Joel Brennan, Secretary of the Dept. of Administration, sat down with WTMJ’s John Mercure for Sunday’s WTMJ Conversations.
Click the player to listen to the entire chat or read the transcript below.
Transcription provided by eCourt Reporters, Inc.
JOHN MERCURE: I want to start, Joel, with where you were born and raised, you are a Wisconsin guy. Tell me where you were born and raised.
JOEL BRENNAN: I am a Wisconsin guy through and through. So, I was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Milwaukee, and I have — I was born into a
very large family. I’m the second youngest of 12 kids.
JOHN MERCURE: Wow.
JOEL BRENNAN: One of my parents lost one of their children — and, in fact, he came along before me — to childhood cancer before the age
of — of 1. And so, I’ve always kind of thought of myself as growing up as one of 11kids and being the second youngest. So I grew up in Brookfield. My parents built one of the first houses in their subdivision in Brookfield and, while I was in high school, moved to Wauwatosa. So, I kept kind of moving back. My parents had moved out of the city to the suburbs, and as I have grown, I’ve moved back closer now. I live — my wife and I and our kids live in the City of Milwaukee.
JOHN MERCURE: Where did you go to high school?
JOEL BRENNAN: I attended Marquette University High School class of — going to tell people how old I am — but the class of 1988.
JOHN MERCURE: That’s a great school. Were you involved in school?
JOEL BRENNAN: Well, I was involved in attending classes, I think the records will show that.
JOHN MERCURE: That’s good.
JOEL BRENNAN: Yeah, I was — so I played two sports. I played basketball and baseball, and I was very involved in student government and other
things. You know, I was as engaged, I hope, you know, as somebody can be as a high school student here.
JOHN MERCURE: Do you have favorite childhood memories in Milwaukee or in Brookfield or in Tosa?
JOEL BRENNAN: Sure. I mean, my favorite childhood memories are ones about growing up in a large family, and people who grew up in this
community, or any, would probably remember. The things that stick out for me are family dinners, Sunday dinner, where my mother’s mom — my grandmother, who lived in the Sherman Park neighborhood, would come over for family dinner and, you know, the drive back and forth to that. Just what was talked about around the kitchen table. There were other things. My dad was really kind of a serial entrepreneur and somebody who was — wanted to be deeply involved in the community, too. But things like, my dad was a children’s book author —
JOHN MERCURE: Oh, wow.
JOEL BRENNAN: — in addition to a number of other things that he did, but he sold children books and T-shirts and things like that in the early days of
Summerfest. So, some of my earliest memories are going down to Summerfest and putting out tables and my dad was hawking his children’s book and his T-shirts, things like that. So very much of, you know, being part of that, we were all kind of in the family business that my dad was engaged into. So that — those were, you know, very fun memories.
Now, what I’ll tell you a little bit about — which I hope the statute of limitations has run out, my father passed away a long time ago — but he sold — his
children books were all about animals. So, there were Freddy the Frog, Elihula the Elephant, and one was called Spunky the Monkey. And my dad one year thought it was a smart idea — when he was doing this, I think it was around the time of the state fair — that he would actually rent a monkey as part of the thing that would sell his children’s books. And you can imagine that maybe that didn’t go so well. And I think the monkey lived for a very short time at my home, moved in my childhood home with the 11 kids. And so, I think at one point my mom said either my dad goes or the monkey. So, the monkey didn’t stick around for too long.
JOHN MERCURE: That’s a great story. You’re a Marquette guy too, right?
JOEL BRENNAN: Yes.
JOHN MERCURE: What’s the best part about being part of the Marquette University family?
JOEL BRENNAN: Oh, I think it’s just the fact that I was able to go to college with some of the same guys I — because I went to an all-male school, some
of them are guys, but some of the same people I had gone to high school with and just the network in this community and in Southeastern Wisconsin that Marquette has is really — really, you know, strengthens, I think, your career. But the other thing that really shaped me and it shaped a lot of what I’m doing now and shaped the early part of my career is that I did a summer internship at Marquette out in Washington DC in the summer 1990. And like, you know, hundreds — literally hundreds — of other young people who have gone to Marquette University got my start an as intern on Capitol Hill, learned a lot about the federal government process. And that really shaped a lot of what I have done throughout my career.
