I asked John Norquist this week how come he never ran for governor. I asked because back when I covered City Hall in Milwaukee, back before Tom Barrett was the occupant mulling over a bid for higher office, there was always talk of John Norquist running for governor.
Norquist had a tremendous talent for not answering questions. But he answered this one.
It was Norquist, he reminded me this week, who famously said that, without Milwaukee, Wisconsin would be Iowa.
It was a great line for a mayor of Wisconsin’s biggest city, so trenchant that five years after he left office and moved to Chicago, lots of Wisconsinites still remember it – and not just Milwaukeeans. Lots of outstate residents (where there really are a lot of silos) would never forget it either – which was Norquist’s problem.
He mentioned the line this week as an example of the sort of statement that, when a Milwaukee guy runs for statewide office, “will come back to burn you.”
Tom Barrett, by contrast, has said very little that, should he campaign in Darlington or Tomah or Hurley next year, will come back to burn him. He, as Norquist noted, does not have a “really hard Milwaukee edge.”
That’s putting it mildly. Tom Barrett has always had about as much edge as a watermelon – a political liability of a different sort.
Until, of course, now; until he admirably intervened in a dispute in West Allis and got his melon cracked open.
“It certainly is a plus for him, let’s face it. The guy was courageous enough to do the right thing and he paid a price for it,” said Nathan Timm, a Mazomanie guy standing outside a town hall meeting in Darlington hosted by Barrett’s potential gubernatorial Democratic primary opponent, Rep. Ron Kind, this week. “You have to give (Barrett) credit and he has gotten some good national news coverage . . . That is not going to hurt him any.”
In fact, it’s hard to imagine a politician it could help more. Politicians walk a fine line between somehow trying to define themselves and remaining just innocuous enough to avoid riling up the bloggers. Barrett turned just-innocuous-enough into an art form. What he needed was definition, and not just definition as a Milwaukeean. That’s hard for a Milwaukee mayor to come by.
Nobody would disagree with Norquist’s assertion that Barrett has always been “very likable.” Up until now, though, most people would have burst out laughing at the former mayor’s assertion that Barrett also has “a little bit of iron in him that comes out once in a while.”
Turns out it’s true.
Yet Barrett still faces plenty of hurdles. Milwaukeeans almost never succeed statewide. Now the president of the Congress for the New Urbanism and five years removed from the mayor’s office, Norquist was immediately able to name the last Milwaukee mayor to become Wisconsin’s governor: George Wilber Peck way back in the 1890s.
Barrett himself, before he was mayor, already failed once in his bid for the state’s highest office. And Kind is not the only potential obstacle this time around. Rampant spending, a still-faltering economy and the realization that in ten years the national debt could equal three-quarters of the nation’s entire gross domestic product, could doom many a Democrat for many an office.
Still, he could run up huge margins in Milwaukee and even if the rest of Wisconsin does resemble Iowa quite a bit as one drives toward, say, Darlington, Tom Barrett is not one to have ever said it.
“I don’t think,” said Norquist, “he carries that kind of baggage.”
What he does carry is a new profile earned on a street outside his city limits.
You can’t dismiss Tom Barrett any longer. Most of us go to the fair and never win anything but a 25-cent, stuffed animal. Tom Barrett might become the only guy in history to take home the governor’s mansion.
-August 27. 2009