. I had a very significant fundraising effort that I'm very proud of that was grassroots, we raised, you know, well over $150,000. And a good chunk of that came from small businesses throughout the city of Milwaukee – many restaurants and bars that we all love, and they're the fabric of our community. So I think small businesses are completely valuable and have been hurt in this pandemic. And it works in a synergy with the large developments. I think, you know, big developments can be a catalyst, but when I look at District 14 in Bayview, that's what makes us a really eclectic, cool community with that mixture of unique development and job creators.
My active streets program, which put parklets in the streets so that small businesses could succeed during the pandemic, I think, was really well received. And it's an example of my bold ideas, to try something new, and to challenge the way we think of public spaces and the way that the government works with businesses. So I have offered an idea to have an Office of Small Business Development to really focus on that. And I think I stand out with that idea and commitment.
And when you ask specifically about economic development tools, we don't have as many as I wish we would. We have micro-grants, even a fund to help small businesses pay for those active street parklet installments that you see in parking spaces. But when it comes to attracting large corporations and headquarters, I'm willing to do what it takes. I'm fine using a TIF if it shows that the return on investment produces for the city. But I want to make sure that we are on the map for headquarters, large developments, anything it takes to help Milwaukee succeed.
What's one development project in the city that would be right on the top of your to do list if you were to become mayor?
Well, what I hear a lot about is questions surrounding the very hyper-focus on downtown. And I know that was a signature move of urbanism and prior mayors, and I do think that downtown is a catalyst. I mean, you've got to have a thriving downtown in the big city. We've seen big cities that don't have that and it's been problematic. But what I offer as mayor is I think we can do both. You can do many things at once. Again, as a mom, I'm used to multitasking. And I think we can do both as a city. I want to see equal investment both in downtown and in all neighborhoods in the city.
It does feel a bit like there's been such a focus downtown that perhaps we haven't used those same tools throughout the city in all neighborhoods. And we know we have many sites. I mean, you know, you look at Century City, you look at housing developments where I think additional academic tools could be helpful, working with the local alder people because some of the ones that have had a challenge have been top down rather than bottom up. And I think we just need to reconsider, be open to all kinds of developments. And really, you know, even think about some of our cultural amenities. Not everything has to be right there on the downtown lakefront. I'm a big believer in it being spread out. I mean, look at the way (Washington) DC has done some of their development. And I think that there's a way to really spread the wealth across the entire city.
The 2020 Census results show that Milwaukee has not been growing from a population standpoint. Do you see that lack of growth as a problem? And what are some of the ways you think the city could reverse that trend?
I do see it as a problem. And I think it's kind of a national issue where people are leaving cities in urban environments. It's the exact opposite direction that I want. I mean, there is kind of a crosstab, if you will, to steal from polling and whatnot, is that we also saw a great increase in growth within our Latino community. I have been a longtime representative, since 2004, of our Latino community. And we actually were challenged with this and recent redistricting work that we did at the city. So, I think there are certainly some challenges, but we’ve got to look at the way that our population is moving and shifting. And that is promising that we see great growth in our Hispanic community, which is so valuable in workers and economic growth and small business development. So, we've got work to do. And I would offer that additional assistance and resources to our Latino community could help change this direction.
We've seen a growth in Hispanic communities, also Asian communities in Milwaukee, as well. Where do you see the mayor having a role on an issue like immigration?
Well, I think one thing people can count on me about is – I've heard different terms; it's interesting, especially how people use the words for a woman – but I am assertive and persistent. And I will inject myself into conversations that, you know, people would say, “oh, Marina, maybe you shouldn't be talking about public schools as much or immigration or what role do you have here?” I have a role in the largest city of the state of Wisconsin. And I've always been a prolific progressive legislator that when I see a problem, I'm going to fix it. And when I see an injustice, I choose to be on the right side of justice. To me, just sitting there and doing nothing is unacceptable. It’s why I've been doing this for a long time and I am very passionate about the work that we do.
When it comes to immigration, I want Milwaukee to be the most welcoming place to all people. Look at our history. See, Milwaukee was built on the backs of immigrants, whether it be from Europe, Germany, or even most recently, all parts of Latin America and South America. My father is an immigrant. My husband is an immigrant. And I just know how hard it is to work to achieve that American dream. And I believe the City of Milwaukee should make it as easy as possible for people to feel welcome.
Another issue I've written a lot about is transportation and infrastructure. I wrote a long series on the proposed expansion and widening of I-94. And in particular wrote about the possibility of tearing down the Stadium Freeway on the west side of town and converting it to a boulevard. That's not going to be part of the project just yet, but state officials did not rule that out as a possibility down the line. What are your thoughts on the future of the Stadium Freeway? Do you think it should be torn down and converted to a boulevard?