And so, you know, Father Tim O’Brien is somebody who has been around Marquette University for a long time and had a — has had a huge influence on
people who have shaped public policy at every level, whether it’s at the state; at the federal level, but his focus on doing things and getting kids internships in Washington really had a huge impact on me and had a whole generation of young people who studied political science and really lived it through Father O’Brien in Marquette. So that really — you know, those things, both the community connections but also opening my eyes and opening the eyes of young people to what the federal process looked like and what our responsibility is in that is something that, really, I got shaped in at
JOHN MERCURE: Joel, you went to the University of Chicago for grad school, you met your wife Audra there. Tell me about that. How did that come to
JOEL BRENNAN: Well, Audra is a graduate of Northwestern and she graduated with a degree in, I think it’s called, mathematics and the social sciences. So, she was very much on the analytical side. Like, my degrees from Marquette are in English political science, so I did a lot of writing; I hadn’t done a lot of economics and econometrics and, you know, finance and a lot of those things that the degree at the University of Chicago is all about. It was very much quantitative, and a lot had to do with analytics. So, my wife was well prepared for that environment, I was a little less well prepared. And so, she helped me out a lot when we met in graduate school. And — but it was also — it was a situation where I had for — I had been out of school for five years. After I had gotten my degree from Marquette, I worked on Capitol Hill. I did some lobbying for Miller Brewing Company in Cincinnati — based out of Cincinnati. So, I had moved around a little bit and wanted to get that advanced degree. And I also knew that I was kind of — I was not as well prepared on the numbers side of things. On the policy side, I’d done a lot of the politics and so wanted to do something. And, to be honest, it was a little bit of a foreign environment for me. I had, you know, known more of the, kind of, what happened behind the scenes and the political side of policymaking. And I had hoped and wanted to make sure that I got myself better schooled and better prepared to do the work when it came to policy analysis and financial modeling and things like that. And while that still is not something I ever would say is a natural skill for me, being on campus at the University of Chicago and having access to the type of people and the type of programming they had certainly helped in that regard. And those are still tools that I’d say I use now and will use throughout my career.
JOHN MERCURE: All right. Let’s get into that career a little bit here, 25-plus year career in public policy. I wanted to ask you about your time working
for U.S. Congressman Tom Barrett, who’s now, of course, Milwaukee’s mayor. What was that like as a young person in your career?
JOEL BRENNAN: Well, it actually goes back to kind of how I was raised and growing up in a big family. Because Tom and one of my older sisters — here’s your news flash for you — they dated when they were in high school. So, Tom was at Marquette High, my sister had gone to Divine Savior, and they dated
and stayed friends throughout the time where they were growing up, whether, you know, when he went to UW and when he got into the state legislature. And — and when I was graduating from Marquette, when I was a junior and a senior at Marquette, Tom was engaged in his first race for Congress. And so, it was kind of a natural for me, I had grown up going door to door just passing leaflets and doing things for him as a volunteer in his campaign. My grandmother lived in the Sherman Park neighborhood and Tom represented that area in the Assembly, and so, you know, he would see her going door-to-door. So when Tom was getting ready to launch this bid for Congress, Jim Moody had vacated the seat back in 1992 and it was going to be a crowded democratic primary, I was kind of the first person to sign on to his campaign, first as a volunteer, then I got paid and worked on that campaign, and then when he won, went to Washington with him. So, I graduated in 1992, and he was elected in ’92, so in January of 1993, moved out to Washington with a fellow alum from Marquette, a guy who had just graduated with me and we started working there. And I worked on Tom’s staff out there for about two years. So he was, you know, then a freshman member of Congress, one of 435, and just kind of getting to know the ropes. And at least I had, a year-and-a-half prior, had spent the summer in Washington and learned, you know, something about process and where the buildings are and how you get things. So, you know, at least I was able to use some of those to help him as a freshman member of Congress.
JOHN MERCURE: You, of course, were the longtime CEO of Discovery World, one of the gems in our community. What was the most rewarding part about heading up Discovery World?
