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Saturday, July 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  Overcast
The Paper


Former Madison alderman Tim Bruer used his power to help people
A politician and proud of it

Tim Bruer circa 1988.
Tim Bruer circa 1988.
Credit:Morry Gash
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When people run for office and then tell you that they are not a politician, you can be sure of one of two things. Either they're lying to you or they're lying to themselves. And the latter is worse.

Self-understanding is important in a political leader. There are few things I have less respect for than successful politicians who want you to think they are doing the Lord's work. Beware of any pols who quote Gandhi at the bottom of their emails.

I like guys like retired Wisconsin Congressman Dave Obey and Bobby Kennedy, a ruthless politician when he wasn't being the most compassionate one this country has seen in generations.

"I'm a politician and damn proud of it!" wrote Dave Obey in his autobiography, Raising Hell for Justice.

The then-chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee went on to describe how much good he could do as a politician. He wasn't about to apologize for the profession that allowed him to use government as a tool to help people improve their lives.

"I like politicians," said Robert Kennedy, as reported in Thurston Clarke's excellent book The Last Campaign, about Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. Among other less than savory things, as attorney general, RFK had tapped Martin Luther King's phone in an attempt to blackmail a man he regarded as a political enemy of his brother.

This brings us to a local example of a man who reveled in politics, Tim Bruer. After being elected 12 straight times to represent Madison's south side on the Common Council, Bruer went down to defeat earlier this month, a victim of the enemies he had accumulated over that time and of his own lack of understanding of modern campaigning.

I liked Bruer because he could count. For a guy who talked nonstop, he must have done some pretty good listening, because he always knew where the votes were. He knew who was getting along with who, who was on the outs with who and why. He knew, as he liked to say, "where all the bodies are buried."

I didn't start out liking Tim Bruer. When I was first elected mayor, I removed him from his powerful position as chair of the Alcohol License Review Committee. I felt that he had just been there too long and had run it too much as his own personal fiefdom.

In response Bruer vowed to be my dedicated enemy. But my communications director Melanie Conklin knew Bruer from covering city hall for Isthmus, and she understood that he was effective and that we did not want him on the other side if we could help it. She went to work patching things up.

For a while Melanie would never let us meet alone. She feared I would nod at just the wrong time, indicating mayoral support for another million dollars for some south-side project. And Bruer would complain to Melanie that he had no idea what I was talking about. I spoke west side while he spoke south side. Melanie would have to act as interpreter.

But after a while we came to understand one another and share a common language. It was the language of practical politics and of getting things done. There was no other alder who understood his district better, had a clearer vision for it or worked harder for his people than Tim Bruer.

And they are people who need the attention of city hall more than other parts of the city. Bruer's district contains the poorest wards. His view was that his constituents didn't need to be patronized by "quiche-eating" elites; they needed training and jobs and good places to shop where they got fair prices and were treated like customers in fancier neighborhoods.

Bruer cajoled the city into buying and rebuilding the Villager Mall, creating a new home for social service and public health providers, tripling the size of the public library in his district, and building quality senior housing so people in his district could grow old in dignified surroundings. When he lost, he was at work on a whole lot more.

And in his day job Bruer has raised millions for the Keep Wisconsin Warm Fund, a nonprofit that helps poor families pay their winter heating bills.

The irony is that it is the very folks in Madison who talk the most about poverty while doing the least who set out to get Tim Bruer off the council. It wasn't so much what he did that they objected to; it was the effective way in which he did it. Bruer was a politician who, like Obey, didn't apologize for being one. He didn't pretend to be above politics; he used it for the good of the people he wanted to help.

Tim Bruer has his foibles. There's the endless stream-of-consciousness soliloquies, the fast cars, the trips to Cuba and the trench coat. There's the hair, which cannot be described.

He drove some people crazy, and he never stopped regarding me as a quiche-eater, though he eventually gave me credit for starting to understand the south side. And now Tim Bruer, the consummate politician, no longer is one. But he only lost an election; Madison lost more.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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