Milwaukee Mayor Race Reveals City’s Racial Divides

By Ryan Masse

State Reporter

When Tom Barrett defeated Marvin Pratt in Milwaukee’s mayoral election last week, he reacted to his larger than expected victory by celebrating the city’s diversity, calling it the city’s “greatest strength.”

But while the 54-46 percent victory gave Barrett as large of a mandate as could be hoped for following a tight race, a closer look at the votes cast revealed a highly polarized electorate: exit polls showed 83 percent of white voters selected Barrett, while 92 percent of black voters went for Pratt.

In a city that is 45 percent white and 38 percent black, such a breakdown heavily translated into a victory for Barrett, who is white, rather than Pratt, who is black. But the results also indicated that in a contest between two Democrats with similar stances on most issues, race may have been a determining factor behind many votes.

“In national studies that focused on segregation in cities, Milwaukee has always been ranked among those that still have problems,” said Joel Brennan, spokesperson for the Barrett transition.

Ralph Hollmon, president of the Milwaukee Urban League, said race relations are more polarized today than at any point in the city’s past.

“New mayor-elect Tom Barrett and all sectors of the community are going to have to come together and work really hard to improve race relations,” Hollmon said. “It’s going to take more than rhetoric. We have to make concrete changes.”

The racial divide in the election became apparent March 29, when Pratt, who was Milwaukee’s first ever African-American mayor, was charged with five civil counts of violating various campaign finance rules. Pratt’s support among black voters did not fall after the revelation, but many whites that had previously considered Pratt turned to Barrett.

In the days following the filing of the charges, Pratt accused the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Barrett campaign of running a racially motivated smear campaign. After the election, Pratt’s wife, Dianne, went as far as telling the New York Times that the election results show racism continues to plague Milwaukee, dubbing the city, “redneck America ? citified.”

Although Pratt was not as direct as his wife with accusations of racism, he has yet to publicly congratulate or even acknowledge Barrett for Barrett’s victory. Pratt did meet with Barrett yesterday, however, to discuss issues concerning the transition period surrounding Barrett’s April 20 inauguration.

With many black voters feeling their candidate was the victim of unfair scrutiny, Barrett will face the tough task of closing the racial wounds the election opened. He started April 9 by naming an ethnically diverse transition team.

“We’ve assembled a diverse, talented group of people to lead my transition,” Barrett said in a statement. “All these individuals are leaders in the community and will help create a Barrett Administration that will truly address the needs and concerns of the community.”

Brennan is confident Barrett will successfully unite the city, citing the former U.S. Congressman’s experience in representing Milwaukee’s African-American heavy north side and his track record of attracting federal dollars for housing and other projects.

“Tom has said he doesn’t see the support for Pratt among African-Americans as a repudiation of Barrett but as an embrace of Pratt,” Brennan said. “Tom is going to capture energy from all ethnic groups, present an agenda to unify the city and move forward.”