JOEL BRENNAN: Really, I would say the community’s embrace of that as a new facility but also the, like, the business community and the education
community understanding where we need to go in Milwaukee — where we need to go in Wisconsin in the STEM education, and the overall kind of need to continually fill that pipeline of people going into STEM education. And so, you know, from a practical standpoint, it was a great experience doing that because I think we were able to — over the time that I was there, about a decade or longer — able to evolve more into how can we be most responsive
to the needs of that community. On the other side, I’m proud of the fact that we took something that was very challenged — you know, I started there just before — just as the great recession was upon us, and Discovery World, like lots of other places and frankly like lots of places right now, is having major financial challenges. And with the help, you know, the bedrock help of Mike Cudahy, but also support from other corporations around the community, other individual philanthropists and just people who were there for us and some creative use of tools like new market tax credits, we were able to
navigate our way through that financial challenge and get to a point where we could build on an addition and do things that were even more responsive and reflective of what we thought the community was going to need for the next 15 or 20 years. So, you know, it was gratifying, but it’s also an example — and what’s happened in the last seven months is an example of, you know, in the nonprofit world overall and in that education space, you live on the razor’s edge and it doesn’t take a lot to really create very challenging times, which we’ve all lived through over the last six or seven months and will continue to even as we navigate our way out of the public health crisis through COVID-19.
JOHN MERCURE: Joel, was it a tough decision to leave Discovery World and become the secretary for the Department of Administration?
JOEL BRENNAN: It’s always a tough decision. You know, the reason to do any job, and frankly, the reason to do the job that I have now, the reason
that I did the job prior was the people that I had the chance to be associated with. And, you know, I had to make a decision in the course of, you know, less than a month’s time to accept the position with the governor and then close up the things that I had been working on for a long time at Discovery World. So, the pace of it made it challenging, but at the same time, you know, you don’t get asked to do these things in public service many times in your career. And we were at a time, kind of an inflection point in Wisconsin, where there was a change of a long-time republican administration to a democratic administration. There are lots of challenges that we faced, and we faced a ton of them. I don’t think that anybody looked in the tea leaves and saw what was coming a year into this administration and what the long-term impacts of that are going to be.
And so, you know, was it — it’s always a hard decision to leave somewhere, but I also, you know, it’s — to bring in new leadership at a place is also a
good thing, and I think Bryan Wunar, who succeeded me under the most difficult of circumstances, has done a good job at Discovery World. And they continue to do innovative things, just like lots of the nonprofits and the destinations in this community continue to do.
JOHN MERCURE: All right. Let’s talk about some of the stuff that’s going on related to your job with DOA. I want to start with a couple questions
about COVID. Do you worry, Joel, about Governor Evers? He’s elderly, pre-existing health conditions — I know he’s being safe — his age, all of that, does that concern you?
JOEL BRENNAN: Governor Evers is a cancer survivor. He’s somebody who has taken this very seriously from the — from its first days. And so, he
has, I think, been a role model for the rest of us to do things the right way: To wear a mask; to make sure you’re socially distancing; to do all those things that he continually, whenever he has an opportunity, pushes other people to do. So, you know, I think I could express that I have — I have concerns for Governor Evers, he has concerns for Governor Evers, we have concern for 5.75 million people who live in the State of Wisconsin. We all need to do the responsible things. And there are lots of people and lots of businesses, lots of organizations that have done that over the last seven months, you know, but the spike that we have seen in recent weeks in Wisconsin and the challenges that we’re navigating our way through right now are a really good
example that the disease and the pandemic, they don’t discriminate. They will go wherever it has an opportunity to. And so, it means that we all have to continually do the responsible thing even as we’re fatigued. And even as time goes on and we are sick of this being around and the impact that it’s having, you know, that’s when it can sneak up and that’s when it can continually rear its head and have devastating consequences on us.
So, you know, but I think we all should be concerned about each other, and that’s one of the things that the governor has said from the beginning is, you
know, take your own personal responsibility, extend it to your family, extend it in the workplace, the habits that you do. So — so, we all have a responsibility here.
JOHN MERCURE: Joel, has the conservative supreme court and legislature made the governor, made DOA gun shy about trying to rain in the virus?
