Jeramey Jannene

Meet Milwaukee’s New Mayor Cavalier Johnson

Johnson, first elected Black mayor in Milwaukee history, promises to focus on crime, jobs, neighborhoods and relationship with state.

By - Apr 5th, 2022 10:51 pm
Mayor Cavalier Johnson speaks to the crowd after winning a special election. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson speaks to the crowd after winning a special election. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The voters have spoken resoundingly. Cavalier Johnson is Milwaukee’s next mayor.

Johnson defeated former alderman Robert Donovan in Tuesday’s special election, earning 72% of the vote to Donovan’s 28%.

His election is a historic one, a fact not lost on the new mayor. Johnson, 35, is now the first elected Black mayor in the city’s history. “We did it,” said Johnson after taking the stage at his campaign party at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center.

Reiterating his campaign’s core message, Johnson noted that Milwaukee is a beautiful city that can be heartbreaking. “We want a safer, strong and more prosperous Milwaukee,” said Johnson. “We have a lot to do.” He stressed that he had the lived experience to lead the city, and thanked voters for putting him in a position to do so.

“We will be the best city in America,” he said. “We have so much to do and we will do it together.”

He promised a focus on reducing gun violence, improving neighborhoods, creating jobs and repairing the city’s relationship with state government. Johnson inherits a revenue-limited city with record levels of homicides and motor vehicle thefts and a 2023, pension-induced fiscal cliff that could force the layoffs of one in four city workers. After his speech, Johnson said the first thing he would do in the office Wednesday would to be call legislators in Madison. He has previously promised to get a cot in the Wisconsin State Capitol if necessary.

“Two years from now Milwaukee will be a stronger city than it is today,” said Johnson. He has served as acting mayor since December and will now serve the remainder of Tom Barrett‘s term through April 2024.

Johnson’s point about his life experience was something he often mentioned during his campaign.

One of 10 siblings, Johnson is the child of a Milwaukee Public Schools janitor and a certified nursing assistant who split up. He was a child who had to share beds with his siblings and moved so often he says he lost count of places where he lived. He resided in homes all over the city, including the 53206 ZIP code known for having the highest incarceration rate of African-American males out of any ZIP code in the country. He now lives in the city’s Capitol Heights neighborhood near the Midtown shopping center with his wife, Dominique, and three children.

That lived experience threatened to derail his campaign in the past week. Johnson’s older brother, who the mayor claims he hasn’t seen since Thanksgiving, had a warrant issued for his arrest in January for an alleged shooting and was arrested last week. On the campaign trail, the mayor was frank about the divergent paths his family has taken. “I have one brother who runs a prison and another brother who has been in his prison,” Johnson said at his Dec. 23 swearing-in ceremony. The arrest, and the fact that it was revealed first through the media, was a rare misstep for the Johnson campaign which otherwise kept up a constant cycle of media appearances.

Johnson, a graduate of Bay View High School and UW-Madison, said he hopes his leadership and service inspires others.

“He knows his job is not to close that door, but to blow it off the freaking hinges,” said State Senator LaTonya Johnson, no relation, in introducing Johnson Tuesday evening.

Johnson’s party drew several hundred people to the downtown ballroom. Those in attendance included Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley and former county executive Chris Abele, Milwaukee County Board Chair Marcelia Nicholson (who was also on the ballot unopposed), state representatives Evan Goyke, Jonathan Brostoff, Christine Sinicki, Sara Rodriguez, Supreme Moore Omokunde, Kalan Haywood II, David Bowen and Dora Drake, council members Jose G. Perez, Michael Murphy, Nik Kovac and Robert Bauman, county supervisors Sheldon Wasserman (who faced a contested race Tuesday), outgoing county supervisor Jason Haas, newly-elected supervisors Steve Taylor and Peter Burgelis, School Board President Bob Peterson, Judge Hannah Dugan (who was on the ballot unopposed), county Register of Deeds Israel Ramón, Johnson’s chief of staff Jim Bohl and staffers Arlisia McHenry, Kailyn Kenney, Jeff Fleming, Alexis Peterson and Oscar Tovar, Greater Milwaukee Committee president Joel Brennan, prominent Democratic leader Martha Love, senate candidate Alex Lasry, PR mavens James Madlom, Evan Zeppos and Tim McMurtry, attorneys Vincent Bobot, Craig Mastantuono and C.J. Krawczyk, community leader MacArthur Weddle, developers Frank Crivello, Dennis Klein, Robert Monnat and Rafael Garcia. City department heads spotted in the crowd included Lafayette Crump, Makda Fessahaye, Leon W. Todd, III and Adam Tindall-Schlicht.

Donovan, in an event at McKiernan’s Irish Pub, conceded shortly after 9 p.m. He fared two percentage points worse than his 70-30 loss to Barrett in 2016.

“It’s amazing the things that go through your mind in a time like this. I’ve been through many campaigns. We’ve worked very hard. We uh rose up against the odds. And I’m talking about an underdog, if you would look up underdog in the dictionary you’d see a picture of Bob Donovan and this campaign,” said Donovan, an outspoken backer of rank-and-file police officers. “There’s never, never any shame in wanting something badly and going after it and coming up short, where the shame really lays is with those individuals who want something badly but can never, ever seem to summon the courage to go after it.”

