Friday, November 24th, 2017

Tom Barrett, grumpy old man or ruthless politician?


Publication:Waukesha Freeman (Conley); Date:Oct 7, 2010; Section:Opinion; Page Number:8A

Tom Barrett, grumpy old man or ruthless politician?

Nice guy no more

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)

If there has been a casualty this election season, surely it’s the death of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s reputation as a nice guy. I’ve been shocked at the turn his character has taken since his campaign for governor began.

My path first crossed with Barrett’s back in 1992. Barrett was a state senator running in the Democratic Primary for Congress on Milwaukee’s North Side. I was managing one of the Republican candidates for Congress.

At one of the candidate forums, when there were more candidates than members of the audience, one of the other Republican campaign managers and I compared notes on which candidate we thought was going to win. We both agreed it would be Barrett.

One of us commented, “He’s so nice.” The other responded, “I know. Drives me nuts.” I won’t say who said what, but Barrett had plenty of other opportunities during that campaign to drive me nuts with his niceness.

So far the most public scandal of Barrett’s career was a case of getting caught speeding through Waukesha delivering Girl Scout cookies. He even was nice to the officer that wrote him the ticket.

Of course, all of us remember the moment outside the State Fair last year when Barrett was walking to his car and came upon a domestic disturbance. Barrett attempted to intervene and for his troubles was severely beaten.

It’s those moments that are probably insights into his true character when pride and ambition are not clouding his judgment.

But when the needs of the political campaign whisper in his ear like Lady MacBeth, it’s bloody mayhem. What else can explain the nature of the attacks by Barrett on Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker?

What does it say about Barrett’s character when his campaign purposely distorted what appeared in a local newspaper for a television ad? The newspaper in question has complained to Barrett about the misleading ad and the abuse of their trademark. Did Barrett really believe he wouldn’t be called on it?

Then there was the false attack on Walker for his management of the County’s pension fiasco. Barrett had to know better, but his campaign still attacked Walker for borrowing to manage the county’s long-term pension obligations. Walker’s plan has actually saved Milwaukee County money but Barrett still attacked anyway.

We also have the story of the ex-SEIU employee who was recorded saying he was helping coordinate between Barrett’s campaign and members of the Milwaukee County Board in a media smear blaming Walker for the death of a teenager at the O’Donnell parking structure. It was outrageous that anyone would even blame Walker for the accident considering that no planned inspection or maintenance would have revealed the manufacturing flaw that took place well before Walker took office.

Instead of being outraged that someone would claim that Barrett’s campaign was complicit in a plot to exploit a teenager’s accidental death for political purposes, Barrett reserved his outrage for the Walker campaign person that uncovered the plot.

Barrett actually said he would have fired the whistleblower. That does not inspire too much confidence in the character of the man who would hope to be governor.

Finally there was the bizarre incident when Barrett allowed his supporters to falsely accuse Walker spokeswoman Jill Bader of being a racist, and then he piled on by saying he would fire her if she worked for him. (Actually, I think she would quit first.) Barrett had to know Bader is not a racist, but his ambition was more important than a young woman’s reputation.

Perhaps it was the loss to Jim Doyle eight years ago in Barrett’s last campaign for governor that is driving him now. Perhaps it was the attack outside State Fair that makes Barrett feel entitled to be governor, an incident Barrett actually exploited for an ad in his campaign. Perhaps it really is a belief that he is the better candidate and anything his campaign does is justified.

Whatever the reason, the Tom Barrett I met years ago is long gone.

Shakespeare’s MacBeth at least experienced some remorse for his foul deeds. Does Barrett feel remorse for the politician he has become, and what end will he meet in November?


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