JOEL BRENNAN: I don’t think anybody is gun shy about this. I think what it has done, it has reduced the tools that we have. It’s narrowed the ability
for the governor to do some of those things. When they overturned the first safer-at-home order and kind of tied the governor’s hands on that, that made it challenging. The fact that they’re in court now trying to overturn an extension of the mask mandate, I think there are — short of a vaccine, which there are heroic people working on at the national and global level, there’s work going on here in the State of Wisconsin. But until we have that and until we’re able to find a way to administer that efficiently and get that out, there are only so many tools that we have, and they start with individuals with their personal actions, wearing masks, you know, making sure that we’re doing things the right way. And I think it’s unquestioned that what the legislature has done, what the state supreme court has done here in Wisconsin has narrowed the ability to utilize those tools. And it puts additional burden on individuals, it puts additional burden on local communities, other aspects of this, that make the ability for us to have a statewide response much more challenging.
JOHN MERCURE: Joel, how tough was it to be focused on certain priorities and programs and a game plan, and then March and April come and,
boom, you have to pivot instantaneously because of COVID?
JOEL BRENNAN: Well, this is a — the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been led by lots and lots of people who, you know, no one will probably
ever know their names. They are people from the Department of health services led by Secretary-designee Andrea Palm and led by the governor as well, but there are legions of people and people who are working in state government whose names are not going to be well known who were spending 18 hours a day in the emergency operation center; who are building a testing infrastructure for the State of Wisconsin where heretofore none had existed; making sure that we could get PPE out to the places that needed it around the state; making sure that, you know, from a public health standpoint that we are coordinating with all local public health around the state. So there — I would say this, and I don’t think this is a partisan statement at all, but this is kind of the time where public — public employees and people in the public sector were called on in ways that I think they have never been done so before, and they’ve answered that call. And I can tell you, you know, top to bottom within state government — and this is the case in lots of other places — we had to pivot to working from home largely and — but there were other people who called into — hundreds of people who were called into the emergency operations apparatus for the state and they answered that call. I think, you know, clearly, after doing this for seven months, there are lots of people who are — who are getting fatigued by that and there’s challenges to that. You know, I think one of the things that we’re trying to do now is, even as we continually respond to health side of this and the public health pandemic, we’re also working very diligently on trying to respond on the financial aspects of this. So, we’re — there are a number of programs the governor has announced over the last couple of months related to, whether it’s related to rental
assistance or economic development for small businesses or support for agriculture, any number of things that we’ve also been administering. And I think this is in some ways the reason why for people who cry about public employees or who, you know, want them to — want to look down on that work, you know, these are people who are doing heroic duty day after day after day doing it oftentimes anonymously but working as hard as they can to support people in the state who are really hurting.
JOHN MERCURE: Joel, I want to ask you about a couple other things. Shed some light for us on what’s happening with the Department of Workforce
Development, people not receiving unemployment checks in a timely manner, reports that phones aren’t being answered. How do we fix that?
JOEL BRENNAN: Well, I think we have — we have done what we can — we’re trying to use the tools that we have at our disposal. You know, John, this
is not a problem that was created in the Evers’ administration, it’s not a problem that was created overnight. There are — there’s documentation going back seven years that that legislature knew long ago that the challenges that were there with the technology and systems at the Department of Workforce Development. And, you know, so, there’s blame to go all around where the system stood when we had the kind of unprecedented deluge back in March and April. Having said that, you know, we have tried to do the two things that we have at our disposal. We’ve added personnel where we can. We’ve added more than a thousand people who are working at the Department of Workforce Development who weren’t when this all started. We’ve
tried to employ where we can technological advances and some techniques even knowing that the system overall has to be fixed and that that’s going to be a significant expense. And that’s something that the governor has said we’re looking at, we will be pursuing in the next state budget. So, there are those structural things that we are doing, and we’re trying to employ the two things we really have at our disposal, which is technology and people.
Having said all that, I know people, I have talked to people, you know people who are not used to having been in the unemployment system who have
been waiting weeks and weeks for this, and we are doing everything we possibly can to put the resources together to try to fix that. And, again, I think everybody bears some responsibility for that. I take some personal responsibility for that. My former colleague Caleb Frostman resigned in part of because of the delays that have been part of that, but there is responsibility in the legislature for that. There is responsibility in past administration. And I think we would be in a better place and I think we’re trying to get to that better place if it weren’t — if there weren’t so much partisan blame being put out there and more effort at how do we get to a solution here, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do on a day-by-day basis.
JOHN MERCURE: Are toll roads a good option to fund transportation and roads in our state?