Well, let me take a few steps back on just transportation and public infrastructure. I absolutely think that in Mayor Marina’s city, any public transportation any way we can get people out of their cars, and be (less) dependent on fossil fuels and parking, whatever I can do, whether it's scooters or bike lanes, I mean, I had a proposal that I was working on to increase the urban canopy in the American rescue plan dollars to increase bike lanes. I just don't think that the future of American cities, certainly Milwaukee, should be hyper-dependent on cars. I've worked on that in my district, you can see it. Even just us using parking spaces for the parklets in the active streets program is an idea to revolutionize the way we think about spaces and streets.
So I have to say that because if that's a founding frame and value, then it means when I look at issues on a case to case like you're suggesting that anytime we can, you know not I mean, we remember Milwaukee County was sued on our freeway expansion, and because we were putting public funds into that rather than local streets and local transportation. So it's important to me that I'd rather see funding go into public transportation than go into expanding and widening freeways. So the boulevard concept is attractive to to me, and I would want to see the final plan when it comes to me as mayor. But I like that direction, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get people out of their cars.
DS: So your thoughts on the I-94 expansion more broadly?
Again, I'm interested in going in the opposite direction. So, you know, I'm looking at streets, urban scaping, I want more bike lanes, I think of alternatives to expanding the freeway. Scooters, you name it, making it more pedestrian friendly. I'd like to see the resources going into streets and public transportation rather than widening freeways. And I'm very aware of the nearby neighborhood that was very concerned about what that could look and feel for the neighborhood. I think the local people should speak out on that. I know that was a state and federal initiative, but local voices matter here.
Speaking of streets, something that's come up over and over again, lately is seats in Milwaukee are safe streets, reckless driving, vehicle thefts. It's been a huge topic for the city lately. I don't need to run through the statistics for you. What would be your strategy to address these issues? And how does it differ from some of the other candidates who are running for mayor?
Yes, it does differ. And I think that's just when you have a diversity of candidates, which is awesome, we all have a different lens. You have a former police officer running, you have people that have grown up in different areas. For me, obviously, my mom lens is very present. And I just, I'm appalled and shudder at the idea that some of the reckless driving incidents have been committed by juveniles and children. I think what a state of society we're in when a child will steal a car and just drive off, what hopelessness someone might be feeling to do that, and it's devastating.
I believe I'm one of the only candidates talking about investing in free and universal public driver's education in every Milwaukee Public School. It's a founding principle of some of the Vision Zero work. But if we can get ahead of it and help children, no matter what income level you have, or accessibility, if that's a core curriculum, I think it can make a big difference. And I think about when I was in Milwaukee Public Schools, there were some courses, but you know, those slots filled up pretty fast. So if it was free and accessible to everyone, I think that would be a great place to start.
But I want to also mention, I know we need action right now. So you know, the traffic enforcement laws that are on the books, people shouldn't be able to drive around with cars that are not registered, or had prior traffic incidents, passing on the right, just a total disregard for traffic laws. It's unacceptable. So we can use infrastructure to change that, the road diets, the bike lanes, the roundabouts and speed bumps. We've had a decent amount of speed bumps actually, in my district, because they've been citizen-led, and we go through quite a process to get those done. That should be easier, because it took almost two years to get the ones on Superior Street that I had constituents ask for. So those are some of the ideas that I have, specifically on reckless driving.
A new poll has ranked public safety as the top issue in this race. Milwaukee has been experiencing significant increases in violent crime. Now there was a decline in the latter part of the 2010s. But the homicide rate has gone up again, record high numbers in the past few years. But along with a new mayor Milwaukee has a new police chief, Jeffrey Norman, and several new members of the Fire and Police Commission. So with that new leadership in place, what can the city do differently to combat violent crime?
It is the top issue. And the trends are just appalling, outrageous, there's way too many guns on the street. We've seen an increase in gun purchases during the pandemic, which is making an already challenging situation worse. So I think that has to be stated. You know, public safety doesn't have just a one-part, solution or answer. It's not that easy. And so I think it's a couple of things. Police obviously do play a role. But when we think of police, they're responding to the violence that's already happened. And so that's why I've called for additional investments. I have a record of a large investment in the Office of Violence Prevention. With our Blueprint for Peace, which has shown great progress in the interrupter model, the 414 Navigators, people that show up when there is gun violence, like this mass shooting just this week, that is just shocking and horrific and unacceptable. The 414 program comes in and meets with each person affected by that gun violence individually and tries to prevent any further trauma. We know studies show that trauma sometimes can produce more trauma, so we've got to prevent it from even happening. I do believe in a community policing model that works to build relationships and trust. We know we've got to work on that both ways. And de-escalation. There's other cities across the nation that have invested in alternative ways to have not always an armed officer come to the scene of everything. It could be, you know, social workers, mental health. I think there's a great need for resources in our community. And I think those things combined can make an impact and hopefully reverse the horrific trend that we've seen.
