Barrett nomination ignites chain reaction of political, economic fallout
If and when Mayor Barrett is confirmed as ambassador to Luxembourg and resigns the office, Common Council President Cavalier Johnson will become acting mayor. But one alderman said he does not yet know if this appointment is good for the city, and he worries about what may happen in the coming months.
Fourth district Alderman Bob Bauman says, "I think there'll be considerable chaos, confusion and uncertainty for the next 90, 120, 180 days in the city."
The chain reaction is just beginning, but it all hinges on when the mayor actually resigns. Then council president Johnson will become acting mayor. In a statement, Johnson called Mayor Barrett a proven leader with great experience, adding "We will continue to work closely with the Mayor during this time of transition. Until he decides to step down he will remain in that position, and the business at City Hall will continue."
But the focus is already on the special election. City Clerk Jim Owczarski says, "And the statute speaks in general terms of 'promptly.' The council must promptly call a special election for the office of the mayor." Once the election is called for, there will be a window of 66 to 77 days to hold it. Any primary will be held four weeks before.
State Senator Lena Taylor lost to Barrett in the April 2020 mayoral election, and was coy about whether she'll run again, saying only, "We'll see." She said she just happened to be downtown as the news of the appointment broke, and wants the process to play out. "There are a number of things to look at. And so at this point, I think we have to make sure that we understand what the process is. And that could be a long time."
But Alderman Bauman is concerned about the timing, and a host of issues facing the city. "So the new mayor, whoever he or she may be, will face a boatload of challenges."
Alderman Bauman says as many as 10-15 experienced candidates could enter the race. He says holding a special election is expensive, so it's in the city's best financial interest to schedule it on a regular cycle. That would be next April.
Milwaukee's business community is also bracing itself for change.
News of Barrett's announcement spread like a shockwave, the business community looking back on the last 17 years and wondering what the future may hold.
Leaders say Mayor Barrett's focus on the economy made him a stand-out.
"When you think about the skyscrapers that have gone up downtown, the corporate headquarters that have moved downtown, the development of Bay View as sort of next to downtown, that’s all very much to his credit," said Mordecai Lee, UW Milwaukee professor emeritus.
While Mayor Barrett and business leaders butted heads from time to time, Mordecai Lee says overall, Barrett was good for the economy.
"He was mayor through the 2008 recession and he was mayor during the pandemic. Those were really hard. And there was a whole era where downtown was not doing well. You could walk down Wisconsin Avenue on Saturday evening and every spot was an empty parking spot," said Lee.
The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce congratulated Barrett, saying he's "been a consistent champion for economic development here."
Jim Paetsch, executive director of the Milwaukee 7 Regional Partnership, said of Barrett, "On his watch, Milwaukee drew in a significant amount of investment and job creation.
"We appreciate the tremendous leadership he's shown in this city since 2004," said Peggy Williams Smith, president and CEO of Visit Milwaukee.
"I'm not sure what we'll remember the most about Tom Barrett because the city has been doing so well. But definitely the thriving downtown is his signature success," said Lee.
We talked to business owners Wednesday who say although they butted heads with Mayor Barrett from time to time, with change comes anxiety.
They say Mayor Barrett has a good heart and that he will be missed.