The Milwaukee Common Council missed an opportunity to expand democracy

By Alex Brower

Last Tuesday, November 23, the Milwaukee Common Council adopted the new maps for aldermanic districts for the City of Milwaukee. These maps need to be approved as a result of population changes identified from the 2020 US Census. This comes just a short time after the Common Council approved the newly redrawn ward boundaries. Unlike some other states, in Wisconsin “wards” are the smallest political subdivision in a municipality and each member of the Milwaukee Common Council represents a “district” made up of a combination of wards. 

Currently, Milwaukee has 15 aldermanic districts, with one alderman or alderwoman from each district. That has not always been the case historically, and there is no need for it to be the case today. The Common Council of the City of Milwaukee is missing an opportunity to expand democracy by adding seats to the Council and exploring alternative forms of representation. The size of the Common Council should be increased dramatically to allow for more voices and more representation. 

Adding districts to the Common Council could be easily accomplished under existing law and the City Charter and would be the fastest way for more voices to be heard—literally. The Common Council can also begin exploring other alternatives such as multi-member districts and at-large aldermanic seats with proportional representation. Though more extensive changes may require alterations to state law, proportional representation is the idea that second or third place candidates or slates can get a portion of the seats after an election. Multiple representatives for each geography or district can give voice to more than just one ideology in a district. As a socialist, I do not believe in settling for less democracy—I believe that more democracy is better for process, debate, and outcome. 

With each alderman or alderwoman representing fewer people, elections for the Common Council will become more democratic and representative as the cost of running for office in each district will go down, allowing more working-class people to run. Each alderman or alderwoman will be able to better represent a smaller population by giving more time to constituents and groups with concerns. Legislative debates will be more robust, and more communities will have a seat at the table. 

Do our leaders in Milwaukee believe that Black Lives Matter? Increasing the size of the Common Council will result in more seats for African-American Milwaukeeans. It is not just the City’s Black population that will benefit – we can expect a larger Latino voice as well, and voices from other historically marginalized communities. More voices from across the political spectrum would be represented, including a sorely lacking perspective at City Hall: socialism. 

Wyoming is an interesting comparison to Milwaukee when it comes to representation. With a Census recorded population of 577,222, Milwaukee has almost the same number of people as the entire state of Wyoming, which has a population of 576,851. 

Wyoming, however, has 60 members in its state-level House of Representatives and 30 members in its State Senate. With 90 legislative seats, that is approximately one representative for every 6,414 people. With 15 aldermanic districts, Milwaukee has a legislative ratio of one representative for every 38,457 people. Why is it that a white-dominated state population like that which exists in Wyoming has more representation than a similar sized (but more diverse) population like Milwaukee? Again, do our leaders in Milwaukee believe that Black and Brown Lives Matter? Apparently, they only believe that for a photo-op at a protest—not when it comes to actual representation. 

Cost is also a factor when we are talking about adding more aldermen and alderwomen to the Common Council. Cost was used as a justification by the late Alderman Joe Dudzik when he helped lower the size of the Common Council from 17 to 15 as part of the redistricting process leading up to the 2004 municipal elections, and again when he proposed (unsuccessfully) to lower the size down to 13 districts in 2011. Members of the Common Council are paid $73,222.24 per year and require paid staff to support their work. An effort to increase their pay a few years ago failed. This salary and expenditure cost is no small amount of money, but what is the cost to our democracy when we hold legislative power in the hands of only 15 people for a city of over 577,000 people? In a 2011 Journal Sentinel article, Dudzik claimed to save “$3 million in wages for two aldermen and their aides.” What if adding four to six additional seats cost the City around seven million today? What is the real cost of adding seats when even a seven million dollar expenditure for a few additional seats and support staff would only be slightly more than one-third of one percent of the City’s $1.75 billion budget? Democracy and representation cost money and our municipal budget is a moral document that should expand democracy in our city. 

Unfortunately, Milwaukee’s aldermen and alderwomen do not seem interested in more democracy. That’s why we have not seen an expansion of democracy in recent years, but rather attempts to decrease the size of the body. This suggests that they are interested in protecting their power. 

Thankfully, even though Common Council missed the opportunity last week they are allowed to make the change before the next city-level elections in 2024. Section 1.03 of the Milwaukee City Charter and Wisconsin Statutes 62.08(4) allows a two-thirds majority of the Common Council to add more seats before the next elections. 

My message to the Milwaukee Common Council: do the right thing as soon as you can by adding seats. More democracy and more leaders will improve, not hurt, this city. 

Alex Brower is a Milwaukee labor leader, socialist organizer, and the chapter treasurer of the Milwaukee Democratic Socialists of America.