Milwaukee mayor’s race builds to crescendo prior to Tuesday election

During a Wednesday night forum, the candidates laid it all on the table.

By: - February 11, 2022 6:30 am
The Milwaukee Mayors Forum Feb. 9, 2022. (Screenshot)

The Milwaukee Mayors Forum Feb. 9, 2022. (Screenshot)

With the Feb.15 primary nearing, the city of Milwaukee is on the cusp of narrowing a large field of contenders to be the city’s next mayor down to two in the nonpartisan race. On Wednesday evening, all seven candidates withstood two hours of questioning from the public during a mayoral forum at Turner Hall. Issues of public safety were discussed throughout the evening, starting with  the first question of the night. The candidates were also challenged to articulate their own visions of what Milwaukee needs for its future.

For some of the candidates, the question of public safety goes beyond simply augmenting the police department’s raw manpower. Reckless driving, for instance, remains among the most frequently discussed issues in recent months. The Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) Traffic Safety Unit reported 66 fatal injuries related to car crashes in 2021, along with another 353 people who suffered “incapacitating injuries.” Meanwhile, motor  vehicle theft incidents have increased 132% from 2020 to 2021.

Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic (Screenshot)
Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic (Screenshot)

It’s a pressing issue for many people throughout the city. Solutions, however, are another story. Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic, rather than banking solely on enforcement, pointed to education. “One of the things that I am calling for is universal free drivers’ ed in all Milwaukee Public Schools,” she said to applause. “That is a way to create a foundation for our children.” Some of those involved in the most publicized incidents of reckless driving have been children as young as 12. Others are in their later teen years. “It’s unfortunate that many of these incidents have been children,” said Dimitrijevic. “That’s a failure of the city and society.”

Several candidates highlighted education as a key missing component in the reckless driving issue. Re-engineering the roads themselves is also on the table, especially with American Rescue Act Plan (ARPA) funds coming to  Milwaukee, including to the school system. Sen. Lena Taylor said that, sadly, there isn’t a switch to flip, “to undo the neglect that happened for so long.”

When it comes to the link between auto-related crimes and youth, Taylor proposed repurposing kids’ energy. “Those young people need to be provided some opportunities,” said Taylor, who ran unsuccessfully against former Mayor Tom Barrett. “What are we doing to connect to our businesses that are in the auto industry?” she asked. Newly implemented engineering strategies like remote shut-off switches installed in all new vehicles were also on Taylor’s mind.

Former Ald. Bob Donovan (Screenshot)
Former Ald. Bob Donovan (Screenshot)

Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas, another candidate, suggested  granting the State Patrol authority to aid in reckless driving enforcement. He also mused about the potential for a technological fix. “This is our 1960 seat belt problem,” said Lucas. “And unless and until we get all of the entities in the city working together to bring pressure to bear on the automakers, we won’t see any immediate remedy in Washington in helping us deal with this issue.”

Former Ald. Bob Donovan’s answer relied heavily on law enforcement as a solution. “There apparently seems to be no consequences for people’s criminal behavior, and that has to change,” said Donovan. “There needs to be stepped-up enforcement, and that is simply not possible at this point because of the manpower shortages within MPD.” In 2021, according to the MPD’s data, 19,291 traffic citations were issued. A little over 1,200 of those involved accidents, and over 3,400 were related to a driver’s license issue. Nearly 11,000 citations were given out for speeding.

Community activist Ieshuh Griffin pointed to the issue of drunk driving as a key factor. “If we really want to stop reckless driving then we can’t just target the children,” said Griffin. She shamed the six other candidates for drinking from open containers at a beer event, which is contrary to city ordinances. Reckless and drunk driving is especially personal to Griffin, who suffered grievous injuries during a crash involving a drunk driver. “They pronounced me dead at the scene,” she recalled.

Sheriff Earnell Lucas (Screenshot)
Sheriff Earnell Lucas (Screenshot)

Public safety wasn’t the only issue discussed at the forum. Citizens also wondered how one-time federal pandemic relief money  would be utilized in sustainable ways. Dimitrijevic said universal pre-kindergarten is one of the ways she’d use the funds. “What if we give our children the best head start ever, before they even enter school,” she suggested, having already proposed allocating $7 million in APRA funds to child care. Dimitrievic pressed “We need to help people in the city of Milwaukee not just survive, but thrive.”

Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson underscored the importance of using the funds to support the public school system. “It’s not likely that $800 million is likely to come again,” said Johnson, “so we have to be smart about the investments that we make.”

Business owner Michael Sampson pointed to the dire and pressing issues people are facing immediately. When the next batch of ARPA dollars comes later in the year, Sampson said he’d like to see at least some of it go to restaurants and bars which were neglected the first time around. “A lot of people depend on restaurants for their food source,” said Sampson. “Everyone doesn’t go and eat at grocery stores, so that’s a big problem in the city right now. We need to take care of our service industry and the employees that they have.”


Headshot of state Sen. Lena Taylor
Sen. Lena Taylor

Sampson recalled speaking with  a woman recently  whose husband died from COVID-19. The woman, who’s now on oxygen herself, was left unemployed as a school bus driver. Unable to support herself or the children she’s responsible for, her fate weighs heavily on Sampson. “We need to help and support people who need help right now,” he said. “We need to use ARPA funds to directly help people right now.”

Concerns were also raised about housing. Not just the rates of homelessness in the city, but also the rights of tenants to defend themselves against evictions and reprisals from landlords. Johnson said housing, “especially stable housing for families in Milwaukee, is critically important.” He recalled visiting a childhood home of his, which now sits vacant and in disrepair. Finding purposes for Milwaukee’s vacant housing, while also ensuring people have adequate work, has been a staple of Johnson’s campaign.

Ieshuh Griffin (Screeonshot)
Ieshuh Griffin (Screenshot)

The Century City business park, which has sat largely unused for years, was also a topic of discussion. Visions for Century City varied, with some like Dimitrijevic leaning towards tapping into green and renewable energy jobs, while also addressing the climate crisis. Others envision a return of large-scale manufacturing jobs, perhaps even expanding existing manufacturers in the area such as Harley Davidson. Taylor favored experimenting with the hemp market, using hemp not only to supplement revenue but also clean up the contaminated soils of the Century City site. Hemp, like some other plants, can act as a filter and extract toxic materials from surrounding soil. Sampson invoked the cannabis question for Wisconsin, and the fact that Milwaukee continues to lose money to Illinois due to cannabis prohibition.

Generating new revenues is one problem, but saving money is another. For Sampson, one thing to cut would be the Southeastern Threat Analysis Center (STAC). In principle a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, the STAC serves as part of the MPD’s fusion center intelligence program. The fusion center has operated largely in obscurity, and recently attracted controversy due to its surveillance capabilities and protest-related operations during 2020. “We have to reform everything,” said Sampson, who also mentioned lingering issues with pensions and overtime within the police department. “One thing to take away, the STAC program. Get rid of it. It came here after 9/11, there’s one in Madison already, we don’t need one in Milwaukee.” For Sampson, it’s an idea that could “save the city $3 million.”

Michael Sampson (Screenshot)
Michael Sampson (Screenshot)

With Tuesday looming and the debates coming to a close, it’s still up in the air who may become Milwaukee’s next mayor. Johnson, who was appointed as acting mayor when Barrett left, continues to be a front-runner in the polls. A recent poll suggested Donovan was the runner-up, but the poll has been criticized for its sample population being small, conservative, and having excluded younger, more diverse areas of the city. According to that poll, Johnson was still ahead with 41%, followed by Donovan at 24%, Taylor at 10%, Lucas at 6%, Dimitrijevic at 5%, and both Griffin and Sampson at 1%.

Johnson’s campaign recently drew questions regarding its funding connections to groups that may be linked to former Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele. Over $120,000 was paid by the group to run campaign ads for Johnson. Lucas’ campaign was also one of the highest performing in terms of donors. He ended the last reporting period with a war chest of $131,518, with contributions from sports figures in baseball and basketball as well as business owners. Johnson’s campaign reported having more money on hand, with $185,718. Donovan’s war chest sits at just over $22,000, Taylor’s at over $13,000 and $28,746 in loans.

The field of contenders will be narrowed to two on Tuesday. The top two vote-getters will square off in the general election on April 5.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.