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- Mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1953-)
A new era is arriving in Milwaukee.
Mayor Tom Barrett left office effective 5 p.m. Wednesday after 17 years at the city's helm, handing power to Common Council President Cavalier Johnson.
In a news conference in the Mayor's Office at City Hall on Wednesday, he called being mayor the "biggest honor and privilege of my life" and said it was "surreal" to leave.
"This is the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life and it is the most rewarding job I’ve had in my entire life," Barrett said before signing and handing his resignation letter to City Clerk Jim Owczarski. "I'm leaving this job filled with optimism for the future of this city."
The announcement comes a week after the U.S. Senate confirmed Barrett as the next ambassador to Luxembourg, and he had been expected to resign from the city's top job before Dec. 28.
Barrett's departure in the middle of his fifth term will mean Johnson becomes acting mayor until voters choose their next executive in a special election. Whoever is elected will serve out the remainder of Barrett's term, which ends in 2024.
The council has a Dec. 28 deadline to order a special election to take place in conjunction with the Feb. 15 primary and April 5 spring election, saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars that would be needed if the election was held off the normal cycle.
A special council meeting will take place Thursday to order the election on those already scheduled dates.
Johnson is one of eight candidates who have filed to run to fill the remainder of Barrett's term.
Others in the race include Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas, Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic, former Ald. Bob Donovan and state Rep. Daniel Riemer. Other names in the mix are Michael Sampson, Nick McVey and Sheila Conley-Patterson.
The race will be the first without Barrett in nearly two decades, and his departure will kick off a sprint to fill the job.
Barrett was first elected mayor in 2004 after having been elected to the state Assembly in 1984, the state Senate in 1989 and Congress in 1992.
On Wednesday, the outgoing mayor highlighted successes of his tenure, including the development of the Menomonee Valley, Reed Street Yards business park, places like the Pabst Brewery and "literally thousands of new housing units that have gone up over the last 15 years."
Barrett called the last 21 months "extremely difficult," due to the pandemic, the isolation it created, and the unrest in the summer of 2020 following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
He also acknowledged the challenges the new mayor will face, including record homicides in the last two years despite years of declines leading up to the pandemic.
Combating the rise in violence will require getting more funding for police officers, Barrett said.
The city has seen its police force decline due to budget challenges in recent years, and Barrett has floated the idea of implementing a structure in which the state would help support public safety services in the city.
"One of the challenges and one of the disappointments as I leave this job is our fiscal relationship with the State of Wisconsin. Without a doubt that has to be changed," he said. "I'm hoping that having a new face might enhance the chances that that will improve."
He said he would be sworn in as ambassador at 9 a.m. Thursday at the federal courthouse by U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman. He anticipated he would depart for Luxembourg sometime next month.
No oath is required for Johnson to become acting mayor, Owczarski said. He will have the powers of both mayor and council president but will be unable to vote on the council.
Johnson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
He told media as he walked to the Mayor's Office Wednesday evening that he was ready to lead the city.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett resigns, handing reins to Cavalier Johnson