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The Three Candidates to Watch in Milwaukee's Feb. 15 Mayoral Primary
Milwaukee deserves a real mayor’s race. Will the city get one? It could be up to these three candidates.
The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
The City of Milwaukee is going to have an election for mayor. On February 15, we'll have a primary that could prove to be the most competitive mayoral primary in a generation.
Here at The Recombobulation Area, we’ve been covering that race closely, and getting into the issues. Find all of that coverage here. Paid subscribers will be able to listen to full audio of each candidate interview in podcast form and read a full transcript of what each candidate had to say.
Though it feels like the race has just begun, the primary for mayor is almost here. Early voting is already underway. Milwaukee will make a big decision on Tuesday, Feb. 15.
This campaign has been a sprint for the seven candidates running for the office – Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, former alderman Bob Donovan, community activist Ieshuh Griffin, Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson, Sheriff Earnell Lucas, business owner Michael Sampson, and State Senator Lena Taylor – and for all but the top two vote-getters, that Feb. 15 primary day will be their finish line in this race.
This is a groundbreaking field. Of the seven candidates on the ballot, five would make history as either the first woman to be mayor of the city (Dimitrijevic), the first Black mayor elected to the office (Johnson, Lucas) or both (Taylor, Griffin).
This race is the city’s first open contest for mayor in nearly two decades, and it’s happening on a very short timeline. We didn’t know that this special election for mayor would coincide with the spring election cycle until mid-December, giving the candidates very little time to campaign. Needless to say, this election is rather unique.
So, who will emerge from the primary as the two candidates on the ballot in the April 5 general election?
The frontrunner in the race, as we’ve said since November, is Cavalier Johnson. The polls have him in front, he has a fundraising advantage, he’s getting key endorsements, and he’s using the office of Acting Mayor to unveil a fresh agenda, keeping himself in the headlines nearly every day. He’s in pretty good shape. It would be a genuine surprise if he did not emerge from the primary.
But with a bigger field like this, a win in the primary could come with something like 30-40% of the vote. And the second place finisher could move on to the general election with 20% of the vote.
That 20% number could be a key one in this primary. Why? Because that’s roughly the percentage of Milwaukee’s vote that went for Donald Trump in the 2020 election. That could be close to the percentage of votes in this primary going to former alderman Bob Donovan, the lone Republican in this race.
The problem for Donovan, though, is that the percentage of the vote he’d receive in the primary is not going to be far off from his percentage he’d get in the general election.
When he ran for mayor in 2016, he lost in a landslide, 70% to 30%, to Tom Barrett. Now, the demographics of his longtime Common Council district are changing significantly (JoCasta Zamarripa now represents the increasingly Hispanic district), and a big chunk of his base no longer lives in the city. The city’s residency rule ended officially after the 2016 election, and by 2019, 45% of police officers and firefighters had moved out of Milwaukee. And this is hardly a scientific examination, but if you look at Donovan’s fairly popular Facebook page, a frequent comment you’ll see is something along the lines of, “If I still lived in Milwaukee, I’d vote for you!”
Donovan has a high floor as the only conservative in the race, with few others competing for that 20% Trump vote, but he has a very low ceiling in a heavily Democratic, majority-minority city. He is just not a good general election candidate in the city of Milwaukee in 2022, and that was even further on display at the Milwaukee Mayoral Forum at Turner Hall Ballroom on Wednesday, Feb. 9, when he appeared to be unprepared and confused, with his answers lacking any meaningful substance.
He was not a good general election candidate six years ago, either. After winning 32.4% of the vote in the primary, he received only 29.7% of the vote in the general election. That’s right, his overall percent of the vote went down between the primary and the general. Donovan had such a poor showing in that April 2016 election that he almost lost his seat on the Common Council that he’d held for more than 15 years – less than 200 votes separated him and his challenger.
With those 2016 results perhaps representing Donovan’s ceiling in this race, his floor could be something closer to the 15.7% that former Bay View alderman Tony Zielinski received in 2020 after running a campaign very similar to Donovan’s 2016 campaign. And 15% in a seven-candidate primary is a bigger deal than 15% in 2020’s four-candidate primary (a losing effort for Zielinski).
Those 2016 results are instructive because 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.
