When Pedro Colón was a teenager, playing basketball alone on an isolated court near the south side of Milwaukee, he was cornered by six or seven gang members.
“They were all older and bigger,” Colón remembers. “I was a boxer, but not much of a fighter. I was outnumbered. In a situation like that, you have options. Do you run? I’d be the chicken in the neighborhood forever. Do you say, ‘Hey, guys, it’s all cool’? And then I’m part of the gang? I just decided to [be] myself and they all liked me. We played ball for a long time and I went home and that was it.”
Colón had lived in Puerto Rico until August 1979, when, at age 11 he flew to Wisconsin with his mother, Elsa Monclova, who had separated from his father.
“I was excited and a little scared,” Colón says of living in Milwaukee. “I had no language understanding and was lost culturally.” They had no car, so they walked. To church and school and the grocery store. Miles and miles.
“When you’re something different, and you speak a different language, nobody takes you seriously,” Colón says. “You almost have to do double the work to get the recognition, or do half the bad to avoid negative recognition. The thought ‘You’ll never be anything’ drives you.”
Colón’s experiences certainly drove him. He graduated from UW Law School in 1994 and became the first Latino elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 1998. His mission is to champion the underrepresented and what he calls the “misunderstood” citizens in Wisconsin, particularly in the Latino community of Milwaukee.
“[My mother] is very proud I went to law school,” Colón says. “I think she’s more cautiously proud about me being a politician.”
Law and politics can both be tough arenas. Colón was the first to represent Marilyn Figueroa in her sexual harassment suit against former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist. When Colón offered to settle for $350,000, Norquist’s attorney, Anne Shindell, accused Colón of extortion. The media scrutiny was intense. Suddenly on the defensive, Colón felt detrimental to Figueroa’s case and withdrew (the case eventually settled for $375,000). But he didn’t run and hide; he hit back, filing a defamation lawsuit against Shindell. The eventual settlement included a public apology.
“I was dealing with a mayor who was not very ethical and not very honest,” Colón says. “I was dealing with a staff who couldn’t say anything to him. It teaches you not to trade your integrity for anything, whether it’s access, or political capital or anything. I think it’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned as a lawyer. It was tough, [but] I came out vindicated.”
A partner at von Briesen & Roper, where he handles discrimination and personal injury cases, Colón has recently taken a leave of absence to focus on legislative duties.
He co-sponsored a bill to revamp the state’s process for investigating police corruption; the bill died. “Not all bills become law,” he says, “but [they] can promote good debate. The lawyers and police officers were not very happy with me. But frankly, in this business, if somebody’s not happy with you, it might be the right place to be.”
For the next legislative session, he’s setting his sights higher: challenging the conservative-dominated Legislature with a constitutional amendment granting every Wisconsin resident the right to primary and preventive health care. “I know that sounds radical, but the insured population is actually already paying for the uninsured,” he says. Colón compares his idea to the constitutional right of every Wisconsinite to a free education.
Colón will also press for in-state tuition at Wisconsin universities for immigrants who graduate from a Wisconsin high school. “That really means a lot to me,” he says. “Some of the brightest attorneys of the future could get a good education in Wisconsin.”
The jury’s still out on whether their daughters, Lily, 7, and Julia, 4, will become attorneys. But the pedigree’s there. Colón’s wife, Betty Ulmer, is also an attorney.