Joe Biden taps Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett as Luxembourg ambassador

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Biden taps Milwaukee mayor as ambassador to Luxembourg

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President Biden Joe BidenUS intel report on COVID-19 origins inconclusive: WaPo NBC correspondent: History will remember Afghan withdrawal as ‘very dark period’ Overnight Defense & National Security: Outcry over Biden’s Afghanistan deadline MORE on Wednesday tapped Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to serve as ambassador to Luxembourg, rewarding the leader of the largest city in a key swing state with a diplomatic role in his administration.

The White House announced Barrett’s selection in a press release, touting him as “the nation’s longest-serving big city mayor.” He has served in the role since he was first elected in 2004.

The administration also highlighted his work on climate initiatives as well as his time as a representative in the House and state legislature.


If confirmed, Barrett would serve as Biden’s envoy in a country of roughly 600,000 people situated between Belgium, France and Germany.

Barrett endorsed Biden for president in April 2020, and he is the latest political ally to receive an ambassadorship. Milwaukee was slated to host the Democratic National Convention last summer, but the event was held virtually instead amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Wisconsin is a pivotal swing state, and Biden carried it in 2020 by nearly 21,000 votes after former President Trump Donald TrumpSupreme Court rebuffs Biden over Trump-era ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy Judge declares mistrial in Michael Avenatti embezzlement case Herschel Walker files paperwork to run for Senate in Georgia MORE won it in the 2016 election.

The White House on Wednesday also announced Biden would nominate Carla Koppell as assistant administrator for development, democracy and innovation at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Koppell previously worked at USAID as its chief strategy officer and its senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett nominated to be ambassador to Luxembourg by President Biden

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The White House announced Wednesday that President Joe Biden will nominate Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to serve as ambassador to Luxembourg.

If approved by the U.S. Senate, it would be a capstone to more than three decades of public service, dating back to 1984 when he was first elected to the state Assembly.

Barrett, 67, said in a brief news conference at his City Hall office Wednesday afternoon that he would “bring the values of our community to this new posting.” He did not take questions.

“It is a remarkable privilege to be the mayor of Milwaukee,” said Barrett, a Democrat in his fifth term as mayor. “In the period between my nomination and final Senate consideration, I will continue to focus my full attention on mayoral duties, my obligations to the people of this great city.”

More:Milwaukee leaders and others react to Mayor Tom Barrett’s Luxembourg ambassador nomination

More:Barrett would be latest in a series of Wisconsin political figures to serve as ambassadors

More:What to know about Luxembourg and its connections to Wisconsin (beyond Barrett being its new ambassador)

Barrett’s departure could be months from now depending on the length of the confirmation process. So far, the Senate has shown little interest in moving through Biden appointees. On Aug. 11, it confirmed Biden’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Mexico, the first ambassador confirmed.

Rumors of a potential ambassadorship had been swirling since Biden’s election in the fall. Ambassadorships typically go to either career foreign service officers, big political donors, or political allies and supporters of the president.

The announcement comes as the city is gearing up to debate its 2022 budget — the last before city leaders face a financial reckoning as Milwaukee’s annual pension contribution spikes, threatening city services.

City leaders are also on the cusp of debating how to spend $394.2 million from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, with hopes of more to come in a federal infrastructure bill. The funding presents a historic opportunity to make headway on critical issues, including the city’s lead crisis.

Milwaukee Common Council President Cavalier “Chevy” Johnson praised Barrett, saying Biden has “chosen a proven leader with great experience to represent our nation’s interests and lead the U.S. embassy located in Luxembourg City.”

He said the council would work closely with Barrett during the transition.

“Until he decides to step down, he will remain in that position, and the business at City Hall will continue,” Johnson said.

With the announcement, the clock is ticking on a new mayor taking office. When Barrett departs, Johnson, as council president, would become acting mayor, under the city charter.

While filling the vacancy, Johnson could continue to serve as council president but could not vote during that period.

He would serve as acting mayor “until a successor shall be elected for the residue of the unexpired term,” the charter states. The Common Council is required by state statute to set a date of a special election “as promptly as possible, unless the vacancy occurs within 120 days of the expiration of the mayor’s term of office.”

Beyond those formal transition steps, Barrett’s departure would complete a broader shift in leadership at the city and county. The top three elected leaders remaining would be Johnson, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley and Milwaukee County Board Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson, all of whom are in their 30s, and all of whom were elected to their current leadership positions last year.

Barrett’s political career

Barrett’s longevity in public office, and his near lock on the mayor’s office in recent years, somewhat camouflages a career that has its share of victory and defeat.

Barrett first ran for public office in 1982 when, at age 28, he lost a bid for the state Assembly. He ran again two years later and won, staying in the Assembly for two terms. In 1989, he won a special election to the state Senate.

In 1992, Barrett ran successfully for Congress in Wisconsin’s 5th District, and subsequently was reelected four times.

Barrett ran unsuccessfully for Wisconsin governor three times, losing the Democratic primary in 2002 to then-Attorney General Jim Doyle and losing to Republican Scott Walker in 2010 and again in a 2012 recall election. He had weighed another run against Walker in 2018 but decided against it.

Barrett has been Milwaukee’s mayor since he was elected in 2004, most recently winning another four-year term in 2020 against challenger state Sen. Lena Taylor. He has won his last four mayoral elections with at least 63% of the vote.

Barrett would be eligible for an annual city pension of more than $50,000 if he stays through the end of the year, according to the city’s pension office. He would be eligible for a maximum monthly pension of $4,353 — $52,236 annually — based on his years of service and retirement contributions.

Barrett is also eligible for state and federal pensions from his time in Madison and Washington, D.C., respectively. With only a two-year absence from 2002 to 2004, Barrett has been continuously in government office since 1985, when he was 31.

History of Wisconsin political figures to ambassadors

The last time a Milwaukee mayor left office early was in 2004, when John Norquist resigned before the end of his fourth term after the city settled a sexual harassment complaint with one of Norquist’s aides for $375,000. Norquist exited to become president at the Congress for the New Urbanism in Chicago.

Norquist was succeeded by then-Common Council President Marvin Pratt, who became the city’s first African American acting mayor. But Pratt was defeated in the April 2004 primary by Barrett, who had left Congress two years earlier to make that first run for governor.

In recent decades, some Wisconsinites who have received ambassadorships include Steve King and Rick Graber, both former state GOP chairs who were appointed ambassador to the Czech Republic by Republican presidents — Graber by George W. Bush and King by Donald Trump; and Mark Green, a former GOP congressmen who was named ambassador to Tanzania by George W. Bush. Green has held a series of posts in international affairs since then, and is currently president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Luxembourg is a European country bordered by Germany, Belgium and France with a population of about 626,000, not all that much larger than Milwaukee’s.

Wisconsin has one of the largest populations of Luxembourger immigrants in the U.S. The Luxembourg American Cultural Society & Center opened in 2009 in the village of Belgium, between Milwaukee and Sheboygan.

The U.S. has had ambassadors to the country since 1903.

Recent Milwaukee Mayors

Daniel Hoan (Socialist) 1916-1940

Carl Zeidler (Democrat) 1940-1942

John Bohn (Nonpartisan) 1942-1948

Frank Zeidler (Socialist) 1948-1960

Henry Maier (Democrat) 1960-1988

John Norquist (Democrat) 1988-2004

Marvin Pratt* (Democrat) 2004-2004

Tom Barrett (Democrat) 2004-Present

*Acting Mayor

Craig Gilbert and Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Contact Alison Dirr at 414-224-2383 or Follow her on Twitter @AlisonDirr.