Discover more from The Recombobulation Area
Q&A with Mayoral Candidate Michael Sampson (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 Michael Sampson. 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 entrepreneur and owner of Swarmm Events, Michael Sampson. Thank you for being here.
Michael Sampson: Thank you for having me, Dan.
And as a political newcomer, congratulations on getting on the ballot. No small task.
It was a grind getting the 1,500 signatures, that is for sure.
Absolutely. So let's get into it. First question: Why are you running for mayor?
I am committed to Milwaukee. We've been living here for 12 years now. My fiance and our dog Cliff are committed to staying here, currently living in Halyard Park. And we want to change. A lot of nights we wake up to gunfire, and like most people in the city right now, reckless driving. And we need new young leadership and a change in a new vision for a city because what we have currently going on is not working.
One of the biggest issues facing the city and one that I have written a lot about is local control. The city of Milwaukee is not far away from being in a very difficult decision, 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 as mayor?
I've always taken an approach, I know the shared revenue is obviously necessary, and we need that from a city standpoint, but I'm not going into this role assuming that we're going to get that. So I think we have to take a hard look at the budget that we currently have in front of us and find ways to cut it and cut programs. Not cutting all programs, but find out where our money is going. Is it getting invested smartly? And go with that. I would love a sales tax, I would love the shared revenue, but it looks like a pipe dream as of right now, unless we spend some quality time in Madison and really get in Robin Vos’ ear.
Do you think Milwaukee should raise its sales tax?
Yeah. I think to be comparable with other cities that we want to eventually be compared to, like a Nashville, we need to do so. We can sit at the 5.6 (percent). It would have been nice if we could at least stayed at the 6.1 for the Miller Park sales tax and keep getting that additional revenue. Maybe that's a small ask from the city or from the state right now. Maybe, hey, can we go back to where we were at least the 6.1 (percent) level at least start with something.
Another big issue facing the city is of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. Hard as it is to believe, we are soon going to be entering the third year of this pandemic in America. How would you evaluate the city's response at a local level these past two years? And what would be some of your priorities going forward?
So I've been pretty vocal that I thought the city did a terrible job last year. We had a Dec. 14 Common Council meeting, we knew Omicron was coming, and we didn't do anything about it. I think we should have put a mask mandate in back then at that meeting, and it probably would have saved a lot of lives and saved a lot of people's health going into the holiday season. We knew it was coming, we knew there'd be a spike around the holidays, cold weather, people are gonna get sick, and we didn't put it in place. So I thought that was an extreme failure from our Common Council and from Marina Dimitrijevic, who leads our Public Health and Safety Committee.
Moving forward, we need to have plans in place. Do we have to be ready for the next wave when this thing comes? There will be another wave. Hopefully it's less severe than Omicron. But we have to be prepared. So it's whether it's getting the American Family Field structure rebuilt and back ready to go or finding another home for that for testing purposes. I think awareness and education. I was on the public safety call I think before the mask mandate, and there were aldermen in our city that were unaware that there's educational material on the City of Milwaukee Health Department website regarding COVID, which just blew my mind. And it's sad to know that our leaders in our city don't even know where to find this stuff. So, how are they going to relay the messages to their constituents?
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, it continues to see some of the worst racial disparities in the country on economic inequality, education, mass incarceration, housing, the list goes on.
What would you do to make a positive impact as mayor to address segregation and address those disparities that we continue to see?
It has such a deep rooted history in Milwaukee. We’ve got to start with jobs. We’ve got to make sure that people are working in parts of the city. We've got to make sure that they're getting housing. Those two things are huge things that we need to work on. I've been a proponent of more Habitat for Humanity housing projects or similar projects. Maybe our city-owned houses can only go to Black residents. Stuff to kind of bridge the gap with that north side of Milwaukee to downtown, as we have severe problems. I've talked to a lot of Black entrepreneurs up in the north side of Milwaukee, and they can't find financing or loans and stuff to help them prosper and move forward with business ideas. So we got to maybe ask some of the big level banks to come forward and help us in programming as well.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the protests that we saw, particularly in 2020 made a really big impact on the city. How do you see that movement continuing to impact policies and conversations in the city going forward?
It's definitely quieted down. But you know, it's an important thing to keep in our minds. We can't have another explosion of that. I think there's a lot of talk of qualified immunity. And I don't disagree with that, I think it is good for our police officers to be held to the same standard as citizens. If they do something wrong, they should get charged for that as well.
