Federal Money Is All Over Milwaukee. Biden Hopes Voters Will Notice.

Federal Money Is All Over Milwaukee. Biden Hopes Voters Will Notice.

Across Milwaukee, residents can see evidence of federal money from laws passed under the Biden administration, if they know where to look.

It shows up in a growing array of solar panels near the airport. Ramshackle houses rehabilitated and sold to first-time buyers. The removal of lead paint and pipes. The demolition of a derelict mall. A crime lab and emergency management center. A clinic and food pantry for people with H.I.V. Funding to help dozens of nonprofits provide services like violence prevention efforts and after-school programs.

But of the more than $1 billion for Milwaukee County in the American Rescue Plan Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act — legislation that President Biden counts among his greatest accomplishments — much is harder to see, like funds to prevent drastic cuts to public safety during the pandemic. Some money has yet to be spent, like $3.5 million to rebuild the penguin exhibit at the local zoo and $5.1 million to repair the roof of Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport.

That presents both an opportunity and a challenge to Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign as it seeks to show Americans how federal investments have improved their lives. Doing so is difficult because the laws delegated many spending decisions to state and local officials, obscuring the money’s source.

“The link between the resources themselves and anything that happens on the ground that’s visible to people is very opaque,” said Robert Kraig, executive director of the progressive advocacy group Citizen Action of Wisconsin. “You need to find some way to communicate this idea that there’s concrete progress within people’s communities that improves quality of life — and that there’s more coming.”

Milwaukee carries special weight, as a Democratic stronghold in a battleground state and as the host of the Republican National Convention this summer. Polling shows Mr. Biden in a virtual dead heat in the state with the presumptive Republican nominee, former President Donald J. Trump. In an April poll of Wisconsin voters by Marquette University Law School, 58 percent said Mr. Trump had a “strong record of accomplishment,” compared with 44 percent for Mr. Biden.

“They see the Democrats and the Biden administration continuously just throwing money away, thinking it’s going to help, but it’s just making things worse,” said Hilario Deleon, the Milwaukee County Republican Party chairman, noting that the cost of groceries and energy has continued to rise. Mr. Trump is visiting a Milwaukee suburb on Wednesday, on his day off from a Manhattan criminal trial, to drive home the message.

Although no Republicans voted for the American Rescue Plan Act or the Inflation Reduction Act, they have often been on hand for events showing off the results.

So Democratic officials, both federal and local, are ramping up efforts to explain the money’s source. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen visited Milwaukee in January, and Mr. Biden followed in March to highlight beneficiaries of new federal funding, including a $36.6 million overhaul of a central arterial street and investments in work force training. Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm also visited in March to call attention to incentives that have fostered local manufacturing of clean energy equipment.

The effort continued in April with appearances by Tom Perez, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who runs the White House’s office of intergovernmental affairs. The city arranged an event on a street corner in an area with typically low voter turnout to showcase the results of $12 million for maintaining and expanding Milwaukee’s tree canopy.

Mr. Perez also held a news conference celebrating renovations to a community center, a new mental health services center and homes built by Habitat for Humanity. The projects were supported by the American Rescue Plan Act, which funneled $394 million to the city and $184 million to the county in loosely restricted funds, not including federal funds distributed by the state.

“What we’re trying to do is demonstrate the American Rescue Plan has transformed your community in so many ways,” Mr. Perez said in an interview afterward. “It enabled you to not get evicted. It enabled you to buy a home. It enabled you to get clean water.”

The law came at an important time for the Milwaukee County executive, David Crowley, who took office in 2020 with a precarious fiscal situation. The cash infusion averted painful layoffs, buying time for local officials to lobby the state for permission to impose a sales tax to help close budget gaps. It also funded long-deferred maintenance and investments in affordable housing, like the bungalows under construction behind the lectern at Mr. Perez’s news conference.

“Did I mention that I needed to say thank you to the Biden administration?” Mr. Crowley said at the event, with a laugh.

Similar stories are playing out across the country as trillions of dollars from the three laws sink in, acting as a kind of slow-release drug for local economies. But some places have been more successful in pulling down money than others, with smaller towns and rural areas often lacking the capacity to seek and manage competitive grants.

Milwaukee has staff members for that, and its leaders credit their success to collaboration across Wisconsin’s layers of government. In addition, many big-ticket items follow a pattern: Plans had been laid and were just waiting for enough capital to get started.

For example, the biggest single investment in the metropolitan area — $275 million from the infrastructure law — helped rally local government entities around an effort to clean up Milwaukee’s estuary enough to have it removed from the federal list of “areas of concern” on the Great Lakes. It will fund a facility to store contaminated sediment dredged from the riverbeds, eventually creating 43 new acres of lakefront land.

Many projects on Milwaukee’s wish list also aligned with the Biden administration’s priorities, like racial equity, walking and bicycling, and renewable energy. That strengthened the city’s applications, such as a winning bid for a $14.3 million grant to reconstruct Villard Avenue, once the main commercial corridor for Old North Milwaukee, a historically Black neighborhood.

The city had also approved a “climate and equity plan” in 2023 that identified 10 decarbonizing strategies that created jobs and lowered costs for residents. The federal programs breathed life into the agenda, enabling construction of solar energy installations and the purchase of vehicles to help electrify the city’s fleet.

With other federal funding, the city has retrofitted miles of streets — rapidly adding bike lanes and extending curbs — to address reckless driving that has fueled an increase in traffic deaths across the county in recent years.

Those projects rarely come with signage about who’s paying.

“Whenever we communicate about these projects, we try to remind people because nobody understands what the federal government does,” said Kevin Muhs, the city engineer. “Because of the federal funding, we’re able to do some of these things after years of saying, ‘there’s no money.’”

In Milwaukee, many of the federally funded projects are staffed by unionized workers. The building trades unions support Mr. Biden’s re-election, in one direct way that the laws are likely to translate into campaign muscle.

Galvanizing local governments to deploy resources is one thing, but getting local residents to take advantage of programs can be more challenging.

Kevin Kane is a co-founder of Green Homeowners United, a Milwaukee company that helps make people with older, drafty homes aware of subsidies for installing insulation, heat pumps and solar panels. While the Inflation Reduction Act’s tax credits for such retrofitting have been available for a year and can be used until 2032, only residents with tax liability can benefit. A rebate program providing up to $8,000 for lower-income households won’t dispense funds until the fall.

Mr. Kane said that he tried to make clients aware of the source of the assistance, but that he had told Biden administration staff members that the lag wasn’t helping. “If they really wanted it to hit the ground before the election, I don’t know why people aren’t making a bigger fuss about this,” Mr. Kane said.

It will take more work to win over people like Amber Wyland, one of the handful of neighborhood residents who watched Mr. Perez’s event about the tree canopy, with her three young children playing underfoot.

“Good luck on the South Side,” Ms. Wyland, 34, said when told about the investments in the low-income neighborhood not far from Milwaukee’s increasingly upscale downtown. She would like more speed bumps to be installed on a nearby arterial street — something the city has done a lot of with federal money — but said she didn’t plan to vote.

Biden administration officials do not appear worried. That’s what re-election campaigns are for, after all — telling voters what the candidate did and why it improved their lives.

“This movie is still playing,” said Gene Sperling, the White House’s coordinator for American Rescue Plan implementation. “Doing the right policy is the important thing, and there’s still time to do better in telling this story.”

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