So, that means there is real intrigue and importance in this primary. If someone is going to shake up this race and make it so we’re not headed toward a Johnson-Donovan blowout – with a sure-to-be grating campaign from February to April – it is likely to be one of three candidates. Those three candidates are State Senator Lena Taylor, Sheriff Earnell Lucas, and Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic.
The big question headed into Tuesday’s primary is whether one (or more) of Taylor, Lucas, and Dimitrijevic will finish ahead of Donovan. Candidates are now essentially out of time to campaign, and with many voters still undecided and so much uncertainty looming in this tight-timeline, big-field race, it’s difficult to predict just how things will break over the next week.
So let’s take a closer look at each of these three candidates.
STATE SENATOR LENA TAYLOR
Lena Taylor represents Milwaukee’s north and northwest side, as well as parts of Shorewood, Glendale and Wauwatosa in the Wisconsin State Senate. She’s in her 17th year serving in that role.
In 2012, Taylor became the first African-American woman to ever serve as the co-chair of the state legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee, and was also the first African-American chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She was part of the 2011 fight against Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, and was a key voice in the deal that approved state funding for the Milwaukee Bucks arena in 2015. In the State Senate, she’s been more of a maverick, sometimes putting herself at odds with other Democrats (like we saw in the recent redistricting debate).
She has a fascinating electoral history, on the ballot next to some of the biggest names in the last two decades of Wisconsin politics. She lost to Scott Walker in the race for Milwaukee County Executive in 2008 (58%-40%), she defeated Mandela Barnes in his run against her in the Democratic primary for her State Senate seat in 2016 (61%-39%), and she lost to Tom Barrett in the race for mayor in 2020 (62.5%-36.5%).
The 2020 race, despite the lopsided result, was actually the closest margin of Tom Barrett’s four re-election races. And it’s possible that the gap could have been smaller had the spring 2020 election not been upended by the early onset of the covid-19 pandemic (the “This is ridiculous” election, you’ll recall). Even so, it’s hard to imagine Taylor closing a 25-percentage-point gap given normal circumstances.
Taylor has a few vulnerabilities as a candidate. In a 2018 incident, she berated a bank teller, calling him a “house (N-word),” which resulted in a ticket for disorderly conduct. That is the kind of thing that would come up in a more prominent way in a general election in 2022.
She also lacks endorsements at the moment. That matters in a campaign like this one. Not only would endorsements from politically active organizations help motivate turnout on election day, it also shows what kind of coalition one could build as mayor.
As a state senator, too, she’s been more of a maverick than a consensus-builder. And in our interview with Taylor, she repeatedly emphasized using her voice into the big debates facing the city. But without others echoing and supporting that voice, it raises questions about how much she could realistically be able to accomplish as mayor.
But Taylor could absolutely advance in this primary. She’s smart, she’s good at connecting her community and with constituencies that can sometimes go overlooked, and she’s a terrific retail politician. She’s been a prominent voice in Milwaukee politics for a long time, and even just on name recognition alone in this short campaign, she’s a formidable candidate. She might be the best bet of the three to top Donovan and advance to the general election.
State Sen. Taylor talked with The Recombobulation Area for our interview series with the candidates. Read our (free) story on Taylor here, and subscribe to listen to a podcast and read a transcript from that interview.
MILWAUKEE COUNTY SHERIFF EARNELL LUCAS
Earnell Lucas is in his first term as Milwaukee County Sheriff. A political newcomer, he won the Democratic primary for the office in 2018, with 56.7% of the vote in a three-candidate race to fill the role vacated by former sheriff David Clarke, who resigned in 2017.
Before running for office, Lucas worked for Major League Baseball for 17 years, first for Commissioner Bud Selig, and eventually as the league’s head of security. Before working at MLB, he had a 25-year career in the Milwaukee Police Department, retiring with the rank of captain.
Lucas is still fairly new to public office. Taking over for David Clarke, he’s brought a level of professionalism and competence to the office that we hadn’t seen in years, but doing a better job than the disgraced former sheriff isn’t exactly a high bar to clear.
Among the incidents from Lucas’ tenure that could be on voters’ minds is one from 2020, when Sheriff’s Deputy Joel Streicher struck and killed Ceasar Stinson, a Milwaukee Public Schools employee, in an on-duty car crash. Streicher was charged with homicide, and instead of firing him, Lucas accepted his resignation.
