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Milwaukee mayoral campaign enters second phase with sharp contrasts between Johnson and Donovan

Man speaking behind a podium.
Chuck Quirmbach
Milwaukee mayoral candidate former Ald. Bob Donovan speaks Feb. 19 at a Wisconsin Conservative Digest event in West Allis.

The two finalists in the race for Milwaukee mayor aren't taking much of a break ahead of the general election on April 5.

Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson finished first in last Tuesday's mayoral primary with 42% of the vote. Former Ald. Bob Donovan was second — 20% points back.

But Donovan showed over the weekend that he isn't conceding the April election.

Donovan, who was in office for 20 years, told a conservative group in West Allis Saturday that he's the change agent in the mayoral contest.

"I stand before you today to shout from the mountaintops that I am not at all satisfied with the status quo in the city of Milwaukee and neither should anyone else," he said.

Donovan also tangled with Johnson Sunday during a joint appearance on WISN-TV, charging that Johnson is overpromising that large amounts of recently hired police officers will soon be out patrolling Milwaukee.

"This community has been misled into believing that we've got 195 or 200 cops, as his ad says — it's just not true. They're not going to be out on our streets," Donovan said.

Johnson responded that he backed funding for the officers who will eventually be assigned to be out on patrol.

"We're working on plans today, for this moment, right now, in 2022. That includes the police. It also includes violence prevention. It also includes early intervention in the lives of young people. It's a comprehensive plan for this moment [in] 2022," Johnson said.

Johnson also said that as common council president he worked to obtain a federal grant that just led to putting 26 new police officers into neighborhoods. "African Americans, Asians, Latinos, men and women to serve the city of Milwaukee," he said.

Acting Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson speaks February 3, at the Port of Milwaukee offices. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers listens.
Chuck Quirmbach
Acting Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson speaks February 3, at the Port of Milwaukee offices. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers listens.

The two candidates also discussed the amount of money being spent in the mayor's race. Johnson has raised several hundred thousand dollars, but has also been getting outside support from a group that may be connected to former Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.

Donovan urged Johnson to disclose more details. "It may be legal. But it's just not right. It's not moral. It's not ethical. I'm asking him to be transparent and tell the citizens of Milwaukee who is funding your campaign, and what are they asking in return?" he said.

Johnson called Donovan's tone unfortunate.

"If you look at the fundraising we did, my own fundraising, we raised about $350,000 alone. I've said, my campaign has said, that every person who contributes to a campaign or supports a campaign should be listed. I want that. But I'm not the one who controls the laws at the state level. That's something to talk to state legislators about," Johnson said.

Donovan has put money into his own campaign, and has raised some, but is far behind Johnson. Donovan joked in West Allis on Saturday that every dollar matters.

"Help me make a difference. Take a lawn sign, contribute what you can — take a lawn sign if you live in Milwaukee. They're $5 apiece, so please," Donovan said.

J.R. Ross is editor of WisPolitics.com
Courtesy of J.R. Ross
J.R. Ross is editor of WisPolitics.com

According to the editor of the website WisPolitics.com, campaign money may continue to be an issue for the former alderman. JR Ross says Donovan seems to have chosen a lane as the conservative law and order candidate.

"They're aren't many Republicans in Milwaukee, period. To some of the people who'd be receptive to his message — i.e. cops and firefighters have largely left the city because of the drop of residency requirements a few years ago under then-Gov. Scott Walker. So, there just aren't the people there," he explains.

Ross says sometimes issues erupt that make an election more competitive than many people predict. And, he says miracles do occur.

But even if the mayor's race goes the way many think, and Johnson wins, Ross warns that Johnson's hope for help from Republicans controlling the state Legislature to pay for things like more police officers may run into strong opposition.

"We are looking at right now at a massive state budget surplus of $3.8 billion. You have to ask yourself, do you think Republican lawmakers want to do more to help Milwaukee or do they want to put that money into cutting taxes?" Ross tells WUWM.

Ross says former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett had a difficult relationship with Republicans in Madison, and so it's possible for a reset with Donovan or Johnson.

But if not, the two finalists for mayor will be campaigning for the next five weeks on the promise of help that isn't coming.

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