By Dave Fidlin Special to the Milwaukee Times
As a child of Jamaican immigrants, lifelong Milwaukee resident David F. Bowen grew up with a unique perspective on American democracy that he claims helped develop a strong work ethic.
Bowen, elected to the 10th District supervisory seat on the Milwaukee County Board in April, said he has used the bedrock of his formative experiences to represent his constituents fairly and unabashedly in his first eight months in elected office.
“It’s been a learning experience,” Bowen said of his time on the board. “There’s been some hard work. My parents taught me the values of hard work, so this has been very rewarding.”
At age 25, Bowen is one of the youngest elected officials ever in the city’s history.
At the moment, he is the youngest of the 18 members serving on the Milwaukee County Board.
While he thought about possibly becoming an elected official, Bowen readily admits he did not have a set agenda to seek office at this stage of his life. But the scenario became a viable option through a course of events.
“This community needs strong leadership, and I believe leadership had been lacking in the past,” said Bowen, a 2000 graduate of Bradley Tech High School. “Not everyone has been representing the needs of the people. I always thought I could do the job, and probably better than what I had been seeing.”
For years, Bowen has been involved in various capacities with Urban Underground, a Milwaukee-based organization aimed at engaging youth and giving them opportunities to address some of the most pressing issues within their communities. Since its founding in 2000, more than 500 city youth have actively been a part of the organization.
“I had become very active in a number of issues facing this community,” Bowen said of his role with Urban Underground.
He currently is seeking a degree in educational policy and community studies at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee.
Late in 2011, Bowen came in contact with Eyon Biddle, who served as his predecessor in the 10th District seat on the County Board. This spring, Biddle relinquished that seat and ran unsuccessfully against Milwaukee alderman and Common Council president Willie Hines.
Biddle encouraged Bowen to run for the seat, and a year ago everything came together.
“I did a lot of knocking on doors and I heard the needs of people,” said Bowen, who has constituents on the north side and lower east side within Milwaukee. “Because of my experience, and my desire to hear from people, I feel that I was able to hit the ground running when I came on the board.”
Past experience aside, Bowen readily admits his first eight months have presented bountiful opportunities to learn how government works. One of the most important aspects, he said, has been grasping how to work with his elected colleagues on the board – some of whom have different ideologies and interests – as well as County Executive Chris Abele.
“This is definitely a process of checks and balances,” Bowen said. “It’s really about finding that common ground. The county executive, for example, is very different from me in terms of background and social make-up. But I support his leadership. I think that’s important.”
Compared to prior years, the process of adopting the county’s 2013 budget was less contentious. Bowen said the entire process – including listening sessions and weighing the priorities of people across the county – was interesting, rewarding and time-intensive.
The budget review also was an opportunity – albeit a disappointing one – for Bowen to receive a first-hand glimpse his goals and visions will not always come to fruition amid a board filled with people who might have different viewpoints.
During budget deliberations, Bowen staunchly advocated to not only keep but remodel the Calvin C. Moody Pool, 2200 W. Burleigh St., within his district. The building has sat empty for a decade, and Abele successfully gained board approval to have the entire facility razed and replaced with an outdoor splash pad.
With a desire to provide safe, recreational opportunities for youth in his district, Bowen was hoping the pool and its entire facility would be resurrected.
“Each decision (made on the County Board) has its pros and cons,” Bowen said. “The decision on the Moody Pool was my learning moment. I can’t always get what I want.”
But Bowen’s first eight months have been marked with high points. He was able to help resurrect an outdoor concert program at Johnson Park, 1919 W. Fond du Lac Ave., for one installment this summer. The response has been positive, Bowen said, and additional installments are in the works.
Moving forward, Bowen also is banding together with a majority of the County Board and advocating for the future of the Milwaukee County Transit System, which faces an uncertain future after grant funding runs out in 2014.
“We have to figure out what we’re going to do because this is a vital service, and we can’t just let transit fall off the cliff,” Bowen said. “There needs to be pressure at the state level to help support it.”
More recently, Bowen has also stepped outside the lines of county government – a maneuver he readily admits has garnered some criticism. In recent weeks, he vocally called on the Milwaukee Police and Fire Commission, under the auspices of city – not county – government, to discharge police officer Richard Schoen for his handling of a woman in custody. The officer was relieved of his duties last week.
Bowen said his calls for action were not meant to overstep the bounds of the Common Council. But he said he was calling for clear and decisive action, not only for Schoen’s future with the department, but the make-up of the commission itself.
“I can’t sit idly by when constituents bring their concerns to me,” Bowen said. “This is something that I’ve been hearing about a lot from the people in my district. We need to be holding one another accountable.”
Accountability, Bowen said, is one of the keys to addressing some of Milwaukee’s most pressing issues.