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“If the tide rises, we need all boats to rise”

Milwaukee’s new generation of leaders discuss challenges and path to move City, County forward.

Mueller Communications held its first-ever virtual “Meet the Newly Elected Officials” event on Wednesday, where attendees were introduced to a new generation of Milwaukee leaders during an era of unprecedented challenges for the City.

The panel discussion — moderated by Mueller Communications’ CEOs Lori Richards and James Madlom — featured guests David Crowley, Milwaukee County Executive; Cavalier “Chevy” Johnson, Common Council President; and Marcelia Nicholson, the County Board Chairwoman, all of whom were elected to their respective posts this spring.
The trio represents a significant shift in Milwaukee’s City and County leadership: they are all in their early 30s, Black, and raised in Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code, an area infamously known for its widespread poverty and high rates of black male incarceration.

But they also represent a new level of partnership between City and County leaders in a moment when Milwaukee is experiencing fallout from the coronavirus crisis and racial unrest as systemic injustices rise to the City’s surface. Johnson compared the environment the leaders entered to being thrown “out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

“Who knew that when we took office in these positions that we would be in the middle of a global health pandemic, we have these budgeting issues that have resulted from it, and on top of that you have these protests for racial and social justice,” he continued. “For us, it feels like we are being tried, right now. But if we can handle this, we can handle anything.”

Still, Milwaukee is facing challenges, financial and otherwise.

The County is expecting about a $100 million loss in revenue and a $450 million impact on the County’s budget, though some of the shortfall will be made up through the federal CARES program, Crowley said.

“This has had a huge impact on Milwaukee County,” he added. “What we’re looking to do right now is make sure we have a healthy community because that’s the only way to make sure we have a healthy economy. We’re doing everything we can to ensure we stay ahead of the curve and provide those critical services for our most vulnerable populations.”

In addition, the County has worked in tandem with the City to effectively promote public health to stem the spread of COVID-19, including through regular briefings, information sharing, and ordinance measures to encourage restaurant carry-out programs and free parking.

Despite these efforts, the officials say it’s clear the pandemic continues to disproportionately impact health outcomes in communities of color. That reality has to do with the region’s second crisis, they said.

“I think it’s important we understand that these are all symptoms of a larger issue called racism,” she said, adding the County declared racism a public health crisis in 2019. “We first have to admit that it exists. Structural racism is embedded in our practices, in our policies, and this is why it’s grown into the monster that we have today.”

Nicholson said the County is working to dismantle systemic racist practices through a strategic plan, employee training, and resolutions that allow the group to revise policies in order to achieve more racial equity. The City has taken a similar approach.

Johnson added he would like to see Milwaukee progress from its recognition as the most segregated city in the nation, to one that invests fewer resources in policing and more in education, stable housing, and healthcare. One way to raise that revenue is through a sales tax levy and other legislation that would allow the City to invest flexibly in itself.

“We’re in a COVID-19 crisis, and it forces all of us to come to the table,” Crowley said. “If you really want to get over this pandemic, and we want to make sure we can rebuild this economy that’s equitable for everybody, we need everybody at the table."

“If the tide rises, we need all the boats to rise.”