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Carl Mueller — a backstage guy among Milwaukee’s elite

H. Carl Mueller carved out an unusual career in his hometown of Milwaukee, first as a newspaper reporter, then as a political aide to Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist and, finally, as a public relations man, whose client list included some of the most powerful people in the region. Credit: Rick Wood

By Bill Glauber of the Journal Sentinel

Armed with a degree in Russian and a passion for journalism, H. Carl Mueller always dreamed of working in Moscow for The New York Times.
He never got that far.
Instead, he carved out an unusual career in his hometown of Milwaukee, hopscotching from journalism to politics to public relations.
The wider public may not know him. And, for Mueller, that’s just fine.
He’s a backstage guy, an almost invisible presence among the city’s elite, the person often called when a business crisis erupts or a deal needs a fine touch of lobbying.
He was press secretary to Gov. Martin Schreiber, chief of staff to Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist and public relations specialist for baseball’s Bud Selig.
(Full disclosure: Mueller worked for the Milwaukee Sentinel and later represented Journal Communications, the former parent company of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.)

"Carl is of Milwaukee, by Milwaukee and for Milwaukee," said Jeffrey Remsik, his friend and former business partner. "I think that's what people see in Carl and why they trust him."

At 70, Mueller is still going strong, running his PR agency, Mueller Communications.

But he’s also entering a new stage, a three- to five-year transition period during which he’ll hand over the reins of the agency to a new generation of leadership.

Mueller is old school. He doesn’t tweet. He takes notes with pen and paper. He makes connections a handshake at a time, the business contacts and friendships going back decades. He has known every Milwaukee mayor going back to the middle of the 20th century.

“I’m like the relief pitcher. I want to be in every game,” he said during lunch at the Milwaukee Athletic Club, a place where everyone knows his name.

He has white hair that makes him stand out in a crowd. He’s also fit, walking six miles daily.

His firm’s client list reads like a roll call of Milwaukee’s business and nonprofit worlds, a lineup that includes Aurora Health Care, BMO Harris Bank, Greater Milwaukee Committee and the Milwaukee Brewers.

"Carl is at the head of the parade, leading the charge," said Lori Richards, president of Mueller Communications.

Richards and James Madlom, chief operating officer, will each eventually control 40% of the firm, with Mueller maintaining 20% ownership.

"We've been here a long time and we've all grown together," Madlom said, adding, "Carl's not going anywhere."

The man still has deals to make, stories to tell and people to meet.

"The key isn't whether you know other people, know everybody," he said. "The key is when you call them will they pick up the phone or call you back. Secondly, if you ask them to do something will they do it because they trust you."

Mueller’s office on Milwaukee’s east side contains trinkets of his trade — baseballs, bobbleheads and ornamental lions (that’s the firm’s symbol) and awards tucked into nooks and crannies. There’s an old Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper box, with a copy of the final edition.

Growing up, one of his best friends was Anita Zeidler, whose father, Frank Zeidler, was Milwaukee mayor from 1948 to 1960. When the night riots erupted in Milwaukee in 1967, Mueller sat with the Zeidlers in their central city home. They could hear gunfire and see flames.

"We were talking about the intense segregation of the African-American community in Milwaukee," Mueller said. "What an evening to sit there, to talk with him."

Mueller said Zeidler "was close to a genius. He had an incredible memory."

As a journalist, Mueller covered a little bit of City Hall and recalls receiving late night calls from Mayor Henry Maier.

"He was an insomniac," Mueller said. "He had his security detail go to the lobby and pick up the paper. He'd read it and if something really bothered him, he'd start calling people and sometimes he'd call me."

Hermann Carl Mueller was born in Milwaukee and lived in a home in the 2700 block of N. Palmer St. He was the second youngest of five. His parents were German immigrants. Carl was a carpenter and Erna was a homemaker.

In 1951, Carl Mueller died after a long illness. Young Carl was just 7. His mother took two jobs to keep the family afloat. She cleaned homes, worked in the kitchen at the Milwaukee Auditorium and made sure to get all her children through college. She lived to be 100.

"Amazing how she was able to keep us going," Mueller said. "I don't think we felt poor, but I know we were poor."

Mueller graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a degree in Russian. He studied the language, figuring it would help him pursue a career in the sciences. But he discovered a love of literature, and a heavy dose of Ernest Hemingway put him on a path to journalism.

After a year in graduate school in journalism, he got a job at The Paper, a small outfit in Oshkosh with young reporters and veteran editors.

“It had a real go-get-’em style,” he said.

Mueller joined the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1969. As a cub reporter, editors told him to go speak with the city’s imposing police chief, Harold A. Breier. They sent him to ask a single question, and Breier shot back that it was the dumbest one he ever heard. Mueller was the butt of a joke that even the chief was in on.

During his career, Mueller covered cops and courts, opened a bureau in Waukesha, was an assistant city editor and also a statehouse reporter in Madison.

In 1977, he jumped from journalism to politics, signing up as press secretary to Schreiber. There, he bonded with two other aides, Remsik and Evan Zeppos. 

"I saw integrity in him, fairness and hard work," Schreiber said.

After Schreiber lost for re-election, Mueller landed at his alma mater, UWM, where he stayed for a decade and became an assistant chancellor, advising campus leaders while helping build the UWM Foundation.

Then it was back to politics. He supported Norquist in a 1988 run for mayor and led the victor’s transition team. A two-week temporary job turned into a 21/2-year stint as the mayor’s chief of staff. Mueller helped Norquist create a cabinet-style government. Mueller’s staff made a nameplate calling him “Chief of Stuff.”

In 1991, he reversed course again. He joined a PR firm founded by Zeppos and Remsik. It was a very big deal. Business boomed. But there were tensions that to this day the men don’t like talking about.

"We just went through growing pains," Remsik said. "The way we dealt with that was to grow in our separate ways."

Zeppos opened up his own PR shop. Several years after that, Remsik and Mueller had an amicable parting.

Mueller’s most famous client was Selig. The two men connected during the legislative battle to fund Miller Park. Mueller worked for Journal Communications, whose chairman, Robert A. Kahlor, was appointed to lead a stadium commission.

Selig liked Mueller’s style and eventually hired him for the Brewers and later Major League Baseball, where Selig had a long reign as commissioner.

For two decades, the two men talked most every day. And they still talk frequently as Selig settles into his role as emeritus commissioner. 

"Carl really knows this community, knows so many people," Selig said. "He has always been a great help to me. During the stadium negotiations that were tense and fought with much misinformation and Machiavellian behavior, Carl was a great help."

Over the years, Mueller tried to manage business and family. He has been married twice and has five children. The first marriage to Nancy Mueller ended in divorce. His second wife, Patricia Mueller, died in early 2009 after a prolonged battle with breast cancer. During the final months, Mueller was his wife’s principal caregiver.

"We talked about everything," he said, his eyes filling with tears.

For months after her death, Mueller would gather his children and they would go over portions of a letter that Patricia Mueller left behind to those she loved.

"From the time I knew I wanted to teach kids, I realized my calling was to prepare the next generation of kids to grow up with a basic value system that would cause them to love," she wrote.

Mueller said he thinks about Patricia every day and often talks to her about how the children are doing.

Mueller is now in a relationship with Julie Baron, “a dentist and big baseball fan,” he said. The couple was brought together by Mary Van de Kamp Nohl, a former writer for Milwaukee Magazine.

Happy, content and successful, Mueller is excited about watching his firm grow under a new generation. 

He’s not getting out of the game. In many ways, he’s just getting started. 

This piece was previously published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.