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Prospective Acting Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson Shares His Priorities

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Milwaukee Common Council President Cavalier Johnson would become acting mayor if the U.S. Senate approves President Joe Biden's nomination of Mayor Tom Barrett as Ambassador to Luxembourg.

President Joe Biden has nominated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett as Ambassador to Luxembourg. If the U.S. Senate approves the nomination, under city charter, Common Council President Cavalier Johnson would become acting mayor. A special election would be held later.

Johnson became District 2 alderman in 2016 and was elected Council president in 2020. He says he got into public service after participating in a pre-college YMCA program. He says the goal of that program was to get low-income kids in Milwaukee Public Schools into college. “The other part of that program is to get those same young people involved in community service and giving back and I just fell in love with the community service aspect of it,” said Johnson.

Johnson graduated from UW-Madison, eventually took a job as a staffer in Mayor Barrett’s office, and then ran for city government.

Maayan Silver's extended conversation with prospective Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson.

If Barrett is confirmed and steps down as mayor, what are Johnson’s priorities going forward?

“I can tell you, there are a number of things that we've been focused on, on the Common Council, and things that very likely will bleed over into the position of acting mayor,” Johnson said. “Chief among them, I think, are issues around our COVID response. You know, right now, we've got the very best tool at our disposal to attack and defeat COVID and that's getting vaccinated. And so, we want to encourage people not just in this position as president but in the position as acting mayor and you know, hopefully if the people of Milwaukee will have me to be elected mayor too, to get more people to get vaccinated.”

Johnson says he will "absolutely" run for mayor whenever that election happens, which would depend on when the mayor resigns. The Common Council would schedule the election. Johnson says the Council may try to line up a special election in accordance with already-existing elections, possibly in April or November of 2022.

Johnson also cited public safety as a priority. “In my district, just in the course of the past couple of weeks, we've had a number of people who've lost their lives to needless, reckless driving over on 60th and Hampton, 76th and Silver Spring, I mean, even, you know, some of the incidents that are happening not by students at Marshall High School, but people going there, driving on the lawn, and needlessly endanger the lives of those students there. So we have a lot to do around those areas.”

What are the city’s other biggest challenges?

“Economic development is certainly one of those things,” said Johnson. “[It’s] something that we desperately need focus on. Issues around public safety, especially around issues like reckless driving. There are issues around public safety in terms of the members of the Fire and Police Commission getting back to full strength. The issue of the fact that we haven't had a permanent police chief in Milwaukee for, you know, over a year now.

“We have to continue to build better ties and relationships with Madison, because there's no way that you can move things forward in Milwaukee without having a strong relationship with Madison, with state government, with the Legislature. And those are relationships I've been working to build in my time as Common Council president, I'll continue to do that.”

How would Johnson’s priorities differ from Mayor Barrett’s?

“I'll say this, my experience in Milwaukee is different than Tom Barrett's experience. You know, I grew up in 53206, I grew up in some of the most depressed neighborhoods in Milwaukee. You know, reflecting on my own life, I didn't have the opportunity to attend one school until I got to middle school to start and finish at the school. So from every grade, in grade school, I was practically at another place.”

Johnson said he’s seen Milwaukee, through his education, from the northwest side all the way to the south side of the city. “So, I know Milwaukee, I've seen Milwaukee, I know all the love, but I know all the pain, of areas like 53206.”

Johnson said he came back to use his talents to better the community, and because of his experiences, his approach will be different from what the city has seen from Mayor Barrett over the past 17 years.

Nearly 20 years ago Marvin Pratt became the first Black acting mayor of Milwaukee when John Norquist stepped down as mayor. Johnson said the opportunity to be the first elected Black mayor of Milwaukee is not what’s driving him.

“That's not what I'm in it for," Johnson says. "I'm in it for the reasons that I mentioned. I want to create a Milwaukee that is strong, that is safe, that is stable, that creates opportunities for businesses, that creates opportunities for our families and for our youth and creates an environment where folks have peaceful quiet enjoyment of their neighborhoods. That's what I want to see.”

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