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On Cavalier Johnson’s Resounding, Historic Victory in Milwaukee’s Mayoral Election
The joy in the room at the mayor’s election night party was powerful. Plus: five takeaways from the race for mayor of 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 Tuesday, April 5, 2022, Milwaukee made history.
For the first time in the city’s 176 years, city of Milwaukee voters elected a Black mayor. That new mayor is Cavalier Johnson, who won resoundingly with more than 70% of the vote in the special election, defeating former alderman Bob Donovan.
“In this campaign my refrain has been that we will be safer, we will be stronger, we will create more family-supporting jobs, and we will be the best city in America,” he said. “We will not rest until we’ve built the city of our imagination, the city of our dreams, the city that all of us deserve.”
At Johnson’s celebratory election night party, there was a lot of joy in the room. Among the diverse crowd assembled at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom, there was a real sense of the history being made, and how much that means in a city often characterized as among the nation’s most segregated. The loudest cheers of the night came when speakers mentioned this historic first.
State Sen. LaTonya Johnson, an early endorser of Cavalier Johnson (no relation), was among those who introduced the new mayor to speak at the celebration. This victory was a powerful moment for her. In an interview with The Recombobulation Area, we asked her about what witnessing this history means.
“Oh my god,” she beamed. “What doesn’t it mean? To see somebody who grew up in one of the poorest zip codes now be responsible for the entire city, he can provide resources to those communities that have been so overlooked. Chevy can do that. Chevy has the desire to do that. For kids all across this city, now when they see the mayor on television, he’s going to look like them. It speaks volumes. It speaks volumes for the people in this city, how far we’ve come and what they want their leadership to look like. I’m super, super excited. You have no idea. I am just super excited.”
With Johnson’s election following other recent historic firsts in Milwaukee, like David Crowley being the first Black County Executive elected in 2020, there was a feeling that a changing of the guard was happening, old narratives disappearing, and a new chapter unfolding.
“This is the new Milwaukee,” said Chris Walton, chair emeritus of the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County, who joined Johnson on stage for his speech. “We're not going to do the same old politics and do the same old things. We're trying something new. We’re going to bring in younger people, we’re going to bring in every member of the community – Black, Brown, Hispanic, AAPI, everybody’s involved. This (election) is showing an example of what Milwaukee can be as we go forward in the future. From this day forward, Milwaukee is going to look different.”
A standout moment from Johnson’s victory speech came when he acknowledged the historic first of his victory and put forth a vision for a more welcoming, inclusive city.
“The symbolism isn’t lost on me,” he said. “It shouldn’t be lost on anybody else, either. This is an important moment in our city’s history. So I hope that all the Black and Brown boys and girls who wake up tomorrow and get ready for school, they do so knowing that what we’ve shown here today. No matter where you live, no matter how much or how little your parents make, and no matter the color of your skin, that in Milwaukee, there’s a place for you, too.”
“There’s a place for you, too” in the next chapter of the storied history of the city of Milwaukee. Has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it?
There’s much more to discuss as we process the results of the mayoral campaign. So, let’s do what we do and recombobulate.
1. The mayoral election, by the numbers
By winning 72% of the vote, Cavalier Johnson won by an even greater margin than Tom Barrett’s 70%-30% victory also over Bob Donovan in 2016. This is a remarkable achievement. Johnson was able to build a broad coalition that crossed lines in this segregated city, with especially high margins on the city’s majority-Black north side bolstered by strong support on the west and northwest side, which includes Johnson’s home district, as well as the lakeside neighborhoods of the East Side, Downtown and Bay View.
According to research from John D. Johnson of the Marquette University Law School Poll, Johnson won 81% of the city’s wards and 12 of 15 aldermanic districts. Of those, he won seven districts (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 15th) with 80% or more of the vote.
Johnson won overwhelmingly in so many parts of the city, while in the areas Donovan was ahead – mainly in neighborhoods on the south and southwest side – it was anything but a blowout.
