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Differences grow between Milwaukee mayoral candidates Johnson and Donovan

people on stage
Chuck Quirmbach
Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson and former Ald. Robert Donovan listen to moderator Rob Henken (left) at Monday's forum at the Italian Community Center.

More differences are becoming evident in the contest for Milwaukee mayor. Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson and former Ald. Bob Donovan disagreed Monday on police budget votes, political connections to Madison and the future of Milwaukee's streetcar.

Johnson and Donovan were in full debate mode three weeks before the April 5 election. They appeared before the group Common Ground on Sunday, and Monday before a partnership of business and civic groups.

Though Donovan calls himself the underdog in the race because he finished well back in last month's primary, Johnson went on the attack over the issue of city budget money for the Milwaukee Police Department. Johnson said during his four years on the common council, prior to becoming acting mayor in late December, he voted to support police budgets.

"My opponent, we can say your name as there's only the two of us — Bob, actually either you fund departments or you don't. For the four years, we overlapped on the common council, he voted no on the police budget for four years. So, if you're not funding the department, you're effectively defunding the department. So, Bob, you voted to defund the police," Johnson said to his rival.

Donovan, who served as an alderman for 20 years, took exception to that description of his votes. "Ald. Johnson, Cavalier, is attempting to paint me as anti-cop. That's a good one," he said, laughing. "I can't wait to see that commercial, OK? The sad reality folks is I voted against the overall budgets because they cut the police manpower. Our police currently cannot keep up with calls for help coming from our constituents."

Bob Donovan
Kobe Brown
Former Ald. Bob Donovan at a Milwaukee mayoral candidate forum in February.

Police funding is part of a broader disagreement between Donovan and Johnson as to who would do the better job of obtaining more shared revenue and various grants from the state. Donovan said there's a strong desire from Republicans who control the state Legislature to help with what he calls a public safety crisis in the city, including funding more police officers.

But Johnson questioned Donovan's clout at the state Capitol over the last two decades. "If there are relationships in Madison that could be used to help fix the situation, I would have hoped, before we got to this dire point in our city's history, that those opportunities for a better relationship would have been explored and used so we wouldn't be here," Johnson charged.

Donovan fired back: "Anyone who compares the authority and clout of one single alderman against the authority and clout of the mayor doesn't understand local government."

Former Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat in the officially non-partisan office of mayor, often battled with legislative Republicans and GOP Governor Scott Walker. Donovan is considered more conservative, with more political allies in the Republican Party. But Johnson, who acknowledges being a Democrat, said he's spoken with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and other Republican leaders about more help for Milwaukee.

Kobe Brown
Kobe Brown
Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson at a Milwaukee mayoral candidate forum in February.

The two mayoral candidates weren't just sparring over connections in Madison. On a key local issue, the downtown streetcar championed by Barrett, Donovan questioned the level of ridership and said any expansion should go before voters.

"I think that's only reasonable. After all, the citizens are the ones left holding the bag, paying for this huge public works project that in my opinion never enjoyed the support of a majority of our residents," Donovan said.

But acting Mayor Johnson said he's open to the idea of adding streetcar routes. "And so yes, I want to see it expanded. Not for it to just remain downtown, but as you go up north, up MLK to Bronzeville and to the south side as well. So you can see more growth and development. And, as an amenity, like other cities are doing across the country to attract and retain talent."

Johnson added that the mayor should look for ways to fund streetcar expansion.

Johnson and Donovan will have more chances to differ, and occasionally agree, at three more joint appearances this week. One is Tuesday night before the Wisconsin Black Media Association and other partner organizations.

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