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By Victor Huyke

The Milwaukee Common Council members voted unanimously to elect 12th District Alderman Jose Perez as the next President.

Perez was the lone nominee and will serve a two-year term. Perez is the first Latino elected to the position. He replaces Alderman Cavalier Johnson, who served as President from 2020 until 2022, when Johnson was elected Mayor.

“I want to say thank you to my friends & colleagues,” Perez said. “Serving in this position is impossible without us being together; we won’t always agree, but I promise that we will talk, and we will agree to disagree sometimes, and I will listen.”

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By Edgar Mendez

Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

 

As the first Latino Common Council president in Milwaukee’s history, José Pérez knows this distinction comes with added pressure. 

“I feel it and welcome it. It’s an awesome honor to be the first,”  Pérez said. “But it won’t mean much if I don’t do a good job.

Pérez, 53, was voted in unanimously by peers on the Common Council on April 19, succeeding Cavalier Johnson, who was elected mayor earlier that month. 

Among the many challenges the Pérez faces in his new role, he said, are to re-energize and refocus the council to tackle major issues, including reckless driving, public safety and the aging infrastructure in the city. 

“These are topics that cross all boundaries that we need to unify on,” Pérez said.  He is also tasked with guiding the council to address the city’s growing fiscal crisis.

Pérez said costs have gone up while revenue has decreased. Balancing the budget with federal dollars, such as pandemic aid, is not sustainable, he added. One solution, he said, is for an increase in shared state tax revenue or to create a new sales tax in the city. 

We need to “work with the state and figure out how they can be more helpful,” he said. “I don’t want to cut any core services.”  Local and state leaders have pushed officials for years to increase the amount of state tax revenue that comes back to Milwaukee, where most of those taxes are collected.

They’ve also requested a change in state law that would allow municipal taxes as a means to generate revenue.  JoCasta Zamarripa, alderwoman for the 8th District, said Perez has the ability to help bridge the fractured relationship between the city and state. She’s seen him do it before at the city level. 

“He’s that member who will reach out and talk to all of us,” she said. “Even when there might be bad blood, José’s good about setting that aside for the good of the council and the good of his constituents.”  Pérez, who is married and has two teenagers,  said the ability to build relationships, even when people have philosophical or personal differences, goes back to the fundamentals of organizing.

He first honed that skill as a volunteer community organizer working on landlord and other issues for Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope, or MICAH, an interfaith organization that addresses justice issues in Milwaukee.  

“You make no assumptions about people; you sit down and learn what’s important to them,” Pérez said. “You go down the road with someone and build that relationship, then you ask them to either trust you or you’re figuring out how you can work together.” 

Pérez, who dropped out of Pulaski High School in 1986 and quickly earned his GED, built relationships as an organizer for years before being drawn into politics. That trajectory began when he enrolled in Cardinal Stritch University in the mid- 1990s.

At the time there was no political science major at the school, but Pérez took those classes anyways.  In between classes he spent one summer interning for U.S. Rep. Jerry Kleczka, D-Milwaukee, in Washington D.C., through the Hispanic Congressional Caucus Institute, and another as an intern for former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist. 

Pérez then returned to his roots as executive director of MICAH, helping to establish the Good Jobs and Livable Neighborhoods Coalition, among other accomplishments.

He also worked as a national field representative for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrialized Organizations, or AFL-CIO, and had positions with the Department of City Development in Milwaukee. 

Around 2012, his taste for politics returned and he ran for alderman of District 12 on the city’s South Side. It was around that time that Jesús Salas, one of the most respected activists in the Milwaukee Latinx community’s history, first met Pérez. Salas said at the time he was going door-to-door on the South Side to drum up support to recall former Gov.  Scott Walker  when he noticed someone else hitting the pavement.  “He was knocking on doors, too,” Salas recalled. “I saw him on the streets daily talking to residents.”  Salas said he remains impressed by Pérez and said it’s obvious that his colleagues feel the same. 

“Well, I think that was demonstrated by the fact that he was given the unanimous vote to become Common Council president,” Salas said. “They saw his performance during his time in the city and believed in him.” 

His path to the top  Born in Milwaukee and raised on the city’s South Side by his Puerto Rico-born parents and grandparents, Pérez had a childhood much like many others in the neighborhood in the 1980s.

He spent his time outside, played Little League baseball and shot hoops at different neighborhood playgrounds.  Joining Pérez in those pickup games was Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Pedro Colón. 

“I want it on the record that I beat him at basketball in the seventh grade,” Colón joked.  Colón and Pérez both attended St. Matthews School, now Prince of Peace School, on South 25th and West Scott streets.