Turnout was fairly low, as was to be expected. About 31% of registered voters went to the polls or turned in an absentee ballot for this election. As Marquette University political science professor Phil Rocco detailed in a recent piece at The Recombobulation Area, voter participation in mayoral elections in Milwaukee has declined significantly over the past century, for a whole host of reasons. There aren’t many open races for mayor of Milwaukee – Johnson is just the fourth elected mayor in the last 62 years – but this is the lowest turnout in such a race since 1900.
There are a variety of reasons for the low turnout in this election. For one, this this special election did not coincide with a presidential primary. Mayoral races in Milwaukee often are regularly scheduled in the Spring Election during a presidential election year. This, being a special election to finish out the term of former mayor Tom Barrett, who resigned in December after being confirmed, is a unique circumstance to be sure, but less than a third of registered voters showing up in an election deciding who will be the city’s first new mayor in nearly two decades is undoubtedly discouraging. There are many areas to look to as reasons for this – ongoing voter suppression tactics, fewer local political parties and civic organizations, a shrinking local media landscape, etc. – but encouraging more people to vote, making voting easier for people, and promoting ongoing civic engagement in Milwaukee needs to be a focus for this community going forward.
But the biggest takeaway from examining the numbers in this election is this: Cavalier Johnson won a resounding victory. He received more than double the votes of Bob Donovan. This was not even close. It was an impressive, historic win.
2. Does Cavalier Johnson have a mandate?
Yes. With landslide victory numbers like this, Cavalier Johnson has a real mandate for change. During the campaign and in his election night speech, he talked about having a “bold vision” for Milwaukee.
This cannot be a time for complacency and status quo in Milwaukee, not considering all the challenges this community faces. It’s time to see what that bold vision looks like. Johnson closed his speech saying “Let’s get to work.” It’s clear that this city is ready to see what that work looks like.
3. Bob Donovan ran a terrible campaign
Bob Donovan losing this race came as a surprise to no one. There was little expectation after the Feb. 15 primary that this race would be remotely competitive. The 22% he won in the seven-candidate field increased to just 28% in the head-to-head race. Competition never meaningfully materialized at any point of this general election campaign.
Before the primary, hoping for a real mayor’s race, I wrote that “if Donovan and Johnson are the two candidates to emerge from the primary, Cavalier Johnson might as well go ahead and remove “acting” from his job title. The race would be over. Johnson would win.” That’s exactly what happened.
The problems with Donovan’s campaign, though, run deeper than a conservative simply coming up short in a majority-Democratic city. This was a blundering rerun of his also-terrible 2016 campaign. Without Barrett there as his favorite target of criticism, he failed to find his footing, beyond the support of his longtime base. His message was a one-note call to raise the number of the police force, feather-light on specifics on how that could get done. In forums and debates, he often seemed confused and unprepared. During an in-the-details debate hosted by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, he said “I am not an expert in municipal finance” in response to a question on the city’s budget. At the “Tussle at Turner,” his meandering answers kept going on and on so many times that an audience member at one point yelled, “Cut him off!” His final campaign ad was a laughably absurd Facebook video that featured a chihuahua edited to say, “All dogs matter,” for some reason.
Perhaps the most memorable story during Donovan’s campaign was when he said he would probably move back to Greenfield if he didn’t win the election. Talk about having a lack of commitment to this city.
On election day, the most telling of moments for the Donovan campaign was captured by the Journal Sentinel’s Bob Dohr, who went to the polls to find that election officials in the city of West Allis had to tell “tons” of voters that they could not vote for the Milwaukee mayor. It was a moment that perfectly encapsulated Donovan’s one-foot-out-the-door, play-to-the-suburbs campaign that was wildly out of touch with city voters – and with reality.
A moment from Donovan’s time on the Common Council that always stuck with me as indicative of what he came to represent happened on the day of the final vote on the downtown streetcar project, which he had spent years fighting. In a speech before that vote, he began not by stating his final argument against the controversial public infrastructure project, but by bemoaning the placement of the coffee machine behind the scenes at City Hall, saying that rival alderman Bob Bauman had blocked him from getting to it. In the Journal Sentinel’s late-March feature story on the mayoral candidate in the final stretch of the campaign, Donovan actually recalled that moment as a significant one from the streetcar debate. As if that was somehow the most important thing to occur that day.