When the field began to take shape in the early part of this race, Lucas was a popular choice among prognosticators guessing at who would be the final two candidates. But his campaign just hasn’t seemed to pick up steam. He had a strong TV ad, but he hasn’t been able to stand out in the many forums that have been held in recent weeks. Because of some scheduling conflicts, we weren’t able to interview Lucas for our series with the candidates, so unfortunately, we were not able to get the opportunity to gain a better understanding of what his plans might be. But aside from making addressing violent crime his top issue in the race, it’s been difficult to get a handle on what type of mayor he would be.
Lucas could still end up with a good showing at the ballot box on Tuesday — he has won a county-wide race, after all. But finishing in the top two is an outcome that’s looking less likely than it did in December.
ALDERWOMAN MARINA DIMITRIJEVIC
Marina Dimitrijevic has been a key figure in local politics in Milwaukee for years. Currently the alderwoman in the Common Council’s 14th District and the Chair of the Public Safety and Health Committee, she was the youngest woman elected to the County Board in 2004, and served as Chairwoman from 2012 to 2015.
She ran for State Assembly in 2014, but narrowly lost in the Democratic primary to Jonathan Brostoff. She later led the Wisconsin branch of the Working Families Party.
Dimitrijevic is carving out a path as the progressive in this race for mayor, and has been racking up a whole lot of endorsements from many progressive organizations (Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Our Wisconsin Revolution), labor unions (United Auto Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers), and those in the education field (several members of the Milwaukee School Board, the MATC Faculty Union). She also has been very pro-immigration, and has the endorsement of Voces de la Frontera.
She’s also been among the most prominent City Hall voices on public health matters, working to implement a mask requirement. Thankfully, the Omicron wave is subsiding after reaching dangerous heights, so perhaps pandemic-related issues will not be as top-of-mind for voters as they were a month ago. Her stance on masks might turn off some voters, but the polarization of that particular issue tends to be overstated. People in the city have largely supported masking over the course of the pandemic.
Throughout her political career, Dimitrijevic has represented Bay View and other nearby south side neighborhoods, and while she may have strong name recognition there, she does not appear to be particularly well-known among Black voters. A January poll showed her at just 1% as Black voters’ first choice in the primary, which obviously is a big problem in a city where nearly 40% of residents are Black. And while Dimitrijevic is a progressive, there is a real gap in this race for a candidate who could speak to the views of progressive people of color, and it’s unclear if that’s support she’d be able to cultivate in this race.
Nevertheless, she does have a path to advancing to the general election. She’s done well in public forums, and has a real progressive coalition backing her. The turnout equation with those groups endorsing her could be a real differentiating factor on election day.
Alderwoman Dimitrijevic talked with The Recombobulation Area for our interview series with the candidates. Read our (free) story on Dimitrijevic here, and subscribe to listen to a podcast and read a transcript from that interview.
If Taylor, Lucas or Dimitrijevic advance alongside Cavalier Johnson, Milwaukee is going to get a real mayor’s race. If Bob Donovan is one of the final two candidates, Milwaukee will fall back into the same tired arguments we’ve been having for the past decade before reaching an inevitable result. That is not what this city needs right now.
Milwaukee deserves a real, competitive mayor’s race. This truncated campaign before the primary has begun an important conversation over what Milwaukee’s future could look like, but it would be a shame for it to get cut short and dragged down into partisan gutter politics — and that’s exactly what a Donovan-centric race would bring.
So many across the state spend so much time opining about Milwaukee without considering the needs and the many diverse viewpoints of the people living there, and a real campaign with would give Milwaukee a chance to have its own say, for once, and would give the state of Wisconsin a chance to gain a better understanding of the issues facing the people living in its largest, most diverse city.
It’s been such a long time since this city has been able to have a real discussion about what it wants for its future in a mayor’s race. It’s important for Milwaukee to embrace this moment. Because this choice belongs to the city of Milwaukee and the city of Milwaukee alone.
So much of the politics of living in this city is about having to accept things that are out of our control. Given how our system of government operates in Wisconsin, so much about Milwaukee’s future is out of the city’s hands. With the amount of power the state has over the city and how many debates in Milwaukee become county ones or regional ones in a hyper-polarized metro area, the city so rarely gets to have its own say. It is absolutely vital for the city of Milwaukee to seize this opportunity to have its own say about its own future with this race.
City of Milwaukee voters, the time is now to have your say. Vote on Feb. 15.
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 ten Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.