Fond du Lac County District Attorney and Attorney General candidate Eric Toney joined Donovan at the event, which had several dozen attendees

“We had a vision, a goal, a plan for Milwaukee that I still to this day believe in,” said Donovan.

Donovan who had moved to Greenfield after deciding not to run for reelection in 2020, said he hadn’t made up his mind if he would back to the suburb. He rented his southside home to his son and his family after moving to a condominium in Greenfield that was previously owned by an extended family member.

Johnson’s campaign was run by Nation Consulting, whose many employees, including founder Thad Nation and campaign manager Sachin Chheda, could be seen circling the Hilton ballroom all night

Johnson’s support from the Common Council was visibly limited Tuesday evening. Only four of the other 14 members were there, in part a reflection of the fact that Johnson became council president in 2020 through an acrimonious vote. He had quietly campaigned for the post after then-president Ashanti Hamilton indicated he was running for mayor. But Hamilton’s campaign never materialized, and Johnson didn’t back down from running. He won by a single vote over Milele A. Coggs, with no Black council members voting for him. None endorsed him in the mayoral race, with Hamilton going as far as endorsing Donovan. None of them showed up Tuesday. But Johnson’s party Tuesday night was attended by two former Black council presidents, Willie Hines, Jr. and Ben Johnson as well as a number of other Black elected officials.

In his speech, Johnson thanked a series of Black political leaders including Marvin Pratt, a former council president who became acting mayor in 2004 before losing to Barrett, Vel Phillips, Gwen Moore, Marcia Coggs and Isaac Coggs.

Johnson’s political ascendency is one that almost didn’t happen.

A recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin, in 2011 Johnson ran for a seat on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors in a five-way special election. He finished fifth with 171 votes.

He ran again in 2012 for a different seat on the county board. He finished sixth that time, but out of seven candidates. It seemed like an improvement until you consider he got 106 votes.

Johnson spent the next few years as a staff assistant to Barrett and worked at Employ Milwaukee. In 2016 he ran for an open seat on the Milwaukee Common Council, a better paying and more powerful job than the county board. He won a five-way primary with 38% of the vote and pulled down 4,307 votes (52%) in the general election.

During the April 2016 charter meeting of the council, Ald. Russell W. Stamper, II, who won that county 2012 race, gave Johnson a good-natured ribbing for choosing to now go by Cavalier instead of Chevy and joked about how they formerly shared a driveway when campaigning. Johnson, surrounded by friends and family, took it in stride. On Tuesday, those in the crowd learned how Cavalier became Chevy.

Johnson’s eighth grade classmate Victor Amaya, Data You Can Use‘s executive director, told the origin story of that nickname Tuesday night. Yes, it was a reference to the Chevy Cavalier car. But more importantly, it was because Victor was learning to speak English and couldn’t pronounce Cavalier. Johnson was a good friend and willing to accept it, and ultimately adopted it. What’s more, it was in high school that Johnson told Amaya that he was going to run for elected office and dedicate himself to public service.

It was a similar story to one Dominique Johnson recounted the night of the February primary. She met her now-husband while he was working at a desk at a YMCA, but he was upfront that he was committed to running for elected office and public service.

Now, despite those initial setbacks, Johnson is mayor.

A special election will need to be called to fill Johnson’s seat, and it poses a potential challenge for both the Milwaukee Election Commission and voters. It will take place according to the council’s prior district boundaries that Johnson was elected under, not the newly-adopted map. Voters may live in new wards that are eligible to vote in the race, but on blocks within the ward that are outside the old boundaries, rendering them ineligible.

Graham Kilmer covered the Donovan event and contributed to this report.

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More about the 2022 Mayoral Race

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Categories: Politics, Weekly

4 thoughts on “Meet Milwaukee’s New Mayor Cavalier Johnson”

  1. Mingus says:

    Johnson’s 71.69% win without the strong support from members of the Milwaukee Common Council’s black caucus, one can see the decline inference that this group has as they are becoming increasingly irrelevant to political influence in the city. Johnson’s message of working for the interests for all the citizens of Milwaukee appealed to voters in a landslide victory.

  2. Ryan Cotic says:

    Congrats to Mr Johnson, hopefully on day one he will implement plans to dramatically reduce violent crime in one of the most dangerous cities to live in the United States. Two years from now he will be judged on if he was able to make our city significantly safer as judged by homocides, shootings and assaults. I for one hope he is up to the task and will support him for the city!

  3. says:

    Mayor-elect Johnson has his workout out for him. Or city is facing huge challenges- hopefully the fractious city council can overcome their pettiness and get behind this new generation of leadership. My best, Mr. Mayor!

  4. NickR says:

    Congrats to our new mayor!

    It’s great to see younger people holding elected offices. Too many of our elected officials are older than the retirement age. We need to face today’s challenges with modern thinking and solutions, not outdated 1950s mindsets.

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