Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett resigned on December 22, handing over authority to Common Council President Cavalier Johnson, who assumed the role of acting mayor until the city’s spring election.
The transition, which was effective at 5:00 p.m., came after the U.S. Senate’s unanimous approval of Barrett’s nomination to become the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. Barrett signed the oath to that office on the morning of December 23 at the federal courthouse in Milwaukee.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman swore in Barrett to the new position, saying the event marked a historic occasion for the former Mayor and for Milwaukee.
“Now he’s going on to be a diplomat,” Judge Adelman said. “He’s obviously well qualified for this position, for I think everyone who has worked with Tom has long regarded him as being very diplomatic.”
Judge Adelman noted that the courtroom where the ceremony took place was the same one where Barrett began his career in law and public service as an intern, and then a law clerk.
“This is literally the place where I started my career in law and public service, this very courtroom. The symmetry of this is very touching,” Barrett said. “It is with great enthusiasm and humility that I begin the next chapter of my career as the Ambassador to Luxembourg. This is truly an honor.”
By resigning before December 28, the Milwaukee Common Council was able to approve holding the mayoral election in the spring. That meant a special election was not required, and it would save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“It is a surreal experience, leaving a job I love so much,” Barrett said. “This is the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life, and the most rewarding job I’ve had in my life. But I’m leaving the job filled with optimism.”
Barrett, 67, has served as Milwaukee’s mayor for nearly 18 years and is one of the longest-serving big-city mayors in the country. He said growing up on the city’s west side, he never dreamed he would lead the city. He called the job one of the biggest honors and privileges of his life.
“It has been the will and the hardiness of the people that have allowed us to make great advances in the city,” Barrett said.
Over the last nearly 20 years, Milwaukee’s downtown and surrounding neighborhoods have seen a resurgence. The Menomonee Valley, which was mostly abandoned brownfields, is now a thriving district that includes thousands of employees working at Potawatomi Hotel and Casino, breweries and manufacturers.
Under Barrett’s leadership, the city has seen extensive development: the 21-acre Pabst Brewery site has been redeveloped into office buildings, hotels and another brewery; the Fiserv Forum was built; the Riverwalk was completed and two sites south of downtown — Reed Street Yards and the Harbor District — have been developed.
Richard “Rocky” Marcoux has known Barrett for about 30 years and served as the commissioner of city development for 16 years until retiring in 2020. He described Barrett as a man of great integrity and competence. Marcoux said Barrett has been under appreciated for what he has done during his tenure.
“A lot of folks will talk about the grand vision during the Mayor John Norquist administration, the taking down of the Park East Freeway, the beginnings of the Menomonee Valley, the Riverwalk. But when you look at the reality of the last 18 years, it was Mayor Barrett who has actually executed on all of those plans,” Marcoux said.
Barrett said he did not have a single thing he was most proud of, but when he drives around the city, he sees the transformation that has taken place.
“The work we’ve done to reduce teen pregnancy was meaningful. The work in the Menomonee Valley, that’s wonderful to see,” Barrett said. “But I’m not in a reflective mood. Not yet.”
But Barrett also leaves the city at a time when the number of COVID-19 cases is rising and violence is plaguing Milwaukee. There have been more than 190 killings this year, breaking last year’s homicide rate for a second year in a row. He said more funding is needed from the state to hire police officers and there needs to be changes to gun laws. Barrett is contacted by police every time there is a homicide.
“Things like that, take a toll,” he said. “The last 21 months have been extremely difficult. The pandemic itself was very, very challenging. A summer of a lot of unrest followed that.”
Barrett said even losing all the public events in 2020 that Milwaukee is known for — the ethnic festivals and Summerfest — was tough on him.
“It might seem like a strange thing, but in this job, you can get caught up in things in this building, where people think the world revolves around them, and then you go four blocks from here and people don’t care. They’re living their lives, and they are happy people. That gives me energy,” Barrett said.
Despite the difficulty over the last two year, Barrett stressed he was not running from Milwaukee or the job. He was just looking forward to a new challenge.
“There are some people who leave these jobs and they leave embittered and they leave isolated. I’m a happy guy,” Barrett said. “I am so thankful to have had this honor and this experience. But it’s a new chapter in life and I’m very excited about it.”