Dan Shafer: So, switching gears a little bit, I want to talk a little bit about the mayor's role in economic development in the city. Mayor Barrett often used TIF districts for big projects. The city uses grants for various projects throughout the city, there's a number of 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 businesses or developers make those decisions?
We have to do our research at the city level and find out what developers and what business people bring into the city. I think we need to do a better job of working with different developers. I'd like to see all the development stay in-state and not have out-of-state money coming in, or money from China or any other developers like that. I know any business is good business, but we need to focus on hiring locally, and supporting the local economy, not just padding the stats of some New York investors that want to come in and buy up our property.
What's maybe one development project in the city that would be on the top of your list for something to get done?
Right now, I think you look at the Frame Productions project in the Third Ward, the music venue that wants to go in and is getting pushback from residents. I think that's an amazing opportunity, from a performing arts standpoint that we need to have pushback from a city level and make sure that that project gets done. A couple of condo owner complaints shouldn't be holding back our city from developing to a better city. This is what they are paying taxes for and this is what they should want for living downtown. If you want a quiet and nothing-going-on condo, Brookfield has plenty of those.
The 2020 Census results recently showed 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?
It's a huge problem. I think it's a safety problem right now. I think a lot of people don't feel safe in the city, no matter what area of the city you live in. I've read articles of a lot of people from the north side moving down south and getting out of Milwaukee and moving to Atlanta and some cities like that, that's why those cities are kind of starting to boom.
But we have to keep the talent that graduates from Milwaukee and make sure that they stay here and try to get them good jobs here. We have to do a good job of hopefully attracting baby boomers that are retired to fill downtown development. I think more condos over apartments will help with that because they want to invest and they want to put their money somewhere. And then also, I think we're close. We need like a tech company, we need an Epic, we need some kind of big, sexy downtown company, besides Milwaukee Tool coming to fill jobs and get people excited about living downtown.
One of the areas where the population did see growth over the last decade was in Hispanic and Asian communities. Where do you see the mayor having a role on an issue like immigration?
The population on the south side, it's amazing to see that rise. It was sad to see that they didn't get their fair share and aldermanic districts. I think that was a failure of our Common Council and we should have given them that third district that they very well need, maybe by the next census, they’ll need four. So that's great for Milwaukee that we have a rising Latino population, I'd love to see that continue. If it's going to bring jobs and community to that south side, let the south side downtown develop. Now we’ve just got to get our north side to match that.
So 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 and converting it to a boulevard that didn't get included in this project at this moment, but state officials did not rule that out as a possibility down the line. So what are your thoughts on the future of the Stadium Freeway? Do you think it should be torn down?
Michael Sampson: We have lived with construction for a while, so you just get used to it at this point, but I wish it was it would have been developed at a better the last time around. I agree with you. I liked your article on the boulevard expansion and kind of opening up Washington Park and that area to that end of the city. That's where you live, right?
I'm on the west side of town, yeah.
I think that'd be an amazing showcase. Going into where it dead ends there at North Avenue. I would like to not see the freeway expanded, because I don't agree with that. But there's not much we can say and do with the Wisconsin DOT. I wish a mayor would have more say at a local level, but sadly, we don't. I think the rapid bus lines that we’re going to be putting in from a transportation standpoint are going to do amazing things for going east-west down Bluemound. And it should help clear up some of the road construction and traffic already. So, it's sad to see that we have to pile more construction on top of that and widen the road that isn’t necessary.
Something that's definitely come up over and over lately in Milwaukee is the issue of safe streets, reckless driving and vehicle thefts. What would be your strategy to address these issues? And how does that strategy differ from some of the other candidates running for mayor?
I think the good old word roundabout doesn't happen enough. I mean, there's a reason that they're all over Europe. Even in Mexico, some cities have some good roundabouts. It keeps traffic flowing, slows people down. The bump out curbs. I'm a big advocate of biking. And I think it's important to take more cars off the streets, so any more scooters or bikes or just people walking is a benefit, but we’ve got to make sure that those people are safe. So we've done some big good build outs already with the white pipes they put out there to bump out the curbs. Riverwest has some good ones where I am currently. Some spots on North Avenue and he's to continue a little bit more over there. I think that's an important biking lane.
I haven't heard a lot of people talk about designated bike streets. So when I was in San Francisco, they had a street completely shut down during COVID because it was a street specifically for people walking and biking and exercise. But we have a lot of side streets in Milwaukee. I think Riverwest has done a good job in a couple of those kinds of designated bike streets where they put more roundabouts and bump out curbs and really focus on those being bike streets. But if we get to eliminate cars down the streets as well, I think that would be good.
