Barrett Needs More than Heroics

ilwaukee mayor Tom Barrett made national headlines when he stepped up to help a woman and child in distress, and got beaten up pretty badly as a result. Now we are waiting to hear if Barrett—who failed to win the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002—is preparing to run for the state’s highest office again.

You can see the campaign ad, can’t you? “Make Milwaukee’s hero our governor.” But even Barrett, who served as a congressman for ten years and overwhelmingly won re-election to the mayor’s office in 2008, must realize notoriety from the incident won’t be enough to win.

Let me be clear. I think Barrett is a good guy who did the right thing, something we all hope we would be brave enough to do. But even though the situation provides him a whole new level of name recognition—even his alleged attacker didn’t recognize him—when voters cast their ballots, the incident is not what they will be thinking about.

What will they be? The economy. That’s the issue that every would-be governor in the race, including Barrett, will need answers for. Voters will want to know their ideas and plans for sparking the state’s recovery.

There’s also no guarantee the state will want another Democrat in the office after Jim Doyle, who has decided he’s had enough after two terms. Despite going blue every presidential election since 1988, Wisconsin tends to mix it up when it comes to statewide offices. It’s going to be a free-for-all.

Then there is what I would call the Milwaukee issue. We all know the rest of the state likes to mock Madison, but many Wisconsin residents also think the state’s largest city’s problems are not our problems. And like Madison, Milwaukee always votes Democratic in elections, no matter what, so running someone from the state’s largest city is not essential to shoring up the party base. Will state Democrats really want to field a candidate from Milwaukee?

Barrett is certainly qualified, but he’s going to need more than heroics. He’ll need money, party enthusiasm and the desire to withstand what will be a grueling year or more on the campaign trail. Just ask Doyle: at his news conference announcing he would not run again, he looked more than happy about not having to campaign and fundraise anymore. Barrett needs to make sure he’s ready for this fight.

Jenny Price is a Madison native who covered the state Capitol for the Associated Press and has written about Wisconsin politics for a decade. E-mail her at