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Why I’m Voting For Cavalier Johnson
A big-picture examination of the mayor’s race, the last 18 years of Tom Barrett’s leadership, and a time that calls for the next mayor to usher in a transformational new era in Milwaukee.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written, edited and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
On April 5, Milwaukee will elect its first new mayor in nearly two decades.
Before we look ahead to this election and the opportunity it brings for this wonderful, resilient city, let’s consider those last two decades.
At the time of his resignation, Tom Barrett was the longest-serving big city mayor in the nation. After defeating then-Acting Mayor Marvin Pratt in 2004, Barrett was eventually elected to four more terms, never coming close to losing a re-election campaign. He was Milwaukee’s mayor for just shy of 18 years, before he left the job late last December after he was unceremoniously confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the next Ambassador to Luxembourg.
As anyone who knows him will tell you, Tom Barrett is a nice guy. He was a decent and honorable public servant, and by that measure, he cleared the low bar set by so many of his contemporaries in state and local politics. Take, for example, that when Barrett became mayor, the Milwaukee County Executive was Scott Walker and the Milwaukee County Sheriff was David Clarke.
But underneath the lawful neutral of Tom Barrett was a real lack of progress made in the city during his time as mayor. Under his leadership, Milwaukee did not move forward on so many key issues – particularly on those of racial inequality, as the Journal Sentinel’s James Causey wrote in a recent piece on Barrett’s legacy. Many of those key metrics didn’t get markedly worse, either, but there was an overall stagnancy that permeated under Barrett during his extended tenure, and it was clear by the end that he’d stayed in the job too long.
In a 2015 Milwaukee Magazine feature story on Barrett’s first 12 years in office, local historian and author John Gurda characterized Barrett as “more a manager than a visionary,” and that description still seems apt. By and large, Barrett kept the trains running on time – yes, sometimes quite literally – but he was not one to pilot the city toward a bold new future.
Barrett and Milwaukee did make significant progress downtown, particularly in the 2010s, but the impact of those changes were not always felt citywide – even if some of the indirect impact that downtown development has had on the city at large has been a bit understated. Downtown’s revitalization is a true success story and a central component of Barrett’s legacy, but in some cases, like with the Bucks arena, as much or more credit might go to then-County Executive Chris Abele, who served from 2011 to 2020.
The downtown renaissance, too – despite the success that did indeed happen – further signified the larger divide in Milwaukee. This is a divide that Barrett did not remedy. Doing so would be a challenge, undoubtedly, but it was a challenge he did not rise to adequately meet in his 18 years on the job. At the end of the day, Barrett did not do enough to move Milwaukee forward. The problems Milwaukee has faced require much more than just a good manager. The city has been in need of a real reformer, a change agent. For all of his good qualities, Barrett was never that.
So when news came that President Joe Biden would be nominating Barrett for an ambassadorship, there was a jolt of energy in the city. Finally, the city could start fresh and open a new chapter with the opportunity to elect someone who could be more than a manager, someone who could think big and bold about the city’s future after years of Barrett’s competent complacency.
This felt like a major moment for Milwaukee. The first real mayor’s race in a generation. A chance to finally get the city’s issues out on the table, and for the hundreds of thousands of people living in this city, to finally have our say, for once.
Though it is the state’s biggest city, its economic engine and cultural center, it has become increasingly rare for Milwaukee to be able to have its own say about its political future. This is a city that has the least amount of local control of any big city in the nation, and it becomes further sidelined from so many statewide debates by way of the entrenched Republican majority in the state’s overly powerful legislature. It’s gerrymandered into a corner, and GOP leaders muse about a world without its largest city as part of the political calculus.
This moment of self-determination is an important one for Milwaukee. But the surprising timing of Barrett’s ambassadorship confirmation made things complicated. With less than 60 days between the longtime mayor’s resignation and the Feb. 15 primary to begin electing his successor, candidates would be in an all-out sprint – all in the dead of winter in one of North America’s coldest cities, right as Wisconsin reached a new pandemic low point. This was not exactly ideal timing for a lively, robust campaign that would give candidates an opportunity to tell their story and really get the city’s issues out into the open for an engaging, meaningful discussion.
