MILWAUKEE -- Economic development, crime, racial divisions and even comparisons to Donald Trump dominated a lively debate Friday night between Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Ald. Bob Donovan, his challenger in the April 5 election.
In the debate sponsored by the Marquette University Law School and WISN-TV, Barrett and Donovan agreed the city’s neighborhoods face challenges that contrast with the thriving downtown, and both accused each other of not doing more to help those neighborhoods.
“The mayor has put all of his efforts into downtown at the expense of the neighborhoods,” Donovan said.
Barrett countered he has worked to increase jobs, battle the effects of mortgage foreclosures and rebuild libraries in the neighborhoods. But, he said, Donovan remained silent when the state grabbed a share of a nationwide foreclosure settlement in 2012 over Barrett’s objections that cities should get all the cash.
And Barrett said when costume manufacturer BuySeasons wanted in 2007 to build a plant in the Menomonee Valley, which is in Donovan’s district, company executives said they changed their minds and stayed in New Berlin because Donovan “was so abusive to us.”
“We cannot afford in this city to have a mayor who’s going to turn jobs away,” Barrett said.
Donovan said BuySeasons was offering part-time seasonal jobs, and the valley land would be better used for companies that would offer family-supporting jobs -- the kind of businesses that now occupy that land. Barrett told reporters later that this showed his administration’s persistence in pursuing development after a setback.
But Barrett also said the BuySeasons incident was one reason why he was running a radio ad comparing Donovan’s temperament to that of Trump, the controversial Republican presidential front-runner.
Asked by debate moderator Mike Gousha about the comparison, Donovan joked, “I’ve got far better hair than Donald Trump.” But Donovan also said his “very outspoken” temperament is just what the city needs in a mayor.
Barrett returned to the Trump comparison when discussing race. He pointed to a 2011 news release that Donovan and the late Ald. Joe Dudzik issued after racially charged violence at State Fair Park, blaming “a deteriorating African-American culture in our city.”
“It is Donald Trump-esque to blame all these problems on a single culture,” Barrett said, referring to Trump’s racially divisive statements.
Donovan said he meant to talk about a “subculture,” but that problems like black-on-black crime cannot be addressed without dialogue. He said he had taken a step toward that dialogue by meeting with black ministers to address allegations that he is a racist.
“I’m not a racist,” Donovan said. “I don’t think I could be representing a 75 percent minority district if I were racist. ... I don’t think Ald. Joe Davis would endorse me if I were racist.”
Davis, who is African-American, lost to Barrett and Donovan in the Feb. 16 primary. Barrett mistakenly referred to Donovan as Davis twice, once in the debate and once when talking to reporters afterward. The fourth candidate in the primary, James Methu, an African-American who has endorsed Barrett, said after the debate that Barrett is the best person to lead a “diverse but divided” city.
The candidates also clashed on crime, with Donovan pointing the finger at Barrett for a sharp spike in violence. Barrett said he had fought for tougher measures against illegal guns but that Donovan had remained silent on the issue at the behest of the National Rifle Association.
Donovan said the city was “hundreds short” in the police ranks. Barrett disagreed and said that he had repeatedly budgeted to hire more police officers, but that Donovan had voted against those budgets because he wanted even more.
Pressed by Gousha and Barrett as to how he would pay for hiring the 250 officers he seeks, Donovan said only that he would find the money somewhere in the city budget, possibly by sharing some services with other governments. Donovan, a former member of the Common Council’s Finance & Personnel Committee, told reporters afterward that he wouldn’t have a complete handle on the budget until he became mayor.
-- By Larry Sandler