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What's Next for the Milwaukee Mayor's Race?
Tom Barrett has been nominated to be the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. Let’s take a look at what’s next for the race for mayor in Milwaukee.
I had plans to write about something else this week, but when your city’s mayor of nearly two decades announces that he’ll be resigning the position to become the ambassador to a small European country, you change those plans a bit.
Yes, Mayor Tom Barrett has been nominated by President Joe Biden to become the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. That is a real, factual sentence we are seeing here in August, 2021. This is going to be the way the current longest-serving big city mayor in America will end his time on the job. Surprising, perhaps, but in Wisconsin politics, there should be no surprises.
In the months to come, there will be an opportunity to revisit and reflect on Tom Barrett’s almost five-term legacy in Milwaukee. But for now, the big question is: What’s next?
What we do know is that Cavalier “Chevy” Johnson, the Common Council President, would become acting mayor until a special election is called. The special election would be for the remainder of the current term, which ends in 2024. What we don’t know is when Barrett would see a confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate, when exactly Johnson would be taking the role, or when a special election might be called. There’s a lot of uncertainty at the moment.
For now, Barrett said in a brief speech that he would be focusing his “full attention on mayoral duties” in the time between now and final consideration by the U.S. Senate.
There’s quite a bit on deck for the mayor right now, which makes this timing a bit tricky. The city budget process is beginning (last week was Barrett’s “Budget Awareness Week”), and Milwaukee is still making decisions on the nearly $400 million in direct federal assistance it’s been allocated through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Between the daily duties of being mayor of the state’s largest city, the upcoming annual budget process, and the generational opportunity the city finds itself with through the ARPA funds, there’s a whole lot of “mayoral duties” for Tom Barrett to be handling right now.
So far, the Senate has only confirmed one (1) of Biden’s 275 nominations to be political ambassadors — Ken Salazar, the former interior secretary and senator from Colorado, to be U.S. ambassador to Mexico was confirmed Aug. 11 — and the White House has expressed frustration over the slow pace of confirmations, which are being blocked by none other than Sen. Ted Cruz.
So, it has not exactly been a smooth process. Who knows when Barrett might eventually see a confirmation hearing? However this plays out, though, will significantly impact how and when Milwaukee will have a new mayor.
“I think it all depends on the Senate,” said Sachin Chheda, campaign consultant and former Milwaukee Dems Chair. “I’ve heard both sides of this. Some folks think it’s going to go quickly. Some folks think it’s going to take a long time. But it’s all speculation. Anyone who claims they know, they don’t know, because you’re talking about the U.S. Senate. I can’t believe how many people are talking with certainty about what’s going to happen, as if they know, and I just laugh.”
The timing of a potential special election for mayor will be riding on the timing of Barrett’s confirmation. And while state law says the special election would need to be called “as promptly as possible” by the Common Council, the unknown of Barrett’s exact date of departure complicates things. The election could be called for the Spring Election cycle, with a February primary and April general election, or it could wait for the Fall Election. The Fall Election cycle will include races for governor and senator in Wisconsin this year, and will be sure to have very high turnout. It could also be something else entirely. Quite a place to be!
So, who’s going to run?
It’s still early, but it’s fair to expect this to be a big field. Tom Barrett is just the fourth mayor elected in Milwaukee since the 1940’s, so with that kind of job security associated with the role, there are going to be many, many people interested in taking their shot.
Chevy Johnson said he will be running to be elected mayor once his time as acting mayor concludes. He’s been expected to run for mayor for some time, so this is no surprise. Johnson was first elected to the Council in 2016 and became Council President in 2020.
Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas is considering a run, multiple sources tell The Recombobulation Area. Lucas was elected in 2018 and is in his first term as Sheriff. Prior to that role, he was Major League Baseball’s Supervisor of Security for Commissioner Bud Selig.
Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic is likely to run, per multiple sources. She’s been on the Common Council since 2020, where she’s led the Public Safety and Health Committee during the covid-19 pandemic. Previously, she served on the Milwaukee County Board for 16 years, including three (2012-2015) as board chairwoman. She was the youngest woman ever elected to the Milwaukee County Board in 2004, and was the youngest person elected to be board chair. She lost a race for Wisconsin State Assembly in 2014, losing in the primary by a slim margin to now-State Rep. Jonathan Brostoff.
Daniel Riemer, who has served as state representative from the 7th Assembly District since 2013, is likely to be a candidate.
“If there’s an opening for an election, I would almost certainly run,” he said in an interview with The Recombobulation Area. “I love Milwaukee. I think it’s the best city in the known universe.”
Asked whether he’s considering a run for mayor, Ald. Khalif Rainey said he is “giving it some thought.” Other Council members could be in the mix, too.
State Senator Chris Larson is another name that’s been out there, but there seems to be less certainty about his next move following his recent decision to bow out of the U.S. Senate race. State Rep. David Bowen tweeted that people have encouraged him to run, but said, “I owe it to those who believe in my leadership to consider but at this moment my only focus is making sure more Democrats get elected in 2022 including our Governor Tony Evers.”
Previous mayoral candidates could be in the mix yet again. State Senator Lena Taylor lost to Barrett — 62.5% to 37.5% — in a chaotic Spring 2020 Election that came at the onset of the pandemic. That was Barrett’s closest race since his 2004 election. Taylor was re-elected to her state senate seat in the Fall Election, where she ran unopposed. She’s held that seat since 2005.
Retired former alderman Bob Donovan quickly said he’d be likely to jump into the race following Barrett’s announcement. Donovan, who served on the Council from 2000 to 2020, is a fundamentally unserious mayoral candidate who was clobbered by Barrett — 70% to 30% — in their 2016 matchup, and last surfaced hosting a mask burning event at a bar on the city’s south side.
That will not be the whole list. Surely, someone from the business community will make a run, but who would it be?
And could something unexpected upend the race? After all, a week ago, who would’ve guessed that our mayor would be headed off to advance U.S. interests in Luxembourg?
As I wrote in this space almost exactly two years ago, Milwaukee deserves a real mayor’s race. We need to take this opportunity at this moment to really dig in and discuss this city’s issues. There’s so much at stake, and we need to be having a big conversation about the city’s big issues at this critical time in its history. This could be a real moment for Milwaukee.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the award-winning column, 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.