Nevertheless, some good conversations were had in the lead-up to the primary. But the process felt like it was cut short just as they were starting to get interesting. Before we knew it, people were casting their votes, shrinking the field from seven to two.
Which brings us to Cavalier Johnson.
The Council President-turned-Acting Mayor won the primary in a blowout. He received almost twice as many votes as his closest competitor, Bob Donovan, who he will face in Tuesday’s general election. He won 12 of 15 aldermanic districts, earning huge vote shares everywhere but the far south and southwest side, bringing together a diverse coalition of voters from the north, northwest, east and west sides of the city.
Campaigns for State Senator Lena Taylor, Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic and Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas were unable to reach a level of support needed to make this an interesting race. Donovan won the support of the roughly 20%-25% of the city that votes Republican, but there’s little expectation he’ll make it a close contest on April 5.
Since the primary, the enthusiasm for the race has all but evaporated. The mayoral forum at Turner Hall Ballroom held before the primary was in front of a packed house; the “Tussle at Turner” between Johnson and Donovan drew far fewer attendees. Debates held over the last couple weeks have not attracted much attention. Donovan even said at one point during the campaign that he would move back to Greenfield if he didn’t win. The campaign feels like it’s sputtering to the finish line.
Donovan’s 2022 campaign has been a tired rehashing of the mayoral campaign he ran in 2016 against Barrett – a 70%-30% blowout, after Donovan spent close to a year campaigning. Donovan’s lackluster effort has made it so Johnson has not been truly challenged throughout this campaign – though Donovan’s loyal base and strong name recognition cannot be overlooked in this race. With Barrett, Donovan at least had certain issues he’d endlessly rail on (pun intended, sorry), but with Johnson, nothing has really landed. Donovan has pushed increasing the numbers of the police force as the answer to every issue – essentially using a hammer as the only tool in the toolbox – and is proposing this without saying how he’d find new revenue or make new cuts. Johnson is also campaigning on increasing police funding as part of a larger strategy toward addressing public safety that also calls for fully funding the Office of Violence Prevention and addressing root causes of violence and crime.
So, Johnson’s campaign – while working to consolidate support from all parts of the city (successfully, so far) – has played it relatively safe. It’s an understandable campaign strategy, especially against someone as mistake-prone as Donovan. But it’s hard to be inspired by someone playing it safe. We’ve just had 18 years of a mayor playing it safe in Milwaukee. That can’t be the next chapter, too.
This is such a crucial time in Milwaukee’s history. The city is facing so many challenges – devastating levels of violent crime, segregation and racial disparities that often rank among the worst in the nation, ongoing disinvestment and rampant poverty, declining population numbers, deteriorating infrastructure, systems of policing and education in need of significant structural reform, the list goes on. We need a mayor who is going to make or shepherd generational investments into disadvantaged communities, particularly communities of color. A status quo leader is not going to be acceptable. Not now.
But while Cavalier Johnson has stuck to the basics in his relatively safe campaign, when I interviewed the candidates for The Recombobulation Area’s mayoral candidate interview series before the primary, the person who came across as the one with the bold ideas for change in Milwaukee was, more than anyone else, Cavalier Johnson.
Perhaps the lack of real competition in this race has made it so Johnson seems like the safest, least disruptive candidate of the bunch, but no other candidate in this race has put forth the kind of ambitious goals and proposals for legitimate policy shifts as he has. Milwaukee might not be getting the campaign it deserves, but as this process approaches the finish line, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we could be ending up with the right candidate to meet this moment.
In our interview, he talked about wanting to be the “proud urbanist” in this race. He talked about wanting to remove freeways – both 794 downtown and 175 on the city’s west side – and reconnect neighborhoods that have been needlessly divided by poor infrastructure choices. He discussed expanding public transportation, installing protected bike lanes, and wanting to see more “urban plazas” across the city. He talked about wanting to be proactive in city development, encouraging developers to invest outside of the city’s urban core. He talked about having a “cot in the Capitol” to commit to realigning the city’s relationship with Madison. He set a goal of growing Milwaukee to be a city of one million people.
