Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Milwaukee’s Common Council now has the most African Americans, women and openly LGBTQ members ever

By: Bridgetower Media Newswires//April 17, 2024//

New Milwaukee Common Council members were sworn in at a ceremony Tuesday

Milwaukee’s Common Council now has the most African Americans, women and openly LGBTQ members ever

By: Bridgetower Media Newswires//April 17, 2024//

Listen to this article

By Alison Dirr, [email protected]

Eight. Six. Two.

They are history-making numbers represented by new Milwaukee Common Council members sworn in Tuesday morning at City Hall.

The 15-member body now has the most African Americans (eight), the most women (six) and the most openly LGBTQ members (two) in its history.

Despite these new majorities, the council did not cross one final threshold. Ald. Milele Coggs had sought the position of council president, as she had in 2020, but with just five votes came up short of the number that would have made her the first woman elected to lead the council.

Instead, 10 council members re-elected Ald. José G. Pérez to the position he won in 2022 to become the first Latino Common Council president.

Council members heralded the changes as a move toward better reflecting the city and the diverse needs of its population. And while they also acknowledged a loss of institutional knowledge that has come with a series of departures, including eight in the last two years, they also welcomed the new energy of the members sworn in Tuesday.

“The more diverse representation you have — the diversity of thought, the diversity of engagement — people who may have not felt either represented by people that don’t look like them … now have a voice and a venue to live out their values,” Pérez said.

He also acknowledged the newness of the council, saying he hoped those with experience in elected office would help the new members. Pérez said he looked forward to serving a full term that would not include some of the challenges of his first, including five council departures in quick succession and the deaths of his father and niece.

“It’s obvious from the interaction I’ve had with the new members, they’re bringing a lot of commitment. … It’s going to be fun, actually,” he said.

Milwaukee Common Council members pose for a photo after being sworn in in the Milwaukee Common Council chambers at Milwaukee City Hall in Milwaukee on Tuesday, April 16, 2024.
Accompanying the shift at the council level have been historic “firsts” among people who hold the top leadership positions at the city and Milwaukee County. That includes Mayor Cavalier Johnson, who was also sworn in Tuesday to a full, four-year term.

Milwaukee Common Council becomes majority African-American for the first time

The council has seen gains in representation from African American and Latino communities, with the former now representing the majority.

“The council is becoming kind of more reflective of the city and its population and I think we all bring different perspectives to the legislation that we debate about and that we pass,” said Coggs, who on the current council is the longest-serving woman and one of the longest-serving members. “I look forward to a term with new ideas, new ways of seeing some things and watching people advocate.”

The city’s population is about 39% Black, 33% white, and 20% Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The federal agency estimated Milwaukee’s population in July 2022 to be about 563,000 people.

Today, two council members are part of the city’s fast-growing Latino community, Pérez and Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa.

Representation can manifest itself in ways large and small, including “bilingual infrastructure” — the communication of city information in English but also other languages.

Representation of women on Milwaukee council hits another record
Women have seen big gains in recent years.

The April 2020 election increased the number of women on the council to a record five with the elections of Zamarripa and Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic. Their addition marked a historic victory for representation, making women one-third of the council for the first time.

Now, they’ve surpassed that number.

The Women’s Caucus gained another member in the April 2 election with Sharlen Moore, who replaces Ald. Michael Murphy in District 10 on the city’s west side.

“This is a really exciting time in just the history of our city,” Moore said, adding that she was honored to be part of it.

She said as a Black woman, her way to the council had been paved by others like Coggs and Vel R. Phillips, the first woman and first African-American elected to the council.

Now, Moore is the sixth woman and one of four Black women on the current council.

“When we talk about representation for this city, it is critically important that individuals that have been generally marginalized and left out of the conversation (are) getting more of an opportunity to sit at the table,” Moore said.

That’s true, too, of younger people who are coming into public office, said Moore, co-founder of youth leadership program Urban Underground.

Her long experience outside the political realm, she said, will help her center people in her role on the council.

Dimitrijevic, too, highlighted the diversity within the women elected to the council, pointing to Moore’s history as a community organizer and the experience she and Zamarripa bring in different levels of government. Dimitrijevic formerly served on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors while Zamarripa was a state representative.

Dimitrijevic, who often talks about being a working mother, recalled explaining the need to heal after a C-section in conversations during her push for paid parental leave.

Coggs said she had seen a shift on the council since she was first elected in 2008. While her voice was long the lone one, it’s now shared with other women, she said. Still, she said even when she was the only woman, the men on the council were open to hearing her perspective.

“I think it has made policy discussions more full,” she said of the increasing number of women. “We lead as we live from the perspectives that we have lived through, and I think men and women have had different life experiences.”

That includes an awareness of how policies would affect groups like working mothers and young girls, she said.

Milwaukee council gains second out member of LGBTQ community
With the election of incoming Ald. Peter Burgelis, the Common Council now includes two out members of the LGBTQ community.

Zamarripa made history in 2020 not only as the first Latina but also the first out LGBTQ member of the council.

She described it as a “tremendous responsibility” to be the first and said she was “elated” to have a second out member of the LGBTQ community joining the body.

Now, she said she wants recognition for the community and to address challenging issues, including a lack of trust by transgender people in the police.

It matters to have more than one person working on these sorts of issues, she said.

“I know what it’s like to be the only member of an underrepresented group serving on a body,” she said, adding, “One is the loneliest number, so to have that additional voice, to have a caucus can be exceptionally powerful.”

Burgelis called it a “great achievement” that the council better reflects the city’s diversity.

“Our Common Council better reflects the people in our city, more now than ever — more women, more people of color, and I’m proud to be the second out member of the Common Council,” Burgelis said on the floor. “We will now have a Queer Caucus in Milwaukee.”

This article first appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and was republished with permission.


What kind of stories do you want to read more of?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Legal News

See All Legal News

WLJ People

Sea all WLJ People

Opinion Digests