Tom Barrett’s Search For Redemption

Posted November 4, 2003 at 6:11pm

In his latest campaign, former Rep. Tom Barrett (D-Wis.) and his team aren’t just seeking to make him the next mayor of Milwaukee.

They are also looking for redemption.

Barrett lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary last year to state Attorney General Jim Doyle, who went on to become governor. Then his campaign manager and one-time Congressional aide Joel Brennan lost his own primary bid for the state Senate.

Now the duo have paired up again to transform Barrett from private citizen to mayor of Brew City.

When Barrett tapped Brennan a second time, local politicos paused, according to one Milwaukee Democratic insider.

Privately they said, “You’re gonna ride that same horse again and that horse didn’t win last time?” he said.

Republican political consultant Todd Robert Murphy agreed that tongues were wagging.

“I think a lot of people thought maybe Joel was in over his head with a statewide campaign [but] … he is well-equipped to run a mayoral race,” Murphy, of Milwaukee-based Todd Robert Murphy Inc., said.

“He learned a lot of lessons and sharpened his skills” in the gubernatorial campaign, Murphy added. “And he ran an excellent state Senate race.”

The Democrat insider said he was not surprised that Barrett went with Brennan again because Barrett is a “loyal guy.”

For his part, Barrett said he has “no regrets” about letting Brennan avenge their loss.

“The challenges are different,” he said, noting that he knew the governor’s race was going to be “very competitive” and that name recognition was going to be a drawback for him.

This time, Barrett said, he needs to “get ahead of the pack and stay ahead,” rather than introduce himself to voters.

If early polls are any indication, Barrett is in good shape heading into the nonpartisan February 2004 primary. According to a private poll, 37 percent of likely voters back him while the next closest candidate, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, enjoys 19 percent support, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

“The conventional wisdom is it’s Barrett’s race to lose,” the Democratic insider said.

The mayoral election is wide open, with 11 candidates in the running. Mayor John Norquist, tarnished by personal scandal, is not seeking re-election after serving since 1988.

Barrett represented the city for 10 years in Congress before leaving Washington, D.C., last year. He ran for governor rather than face one of two veteran colleagues, either Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R), who is now serving his 12th term, or Rep. Gerald Kleczka (D), who has been in Washington since 1984, in a battle of incumbents.

Wisconsin lost one House seat during reapportionment and the state Legislature, with a Republican governor behind it, placed Sensenbrenner in Barrett’s 5th District. Most of Barrett’s Milwaukee constituents were absorbed into Kleczka’s district.

Aside from that, Barrett said he retired not because he feared the challenge of facing a colleague, but because he was ready to return home to Wisconsin.

“I loved every single moment that I was in Congress,” he said. “[But] it was physically draining and my wife and four children, ages four, six, nine and 11, were still in Milwaukee and I had made the decision to come back to Wisconsin.”

While returning to Wisconsin may have been Barrett’s goal, he had hoped to move into the governor’s mansion in Madison, not back to his district in Milwaukee. In hindsight, one might think that Barrett would have opted to remain in Washington had he known that he would lose the governor’s race, but he says that is not the case.

“There are a lot of people that I miss there and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience, but family was the overriding factor” in the decision to leave Congress, Barrett said.

“I don’t spend a lot of time on would of, should of, could of,” Barrett said, adding that he has no regrets about his decisions — including the controversial and possibly decisive one he made to not go negative in the 2002 primary. Barrett finished 4 points behind Doyle in the three-way primary.

“I didn’t want to have to go negative,” he said. “Some people said I should go negative and I didn’t want to. We knew it was going to be a tough race; I try not to dwell on it.”

Looking toward Feb. 17, 2004, when the top two votegetters in the city primary will be chosen and move on to the April 6 general election, Barrett said: “We’re off to a strong start — we’re working toward winning it.”

To that end, he’s gotten some help from his old pals in Congress.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) is endorsing him, as is Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.).

Lewis, the celebrated civil rights leader, is well-respected in Milwaukee and has visited the city several times, Barrett said, explaining why he sought the Georgia lawmaker’s endorsement.

There may be another reason: Barrett’s closest competitor so far, Sheriff Clarke, is black.

Clarke enjoys a lot of buzz, especially among the conservative talk radio set, the knowledgeable Democrat said, but his base is outside of the city. Clarke had met with White House political adviser Karl Rove late last year, sparking speculation that Republicans were trying to talk the sheriff into running for Senate in 2004.

Barrett represented a big chunk of Milwaukee and has his base there, which will make the difference on Election Day, Murphy predicted.

“Barrett is in great shape to win,” he said.