So I would think that's number one.
Reckless driving, I think red light cameras are a must. When I used to drive in Phoenix and my sister lived down there, you wouldn't dare to speed because you'd get a ticket in the mail. So I think that'd be a big plus on some of the most dangerous intersections or where people tend to speed in Milwaukee. And we all know where those spots are if you just drive around. I love the Complete Streets program. I think people all need to feel safe, whether on a scooter or walking or biking, driving a car, riding a bus, we just have to make sure that the streets are safe.
A new poll has ranked public safety as the top issue in the mayoral race. Milwaukee has been experiencing significant increases in violent crime. After a decline in the latter part of the 2010s, the homicide rate has gone up again, with record high numbers in the past two years.
But along with the new mayor, Milwaukee has a new police chief 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?
Chief Norman just got in so it'll be interesting to see. Give him a little bit of tenure and see what he can do to turn things around. I'm someone that doesn't want to come in and micromanage people. So I'm expecting for him to do his job and reduce the violent crime and the gun violence as much as he can and be in touch with him on a daily basis, and make sure he has proper plans in place.
I'm sick of our cities spending money on all these plans. We had, you know, the Blueprint for Peace back in 2017 that never got implemented. We spent a lot of time and city resources and money on this plan that we never used. How many of these plans that we have sitting around City Hall from over the years that we've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on that we're not utilizing? So I think we just have to look harder at the stuff that we've previously written, and can implement instead of spending more money because we don't have money to spend.
Question on education since that's been a big issue lately in Milwaukee. With the way the way things are structured in the city in the state, the mayor doesn't always play as direct a role maybe in education. But it's another issue that’s been on top of mind for many as of late with, with many schools in the city having to go virtual, teachers constantly having to adjust.
What role do you think the mayor of Milwaukee should have when it comes to education?
I think Lori Lightfoot did a good thing with Chicago and the schools, everything that's going on down there. We need to get these kids back in school, and just being able to use your voice and office to be able to say things like that. There's not much you can do from an education standpoint of what's all happening in the schools, but you can put programs in place to make sure that kids are getting fed, they're getting to school on time. As long as we're getting these kids to school on time and we’re getting them fed, from a mayor’s standpoint, I think that's key. And stressing the importance of certain education items, whether it's teaching these kids about trades and apprenticeships, jobs that are available in Milwaukee. When I was in high school, I don't remember job listings at my high school or middle school, but maybe that's an important thing to keep these guys busy and active and involved in the community.
All right. So let's go to our lightning round here. We got some fun questions for you, some Milwaukee-specific stuff. Ready to get into it?
I love it. Yes.
Frozen Custard. What's your favorite, Kopp’s, Leon's or Gilles?
Summerfest or State Fair?
At a Brewers game, what's your usual pick to win the sausage race?
Italian sausage. My favorite number is three, so I go with that one every time.
What is your favorite park in the city?
Ooh, favorite park. I’d say most of my activity running the marathon last year was running around Veterans Park. I love that park. It's beautiful. I would like to see it utilized more.
What's your favorite local coffee place?
What's your favorite local beer?
I gotta throw some love to Black Husky since I'm having a nice sproose right now.
What's your favorite place to see a concert in Milwaukee?
Gotta go with The Rave. There's just too much history there. If you ever have a chance to see the green room over there, it'll blow your mind. It hasn't been touched since probably the 60s. It's just a fun venue. Also another spot that I would like to see more stuff happen. I'm glad they started doing the haunted tours last couple years, but I was ragging on that as an event planner to them for years and years that they should do that.
And then last one here, always got to end on a high note, so where were you when the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA Finals?
I was there! I was lucky enough and fortunate enough. With a member of the Milwaukee Athletic Club, where I do my fitness, I pushed for a Game 6 (ticket)...I kept pushing the cards. I'm like, I want Game Six if it's going to happen, so I got lucky. Got a good price on them. I was fortunate enough to be there for that. And I will never ever ever forget that memory. Hopefully we can repeat that this year!
Well, thank you again for taking some time to talk to me. We got it. We got a sprint to the primary here. So good luck to you these next three weeks and we'll talk again soon.
MH: I’ll just be out on the streets hustling and flyering out here. Get out and vote, Feb. 15!
Stay tuned for more of our coverage on the race for mayor in Milwaukee Subscribe to get started for just $5.
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.