SPECIAL REPORT: Attack Ad Targets Barrett’s Record as Milwaukee Mayor

By: Madeline Anderson Email
By: Madeline Anderson Email

In an effort to discredit Tom Barrett’s ability to govern the state, a political attack ad from the Right Direction Wisconsin PAC, targets the mayor’s record in Milwaukee. The ad blames Barrett for the increases in government spending, taxes and unemployment rates. While the claims add up, they fail to connect the dots between the numbers and Barrett’s policies as mayor, and paint a one-dimensional picture of the economic situation in Milwaukee.

The ad begins: “With Mayor Tom Barrett, things in Milwaukee are looking up. Taxes are up.”

This statement checks out when looking at the total tax levy amounts from 2004 through 2012 in Milwaukee. But around the state, many municipalities, like Wausau, Stevens Point and Madison, also saw similar increases. More importantly, the reason behind the total tax levy increases—which could account for several different factors—isn’t specified in the ad.

The ad moves on to say: “Government spending is up with Barrett too.”

This statement checks out as well. In 2004, Milwaukee’s budget was just above $1 billion. In 2012, the budget is $1.4 billion, an increase of more than $338 million.

“That’s a significant increase percentage-wise,” said Eric Giordano, the director of the Wis. Institute for Public Policy and Service. “I think it reflects a city that spending to support its citizens was a positive motivator.”

Although the mayor’s office is largely responsible for determining the city’s budget, Giordano says Milwaukee has faced an uphill battle coming out of the recession.

“I think Milwaukee is a city that really suffered from a serious loss in manufacturing,” Giordano said. “Many cities, especially large cities, are facing structural issues, they’re facing people who are increasingly out of work. So I think there are some reasons why one could argue that the budget was increased.”

The ad then says: “And Milwaukee unemployment is way up with Tom Barrett.”

The unemployment rate when Barrett took office in April of 2004 was 8.1 percent. The latest figures from March of 2012, show the unemployment rate is at 10.4 percent. Again, the statement checks out. But when comparing Wisconsin’s unemployment rate increase, 25 percent, and the national increase, 34 percent, Milwaukee doesn’t look so bad.

“The fact that the unemployment rate only went up 28 percent over this really horrendous stretch, really probably has little to do with Mayor Barrett’s leadership, and has everything to do with the global economy,” Giordano said.

The ad concludes with: “Job losses under Tom Barrett were so devastating, that Milwaukee became one of America’s worst cities for unemployment.”

This final statement needs clarification. In 2007, Milwaukee did rank 6th for highest unemployment rates among the country’s 50 biggest cities. However, long before Barrett was elected, Milwaukee has had a disproportionate number of people living in poverty, and over the last couple years, the city’s ranking has steadily gotten better.

“I think the fact that there has been an increase, or a decrease that’s going on in some other cities, I think also speaks a little to the success,” Giordano said. “On the other hand, it also speaks to the fact that the economy has affected many, many cities.”

Bottom line: this ad is incomplete. The unemployment figures, and tax and government spending increases are correct. The ad falls shorts, though, because it doesn’t directly link the numbers to any of the mayor’s policies. It also misleads viewers, placing all of the blame on Barrett, when rustbelt cities like Milwaukee were more prone to job creation challenges coming out of the 2008 economic crisis.

“Definitely there’s truth in the ad,” Giordano said. “Really the questions is: Does the voter get sort of a nuanced perspective of really what happened over time and what the cause is of these types of numbers? And the truth is we don’t fundamentally get what the cause is for why the numbers are the way they are.”

It’s also worth mentioning that Gov. Scott Walker was the Milwaukee County Executive for 6.5 of the 8 years Barrett has been mayor. It’s unclear what role Walker played in terms of the city’s budget or policies to curb unemployment, but a similar debate could apply to his time in office in Milwaukee.

Click here to watch our first report on political attack ads.

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