These are not small things, not minor shifts in direction for this city. This would be something very different from what we’ve seen the past 18 years – something genuinely aspirational. The difference between Johnson’s interview and the others conducted for this publication was stark. It was Johnson who offered a bold vision for the city’s future.
Perhaps Johnson hasn’t gone far enough to commit to being a reformer on public safety and criminal justice issues (though no candidate really did, despite the massive public outcry for change less than two years ago). Perhaps he hasn’t prioritized addressing segregation and racial inequality in the city (as David Crowley did two years ago, putting that issue front and center in his successful campaign for County Executive). But Johnson is demonstrating a more comprehensive approach to improving the lives of Milwaukeeans – through addressing root causes of poverty, through addressing top quality-of-life issues like reckless driving, through promoting public health, etc., all while recognizing that none of these issues exist in a vacuum and they all impact each other.
Johnson would also be approaching these issues with the lived experience of growing up in some of the city’s more troubled neighborhoods, including the 53206 zip code. In this ultra-segregated, majority-minority city, he would be the first Black mayor elected to serve in the more than 175-year history of Milwaukee. That is an unbelievably big deal, and would truly usher in a new era of leadership in this city.
But considering the immense challenges Milwaukee faces, what we absolutely cannot afford is another mayor who is not willing or able to usher in an era of significant change. The next mayor will be finishing the term that ends along with the 2024 Spring Election. It would be unacceptable for these next two years to be a continuation of Milwaukee’s status quo. As Angela Lang of BLOC wrote in a guest column last week at The Recombobulation Area, “Milwaukee has a shot at doing things differently. We don’t need to do what we always do. We don’t need to tweak what has been done in the past…We can choose a different path.”
It’s time for a transformative new era in Milwaukee.
From interviewing Johnson, the sense I got is that he does truly want to be a transformational mayor. Achieving that is a daunting task, to be sure, but setting course for a bold next chapter in Milwaukee’s history is exactly what’s needed right now.
The Recombobulation Area is endorsing Cavalier Johnson for Mayor of Milwaukee.
This is not just about choosing Johnson as the better of the two candidates on the ballot in this election, which is abundantly clear. Johnson offered the best vision for the future of this city among any of the candidates running in the primary, too. His months as Acting Mayor have brought with them tremendous promise. He’s been the best candidate all along, and to put it simply, he is the right person for this job.
There are going to be challenges, to be sure. I’m certain I will disagree with the mayor from time to time. But Cavalier Johnson offers Milwaukee its best chance at a bold future, one that uplifts those in need and brings together this often all-too-divided city, and delivers something truly transformational at a time when we desperately need it.
I have lived in the city of Milwaukee for 12 of the last 13 years. Tom Barrett has been the mayor that entire time. With Cavalier Johnson as mayor, I’m more hopeful about the future of this city than any time since I’ve lived here.
Join me in voting for Cavalier Johnson on April 5.
The Spring Election in the city of Milwaukee is April 5. To vote in person, find your polling place here. Be aware that the location may have changed since you last voted. If you are not registered to vote, Wisconsin offers same-day registration. A photo ID is required to vote.
The city of Milwaukee is also offering early voting at several locations through Saturday, April 2.
Early voting locations include:
Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building (841 North Broadway, Room 102)
Midtown Center (5700 West Capitol Drive)
Zablocki Library (3501 West Oklahoma Avenue)
Hours for those three locations are:
Weekdays: 9:00am - 6:00pm
Saturdays & Sunday: 10:00am - 3:00pm
Bay View Library (2566 S Kinnickinnic Ave)
East Library (2320 N Cramer St)
Good Hope Library (7717 W Good Hope Rd)
Tippecanoe Library (3912 S Howell Ave)
Villard Square Library (5190 N 35th St)
Washington Park Library (2121 N Sherman Blvd)
Hours for those six library locations are:
Weekdays: 12:00pm - 5:00pm
Saturdays: 10:00am - 3:00pm
Find early voting and all other election information from the Milwaukee Election Commission here.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.