The race to lead Wisconsin’s largest city has been split along racial lines since the primary, as acting Mayor Marvin Pratt seeks to become the city’s first elected black mayor against a white former congressman.
But civil charges filed against Pratt for alleged campaign finance violations seemed to further polarize the sides ahead of Tuesday’s nonpartisan election.
Pratt and his supporters said he had been victimized; former congressman Tom Barrett’s side contended the charges should concern voters, because the mayor controls the city budget.
“I think it’s going to galvanize the black community to get out to the polls,” said Barry Givens, who is black and a community leader in a majority black neighborhood.
On the other hand, “for those whites that were looking for reasons not to vote for Pratt I’m sure they found that with the charges,” Givens said.
Milwaukee County District Attorney Michael McCann charged Pratt last week with four civil counts of filing a false campaign finance report and another of failing to deposit personal campaign contributions in a campaign account.
McCann has said Pratt’s campaign finance reports did not match bank statements for his campaign account. Documents show the figures were off by about $116,000 at the end of 2003.
The prosecutor decided against seeking a more serious charge against Pratt, saying he did not believe there was a criminal motive. But, he has described the problem as foolish.
Among the allegations, Pratt is accused of not reporting a $43,609 donation from his sister-in-law and instead putting it in a personal checking account. He also failed to report campaign donations, including 20 checks totaling $7,995.
Pratt blamed Barrett, a fellow Democrat, for prompting the investigation. Barrett denied the accusation and said he only recently met the citizen who called the district attorney’s office last fall about possible violations, which led to the investigation.
A poll conducted just before the charges were filed showed Pratt and Barrett each with 44 percent of the vote. Pratt was supported by 88 percent of blacks questioned and 20 percent of whites, while Barrett drew 66 percent of the white vote and 7 percent of the black vote. Twelve percent were undecided.
Milwaukee’s population is 50 percent white, 37 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic and 4 percent other groups, census figures show.
Barrett said the even though the votes seem to be down racial lines, the race is getting people to talk about race relations in the city, which he said will help the city move forward.
“I am hopeful it is a sign of growing pains rather than any permment scars that happened as a result of this campaign,” he said.
Pratt has been an alderman of a north side district that is largely black since 1987. He became acting mayor in January when Mayor John Norquist left four months early for a job in Chicago in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal and an admission that he had an extramarital affair.
Barrett represented the north side as part of his district during his five terms in Congress before leaving in 2002 when he made an unsuccessful bid for governor.
Pratt said the charges against him have strengthened and energized his campaign.
“It’s made a number of people who supported me a lot stronger in their support because they view the timing of it as not coincidence,” he said.
Janet Boles, a professor of political science at Milwaukee’s Marquette University, expected 90 percent of the black community to vote.
“I think the key word is going to be turnout,” Boles said.
R.L. McNeely, an attorney and professor who is black, said he decided to vote for Pratt because of Barrett’s negative ads and what he sees as disproportionate media coverage of the charges.
He said Pratt’s problems involved sloppy bookkeeping with his own money, not theft.
“The response was like taking a sledgehammer to attack a problem that amounted to no more than a pimple on a baby’s behind,” he said. Then there’s the 12 percent of undecided poll voters.
Jim Koneazny, 71, a white retired management consultant, said he was leaning toward Pratt but was also concerned about how Pratt would handle the city’s $1 billion budget and about Barrett’s lack of city government experience.
“It’s difficult,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of people waiting until the last minute to decide, even myself.”