One question on education. With the way the government is structured in Milwaukee in Wisconsin, the mayor doesn't necessarily play as direct a role as some other elected officials in education. But it is another issue that has been top of mind for many as of late, with many schools in the city having to go to virtual, teachers and schools having to adjust constantly, throughout this pandemic. So what role do you think the mayor of Milwaukee should have when it comes to education?
I do believe I differ from my opponents on this issue, and I think it shows by the type of endorsements I've received. So I myself am a very proud graduate of Milwaukee Public Schools. My children are enrolled in public schools. And a big city, urban city must have a thriving public school system. It's where I believe opportunity is really afforded and insured to everybody. So it's an important, valuable institution in the city.
And while it is a separate government organization with a separate budget, it's my job as mayor to make sure that every one of those children and students are ready to succeed when they get to school. The work that we do before they walk through those school doors is our responsibility that we have nourishing food, safe, clean housing that's free of lead paint and lead poisoning, safety, you name it. Those are the types of things, you know, parents that earn decent wages and can spend time with their kids. We as a city can help guarantee those items and make sure that everyone's set up to succeed.
I have the support of the American Federation of Teachers, MATC professors, the majority of the Milwaukee Public School Board, and my ultimate goal is to produce the best graduates coming out of Milwaukee Public Schools. And lastly, I'm also, I believe one of the only ones calling for universal pre-K. I want to start off our kids earlier than ever, three and four year olds should have access to the best education possible. And we know it helps working parents out with childcare, which has been so devastating in the pandemic. If we haven't learned something from this and how it impacts parents, and specifically women, we haven't been listening.
So reflecting on your career in public service, what is one accomplishment you are especially proud of?
I think I go with the recent one of getting the $7 million for child care and the American Rescue Plan Act. I was a lone voice in that. I’ll give you the behind the scenes, but I'm pretty sure anybody could figure it out. I had a hold out, you know, kind of like the Build Back Better but playing out locally, it was a giant package that went through if you recall. We spent almost $100 million. My name did not go on that package until there was childcare funding in there. And it was quite revolutionary. I remember testifying and people saying to me, “whoa, why is the city even involved in child care.” And this is a national discussion. I mean, we're talking about Build Back Better, and infrastructure. And we think about infrastructure, we surely think about lead laterals, and streets and buildings. But I'm talking about human infrastructure. And I look at the data and I know that predominantly women provide childcare – over 90%. And women are the ones that are possibly choosing not to go back into the workforce after this pandemic. That's not acceptable to me. And so getting that over nearly $7 million to disrupt childcare deserts in the City of Milwaukee, I thought was significant, progressive, and it demonstrates how I can work with a coalition and get things done. And personally, it meant a lot to me because it felt like my voice needed to be heard and I was representing the many voices that need to be heard on this issue.
Before we let you go here, I got some fun questions. We're gonna do a lightning round, some Milwaukee specific stuff. You're ready?
Milwaukee is obviously a frozen custard town. What's your pick, Kopp’s, Leon’s or Gilles?
Summerfest or State Fair?
At a Brewer game, what is your usual pick to win the sausage race?
What's your favorite park in the city?
Kind of obvious, South Shore.
What's your favorite local coffee place?
Oh come on! I filmed my commercial Anodyne and everybody knows that's where you can find me most of the time.
What's your favorite local beer?
I like Riverwest Stein.
What's your favorite place to see a concert in Milwaukee?
Chill on the Hill at Humboldt Park.
You must be from Bay View! These are very Bay View- specific answers.
I keep it real, Dan! I keep it real.
So last one here. Where were you when the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA Finals?
MD: We were watching it I think on our projector in our basement with our kids.
DS: How did you celebrate?
MD: We jumped up and down. We had our jerseys and took a lot of pictures. We're pretty excited. I did go to the parade as well, which was super exciting.
DS: Very nice. Yeah, that was quite a moment. So I’m ending all these interviews on that as the most celebratory note possible, talking about the Bucks winning the NBA Finals. Oh, yeah. So thank you again for taking the time to speak with me. Really appreciate it. And we'll look forward to these next couple of weeks before the primary.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.