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6th District Aldermanic Race: Marlene Johnson-Odom

interviewed by Vince Bushell

A life-long resident of Milwaukee and successor of her first husband, Ben Johnson, to the Sixth District aldermanic council position, Marlene Johnson-Odom has seen much change in the city and has been part of city government for 24 years. At 67, she has chosen not to retire but to run again to “finish projects I’ve been working on,” though she stated earlier in her term that she would not seek re-election. Johnson-Odom calls herself a “Kennedy girl,” referring to her political baptism in John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960. She seems solidly a Democrat, though the council is non-partisan, and she is supporting Marvin Pratt for mayor. It is no secret that Johnson-Odom and 3rd District Alderman Mike D’Amato don’t always see eye to eye on Common Council matters. With the shrinking Council and shifting boundaries of the Third and Sixth Districts, some voters will find themselves in new districts this election. Johnson-Odom would like her neighboring Alderman to the east to be respectful of boundaries and grant aldermanic “privilege” on votes concerning matters in her district. D’Amato often sees things differently and extends his area of influence across these boundaries when they are of concern to his constituents. Holton Street was and after redistricting will be an even stronger dividing line between the Sixth and Third District. Johnson-Odom has been praised for working with developers to increase investment in her district. She points to the fact that property values, which were dropping when she took office, are now increasing, (minus 7% in 1980 to a plus 28% in 2002). During the redistricting debate she fought hard to keep Commerce Street in the Sixth District in opposition to D’Amato, who coordinated the redrawing process. She was proud of the development there, and though she doesn’t mention this in Riverwest, she is proud of the Jewel-Osco development at Humboldt Yards that was highly controversial here. D’Amato often gets criticized for being too chummy with developers while Johnson-Odom gets praise. That may be due to different perceptions of what is needed in the highly economically stratified neighborhoods that exist from the freeway to the Lake in Milwaukee. Nevertheless, Johnson-Odom is running into concerns from residents in Brewers Hill over new construction by a Chicago developer, Tandem Development, of multistory condominiums in the district. The honeymoon may be over for development for its own sake in parts of the Sixth District as residents voice concern over the impact of design and density of new construction. Johnson-Odom places development and the needs of developers on equal footing with the desires of constituents. We “have to work together,” and do what is “best for the area…Benefit everybody and flatten the property tax rate.” She cites housing projects for a range of income brackets that she is working on with different developers. Those are the projects she would like to see to completion, and this is why she is running for another term on the Common Council.
interviewed by Vince Bushell