Will Wauwatosa elect its first Black council members this spring?

Candidates running for alder hope to increase diverse representation in the city

By: - January 17, 2022 6:36 am
Protesters gather at Wauwatosa, a Milwaukee Suburb, and march through the area. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Protesters gather at Wauwatosa, a Milwaukee Suburb, and march through the area. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

With six of Wauwatosa’s eight common council seats now up for grabs, change could be coming to the suburb. Two of the candidates, if they win, would be among the first people of color to hold a seat on Wauwatosa’s Common Council, joining Margaret Michele Arney, a female African American candidate for alder in Dist. 2, who is running unopposed and is poised to make history. Running for the seat in Dist. 5 is Sean Lowe, the current chair of the city’s Equity and Inclusion Commission. Over in Dist. 8, former Ad Hoc Committee Chair John Larry also has his eyes set on a council seat.

Among those who won’t seek re-election in Wauwatosa are Alds. Matthew Stippich, Kathleen Causier, Michael Walsh, Allison Byrne, Jason Kofroth and Craig Wilson. As scrutiny increased on the suburb in 2020, during protests of police killings, Stippich pushed for a body camera policy and other reforms for the department. Wilson also backed the creation of the Ad Hoc Committee, and other efforts to reform the police department. Krofroth caught heat in 2019 after using the celebration of minority players on sports teams as examples of progress in equity.

Margaret Michele Arney
Margaret Michele Arney | Photo via campaign Facebook page

Arney, the founder of the citizen group Tosa Together and president of the Wauwatosa Neighborhood Association Council, is vice chair of the Equity and Inclusion Committee. “I am a community-minded person who values education, collaboration, culture and connection,” she says in a post on her campaign Facebook page.

“I found out yesterday that I am running unopposed, so I can expect to become the first woman of color member on the Wauwatosa Common Council!” she posted on Jan. 5. “I’m excited to meet more people and bring our shared vision for Wauwatosa to life!”

That vision includes supporting local schools and businesses and “our greatest asset, our citizens.” Arney, who attended Rufus King High School in Milwaukee and graduated with a B.A. from Harvard University and a master’s degree in social service administration from the University of Chicago, first got into politics because she was concerned about the lack of diversity in city leadership. “There didn’t seem to be any people of color anywhere,” she said in a profile published by the White House Project, which provides education and support to women in business and politics. After taking the group’s Go Run candidate training, Arney said,  she thought, “Why not me?”

Lowe feels that having the first African American sit on Wauwatosa’s Common Council “is long overdue,” he told Wisconsin Examiner. “Especially with the updated census results that we have, and the makeup of Wauwatosa being at almost 20% diverse individuals, that means that there should be no less than two seats filled with people of color at all times. And as that make-up continues to change, the representation, the thoughts and views of the common council should also reflect the city as a whole.”

Sean Lowe
Wauwatosa Equity and Inclusion Commission chair

Wauwatosa is haunted by a legacy of racial discrimination, red-lining and segregation. Relics of that history, such as the racial housing covenants which prohibited homes from being sold to Black residents, can still sometimes be found in the city’s oldest homes. Those covenants were enforced even into the 1980s, a decade which ended with a scandal involving racist Martin Luther King Day parties held at the homes of Wauwatosa police officers. Some of those officers were later promoted by former Wauwatosa Police Chief Barry Weber, and served in supervisory roles for years. It’s a history that still endures.

During the summer of 2020, a group calling itself the Whites of Wauwatosa mailed racist letters to people who had apparently purchased yard signs sold by the group. The letter stated, “We whites must stand together. We must keep Wauwatosa free from Blacks and their lack of morals. We must keep Blacks from destroying our property, raping our wives and daughters, and recruiting our children into street gangs. We MUST keep Wauwatosa great. Together we can keep Wauwatosa white! Together we can keep Wauwatosa safe!”

Mayor Dennis McBride and other city leaders denounced the letters, although the people responsible were never identified. That same summer, as protests brought pressure on the police department, Weber lashed out at both Lowe and Larry. Weber admonished Lowe for having spoken during a public hearing on racial issues in the city, and questioned why Lowe’s commission was even needed. He also attacked Larry for his association with local protest groups.

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At least some of that controversy now seems to be in the past. Both Lowe and Larry have told Wisconsin Examiner that their experiences with Wauwatosa’s new police chief, James MacGillis, have been as different as “night and day.” The city’s Police and Fire Commission has also seen some upheaval, including having it’s president step down last year. Participating in local government has also opened people’s  eyes to what could be possible in the community. Larry, who works in the educational field and has been a Wauwatosa homeowner for the past six years, emphasized that point.

“I’ve seen some things, experienced some things, that I don’t think many other homeowners or residents of Wauwatosa have experienced,” said Larry.

After experiencing how some of the city’s issues can manifest such as in his time as a teacher and during the protests, he says, “I have felt compelled, summoned to call to serve in a capacity here in Wauwatosa. And that capacity right now is District 8 alderperson.” He added, “Changes have come, the platform has been set for a new voice.” Larry says that he wants to make Wauwatosa “a first-class city for all.”

John Larry, chair of the ad hoc committee, sits in the Common Council chamber of Wauwatosa City Hall. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
John Larry, chair of the ad hoc committee, sits in the common council chamber of Wauwatosa City Hall. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Lowe echoed that sentiment, and is particularly motivated by young people of color who live in Wauwatosa. “I think now is the time,” said Lowe, who wants residents to feel “that they have someone that is going to represent the district to the best of their ability. And with the Wauwatosa school system that is 37% diverse, they don’t have anyone on the common council that looks like them. So I want to be that person where those kids can point to, and have that representation on the common council.”

If elected, several issues would be at the forefront of Lowe’s mind, including some things carried over from his work on the Equity and Inclusion Commission. “I’m definitely going to be working on police reform,” Lowe told Wisconsin Examiner, “and I’m going to be working on affordable housing for seniors and under-served communities. And making sure that I’m also preserving our natural land and water resources, making sure Wauwatosa is environmentally friendly for businesses and innovators.”

Larry says he’ll focus on issues affecting his own district, as well as issues in Wauwatosa as a whole. “Those situations and those challenges are just serving the people with excellence,” says Larry. “I think that we have done an OK job of serving them, and meeting their needs, and responding to their concerns. But in a, you could say, a status quo type of way. So what I want to do is help raise the bar of excellent service to the citizens of Wauwatosa, and particularly those in Dist. 8.”

Reflecting on Lowe’s campaign as well, Larry declared this “a historic moment.” He added that it’s time “for leadership to continue to rise up among those who are Black and Brown in order to give the future generation, the kids who look like me, the kids that I’ve mostly taught, the opportunity to think, know, and believe that they can do anything that they set their mind to.”

Lowe added, “People need to understand that all elections matter. And even though it’s a spring election, it’s a very important election.” Voters have the power to elect minority candidates, which would “make history,” Lowe says. He emphasized that Wauwatosa, “desperately needs some positive history, diversity, and inclusion. This is a chance to turn that page.”

Editor’s Note: This piece was updated on Tuesday, Jan 18 to add candidate Margaret Michele Arney, who is running unopposed for the Wauwatosa Common Council.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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