Even then, he said, Pérez was intense and serious about the rules and fair play. He said he knew Pérez would be successful.   “He always had that poise, and he was smart and always had something to tell you,” he said. 

Colón said while he was the type of kid who never crossed Greenfield Avenue, Pérez ventured into other neighborhoods to play pickup games. As he traveled into different neighborhoods on the South Side, Pérez became more exposed to street gangs, which peaked in the city in the ’80s and  ’90s. “When we grew up, it was tough, all the gangs over there at Kagel,” said Perez about the neighborhood around South 12th and West Mineral streets. “We witnessed some stuff that was kind of wild, and when it got hairy, you made your way home.”  Pérez would eventually parlay those experiences into work developing gang prevention and youth development programs. 

His grandparents were his greatest influence, however.  “I have to go back to the beginning and give credit for that to my grandparents, how hard they worked and how humble they were,” said Pérez, who split his time between his parents’ house on South 10th and Washington streets and his grandparents’ home on South Fifth and West Pierce streets.  His grandmother, Celine Arce, worked at a number of local factories, including a tannery, while his grandfather, José E. Pérez, made a career at Grede Foundries in the Walker’s Point neighborhood.

Pérez said his grandfather worked on molds at Grede until his body would no longer allow it. He moved to doing janitorial work for the company until he retired.  “He kept his head down and took care of his family,” Pérez said.  Pressures of being the first With his values driving him, Pérez has his plate full when it comes to challenges. Zamarripa said she sat down with Pérez and Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic recently to discuss issues related to neighborhoods without working streetlights.  “We can’t have them living in the dark,” Zamarripa said.

“These streetlights are archaic and need to be replaced.”  On Tuesday, the Common Council adopted a resolution to allocate $10 million from the second wave of funding from the American Rescue Plan Act in addition to the $10 million from the first allocation to replace street lighting circuits in the city. 

It’s just another example of the many areas where residents have struggled and city officials can come together to find solutions. 

“The challenges are huge but José is the type of person who can build consensus to solve them,” said Colón, who called Pérez the most influential Latino in the state. 

He also believes that, in his new role, Pérez will influence the next generation of Latinos to aspire to reach new heights.  “There are a lot of kids that are coming behind us and the influence is going to be huge,” he said.

“It’s really the biggest thing that’s happened in a while in the Latino community.”  Pérez said he hopes to be an example for others.  “There’s nothing that you can’t do if you really want to do it,” he said. “I hope that I can be inspirational for people.”

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By Victor Huyke

By Victor Huyke For the first time in Milwaukee County history, three Hispanics will serve on the Milwaukee County Board simultaneously.

The recent Milwaukee County election brings two new members to the County Board of Supervisors. Dyango Zerpa and Juan Miguel Martinez were sworn-in to the Board of Supervisors on Monday, April 18, 2022.

Zerpa, the former legislative assistant to State Representative Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, will represent the 14th County Supervisor District.

Martinez, a union organizer and writer for El Conquistador Latino Newspaper, will represent the 12th District. Ortiz-Velez's former seat.

Marcelia Nicholson, the third Hispanic serving on the county board, is the current Chairwoman of the County Board of Supervisors. Nicholson was first elected to the board in 2016. She represents the 10th County Supervisor District.

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Supervisor Sylvia Ortiz-Velez released the following statement ahead of her departure from the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors: “On April 18, I complete my second and final term as Milwaukee County Supervisor for District 12. While I am bittersweet about leaving the board, I am immensely proud of the work my colleagues and I have done to create a better community for all our residents.

“Despite the challenge of legislating during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have accomplished some tremendous things over the past two years. I led the effort to decriminalize marijuana use and possession, reducing the fine in Milwaukee County to $1.

Removing obscene financial penalties for the use and possession of marijuana is a matter of equity, especially for Milwaukee’s Black and Brown residents who are disproportionately fined and incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses. “In 2021, I passed a resolution demonstrating the county’s strong support for legalizing fentanyl testing strips, a life-saving resource that was classified as drug paraphernalia for many years. Working with first-responders, community leaders, and state officials, we succeeded, and Governor Evers signed a bill legalizing testing strips. Milwaukee County has already begun to distribute strips throughout the community, delivering on a years-long effort to protect our Milwaukee community from fentanyl overdose.

“From community safety to community representation, I have always had the best interest of Milwaukee’s Latino residents in mind. During Milwaukee County’s redistricting process last year, I fought hard to ensure that the county’s new legislative map included two majority-Latino districts. In this, we succeeded.

For the next decade, the South Side Latino community can rest assured that their voices will not be diluted, ignored, or overpowered on the County Board.

“This past February, the Board of Supervisors approved my resolution requesting the federal Department of Justice review Wisconsin’s inequitable shared revenue system. Under this system and the funding formulas the state uses, our county pays out far more than it receives in return.

