Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett resigns Wednesday to take ambassador post

Common Council President Cavalier Johnson will serve as mayor until spring election

Tom Barrett
Former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett speaking at 2009 event.  Steve Glynn (CC-BY-NC).

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett will resign on Wednesday, handing over power to Common Council President Cavalier Johnson, who will assume the role of acting mayor until the city’s spring election.

The transition, which will be effective at 5 p.m., comes following the U.S. Senate’s unanimous approval last week of Barrett’s nomination to become the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. Barrett is expected to sign the oath to that office Thursday morning at the federal courthouse in Milwaukee.

“It is a surreal experience, leaving a job I love so much,” Barrett said. “This is the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life, and the most rewarding job I’ve had in my life. But I’m leaving the job filled with optimism.”

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By resigning before Dec. 28, the Milwaukee Common Council can approve holding the mayoral election in the spring, meaning a special election won’t have to take place. This will save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Johnson is running for mayor along with seven other candidates including state Rep. Daniel Riemer, D-Milwaukee; Common Council Alder Marina Dimitrijevic; Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas; former Milwaukee Alder Robert Donovan; Swarmm Events founder Michael Sampson; activist and former Common Council candidate Nicholas McVey; and Sheila Conley-Patterson.

Barrett, 67, has served as Milwaukee’s mayor for nearly 18 years and is one of the longest-serving big-city mayors in the country.

He said growing up on the city’s west side, he never dreamed he would lead the city. He called the job one of the biggest honors and privileges of his life.

“It has been the will and the hardiness of the people that have allowed us to make great advances in the city,” Barrett said.

Over the last nearly 20 years, Milwaukee’s downtown and surrounding neighborhoods have seen a resurgence. The Menomonee Valley, which was mostly abandoned brownfields, is now a thriving district that includes thousands of employees working at Potawatomi Hotel and Casino, breweries and manufacturers.

Under Barrett’s leadership, the city has seen extensive development: the 21-acre Pabst Brewery site has been redeveloped into office buildings, hotels and another brewery; the Fiserv Forum was built; the Riverwalk was completed and two sites south of downtown — Reed Street Yards and the Harbor District — have been developed.

Richard “Rocky” Marcoux has known Barrett for about 30 years and served as the commissioner of city development for 16 years until retiring in 2020. He described Barrett as a man of great integrity and competence. Marcoux said Barrett has been underappreciated for what he has done during his tenure.

“A lot of folks will talk about the grand vision during the (Mayor John) Norquist administration, the taking down of the Park East Freeway, the beginnings of the Menomonee Valley, the Riverwalk, but when you look at the reality of the last 18 years, it’s Mayor Barrett who has actually executed on all of those plans,” Marcoux said.

Barrett said he doesn’t have a single thing he’s most proud of, but when he drives around the city, he sees the transformation that has taken place.

“The work we’ve done to reduce teen pregnancy was meaningful. The work in the Menomonee Valley, that’s wonderful to see,” Barrett said. “But I’m not in a reflective mood. Not yet.”

But Barrett also leaves the city at a time when the number of COVID-19 cases is rising and violence is plaguing Milwaukee. There have been more than 190 killings this year, breaking last year’s homicide rate for a second year in a row.

He said more funding is needed from the state to hire police officers and there needs to be changes to gun laws. Barrett is contacted by police every time there is a homicide.

“Things like that, take a toll,” he said. “The last 21 months have been extremely difficult. The pandemic itself was very, very challenging. A summer of a lot of unrest followed that.”

Barrett said even losing all the events in 2020 that Milwaukee is known for — the ethnic festivals and Summerfest — was tough on him.

“It might seem like a strange thing, but in this job, you can get caught up in things in this building, where people think the world revolves around them, and then you go four blocks from here and people don’t care. They’re living their lives, and they are happy people. That gives me energy,” Barrett said.

The city’s ongoing dispute with the Republican-led state Legislature over funding has been something Barrett has gotten more vocal about in the last few years. He said he’s hoping a new face in the mayor’s office might change that.

Despite the difficulty over the last two year, Barrett stressed he isn’t running from Milwaukee or the job. He’s just looking forward to a new challenge.

“There are some people who leave these jobs and they leave embittered and they leave isolated. I’m a happy guy,” Barrett said. “I am so thankful to have had this honor and this experience. But it’s a new chapter in life and I’m very excited about it.”