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6th Dist. Aldermanic Candidate Forum Airs Residents’ Concerns

by Peter Schmidtke

Frigid, below-zero temperatures did not prevent more than 70 residents from gathering to hear seven candidates for the 6th District aldermanic race voice their platforms for leadership and answer pressing questions from their constituents about education, crime, business and nonprofit development, and taxes. The 90-minute forum, held on the evening of January 29 at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and North Avenue, featured 90-second introductory speeches from the candidates as well as responses to impromptu questions from the residents and one minute closing statements. The seven candidates vying for the alderperson position are incumbent Marlene Johnson-Odom, Phil Anderson, Calvin Lee, Mike McGee, Jr., George F. Sanders, Patricia Winding, and Ervin Weatherby, Jr. Johnson-Odom introduced herself first, pointing to her lifelong residency in the 6th District (she lived for seven years in a segment of the 1st District before it was reapportioned into the 6th) and her Common Council committee appointments to the Zoning and Development Committee and the Redevelopment Authority Commission. Johnson-Odom also referred to her 24-year aldermanic service and the steady rise in assessed property and business value in her district that has occurred while she has been in office, a net gain, according to Johnson-Odom, of roughly $294 million. Later in the forum, the incumbent referred to the recent groundbreaking of two affordable housing projects, the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan Townhouses and King Drive Commons, which she said she helped bring to the district. Commerce Street resident Mike McGee, Jr., 34, described his lifelong residency in the district and his development into “a young man who has come forth to provide some new leadership to the city.” McGee, a political science graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, delivered an impassioned plea for residents to take action over the loss of manufacturing jobs from Milwaukee and the 6th District that has occurred over the past thirty years — jobs that brought people like his grandmother to Milwaukee from Mississippi. “For the first time, our children are witnessing adults that are not working a typical work week. Something is brewing in Milwaukee, and it ain’t the beer,” McGee exclaimed. He also passed out statistical handouts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that highlighted the unemployment rate of the Harambee neighborhood (54.7 percent of working males in 2000) and Milwaukee’s inner city. Washington High School science teacher Patricia Winding opened by outlining her goal of partnering industry with schools and local employment centers. “If you live, work or worship in urban Milwaukee, you are familiar with the problems that plague our district — unemployment and underemployment, homeless children, drug trafficking, inflated property taxes, and crime,” said Winding, who was a chemist for twenty years before shifting to education. Winding said she is deeply concerned about the condition of the neighborhood and more concerned about what will happen in the future “if we do not act immediately.” The fourth candidate to make an introduction was Brewers Hill resident Calvin Lee, and Lee energetically walked around the table of candidates to address the crowd more directly. On November 14 last year, Lee resigned from his job as a legislative assistant with the city to concentrate on the 6th District race. “We’re talking about trying to retake our streets and neighborhoods; I believe that I am that outspoken, aggressive leadership,” Lee exclaimed. In his brief statement, he stressed his experience working with community groups as well as with city, state, and federally-elected leaders, and he emphasized throughout the forum the need to need to take action against delinquent, absentee landlords and speed up the process of razing abandoned buildings in the district to improve the quality of life for residents. Graphic designer and former community development consultant George F. Sanders delivered a short introduction to a theme to which he would return throughout the night — his opinion that the city government, along with past mayors, have turned the 6th District into a “cash cow” by administering taxpayer-funded Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds in such a way that the district and other neighborhoods are not getting the full financial benefit of CDBG money. Phil Anderson stressed the need for credibility and integrity at City Hall. Anderson, a 35-year resident on 4th Street, has served the community in a variety of functions as a Harambee Community organizer, Milwaukee Health Services Board member, and Urban League employment manager. Throughout the forum, Anderson stressed his role as a responsible homeowner and renter and pointed out the need for all residents to be more aware of local issues. “We need for you to be more attached to city government — downtown is your government.” The seventh and final candidate to introduce himself was Ervin Weatherby, Jr., a longtime resident who attended UW-Oshkosh in the late 1960s and participated in one of the first African-American demonstration takeovers at the university. Although Weatherby said he has never held office, he did relate his past experiences helping friends in the neighborhood campaign for various positions. Weatherby said he is running for office because over the years he has grown “disgusted about the kinds of leadership that came out of the African-American community.” He referred throughout the forum to what he sees as “status-quo Negro leadership” in the city government, including corruption scandals and questionable deal-making to pass bills. The following is a summary of topics discussed at the forum: FUNDING OF NONPROFIT COMMUNITY AGENCIES AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT BLOCK GRANT (CDBG) ADMINISTRATION PRACTICES David King, a representative of Soldiers Walking, Evangelizing, and Empowering People (SWEEP), a Christian-based employment and counseling organization, expressed his exasperation with what he perceives as a lack of cooperation and receptivity from the current alderperson and city government. King asked the candidates what they would do, if elected, to work with his and similar nonprofit organizations. Addressing King’s concern that he would have to change the nature of his faith-based group to receive funding, Johnson-Odom assured him that she supported the funding of SWEEP in its current form, but she and Sanders and Anderson cautioned King that he would have to aggressively submit a proposal for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding to city hall. Lee assured King that as a board member of the Children’s Outing Association and the Potawatomi Community Foundation, he and the other board members are always looking to invest in