Walker loves Milwaukee? We’re not feeling it
By John Gurda March 29, 2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
It hasn’t been this bad since the 1950s. You have to go back more than half a century to find a time when Wisconsin’s highest elected officials were so antagonistic to the state’s largest city. Then, it was a rural bloc kept in power by skewed legislative boundaries. Now, it’s a Republican bloc that has manufactured the same advantage. The results are identical: legislation, passed or proposed, inimical to the city’s best interests.
The previous low point in city-state relations came in the years after World War II. Reapportionment, normally done once a decade, had not been addressed since 1921, a result of the Depression, wartime and political resistance.
Years of urban growth had shifted the balance of population to the cities, but not the balance of power. Although 55% of Wisconsinites were city-dwellers by 1950, most of the state’s legislators lived in rural areas. Bayfield County’s assemblyman represented 13,715 people, while his Milwaukee counterparts averaged 43,552 constituents each.
The rural legislators, most of them Republicans, didn’t hesitate to use their disproportionate power. They adopted formulas that increased state aid and lowered state taxes for their districts, sticking Milwaukee and her sister cities with the bills. The rural caucus also beat back attempts to consolidate their small rural schools, and they used city tax dollars to maintain some of the best rural roads in America.
In 1951, Milwaukee County received only $1 back for every $2.10 its residents paid in state taxes. It was not until 1954, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court intervened, that population alone became the basis for reapportionment, and it was not until 1964 that parity was finally achieved, again under court auspices.
Almost 50 years later, the imbalance has returned in a different form. Republicans considered population in their 2011 redistricting scheme, but they studied voting patterns just as carefully. The GOP packed likely Democrats into supermajority districts and gave their own party the statistical edge in contested areas. The results were not just anti-Democratic but anti-democratic. In 2012, Republicans won only 46% of the total votes cast for Assembly but took 61% of the seats.
Once they had stacked the deck, Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans proceeded to play some serious poker. Walker’s opening bets included a proposal to lift the residency requirement for city employees, a move guaranteed to do Milwaukee lasting harm. He denied that it was political payback for the support of the city’s police and fire unions, insisting that he was only supporting freedom of choice. The governor of the entire state followed that claim with a gratuitous slap at Wisconsin’s only metropolis. “If you want to keep people in the city,” Walker piously advised, “you should have a great city.”
Excuse me? Where do you suppose the Brewers and the Bucks play, governor? Which city is the home of such giants as Harley-Davidson, Northwestern Mutual and the Manpower Group? Where is the state’s most vibrant theater scene? Who’s got the greatest concentration of fine restaurants? The biggest zoo and the best museum? Where does the Calatrava spread its wings? Where will you find one of the most gorgeous urban shorelines on the Great Lakes? The world’s largest outdoor music festival? The state’s greatest range of housing choices or, for that matter, the greatest range of human beings?
No place in Wisconsin has the resources that Milwaukee has developed over the past 175 years, and they are here for the entire state to enjoy.
Yes, we have persistent, perhaps intractable, problems with poverty, problems we share with other great American cities, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles. Eliminating the residency rule would only aggravate those problems by eroding the middle-income mortar that holds many of our neighborhoods together.
The pull of the suburbs has been a powerful force in American life for decades – not just in Milwaukee – and it’s clearly in any city’s best interests to make residency a condition of employment. Milwaukee’s rule has been on the books since 1938, and applicants still line up for jobs by the thousands. Those who are hired live among those they serve, and where’s the injustice in that?
Walker’s stance on residency is needlessly destructive, but it’s consistent with an anti-urban bias that runs like a thread through his political career. As Milwaukee County executive for eight years, he presided over the decline of once-exemplary transit and park systems. As Wisconsin’s governor since 2010, Walker worked with the Republican Legislature to make the deepest cuts to public education in the state’s history – cuts that Milwaukee, as Wisconsin’s largest and poorest public school system, felt disproportionately.
Along the way, Walker first demonized and then, through Act 10, disarmed members of the one profession with the greatest responsibility for shaping Wisconsin’s future. I know veteran teachers who are advising their younger colleagues to find other work, and applications to the state’s schools of education are down across the board. “The feeling is that Act 10 is doing a number on enrollment,” one dean told me. How’s that for a heartwarming legacy?
Perhaps Walker’s true colors shone most brightly during last year’s gubernatorial recall election. The governor didn’t just run against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett; he ran against Milwaukee. His campaign ads showed polluted harbors and dead babies, and Walker actually said at one point, “We don’t want Wisconsin to become like Milwaukee.” You have to wonder if this guy even hears himself anymore. Most maps I’ve seen place Milwaukee well within Wisconsin’s borders, but Walker ignored geography to score political points.
The fact that he could shrug off the collateral damage his campaign was doing to Milwaukee’s image, and to its relationship with the rest of the state, is chilling indeed. I don’t doubt that our governor has firmly held principles, but that’s not where he lives. Beneath the rhetorical camouflage is a ruthless and calculating politician who will exploit any weakness, make any promise and press any advantage to get in office and stay there.
But Walker is a specific kind of politician currently in vogue: an ideologue who sees the world in black and white. His outlook makes him, among other things, a tireless polarizer. Walker instinctively pits “the hardworking taxpayers of Wisconsin” against public schoolteachers, “all of us” against “the greedy few,” public employee unions against each other, and now Milwaukee against the rest of the state. Is his strategy effective? Clearly. Divisive? Oh, my.
Walker is not evil, as some of his more hysterical detractors would have you believe. He reminds me, rather, of Mr. Magoo, a hopelessly nearsighted soul who bumbles through the world oblivious to his surroundings – and to the genuine harm he’s causing. That, to me, is the tragedy of life in Wisconsin under Walker. As he divides to conquer, our polarizer-in-chief has us all swimming in a sea of false dichotomies. By phrasing the major issues in terms of us vs. them, Walker has transformed the broad middle ground of years past into an uninhabitable minefield.
“We don’t want Wisconsin to become like Milwaukee” is one blatantly false dichotomy. Milwaukee and the rest of Wisconsin have been mutually dependent since the very beginning, first as markets for each other’s products and now as complementary halves of the same whole. Milwaukee is the urban yin to rural Wisconsin’s yang, and together they constitute a satisfyingly complete experience.
I am both a Milwaukeean and a Wisconsinite, with as much affection for the North Woods and the Driftless Area as I have for the modest metropolis of my birth. Walker would prefer that we not see our commonalities. In a world that can surely be both/and, he’ll choose either/or every time.
There have been a few bright spots, including state support for road work on Milwaukee’s lakefront and some much-needed economic development partnerships, but those bright spots don’t begin to make up for the blind spots. We’re back to the 1950s, with one faction clinging to a gerrymandered majority and lording it over the rest of us. Walker’s bid to end the residency rule is a sign that he and his fellow Republicans are determined to drive yet another wedge into the body politic.
“I love Milwaukee,” the governor declared on these pages a few weeks ago. He certainly has an odd way of showing it. With friends like Walker, who needs enemies?
John Gurda, a Milwaukee historian, writes a monthly column for Crossroads.