In the end, that’s the attitude that earned him less than 25,000 votes in the 2022 race for mayor. It’s grievance politics. It’s exactly what Milwaukee is so tired of. For much of his time on the Common Council, Donovan has been holding the city back, dragging us back into the same tired debates that had long been settled, making it that much more difficult to move the city forward. It’s time for his chapter and that chapter in Milwaukee’s history to come to an end.
Hopefully, his second landslide loss for mayor in a matter of six years will emphatically close the door on the Bob Donovan Era in Milwaukee.
4. Donovan’s campaign shows how out of touch Republicans are with urban voters
We’ve heard it endlessly over the past few years. That Democrats are out of touch with rural voters.
Is there some truth to those claims? Yes. The urban-rural political divide, particularly in a state like Wisconsin, has been well-documented.
But it cuts both ways. And the other side of that equation is rarely meaningfully examined. It’s just as, if not even more true: Republicans are completely out of touch with urban voters. And few examples have been more emblematic of how out of touch Republicans are with urban voters than the campaign of Bob Donovan in the city of Milwaukee, backed universally by just about every Republican in the state.
During the first open primary in the city in nearly two decades, after conservatives had spent what feels like forever criticizing the previous mayor and the city’s Democratic leadership, at a time when Republicans are endlessly critical of the city’s policies, the only Republican-aligned candidate on the ballot in Milwaukee was Bob Donovan. Somehow, he was the best they could do.
When you take a step back, this is just absolutely confounding – and extremely telling.
It’s not as if Donovan is the only Republican in Milwaukee. There are plenty of Republicans running for state legislative races in the city every election cycle. In raw numbers, the Wisconsin city that cast the most votes for Donald Trump in 2020 was Milwaukee. In 2020, Republicans actually made marginal gains in the city of Milwaukee, particularly among the Hispanic community on the city’s south side. Many downtown business interests are dominated by conservative voices. So why was the one person running with Republican backing a fundamentally unserious candidate who had no chance of making the race even the least bit competitive?
One consideration has to be that Republicans are quite simply out of touch with people living in big cities like Milwaukee. They don’t seem to possess an understanding of the challenges people in the city are facing, and what urban voters want out of their politics.
Instead of using this election as an opportunity to learn first hand what drives city voters, Republicans are more comfortable running with Donovan, who’s been making the same tired argument for decades. They’ll choose instead to demonize the largest, most diverse city in the state, and use it as a vehicle to drive whatever narrative most benefits them politically, instead of actually doing the work to listen to understand the needs of these people and what their values are when it comes time to vote.
Talk radio Republicans often talk about how it’s the party in charge that’s the problem, as if a solution to a city’s problems would be as simple as flipping a D for an R next to the politician’s name, not anything having to do with policy or history or any larger forces at play. Never mind that, for example, in their decade-plus rage against the downtown streetcar, not one anti-streetcar candidate has advanced to higher office.
Change happens from the ground up, and it starts at the local level. But instead of making a real attempt to engage in that process and put in the work to make a difference, Republicans backed one laughingstock of a candidate and went on their way. This was a telling decision, and one voters should remember in November.
Voters in Milwaukee are smart and they know their city. They understand the issues that matter in their community. They know what’s best for themselves. Their rejection of Donovan and rejection of his Republican-backed campaign sends a message, too.
5. Cavalier Johnson is already on the clock
Unlike most elections, Cavalier Johnson will not be serving a full term. The circumstances of this special election means he will be mayor for the next two years, and then will be up for re-election in Spring 2024.
That means he’s on the clock. Johnson promised a bold vision and was elected with margins that give him a mandate for action. He needs to seize that opportunity, because nothing for him is guaranteed in 2024. The time for him to be the transformative mayor we’re hoping he can be is now. There’s no time to wait.
This is an exciting moment for the city of Milwaukee, with new leadership and fresh opportunity. But what happens next is what really counts. Let’s hope Cavalier Johnson is up to the challenge. I’m optimistic that he will be. It’s time to see some real change in the city of Milwaukee.
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.