What Milwaukee means for Democrats in 2020 presidential race

October 10, 2019  · 

July 14, 2019 By — PBS News Hour

Wisconsin was one of several battleground states in 2016 that helped Donald Trump capture the White House. Next July, the city of Milwaukee will host the 2020 Democratic National Convention to select the party’s next presidential candidate. Hari Sreenivasan sat down with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to learn what the region means for Democrats on a national scale. 

  • Hari Sreenivasan: Milwaukee won the competition to host next year’s convention with the help of the city’s mayor, Tom Barrett. Born and raised here, he’s been mayor for 15 years, served in Congress for 10 years before that. He’s seen the city go through big changes. Milwaukee still struggles with historic racial inequity from health and housing to education and employment. So much so that county leaders recently declared racism a public health crisis. I sat down with Mayor Barrett to discuss this upcoming convention and his hopes to overcome long-term challenges still facing the city of Milwaukee.
  • Hari Sreenivasan: How have you seen this city change, not just since you’ve been mayor but since you’ve been living here?
  • Tom Barrett: Well, one of the things that I think many people don’t realize about Milwaukee is, if you go back to 1970, we had the highest per capita income in major cities for African-Americans. And the reason for that was because we had a lot of foundries and factories and tanneries and breweries, and people could really get a good family supporting job by working in those places. But beginning really seriously in the 1980s and thereafter, we’ve seen a lot of the jobs disappear that were those jobs. And I would say for the last eight years coming out of the Great Recession, we’ve been fighting back.
  • Hari Sreenivasan: In this coming election, how does the voter in Milwaukee and the voter in Wisconsin play into that national race?
  • Tom Barrett: Well, I think what makes us attractive again to the Democrats and the Republicans — because we are truly a purple state — is that in many ways, we’re a microcosm of the nation. We’ve got a larger urban area in Milwaukee. We’ve got a state capital in Madison that’s growing very vibrantly. And then we’ve got areas of the state that are rural areas, and those are a lot of the areas nationally and certainly in Wisconsin who feel a little disconnected from what’s going on. But I think there’s a recognition now, not just for Wisconsin but for Michigan, for Pennsylvania, to some extent for Ohio, that these are places where both parties, they better sink their roots pretty deeply here and they better not take anything for granted.
  • Hari Sreenivasan: What does it mean to a city like Milwaukee to host a convention?
  • Tom Barrett: So it’s a big deal for us. We’re very proud and we think we’ve got a story to tell of a city in a state that’s really, again, fighting back and winning.
  • Hari Sreenivasan: There are pockets in your community, I remember reading an academic paper and they had focused on one of the ZIP codes and they said that this is a neighborhood of concentrated poverty, pervasive joblessness, plunging incomes and mass incarceration. How do you make sure that equality and inequality is a topic that’s not just in this convention but something that the Democrats are thinking about going into 2020?
  • Tom Barrett: The issues of equality, of justice, of race are issues that I deal with on a daily basis. And I’ve served in Congress, I’ve served in the state legislature, the difference between those jobs and this job, at the local level and, this is throughout the entire country, this is a very gritty job. There’s not a lot of theory in these jobs, it’s about getting things done. It’s about how do we get better housing, how do we get safer streets, how do we get more investment particularly in those ZIP codes that have seen a lot of disinvestment since 1970.
  • Hari Sreenivasan: How do you encourage African-American voters here to be a greater part of the system? In the 2016 election, the voter turnout was the lowest it had been in the city since they were keeping track.
  • Tom Barrett: Well, I think you have to have candidates who speak to the concerns of the people who live in these neighborhoods and you saw that in 2008, you saw that in 2012 where we had a sharp spike in the involvement of Central City voters. And so what happened in 2016 is we returned back down to places where we had been before and actually had not done as well in terms of voter turnout. So I think it’s gonna be incumbent on any candidate who wants to get the vote in urban America to make it clear to people in urban America that they’re speaking their language.
  • Hari Sreenivasan: You’ve made a pledge that you want to get 25 percent of Milwaukee’s power by 2025 from renewable energy. How do you do that?
  • Tom Barrett: Well, we’re doing it on our city buildings. We’re moving aggressively on solar. And my approach has been “D: all of the above,” working with the utility, working with private providers, working with not-for-profit groups, aggressively trying to find ways to get more renewable energy. Because I think climate change is real and it’s something that in the long run, we better be dealing with and the way you deal with it in the long run is starting in the short run. Because it’s a macro problem but many of the solutions are micro solutions. It’s putting solar panels on libraries, putting solar panels on parking structures, using wind, those are all methods I think that can allow us to make progress in this area.
  • Hari Sreenivasan: Some of the presidential candidates have called for an entire debate just on climate change. Do you think the Democratic Party is taking it seriously enough at this point?
  • Tom Barrett: I think that many of the candidates are and I think whether it’s a separate debate or whether it’s incorporated in the debates, it has to be front and center, particularly because on the other side, you’ve got a president who seems at best uncaring about this issue. I think it’s an opportunity. But again you have to recognize that for some people in my city, when you talk about changing the environment, they’re saying: I want you to change the economic environment, I want jobs, that’s what I want. And in many parts of America, in urban and rural areas, you have to start out with that. You can’t make that a secondary issue, it has to be: how can people have jobs where they can support their families? That is so fundamental in this community, and in our nation.
  • Hari Sreenivasan: Mayor Barrett, thanks so much for your time.
  • Tom Barrett: Thank you. And come back — many times.