- Interview by
- Michael A. McCarthy
Many activists in Milwaukee know Alex Brower. He has been key to several recent organizing projects in the city, helping to start a credit union to increase access to financial services in Milwaukee’s poorest areas, organizing Milwaukee substitute teachers into a formidable union, and a visible supporter for many working-class causes and labor drives throughout the city. In 2017, as president of the Milwaukee Substitute Teachers’ Association, Brower engaged in a three-week hunger strike to obtain health care benefits for substitute teachers, an act which garnered access to benefits for most of the city’s substitutes.
Now Brower wants to democratize finance, and he’s running for city comptroller to do so. Marquette University sociology professor and Jacobin contributor Mike McCarthy sat down with Brower to discuss why this is the right fight for the Left to take on.
You are running for city comptroller in Milwaukee with the support of the Milwaukee Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). What is a comptroller, and why is this an elected position that democratic socialists should care about?
The city comptroller is the chief financial officer of the City of Milwaukee and acts as a financial watchdog. The office signs off on city contracts, sets revenue estimates, manages city accounting practices, runs the municipal bond program, and sits on several boards. It’s an executive office that has a degree of power independent of the mayor’s office. Further, it’s an office with a great deal of symbolic power over the city’s financial affairs.
As city comptroller, I will increase transparency at City Hall, fight for public schools, work to establish a public bank, and advocate for the city to replace our private utility (WE Energies) with a municipal utility. For a socialist, it’s an attractive position because it offers the opportunity to build up tools that can resist the types of capital flight that undermine the working class in major cities. Public banking, public ownership of utilities, and promoting transparency in the contracting process are all ways to push decommodification, and these are goals we can pursue from the city comptroller’s office.
What are you up against — can you tell us about the opposition and what they represent?
The corporate class is the biggest obstacle — they are working to keep regular Milwaukeeans outside of the decision-making process. We aim to change that with a campaign that challenges the corporations and the status quo. On a practical level, I am facing two opponents — a conservative Democratic legislator and the current deputy comptroller. Both candidates represent corporate interests, either by supporting the City Hall status quo or promoting corporate policies.
Also, we’re building a new kind of multiracial working-class coalition here in Milwaukee. We are already facing opposition from some of the establishment because of my plan to buy back the city’s power grid and create a municipally owned utility. WE Energies, the existing provider, is almost universally loathed, but they have a huge war chest and a lot of political sway. If we’re going to win, it’s going to mean turning out new voters, and that’s exactly what our campaign is focused on doing.
How do you plan to run your campaign so that you might beat the insiders? Democratic socialists that have won local and state-wide elections have often themselves been drawn from grassroots movements that have resulted in new coalitions. Will your campaign be similar?
One hundred percent. I am a union president in one of the most progressive, grassroots unions in Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA). We’re building a grassroots, movement-based campaign that is talking to regular people directly. Most candidates for office will try to get themselves in “the club” of elected officials and power brokers, so they can get political endorsements — thinking that is the only way to win. We’re doing the opposite — we are focusing on reaching working-class Milwaukeeans with a platform that will excite them to vote in this race. In addition, we also have a number of progressive elected officials who have endorsed this campaign. Groups are getting behind my campaign, too — Milwaukee DSA has endorsed me, and we anticipate several unions will support us once they begin their processes.
We won’t win this unless we change the way politics happen in this city. It’s why appealing to the real conditions of alienated nonvoters is key to what we’re doing. We don’t have the resources of my two opponents, but we have bodies on the ground. Since the last financial disclosures, we have easily ten times as many donors as anyone else in this race, but if we’re going to win it’s going to be because we have people putting their time into the campaign.
We’ve built a great base of supporters, and we’re lucky enough to have grassroots organizations like Milwaukee DSA helping us out as well.
What sets you apart from these fairly typical local politicians? What does it mean to be a democratic socialist running for a position like this?
Primarily it’s my contention that capitalism is at the root of the problems faced by the City of Milwaukee. The City of Milwaukee is embroiled in three urgent crises: racism, income inequality, and the climate crisis. My campaign pits capitalism in the spotlight as the main culprit behind each.
Also, I have the boldest agenda of any candidate for local office in Milwaukee. It’s not enough to make small-scale reforms to the city’s programs. It’s necessary to engage in a full-frontal assault on capitalism itself. Now of course there are constraints on what officials can achieve at a municipal level, but that being said, it’s important to pursue initiatives that de-commodify important elements of the city’s economy and give working people the space they need to organize politically.
Another difference is the political work that is being done by my campaign. The type of coalition we’re trying to build, namely a coalition of black, brown, and white folks most immiserated by the last forty years of neoliberal rule, is an end itself. If we can build a progressive bloc around shared material concerns, we can change how this city does politics.
What could a democratic socialist do as a comptroller? Specifically, how can the power of the position result in change?
There are a lot of ways that a democratic socialist can use this office to pursue structural change. First, as the city’s chief financial officer the city comptroller has a hand in almost every financial transaction the city engages in. We will expose corporate giveaways, and advocate for the public interest.
The comptroller also sits on several boards that directly make policy. For example, the comptroller sits on the city’s pension board, which manages a $5 billion portfolio — and which currently have no policy on divestment from fossil fuel and other exploitative industries. I’ll be introducing that policy once I sit on that board.
There is also the political platform that comes with a position like this — what kind of bigger policy ideas will you advance?
My big initiatives aim at upending finance and energy production in this city. Most prominent among these are my desire to buy out our private energy utility and create a municipal electric utility. I’d also like to push a public municipal bank that would handle the city’s deposits, support the unbanked, and that would provide investment capital for more democratically run enterprises like worker cooperatives.
On the finance end, a public municipal bank, as I am proposing, will lessen the city’s dependence on US Bank to manage its operations, and it will provide capital to communities that need it to thrive. We can build an economy that works for the many, not the few.
On the energy side, we are proposing the creation of a municipal utility that will lower the financial burden on the city’s residents, and concurrently pursue a 100 percent transition to renewable energy over the next few years. These aren’t things that I can do by executive fiat, but just by raising these possibilities and making them a part of the debate here in the city, we can begin to broaden people’s political imaginations and inspire them to recognize that they have a real stake in the city’s politics.
If you win office, what are some of the major challenges you will face in City Hall? Have you been thinking about how you can overcome them?
I am, and we will face pushback from City Hall and the corporate and political establishment. There is a great deal of political investment in firms like WE Energies and in the relationships the city has built with big capital. Anyone who illuminates these relationships is going to be immediately under fire. I expect that. I welcome that. My hope is that this campaign opens political space for the more progressive individuals already in office, and that it spawns new challengers to the Milwaukee corporate and political establishment. To fully achieve our goals, we’re going to need to change how politics gets done in this city. To do that, we need ambitious campaigns focused on people’s immediate material needs. I’m happy to lead that trend.
Do you think winning the comptroller position might open up space for democratic-socialist politics more broadly in Milwaukee? If so, how?
Of course — I’ll be organizing to make that happen once we win. But in reality, it’s happening naturally — there is a burgeoning left in this city. Milwaukee DSA is growing, progressive Democrats are very active, and there are a bevy of grassroots civil rights–focused groups springing up around the city. We’re aiming to provide a focal point for this energy. If we can prove that you can build a winning coalition out of disaffected nonvoters and alienated progressives, there is a chance that we can start running slates of candidates across the city. We aim for nothing less than making the municipal government a tool for working people to wield against the interests of capital and the establishment.