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Milwaukee voters choose Cavalier Johnson and Bob Donovan to advance in mayoral election

Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson and former Ald. Bob Donovan
Kobe Brown
Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson and former Ald. Bob Donovan advance to the general election in the race for Milwaukee's next mayor.

Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson and former Ald. Bob Donovan were the two top vote-getters in Tuesday's mayoral primary election in Milwaukee.

They topped a field of seven candidates, and will compete to win the general election on April 5.

Johnson has been acting mayor since the end of December, when former Mayor Tom Barrett stepped down to become U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg.

Many political analysts predicted Johnson would win Tuesday's primary, and he did so easily with 42% of the vote. But Johnson still sounded relieved, and excited, when he spoke to supporters Tuesday night at the Potawatomi Hotel.

"Well folks, we did it!" Johnson exclaimed to applause.

Johnson went on to emphasize his campaign themes. including working to reduce the high levels of gun violence that have plagued Milwaukee for the last three years.

"Job number one, we have to make the changes we need to make this city safer for everybody. The fear in our hearts — it needs to end now!" Johnson emphasized.

Johnson said he's hoping for state help to add back to the police force, which has been reduced in recent years. But he said the Milwaukee Police Department could also reallocate some existing officers.

"With rising crime, we can't also have rising response times. We need to invest in our police and get more police out of the station and on patrol!" Johnson exclaimed.

Johnson also said he wants to help create more jobs in Milwaukee, where the population slipped to about 577,000 in the most recent census. He said if the city can provide safer streets, better health care and education he's not settling to just get back over 600,000.

"If we have great family-supporting jobs, yes, in manufacturing, but also in technology, and finance, and urban agriculture, and tourism, and the arts, how do we grow to become a city of 1 million people or more?" Johnson asked.

But long before Johnson can try to reach that number, he first has to get past former Ald. Donovan in April. Donovan finished 20 points behind Johnson Tuesday night — with 22% of the vote. But speaking outside the south side bar where he held his primary night party, Donovan said he plans to emphasize his record on the Milwaukee Common Council.

"For 20 years, as a hard-working alderman that got things done, that called things as he saw 'em, that fought for the best interest of his constituents — as mayor, of course, I'll fight for everyone," Donovan told WUWM.

Donovan agreed that public safety is one of the key issues in the mayoral contest. And he said adding to the police force is essential.

"Without that, you might as well kiss goodbye a high level of safety in this city. And, you'll see more and more of the same," Donovan warned.

Donovan is seen as easily the more conservative mayoral candidate. But he said his platform of improved public safety and his other key themes of better schools and more jobs can win in mostly Democratic Milwaukee.

"So everyone, I believe, whether you're liberal or right-wing, you know, everyone believes in those principles," Donovan said.

But UW-Milwaukee Political Scientist Paru Shah says it will be a difficult task for Donovan, who is white, to defeat Cavalier Johnson, who is Black.

"The city has changed a lot since Bob Donovan began his political career in Milwaukee. It's more multiracial and more diverse. And I think to build a citywide coalition of voters that would agree with a more conservative platform would be really difficult given the trajectory of our city over the last few years. Do I think it's impossible? No. But I definitely think it's the harder task," Shah explains.

Shah says one thing to watch over the next six weeks is how the two remaining candidates reach out to what's expected to be a larger number of voters in April.

"An opportunity for both candidates to strengthen their base and think about how they're going to built that citywide coalition," Shah says.

The first task may be to win over supporters of the other mayoral candidates Tuesday, especially those of significant vote-getters Lena Taylor, Marina Dimitrijevic and Earnell Lucas.

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