Ald. Ashanti Hamil­ton tries to keep his “big tent” staked down.

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - BY ERIK GUNN

IN 1990, ASHANTI HAMIL­TON ran away from home. He de­cided the house he’d been shar­ing with more than a dozen peo­ple, some of them fam­ily mem­bers, some of them drug ad­dicts, was too chaotic a place for him to stay. “There wasn’t enough room for a high school kid who was full of him­self and wanted to be an adult,” says the 43-year-old al­der­man who now rep­re­sents a dis­trict on the North Side. A friend’s step­mother took him in and “opened up her home when I was a se­nior in high school, out on the street, just try­ing to find a place to lay my head,” he says. That’s what his drug-rid­den neigh­bor­hood close to the in­ter­sec­tion of First and Burleigh streets was like: “Peo­ple out­side of your im­me­di­ate fam­ily be­came your ex­tended fam­ily,” he says. “You helped each other to sur­vive.

“I think part of that is re­ally how I op­er­ate to­day: You rec­og­nize that the work you do re­quires a large tent.”

A year ago, Hamil­ton stitched to­gether a tent big enough for a half-dozen African-Amer­i­can coun­cil mem­bers – and three white South Siders – to elect him Com­mon Coun­cil pres­i­dent in an up­set that top­pled in­cum­bent Ald. Mike Murphy, a coun­cil vet­eran. But more than once since then, their tent has looked ready to blow away. This past sum­mer, the coun­cil’s pub­lic safety com­mit­tee, headed by Hamil­ton’s pick for chair, tough-on-crime Ald. Bob Dono­van, fired off a draft plan call­ing for more cops, more jail and “boot camps” for po­ten­tial ju­ve­nile of­fend­ers.

The tim­ing struck a nerve: Un­rest had just erupted in the Sher­man Park neigh­bor­hood, and the pub­lic re­ac­tion was with­er­ing. A hasty re­write pri­or­i­tized po­lice-com­mu­nity en­gage­ment in­stead, and Hamil­ton fur­ther in­sisted that fu­ture in­stall­ments ad­dress such is­sues as “res­i­dent en­gage­ment” and job cre­ation.

In November, the South Siders and Hamil­ton again col­lided when Dono­van, Mark Borkowski, Tony Zielin­ski and José Pérez called on Po­lice Chief Ed­ward Flynn to add more pa­trols to their side of the city. Hours later, Hamil­ton coun­tered with his own press re­lease charg­ing that the four had acted “ir­re­spon­si­bly” and “ig­nored their re­spon­si­bil­ity to rep­re­sent the pub­lic safety con­cerns of the en­tire city.”

Although the November spat seemed to spell the end of a North Side-South Side al­liance, Dono­van and Hamil­ton both claim that every­thing’s just fine. “We met shortly af­ter that, and I think ironed things out,” Dono­van says. They fol­lowed the meet­ing with an­other that in­cluded Flynn. “We have a very good re­la­tion­ship, and I can only see it im­prov­ing,” Dono­van says of Hamil­ton, who ar­gues that the scuf­fle pro­vided a civics les­son for the city. “I think every­body needed to see and hear the messy side of pol­i­tics,” he says.

Not ev­ery­one agrees. Lo­cal Repub­li­can op­er­a­tive Craig Peter­son says he’s “dis­ap­pointed” with Hamil­ton’s per­for­mance, and the coun­cil pres­i­dent “demon­strated a lack of po­lit­i­cal acu­men” in November when he came out against his own al­lies. The al­der­man has racked up “many, many missed op­por­tu­ni­ties,” Peter­son says, to ad­vance an agenda of “right­ing the prob­lems in the cen­tral city.”

Peter­son has ad­vised Dono­van and Borkowski (who once called him “my Sven­gali”) and played some role in Hamil­ton’s elec­tion to coun­cil pres­i­dent, although Hamil­ton dis­misses Peter­son’s in­volve­ment and in­sists he first sought the back­ing of South Side mem­bers in­de­pen­dent of any strat­egy by the op­er­a­tive.

Mayor Tom Bar­rett tends to avoid in­ter­nal coun­cil pol­i­tics and says he has “a solid work­ing re­la­tion­ship” with Hamil­ton. “He brings a lot of en­ergy to the po­si­tion.”

An­other City Hall in­sider ac­knowl­edges there’s been “more drama” sur­round­ing the coun­cil as of late, but Hamil­ton in­sists you can have dis­agree­ments and still get things done. He points to the even­tual con­sen­sus reached on the city’s crime-fight­ing plan and new city agree­ments to raise wages and el­e­vate res­i­dent hir­ing stan­dards for the new Bucks arena, among other achieve­ments.

Hamil­ton says an urge to bring about change from the in­side turned him away from his pre­vi­ous ca­reer in law and onto work­ing as an aide in the late 1990s for then-Ald. Marvin Pratt, whom Hamil­ton suc­ceeded. Hamil­ton de­murs on the sub­ject of run­ning for mayor as Pratt did, pre­dict­ing a wide-open field if Bar­rett re­tires. And any­way, he says, “Four years is a long time.

“Peo­ple want me to climb out on a limb a lit­tle bit more,” he says. But he’s gone far enough, he thinks. “I can hear the creak on the limb a lit­tle bit bet­ter than most.”


Coun­cil Pres­i­dent

Ashanti Hamil­ton

Hamil­ton and pug­na­cious Ald. Bob Dono­van


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