Dennis McBride became Wauwatosa’s 17th mayor in 2020. He had served 10 years on the common council before taking office. McBride joined Libby Collins to reflect on a year filled with unique challenges facing the city.
LIBBY COLLINS: In what year were you elected mayor here in Wauwatosa?
MAYOR DENNIS MCBRIDE: 2020.
LIBBY COLLINS: What was the goal? Why — why did you decide to run for mayor in 2020?
MAYOR DENNIS MCBRIDE: My mother was the vice chair of the democratic party in Wisconsin in the 1960s during the Kennedy years, and so — and then she became a political reporter. So, that was part of the conversation and the environment in our house. And I’m the only elected official of the seven McBride siblings but everybody is passionate about politics in our family, but I went to school, to college, with a mission, thought a journalism degree would be a good liberal arts degree, and it was. So I’d learned how to write and do other things and get my history and my economics and my philosophy and all that. Then I said I’m going to go to law school and public — and graduate school in public administration so I can become a well-rounded person. And I always thought I was going to run for office at some point. I ended up working in a variety of volunteer capacities for the City of Wauwatosa: Civil Service Commission, Board of Review, and other things. I ran for alderman, I served for ten years. And then people wanted me to run for mayor because the previous mayor was — she had served eight years and she was going to move on. So, I thought it was time to step up. I thought I had things to offer and it just seemed like a logical progression.
LIBBY COLLINS: It’s been a rough time though. Wauwatosa has had a lot of problems since you’ve been elected mayor. Were you surprised last summer when there was civil unrest in the city?
MAYOR DENNIS MCBRIDE: Yes and no. Since about everybody I know and a whole bunch of people I don’t know who stopped me in the grocery store and they go, “Mr. Mayor, bet you didn’t realize you were going to get all that trouble when you ran for office.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s for sure.” I mean, who would have conceded a pandemic, first of all, the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1918 in this country. So, that was my starting point, and then George Floyd got murdered. And then we — you know, we already had a police officer who had shot and killed three people of color in the line of duty. And the George Floyd murder set off what we’ve seen internationally. And so the debate, the discussion about racial discrimination, and we had the misfortune in Wauwatosa of having had this officer be the focal point, and so that brought it all home.
But, when I said yes and no, the Wauwatosa I grew up in was a wonderful place to be white, but it was a place that didn’t want Black people. I was determined to change that. That’s how I was raised. We still are not diverse in the Milwaukee area. We are the — arguably the most segregated place in the country. Our suburbs are still virtually all white, and Nationwide most suburbs are 40 percent people of color. We think that it’s normal to be all white, it’s not normal to be all white. We have to deal with that issue. We have to welcome all people to all communities or we are not going to do, you know, what morality and religions and our laws require. So, I knew that I was stepping into a situation where historically Wauwatosa has not been welcoming.
We’ve been much more welcoming in recent years, but we’re still struggling with the problems that were created by the extraordinary segregation and bigotry the community and other communities like it have created over the years. So, I knew that at some point we were likely to see an issue like that, nobody could have foreseen what blew up last summer nationwide, internationally, and certainly in Wauwatosa though. And so I was prepared on one level and completely unprepared on another level, but I had a background. I had journalism, I had public administration, I had law, I’ve served in the federal government, I’d served in the U.S. government — I mean, Congress, I’d served in an agency, I served locally. I had a whole bunch of experiences that, in a sense, prepared me for a lot of this, and I believe I’ve handled it well.
I’ve got my detractors, but I will tell you that literally for six months after our unrest in October, every day somebody would stop me, sometimes many times a day, they’d stop me and thank me or they’d put handwritten notes on my door. They’d bring flowers to my house. They’d stop me when I was raking leaves or shoveling snow. They’d stop me at the grocery store and thank me for what I’ve done. All that for $30,000 a year, but I’m grateful to them.
LIBBY COLLINS: Project yourself ten years, what will Wauwatosa be like then?
MAYOR DENNIS MCBRIDE: I hope it will be somewhat more diverse. It gets diverse — more diverse slowly. I think the new census will reveal that we are maybe 80 to 82 percent white and the rest nonwhite, and that’s not much improvement but it is improvement. We will have done a lot of things as we already have done in the last year, we’ve accomplished a lot of things to work on diversity issues. I just myself, I appointed the first person of color to library board. Some people may say so what, but I can tell you that the library board is the most popular board in Wauwatosa and everybody wants to be on it.
It was high time for a person of color to be on that board. I just appointed the first person of color to the Plan Commission, which is another important commission in Wauwatosa. My first opportunity I intend to appoint a person of color to the Police and Fire Commission. Wauwatosa is going to benefit from those things but also from what the Common Council and the staff are working on. We’re working on affordable housing. We are trying to undo any choices that the segregation that afflicted us in the past. Wauwatosa is a welcoming place, will be a welcoming place, and will be a much more open place in ten years. And it’s going to remain a wonderful community to live in with great schools and beautiful houses.