Mayor Stay Puft Just Doesn’t get It

by rthieme on November 11, 2007

When one of our daughters was a teenager, we often found ourselves at the bottom of the stairs, needing to leave and late again as she continued to apply the lotions and creams essential to her well-being. We listened to the whirring of the hair dryer with growing frustration, and at last one of us would call, “Come on! We need to go!”

To which she replied, “I am!”

Yet the hair dryer didn’t stop. The footsteps that would signal that she was coming downstairs did not sound.

“I think you mean,” I helpfully explained, “’I will.’ If you meant ‘I am!’ – if you were actually doing it – you would be down here.”

I think of those scenes, now blissfully past, when I read how our mayor responds to study after study of leadership lacking in our city. He circles the wagons and defends himself, telling the authors of the frequent reports how wrong they are, how much he has done, again and again.

“I am!” the Mayor insists.

But if he were, the studies would begin to come to different conclusions. He would not have to invoke an imaginary future when the seven counties of southeast Wisconsin will dance together like lions and lambs and dogs and cats will be sleeping together.

Make no mistake, Mayor Barrett is a nice guy, a very nice guy. When he was elected, the main theme I heard from those who worked closely with Mayor Norquist was what a nice guy the new mayor was, how pleasant it was to meet with him.

Norquist was accused of many things, but being touchy-feely was not one. Norquist left feelings splattered on the walls after meetings and pursued his agendas with single-minded intensity.

Maybe the pendulum has swung too far. Maybe a little less nice and a little more vision and real leadership would be welcome.

In the movie Ghostbusters, the Sumerian god Gozer tells the Ghostbusters that the next thing they think about will be the form taken by Gozer who has come to destroy the world. Despite their efforts to blank their minds, one explains that Mr. Stay Puft “just popped in there” as “something that could never possibly hurt us.” Moments later a huge Stay Puft Marshmallow Man comes thundering down the street.

Mayor Stay Puft looked like someone who could never hurt Milwaukee. But the “leadership gap” in our city is doing just that. When inaction is writ large, it tends to have an impact.

“He just doesn’t know how to get things done,” a political insider suggested, a criticism seldom levied against Norquist. The freeway corridor was cleared, the river walk was extended, and deals got done.

Those of us at the bottom of the stairs, calling to Mayor Stay Puft, “Come on!” don’t do it because we don’t care about our city. It is because we do care that we have not joined the many professionals leaving in search of environments that proactively support meaningful change.

My frequent trips abroad – most recently to Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia to speak about security and intelligence to business and government leaders – result in frustration when I return.  We hear the spin about new condos and restaurants downtown. But we do not see evidence of a realistic economic alignment with the world outside our perimeter.

Just as a “moment of clarity” is often needed to break through denial and initiate meaningful change in our lives, we would love to hear the Mayor say that he really gets why well-intentioned citizens continue to say the same things over and over again. President Bush too showed an unwillingness to admit he made mistakes until so many people voted against him that he had to listen. It takes what it takes, they say in recovery programs. Maybe in politics too.

Please, Mayor Stay Puft, don’t keep saying, “I am!” when you’re not. Invite input from people who disagree with your sanguine appraisal and seriously consider some new possibilities, not because we’re motivated by partisan politics or personal agendas, but because this is our city too and we genuinely care about our future.

Richard Thieme is an author and professional speaker focused on the social and cultural implications of technology, religion, and science.  He has lived in the Milwaukee area for nearly 20 years.

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