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Failed Leader

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Failed Leader - John O. Norquist

Executive Summary

John O. Norquist took office in 1988. He said he would "shake things up". The question remains, is Milwaukee better off than in 1988? The termination of his mayoral career went beyond the sex scandal, his lack of communication skills were his true downfall.

This lack of skills became evident with the number of missed opportunities that occurred during his tenure. Even though he had some successes, the river walk, an increase in downtown housing particularly in the third ward, and his "new urbanisms", he failed the city on a whole. Some of the failures included not taking Milwaukee to join the competition for high tech businesses, to create a strong university connection in research and entrepreneurial innovation, and not creating strong regional and international transportation links.

Democrat John O. Norquist elected mayor of Milwaukee Wisconsin in 1988. He was mayor for 15 years. He earned a reputation for streamlining city government and promoting economic growth. Under his leadership, Milwaukee cut tax rates six years in a row. Mayor Norquist took bold positions on crucial urban issues. He called for abolishing welfare and was a vocal advocate for school choice. He authored a renowned book "The Wealth of Cities". So, why is he considered the mayor of missed opportunities?

Mayor Norquist, replacing the mayor of 28 years, Mayor Henry Maier, said he would "shake things up." Milwaukee felt it was time for a change and a new direction. It was time for a 38-year-old leader to take charge. He was welcomed him with open arms by the hopeful city. Norquist began his tenure with vigor, reaching out, connecting, and advocating the city. He claimed that jobs were his primary focus.

At the end of Norquist's tenure, the Journal Sentinel, polled the opinion of his leadership for the city, performed over 30 interviews and more than 130 questionnaires involving Milwaukee's most influential figures. The results indicated that there was "unhappiness with Norquist's ability to articulate and champion a vision." The unhappiness included but did not focus on his sexual involvement with former aide, Marilyn Figueroa. His primary flaws were his lack of communication skills, vindication of his enemies and not being able to unify the city to move forward to a prosperous future.

The first asset of cities that have a go forward mission is that a city should have a strong university connection in research and entrepreneurial innovation. Examples of cities that have a unity with at least one major university are Chicago, Minneapolis, Columbus and Pittsburgh, while Detroit and Milwaukee do not. The US economy is daily changing into an information economy. The information/media technology industry is growing at a rapid pace, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that through 2005, an average of 95,000 new information technology (IT) positions will be needed each year.

The University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee (UWM) had a new chancellor, Nancy Zimpher during Norquist's term in office. In what seemed to be an effort of forward thinking, was only a veneer on her part. The Mayor vocalized his support for her and UWM. However, there was no follow through to achieve the high tech goals. A link to Madison's world-class university was needed to have Milwaukee become a site for high tech businesses and start-ups. A train linking Milwaukee and Madison in less than an hour would have greatly increased the sharing of the two universities. Academic networks even beyond that of Madison are needed to improve the current situation of stagnation.

An example of Norquist's lack of follow through, even though he had a Task Force on Public Support for Cultural Organizations, was the support and funding decline for UWM in the city. The task force cited that "Having a good art community draws businesses and provides those businesses with culture for their workers and the local skilled labor necessary for advertising, communications and other business needs." The arts in the metropolitan Milwaukee area do not have stable funding and government funding is declining.

Another example, even though Norquist supported the UWM's Digital arts and Culture Program (DAC), he spent many years trying to preserve Milwaukee's manufacturing economy rather than persistently searching for high tech businesses to come to Milwaukee. Other than GE Medical Systems, there is no world-class information business located in or around the city. Manufacturing does not appear to have a bright future in durable goods but does in high-end products. This is one reason why Harley-Davidson is so successful, while other manufacturers are failing. Norquist was approached regularly by local high-tech firms about their need for employees who have skills that extend beyond basic technical training, seeking people with creative abilities and strong conceptual skills, yet the DAC enrollment declined.

Milwaukee, despite the lofty claims of UWM studies, is still a very segregated city. Milwaukee ranks 47th out of the top 50 U.S. cities in the percentage of black middle class homes. 2 Milwaukee's has the sixth largest decline in population among U.S. cities and has fallen 20% since 1960.4

The Norquist inadequacy in academics goes beyond UWM. In the last five years of the Norquist reign, only $54 Million in city-issued bonds were allocated for reconstruction and maintenance for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), when $1.2 were needed in capital improvements. This would ensure that all children had access to early childhood education, lower class size, art, music, computer rooms, and fully accessible buildings.

Norquist was correct to favor choice, charter and other educational reforms. He hoped to lure middle-class families to the city with plentiful education choices for their children. The problem with the choice program was that MPS was not prepared to afford the operating costs. It was a bunch of smoke and mirrors. How do you have exemplary instructional programs without funding? The MPS system has developed citywide schools with specialty, language immersion, and arts as alternative choices to neighborhood schools. This exemplary MPS has developed since 1970 as a unique system of public school choice. The anti-public school and private school choice

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