Celebration and challenge for Milwaukee’s new chief executive

Cavalier Johnson elected as city’s first Black mayor in landslide victory

By: - April 6, 2022 1:45 pm
Mayor Cavalier Johnson holds his victory speech. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Mayor Cavalier Johnson holds his victory speech. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Milwaukee has elected its first Black mayor, Cavalier Johnson, a historic milestone the gravity of which wasn’t lost on Johnson, or anyone else who gathered at the Hilton Milwaukee Center to watch the results come in. By the time the spring election concluded on Tuesday night, Johnson had garnered 71.69% of the vote. Johnson swept his opponent, former alderman Bob Donovan, who attracted 28.31% of the city’s voters.

During his victory speech, Johnson underscored a message he delivered repeatedly on the campaign trail, “that we want a safer, a stronger, more prosperous Milwaukee.” Reflecting on the city that raised him, Johnson said Milwaukee “is wonderful, it’s beautiful, it’s sometimes heartbreaking.”

The watch and victory party at the Hilton Milwaukee Center for Mayor Cavalier Johnson. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The watch and victory party at the Hilton Milwaukee Center for Mayor Cavalier Johnson. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

That duality, in a city with great opportunity alongside gross disparities, has for many people become more glaring with each passing year. Johnson said the city needs “a bold new vision” to begin to turn the tide. As Johnson spoke, the majority of the dozens of attendees gathered in the ballroom listened intently. Campaign signs and banners decorated  the room, one side of which had a large projector that occasionally showed updates from the polls.

The crowd represented a cross section of Milwaukee’s political eco-system. Several Milwaukee elected officials were in attendance with Sen. LaTonya Johnson, Rep. Supreme Moore Omokundee, Rep. David Bowen, Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, Rep. Kalan Haywood, and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley among them. The crowd was also populated by developers, people running for other offices, and local activists, a few of whom cut their teeth during the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement. Former Milwaukee officials were also working the crowd, including former county executive Chris Abele, a donor in numerous local races. Abele and his wife each contributed $6,000 to Johnson’s campaign, the maximum amount allowed.

Media trailed Johnson around the room keeping close tabs on him. But security from the Milwaukee Police Department kept the closest eye on the new mayor. The shadowing was something Johnson ”will have to get used to,” Moore Omokunde remarked in passing. During his speech, Johnson paused occasionally for cheers and chants of “Chevy,” his long-held nickname. Many of the people in attendance had known him for many years — some  since childhood. Over his years spent in the city Johnson has served on boards of the Milwaukee YMCA, American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Community Brainstorming Conference, and has previously worked on staff in the mayor’s office.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Johnson expressed his hope that his time as mayor will nurture a more stable Milwaukee. “Now, tonight, we’ve taken a key step in renewing our city’s promise,” said Johnson. “We’ve got to address our crisis of gun violence and unsafe streets. We need to restore our neighborhoods. We need to create jobs and grow our city. And we also need to repair the broken relationship that we have with state government. That’s what I’ve been talking about on the campaign trail. That’s what I’ll be working on in the mayor’s office in the days and weeks and the years to come.” Johnson has emphasized the importance of working with the Republican-controlled state Legislature since being selected as acting mayor. He said that he plans to “have a cot at the Capitol,” and is willing to bridge the growing political divide in the state which have only made things tougher for Milwaukee.

Other issues including reckless driving and the city’s struggles with gun violence took center stage during the mayoral debates. Recently, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office projected that this year will see 240 homicides and 82 motor vehicle accident deaths. Motor vehicle theft goes hand-in-hand with auto accidents, with theft increasing by 132% from 2020 to 2021. Homicide deaths, largely related to gun violence, jumped to a record  190 deaths in 2020, followed by another record of 193 deaths the following year. Those numbers are dwarfed by overdose deaths, which have also been on an upward trajectory in recent years. The Medical Examiner’s Office expects 704 drug-related deaths by the end of 2022.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson talks with attendee's of the watch party, and poses for pictures. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Mayor Cavalier Johnson talks with attendee’s of the watch party, and poses for pictures. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

While Tuesday was a night of celebration, Milwaukee’s chronic troubles weigh heavily on Johnson’s mind. He took a moment to commemorate the “trail blazers” whose work paved a path for him to the mayor’s office. “I stand on the shoulders of giants in this community,” said Johnson, naming prominent Milwaukeeans Vel Phillips, the city’s first African American alderwoman, Congresswoman Gwen Moore and Marvin Pratt, who served as acting mayor of Milwaukee in 2004.

Johnson found himself in the same role as Pratt after former Mayor Tom Barrett learned of his appointment as ambassador to Luxembourg last year. At the time, Johnson was serving as the city’s common council president. The news caused a few shifts in city government, with Ald. Ashanti Hamilton assumed the role of common council president. Still, Johnson needed to survive a campaign  against six opponents. They included  Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), businessman Michael Sampson, community activist Ieshuh Griffin, Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas, and Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic, and Donovan — the only candidate besides  Johnson  to survive the primary.

Former Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele speaks to other attendee's of Mayor Cavalier Johnson's election watch event. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Former Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele speaks to other attendee’s of Mayor Cavalier Johnson’s election watch event. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

For Donovan, the election had a cultural significance as well. Donovan, who built his campaign on a foundation of law enforcement and public safety, invoked Milwaukee’s history of city leaders with Irish heritage during his campaign. He drew much of his support from conservative portions of the city.

Johnson said he hoped his victory would serve as an inspiration for Black and brown youth, who woke up Wednesday and understood, regardless of their background, “that in Milwaukee, there’s a place for you, too.”

Johnson recounted his personal experiences moving around to different schools, and struggling against the quicksand of systemic inequality. When he was growing up his friends and family were touched by gun violence and mass incarceration, which bears down heavily on zip codes Johnson grew up in. “Coming from difficult neighborhoods where half of Black men spend time incarcerated by the time that they reach my age, 35 years old, I know what it’s like to escape those statistics. But I also know what it’s like to see friends and family members who succumb to those challenges and, ultimately, end up choosing the wrong avenue. I’ve lived that, I know that.”

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Various media outlets stage cameras and equipment a Mayor Cavalier Johnson's watch event. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Various media outlets staged cameras and equipment at Mayor Cavalier Johnson’s watch event. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

For Milwaukee’s new mayor, this perspective is “woven into my DNA. And I carry that with me.” Johnson assured the crowd that “whether I’m meeting with school kids, the men and women who sweep the streets or corporate CEOs, that carries with me and my calling is service.”

“Because I’m a son of this city,” he added. “I am a son of this city, and now we must continue our work and our next step is to listen. We know that safety and prosperity are the guideposts. We need every idea we get in order to achieve our goals. No idea is too small, no idea is too big. I want to hear from everyone.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, 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. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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