Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett Reflects on Service

Having a passion for the work one does and the ability to stick to a goal are ideals promoted by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett when he spoke Friday at Ripon College. Barrett’s talk was the second of three inaugural events scheduled for the College’s new Center for Politics and the People.

“I consider this a very exciting time for you,” he told students in attendance. “Find something you love to do and do it. The luckiest people in the world are those who can do something that sets their souls on fire.”

Barrett says he found that for himself by serving in politics. “I became enthralled with politics and public service,” he says. Although his own parents weren’t particularly interested in politics or public life, he says he was not without political precedent.

A great-great-grandfather served one term in State Assembly in 1854, representing Door and Kewaunee counties. While in office, he raised money for a highway between Sturgeon Bay and Bailey’s Harbor, then went home and got the construction contract.

“I have a rich history of public service!” Barrett said with a laugh.

He has found the greatest satisfaction in serving at the local level and just celebrated his 10th anniversary serving as Milwaukee’s mayor.

“Serving in the State Legislature, you’re flying at 4,000 to 5,000 feet,” he says. “It’s a great honor to serve in Washington. There, you’re flying at about 35,000 feet. At the local level, you’re in the trenches. You have, on a daily basis, many, many more decisions. It’s a gritty job. You’re affecting people in their daily lives. I have been able to have an impact on the largest city in the state.”

Barrett fielded several questions from the audience about initiatives he is working on for the city of Milwaukee. He is trying to lift teenagers out of poverty by providing educational opportunities and trying to place them in jobs.

Milwaukee has one of the highest percentages of people who live in poverty, and for many of them jobs do not exist, he says.

“How do we convince them there is a correlation between school and work if they never see the work?” he asked. “We are trying to place thousands of kids in jobs, and we have to give them a positive experience. If you want to break the cycle of poverty, you have to get these kids jobs.”

Barrett says people tend to get more invested in the community the longer they’re there, and people underestimate how easy it is to get involved.

“The opportunities are there,” he says. “You can’t be afraid of failure. In anything you do, you’re going to get knocked around and (learn) a lesson in humility. You pick yourself up and say, ‘I’m going to keep going.’”

As for the controversial topic of public funding for a new stadium for the Milwaukee Bucks, Barrett says, “It’s like making chili right now. There’s never an exact recipe. As mayor of Milwaukee, my position is, of course I want the Bucks to stay in Milwaukee. But the entertainment serves all of southeastern Wisconsin. The poor are concentrated in the city. You can’t have the high percentage of people living in poverty carrying the load.”

He says choice schools are here to stay and can offer a tax savings, but he also is a strong advocate for the public schools. “There has to be better transparency in all schools,” Barrett says. “You have to make sure the data are out there. You have to make sure you’re treating everybody fairly. What I’ve focused on is the fairness of the financing and the transparency.”

Barrett says it’s important for him to be honest with his views. “Politics works best when you have an honest exchange of ideas,” he says. “Whether you win or lose, at least you’re making your case. There are sharp elbows in this business. But I’m not going to quiet my voice. I’m still going to raise the issues.”

He says he loves the city of Milwaukee and feels that most of its neighborhoods are safe. “What’s not safe is if you’re involved in illegal drugs, illegal guns, gangs,” he says. “I still get excited about what I can do to make things better. Good things are happening in Milwaukee. I have never seen more energy among young people in Milwaukee than I see right now. They have an entrepreneurial spirit. I think people in America are returning to cities. There’s a lot going on. There’s a beat to it that I like.”

Barrett says that he still has the passion for public service. “I love working with people, I love solving problems,” he says. “I don’t fall asleep at my desk because there’s always something going on. The one constant in cities is that they are always changing. The cities are the place immigrants have always come. They feel they can have the American dream there.”

The Center for Politics and the People next will host United States Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) on May 2. For details, visit

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