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Warrior When Necessary

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Alderman Michael McGee, Jr. is cutting his teeth on the hard tack of city politics in a district that is as diverse as Riverwest, but may be even more challenging. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Gregory Stanford calls young black leaders like Michael McGee, Jr., Lena Taylor, Tamara Grisby, Jason Fields, and others the “Professionals.” Stanford contrasts them to their parents’ generation, whom he calls the “Warriors.” The Warriors broke down race barriers that their children then passed through. Sixth District Alderman Michael McGee, Jr. prefers to distinguish himself. “I think I’m more from the Warrior mode than the Professional mode,” McGee said in an interview in City Hall. “There are still some obstacles that are in the way. The Warriors did kick the door in, and went through the public scrutiny to make sure equality existed, and make sure people like myself can advance the cause. The difference is that we are better prepared. We can learn from their mistakes.” McGee is the son of former Alderman Michael McGee, a leader of the Warrior generation. “A lot of the professionals in the hip-hop generation are not likely to take the risk that the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement generation took,” McGee elaborates. “It takes a special person to be selfless like that. I’ve molded myself after the experiences of my father and Carl Gee and other leaders. . . I saw their sacrifice and was attracted to their willingness to be selfless.” McGee says that he is not a “go along to get along” person. He believes people who speak out for what they believe are sometimes seen as militant. “I will compromise, but not as much as my colleagues of my generation will.” At the same time, McGee also separates himself from his father, whose leadership style was militant and who made his frustration with Milwaukee’s slow pace of change a focal point for media. “People think of him as Saddam Hussein. I’m Hussein’s son and nothing good could come out of Hussein. But I have a mother too. My mother was there to raise me, and she was an influence in my life.” Representing a Diverse Community The 6th District runs north roughly from the Milwaukee River at Schlitz Park to Capitol Drive, bordering Holton Street on the east and the freeway on the west with some odd ins and outs along the way, including a stretch to 24th Street north of Locust. The southern end, Brewer’s Hill, has been gentrifying rapidly. The Harambee neighborhood on the north is generally low income with old but solid housing stock that is now beginning to sell for higher prices. This mix of socio-economic groups and gentrification may pose a challenge to McGee as he establishes himself in the community. Defining who represents that community may be the first of McGee’s tasks. He won his seat over Marlene Johnson-Odom, whose family is prominent in the African American community and who held the post for 24 years. With gentrification, higher income groups are moving into the area; people who own their own homes and are active in the political process. McGee will have to satisfy them without losing his base in the African American community. “There might be four or five groups in one neighborhood,” McGee explains. Who really represents an area like Brewer’s Hill could be contentious. McGee is definitely pro-development, but anti-development if it is going to harm the neighborhood’s integrity and makeup. He recently sat down with a group of residents and created what they call an overlay zone. These areas are identified for development that requires certain designs that fit in with the neighborhood. The overlay plan marks the Harambee neighborhood and the area north of North Avenue as a zone limited to single family homes and duplexes. McGee also wants to stop speculators from buying up lots in that area and holding them for years until the market value increases. Gentrification, however, is a mixed blessing. Many families in McGee’s district are struggling in an uncertain economic environment. The city has built new homes that have not been sold. “The problem I’m seeing is that no matter what these houses cost, we have to have people to live in them and not go into foreclosure,” McGee explained. “The problem with some subsidized houses is that people who make a decent income aren’t qualified.” Those who qualify don’t make enough to pay the mortgage. If the income levels for purchasing houses built by the city were raised, more lower middle-class people could buy them, McGee said. He plans to speak with the Housing Authority about bringing resources to his district. One of McGee’s biggest concerns is the number of group homes locating in close proximity to each other in his district. These range from halfway houses to homes for troubled teens. “This to me in one of the biggest concerns because my hands are tied by the Board of Zoning Appeals in that process,” McGee said. The Americans with Disabilities Act provides reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities, which can include those with substance abuse problems or teens who need group home accomodations. Residents who have lived in an area for many years become uneasy when they see groups of young people move in on the block. Although the City Attorney has not made a statement about the situation, the feeling is that blocking the homes could bring litigation. McGee said he stopped going to zoning meetings because he felt there was not much he could do. “It was a humbling experience being the elected official for the region and having homeowners who have been there for 50 years turned back.” The only option seems to be closing the group homes if they become a nuisance. Employment With the problems of high unemployment and low income in his district, McGee voted against the Community Benefits agreement of the Park East project. “It was a trick bag for me,” said McGee. While he feels you should do anything possible to create employment, the agreement would not have helped. The city’s end of the project was small and before workers could be trained, the project would be over. “The unions were in bed with the community organizations,” McGee explained. The prevailing wage rules meant work would go to union workers, shutting out new trainees. “We know darned well that the average resident sitting on the porch in the 6th District is not going to qualify for a prevailing wage job.” “They tried to show some alliance,” McGee said, “but the unions have not shown any progress in hiring trainees.” Small, emerging businesses that would be more likely to hire residents often do not make enough to be union businesses. “A lot of non-union business owners could hire some of our people, but with a benefit agreement, they weren’t even going to be in the ball game.” McGee is looking at different language proposed by Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and Milwaukee Public Schools Neighborhood Schools Initiative to see what would be more effective in getting residents to work on public projects. Can the city require that developers hire local contractors and personnel? “We have a lot of alderman who would not be willing to take the chance,” McGee explained. The City Attorney’s office indicates such policy would be open to challenge. “If the city is giving subsidies, you can put restrictions,” McGee believes. He would also like to see the city increase its use of emerging businesses. Quality of Life McGee shares residents’ concern about quality of life issues. “Quality of life is really going down in the city of Milwaukee.” Getting rid of drug activity takes time, McGee said. The police have to go undercover first and get a buy. “I’m in the process of identifying trouble spots. We are trying to have a city attorney come in as a prosecutor.” The prosecutor identifies the drug houses and prosecutes from the DA’s office, which has more flexibility than the police. “This is where the Rapid Response Team comes in. We are empowering the community to start coming in to mediate and talk to the drug dealers.” McGee has talked directly to some of the dealers himself and told them, “Things have got to change. Business as usual is not gong to work. You’re out here showing people what you are doing and disrespecting the neighborhood_ I’m really the last person you are gong to see who is on your side before you see the police.” A meaningful solution is to provide employment so dealers don’t just move to another neighborhood, but we also have to draw the line, McGee says. McGee announced the creation of the Rapid Response Team in a press release last August. The team was initially envisioned as including McGee, Dist. 1 Alderman Ashanti Hamilton, neighborhood and community leaders, and residents of McGee’s district. McGee goes out on the street with the team. “Recently, I went to this block–23rd and Melvina. The whole neighborhood came out and walked in front of the house with me. They came within five minutes and told the criminals who live in that house that they are not going to tolerate that nonsense.” McGee is in the process of creating ward captains to work on this issue and to contact city services about other quality of life issues. McGee notes that sometimes people in the neighborhood bring in problems. “You can tell your friends next time they come not to blow the horn. It’s a matter of respect for one another.” McGee recently moved with his family to a house near Burleigh and Booth, in a small slice of Riverwest that lies in the 6th District.
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