Milwaukee is the economic engine of this state and it’s time for the state legislature to treat us as such. This is a matter of equity to ensure that we can adequately fund all vital Milwaukee County services, programs, and departments. “My efforts to uplift a sustainable solution to restore our beloved Mitchell Park Domes have laid the groundwork for future action by the board. I implore my colleagues to prioritize the restoration of the Domes, not just for the Clarke Square and Silver City neighborhoods, but for all who visit this inimitable Milwaukee County landmark. “My friends, as I leave this office next week, I look back fondly and proudly on the good work that I have accomplished. I also look ahead to Milwaukee County’s many challenges and opportunities in the coming years. As I continue my service as State Representative for District 8, I am committed to being a proactive, collaborative partner with my colleagues at the county. “I extend my congratulations and best wishes to District 12’s incoming supervisor, Juan Miguel Martinez, as well as to another new, Latino member of the Board, Dyango Zerpa. Thank you to staff, colleagues, my community, and my family who have all contributed mightily to my success and efforts on Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. Most of all, thank you District 12!” Supervisor Ortiz-Velez was first elected in 2018. She represents several neighborhoods on the south side of the City of Milwaukee, including Clarke Square, Mitchell Park and Walker's Point.

By Juan Miguel Martinez

Milwaukee, WI – The Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, or simply “The Domes,” is one of Milwaukee’s most beloved landmarks.

Constructed throughout an eight year period between 1959 and 1967, the three conoidal beehive shaped glass domes are the first of their kind, having been designed by a Milwaukee architect firm.

This was back in a time where Milwaukee was enjoying an industrial boom and there were jobs all over the city, with unions having a strong presence, making this a force to be reckoned with. It was at a time when the city was deemed one of the top five places in America where people of color could flourish and beer was putting us on the map.

Now in 2022, the domes have acted as sort of a metaphor for the city, falling into a state of disrepair and hurting for an economic boost to restore it to its former glory. “SAVE OUR DOMES” says the pin that Jeremy Ebersole is wearing, executive director of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance.

“It is my hope that Milwaukee County can pull through for us and really boost support and funding for the Domes. It is the only conservatory Milwaukee has and is integral to maintaining the history of Mitchell Park,”

Ebersole said. Mitchell Park was the first park created by Milwaukee’s park commission. It occupies a spot on the south side of Milwaukee, with a core of 5 acres. It sits adjacent to the Menomonee Valley, and has had trails that run parallel built into it, thanks to the efforts of county and grassroots collaboration.  

The conservatory consists of three separate domes - The Arid Dome, which opened in November 1967, the Tropical Dome, which opened in February 1966, and the Show Dome opened in December 1964.

All three stand proudly overlooking the city, although a total of 800 glass blocks have fallen loose over the years. According to the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance report released in 2019, the Domes Task Force, a group commissioned by the County Supervisors and residents came up with the final plan that called for public engagement and suggested a preservation solution based on a vision to redevelop the park for financial sustainability through public and private partnerships. It also suggested using Historic Tax Credits.

This plan was put forth and made available to the public in 2019. It could create 300 jobs and $16 million a year in economic impact, which would be something that would reinvigorate the surrounding Clarke Square and Silver City neighborhoods.

An estimated $66 million investment would be required, including $13 million of County investment. “In this model, Mitchell Park becomes a new type of park – and a model for Milwaukee County Parks,” Ebersole said. “Programmed through partnerships with experienced Milwaukee organizations that know how to provide expertise in areas ranging from children’s summer camps to green teens programs year-round, to master gardener classes, culinary arts degree programs and horticultural degree programs.”

These relationships are designed to be a win-win, eliminate replication of what exists, taking every organization’s work to the next level. Architecturally, this work will be done in a sustainable, 50-year plan for the rehabilitation of the Domes, and in a collection of other spaces Park-wide that invite and involve community, from gardens to learning spaces, urban health clinic and training center for new horticulturalists.

The plan is intended to be implemented in phases over a ten-year period that would have started in 2020.” says Jeremy. When completed, Mitchell Park and its Domes will once again be the national breakthrough leader as was the case when they were built more than 50 years ago. This time they will provide a best practice example of a sustainable, urban botanical park - a place that demonstrates excellence and stewardship while showcasing history through its Domes.

The idea is to implement a state of the art farm-to-table restaurant, indoor and outdoor picnic spaces, parkwide lighting, an improved amphitheater, and a clean and fresh pond for Mitchell Park, which residents will agree is sorely needed. More than anything, creating an economic engine for the surrounding neighborhood as well as updating one of our most beloved and historic sites is absolutely paramount to a renewed collective self-esteem.

 

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