JOEL BRENNAN: I think Craig Thompson, who’s the secretary of transportation, would have a better educated response to that, but what I can tell you
is there needs to be a longer-term solution when it comes to transportation. In the most-recent budget that the governor passed, we increased significantly some of the things that we were pushing especially for our local roads and things like that, but we also, in Governor Evers first budget, he also had the least amount of borrowing that had been done in about 20 years. And so I think what happened for a long time, and this happened a lot under the Walker administration, is they continued to borrow year in and year out for costs that need to be paid in the very near term. So, the amount of
borrowing, the amount that we’re spending on interest payments every year went from about 10 percent — 10 cents on the dollar at the beginning of the Walker administration to about 20 cents on the dollar. That’s not sustainable. There needs to be a longer-term solution and it starts with being, you know, clear with people about what the priorities are, but also looking at where you can invest over time and not continuing to put stuff on the credit card that, you know, our kids or our grandkids are going to have to pay over the longer haul.
JOHN MERCURE: Joel, I want to ask you some questions about leadership and how you get through your day and that sort of thing of thing. Let’s start with leadership, are there leaders that you emulate?
JOEL BRENNAN: I think I’ve been — I’ve had the ability over time to work with and for people and I — whether they are Tom Barrett who I worked with
very closely on a number of jobs, or people like Mike Cudahy, but also people I worked with who were my supervisors throughout. And I guess it’s less people than qualities and characteristics that I’d like to — I’d like to think that I try to employ. I have said about Government Evers, I think most people say this about him: He’s got a very level head. He’s not someone who gets too up or too down, and I think keeping that cool level-headed perspective is something that’s important for leaders. I think, you know, the best leaders — and we don’t have great examples of it, frankly, at the federal level at this time, but I think humility and a humble approach. If there is one thing that COVID-19 has done, it has humbled a lot of us and it’s humbled our nation when it comes to those things we can control and those we can’t. So, you know, it’s those qualities, whether it’s keeping a level head, being humbled, being open to the fact that you may not have every answer right off the bat, and then being willing to roll up your sleeves and pretty much do anything
when you’re called. And those are the qualities that I’d hope to do. And I’ve seen those in, you know, the people that I’ve worked with throughout my career I’ve had an opportunity to see those employed, so I hope, if I’m doing anything, I’m trying to employ and trying to model some of those behaviors that I’ve seen in people over the years, but — and I’d also be lying to you if I didn’t say — I told you I came from a large family, and I’ve got a bunch of older brothers and sisters and my parents have both passed on, you know, it’s quality like that or the qualities I’ve seen and I have lived and the people like that are also things that I hope I emulate as I go forward.
JOHN MERCURE: What’s your preferred method of communicating with your staff? I know it’s kind of changed for all of us now because of the world we’re living in, but given an ideal situation, what’s the preferred way? Phone? E-mail? Text? In person? Zoom? What works for you?
JOEL BRENNAN: Well, I would say that in-person meetings are always best. My mother and father were both journalists, and they were people who
appreciated more than anything the spoken and the written word. And so, I think being able to talk to somebody directly and then being able to read their body language and, you know, see and respond to them, is something that is critically important. You know, we’ve all had to — through Zoom calls, we’ve now have fairly regular meetings across our department. We have more than a thousand people, 1,400 people at the Department of Administration. So, you know, we have presentations like that, but not being able to get some of that direct feedback, whether you’re in a group of four or whether you’re in a group of 400, that’s one of the challenges I think that we’re all facing right now when it comes to COVID-19 and the way that we’ve had to deal with the change in the workplace. But I also think — and part of our job at the Department of Administration is to be, really, the HR department for all of state government. I think we clearly have reached an inflection point there where there are going to be some structural changes and long-term changes when it comes to how people work, whether it’s in, you know, the private sector or in public sector where more people — now that they’ve been forced to work from home — understand what telecommuting is like and understand the benefits and the challenges of that. And what that means across state government is going to have a ripple for years to come. And I think that’s — there’s a challenge there, but there’s also an exciting opportunity because it may enable more people to have an influence whether it’s in Milwaukee or Kenosha or Marinette or Superior, anywhere else around the state to maybe be able to work more directly for what’s going on in state government without having to be in a seat in an office building in Madison. There are, I think, some — some real exciting opportunities about what that may mean for the state workforce and being able to be reflective across the State of Wisconsin in the