organizations that are fulfilling an important social need. McGee, who said that he met personally with SWEEP last year, told King that he and others like him should not have to camp out at city hall to push their grants through – “if you send me downtown, I’m there to sit for you.” Weatherby pointed out that it is imperative to support organizations like King’s in the 6th District because in neighborhoods outside of the inner city, drug addiction and employment are not as much of an issue and “government works for those people.” Regarding the administration of CDBG funds to support organizations like SWEEP, Sanders throughout the forum repeatedly stressed his belief that the administration of the CDBG funds should be taken away from the city and handed over to neighborhood organizations. Sanders claimed that of the $23 million in CDGB funds allocated for Milwaukee’s neighborhoods, city government retained roughly half the funds to “use for poor neighborhoods as they see fit — you don’t know where it’s going.” Although Lee did not emphasize the administration of grant funds to the extent that Sanders did, he did say that the auditing of the CDBG financial books is something that city government must undertake soon. CRIME AND SAFETY: Winding is concerned about safety in the district, and, if elected, she said she will work with the police department to make sure that officers are more visible. “It would also be nice if officers could live in the area if there is housing they can afford.” Anderson discussed his vision of having neighborhood-staffed “public safety patrols” going into high-crime areas and working hand-in-hand with police to report “suspicious” activity that could lead to arrests. Although he would like to see arrests increase if they are warranted, Anderson said the real issue for reducing crime is creating jobs. Weatherby passed around an article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that cites the city’s current homicide rate– the lowest since 1988. “The African-American community is too policed as it is,” he said. “I’m sorry, but that’s the way I feel about it.” Although not rebutting Weatherby directly, Lee later in the forum berated leaders for being “numb” to the “lessening” homicide rate, a figure that he says is still far above that of cities with similar demographics and something that should be cause for outrage. The incumbent, Johnson-Odom, related a recent instance in which she talked with a police captain to discuss the possibility of publicizing the names of people from the district who have been arrested for drug trafficking or other crimes. “I will certainly look into doing that if the city attorney says it is legal,” she said to applause from the audience. To help pacify the neighborhood by helping residents meet each other and their officals, McGee discussed the need for “respect campaigns” that are longstanding and continuing. “Officials can’t just go up and down the street, shake a few hands, and get some news attention. We have to be out there everyday.” PROPERTY TAXES: When asked about their immediate concerns for the district, both Sanders and Winding voiced their frustrations over property tax increases, and Sanders proposed that residents who are on a limited income should receive a subsidy (from CDBG funds) for property tax increases brought on by rising property assessments from nearby condominium development. Creating alternative funding methods for city government beyond the property tax system would be one of Weatherby’s goals, should he be elected alderperson. “It would get property tax off residents’ backs, and maybe we then wouldn’t have such an antagonistic attitude towards government.” JOBS AND TRAINING In response to a critical question about available job and educational training opportunities for area youth and adults, Lee stressed that the district has some great programs already in place, including Gear Up, a federally-funded program which prepares young men and women for college through mentoring and academic preparation. On the same note, Anderson said that the district must convince the Common Council to support existing resources, including community learning centers in the middle schools. Anderson discussed his managerial experience with and support for apprenticeship programs, and Winding related how she recently met with representatives of the state at Milwaukee Public School’s central office to talk about youth apprenticeship programs and a related bill that is currently pending in the state senate. “At Washington we’re already putting them to work, mentoring them, and placing them while they are still in high school,” she pointed out. Winding said that she supports training for post-high school graduates and that it may be premature to talk about bringing more jobs to the district unless people are trained for the demands of the job– “otherwise, that’s no remedy.” Both McGee and Weatherby, building on the responses of the other candidates, talked about the damaging emotional effect on young people from seeing parents remain jobless. And according to Weatherby, the loss of semi-skilled and skilled labor jobs means that the community must try even harder to establish job training programs within walking distance of residents. Sanders, piggybacking on his previous discussion of CDBG administration, told the audience that there are opportunities which the city “has not seen fit to offer the residents” for local businesses to apply for funds to hire more area residents. IMPROVING SCHOOLS In response to a question from a concerned mother in the audience who said she will likely reluctantly send her daughter to school in Brookfield instead of to an MPS neighborhood school, Winding pointed to the success of Washington High School’s demanding new Science and Health Academy and the high rate of graduates who will study chemical engineering and biotechnology at universities. She also highlighted new models of teaching, including the “expeditionary learning model” in which students learn concepts and learn to apply them in real-world settings– “We need to put a twist on education.” Lee, a proud product of Milwaukee Public Schools and a graduate of Xavier University, stressed the importance of a stable home. “Here we are, 50 years later, and we’re still talking about Brown (Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas). Let’s talk about how families are getting decimated, that’s what we should be focusing on.” Receiving much applause, Lee talked about the importance of supporting successful MPS schools while still exploring charter schools and other avenues. Adding the Milwaukee School Superintendent to the Mayor’s cabinet, as Acting Mayor Marvin Pratt has proposed, is one factor that Johnson-Odom told the audience would have a beneficial effect on education. She also stressed, however, that the 7,000-8,000 children in Milwaukee who are homeless must receive insurance and proper meals before they could ever be expected to excel at school.
by Peter Schmidtke