JOHN MERCURE: Hey, Joel, as we wrap things up here, I want to have a little bit of fun and ask you some more personal questions. Last great book
JOEL BRENNAN: Well, I just read a book — and actually I listened to it, I was cheating a little bit, because whether I’m driving to Madison or trying to walk back and forth to my — the office here in Milwaukee, I’m oftentimes listening. This was a book that was about Jimmy Hoffa, and it was written by
his — like, his stepson or somebody who was — not somebody who was real close to a person who was — at some point, it was suggested that this guy was part of what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. So it was just a — it was a great thing to learn more about that period of history, the late — the 1960s and the early 1970s and what was going on in labor, but also what was going on across departments and in the federal government as well. It had, you know, a splash of the Kennedys, it had Nixon, it had Jimmy Hoffa. It had all of that, and it’s real history told by some of the people who were there. So that was one that was of interest to me. I’ve actually — I’ve got a couple of books on my nightstand that were written by friends of mine, Hector Colon, who has a new book out. You know, I like to — I’d love to see — to be able to at some point to be able to write something that’s meaningful like that. I mentioned my father was an author, so I also like to see when friends or people I know who are writing something about their life story or the things that they have to offer. So, I’ve got no shortage of opportunity or not shortage of things to read there, what I have is a shortage of time sometime to get to those.
JOHN MERCURE: So, your two kids, Allison and Connor, you coach basketball and baseball for your kids, and we always talk about the lessons that
that gives kids when they play sports. Are there lessons you have learned from coaching?
JOEL BRENNAN: Oh, I always tell — and I’ve been coaching I think almost as soon as my basketball career ended. When I got cut from the team at
Marquette University, I started coaching. But I always say to the kids that I coach that I learn as much from them as I have to give them. You know, and especially — so I’ve been coaching Connor’s team, he goes to Golda Meir in the Milwaukee Public School System, and I’ve coached there for the last four years, and there are kids that come from very different environments there, very different environments than Connor and Allison are growing up in. And so, I learn a lot about that, I learn a lot about grit and about, you know, kids who are coming from very little but who have a lot to give and hopefully they can do some of that in their athletic endeavor, but that carries over to what they can do in their — in the classroom what they can do in their community. And it just — it’s something that I get a lot out of, and I absolutely get probably more out of every ounce that I put into there than the kids get from me. So, it’s something that — it really kind of completes me for who I want to be and what I want to do in terms of making my life rich.
JOHN MERCURE: A little birdie told me that you like doing crossword puzzles. What caliber? USA Today? New York Times?
JOEL BRENNAN: Well, I did — so the Packers didn’t play yesterday, so I did have time to go at the Sunday Times crossword and I finished that
JOHN MERCURE: That’s good.
JOEL BRENNAN: So the Sunday Times is one that I’ll do, and, yeah, I mean, it is — and just like anything else, just like a sport or anything, there is,
like, certain muscles that you — that you use doing a crossword and certain things that show up over and over again that make it easier to do the more you do it on a repetitive basis.
JOHN MERCURE: How long do you envision doing this DOA thing?
JOEL BRENNAN: I serve at the pleasure of the governor. So, the governor has four years in this term, if he chooses to run for another one, you know, that will be up to him, but I serve until he tells me that I no longer should serve or if there is something else that comes up. But I can tell you, you know, this is
probably the case for me, it’s the case for my colleagues across the cabinet, we have put a lot into the last several months. You know, there’s real time and there’s COVID time, and I think no matter where you have been over the last several months, you have been stretched and you have been forced to do new things and push yourself in new ways, and that’s exhausting. And so, when we navigate our way out of this challenge, I think it’s going to be a time everybody, no matter where you are, to kind of take stock and see how you’ve changed and see how the world has changed around us and figure out where we go from there. But I have to say that we’re working on a number of programs right now at DOA that are about, in addition to how do we respond to COVID-19 pandemic, how do we provide some additional assistance to businesses that have had a dramatic effect by what’s gone on over the last several months. And so, I’m really — while it’s exhausting, I feel like we’re doing right in trying to do what we can to help industries across the state, and so I want to keep doing that for as long as I have an opportunity to.