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'I don't want Milwaukee to be a best kept secret anymore': Milwaukee mayoral candidate Cavalier Johnson

Kobe Brown
Kobe Brown
Acting Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson at a candidate forum event.

On April 5, Milwaukeeans will head to the polls to vote on who will become the city’s next mayor. After nearly two decades in office, former Mayor Tom Barrett stepped down late last year. Now two candidates are vying for the position — former Ald. Bob Donovan and acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson. Lake Effect’s Joy Powers chats with the candidates about what they see as the biggest challenges facing Milwaukee and how they plan to solve them.

LISTEN: 'Milwaukee has not even begun to reach its full potential': Milwaukee mayoral candidate Bob Donovan

In this interview, we hear from acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson:

WUWM: Tell voters a bit about yourself.

Johnson: Sure, I was born and raised here in Milwaukee. I didn't have a lot growing up, I often reflect that I lived in some of the more challenged, more depressed neighborhoods in the city. When I was a kid, we had issues and so I know the challenges that folks see and experience when you turn on the 10 o'clock news — the challenges around poverty, the challenges around crime that leads on from that poverty, challenges around instability in housing, and in food, in energy, those sorts of things.

I went to six different Milwaukee Public Schools in elementary school before I was even able to stay at one school from start to finish, which didn't happen for me until middle school. I ultimately graduated from Bay View High School. And when I entered high school as a freshman, two things happened in my life, and the life of the world really, too — one was, I was involved, I was recruited to a college program for low income kids in Milwaukee Public Schools called Sponsor-A-Scholar at the YMCA here in Milwaukee. And, the goal was to get kids off to college, and I was the first person in my family to graduate from college.

The other program was to get those same young people involved in service and giving back to the community and I fell in love with doing that. A couple of months after I figured that I fell in love with public service, community service rather, I saw President George W. Bush at ground zero at 911 and I thought that I could go into a career of service via government.

So, I married those two things — service at the YMCA and a government service, and set out to get involved this way. After serving, not just here, but across the country and globally, I came back after college and continued to work in the community, helping folks to get their resumes up to date to get into the workforce, helping young people to get their first summer job. I got the opportunity to run for office a couple times and last actually the first two times for county supervisor, won election in 2016 on the city council, reelection in 2020 and elected by my peers to serve as council president in 2020. Now upon the resignation of former Mayor Barrett, having the opportunity to serve as mayor of the city.

WUWM: What would you say are the top three most pressing issues that are facing Milwaukee today?

Johnson: Certainly, first and foremost, at the top of everybody's mind, including mine, as parent of young children, and as a husband as well, are issues around public safety, not just the crazy amount of shootings that we have, whether they're fatal or nonfatal, but also the issues that we have around reckless driving in Milwaukee. Those things are challenging, they're difficult but they're things that we need to really get under control in the city so folks can feel safe. So, those.

And then you get the issue around trying to stabilize our neighborhood and making sure that folks have access to true family support and work in Milwaukee is something I really am passionate about and want to see happen here. And so, we have to find ways to get folks leveled up for a 21st century economy, so they can have financial stability and reduce poverty and reduce that stress. And that then helps to stabilize their lives and the lives of their children and neighborhoods generally.

Then last, but certainly not least, is the the the relationship between the city of Milwaukee and state government. It's been fractured, it's been broken, it's been poor for nearly 20 years, and we've got to rehab that relationship, build new ones, so that we're in a better position to get the resources that we need to fund the local priorities that we have at the local level here in the city of Milwaukee, and I've talked about having a cot in the capitol to rehab that relationship. I'm dead serious about it.

WUWM: There is rising violence here in Milwaukee. We're already outpacing last year, which set a record high for homicides. How do you plan to curb this growing problem?

Johnson: Sure, and that's a great question. Again, because folks across the city are concerned about this issue. It doesn't matter where I go in Milwaukee, folks are concerned about the public safety challenges that we have here, namely, on those two fronts, whether it's the shootings, or it's, you know, the issues around reckless driving and the crashes that result from that.

So, there are a number of things I think we can do and should do, and some that we're already doing to address all those issues. I released two comprehensive plans of public safety — one on public safety generally, another more focused on this nuisance reckless driving issue that we're having in Milwaukee. And so, I would say that we need holistic public safety in Milwaukee. It's not just police, certainly they play a critical and important role in that, but if you ask them, they'll tell you that they can't do the job alone. So we need to augment and support, or amplify rather, the things that they do with other measures, such as mental health services, such as earlier intervention in the lives of young people, such as violence prevention and working to stabilize communities with family supporting opportunities. That won't be a panacea, I don't believe, but I think it sure would go a long, long, long way in working to reduce the the things that we see in our neighborhoods, the negative things that we see.

On the issue of reckless driving, certainly, again, police are a part of that, and they ought to be to catch the people who are out there endangering not just themselves, but the greater public safety behind the wheel. Traffic enforcement is key. Working to make sure that we have accountability for folks who cause harm in death and destruction in our neighborhoods is key. Bringing the neighborhood voice into this is key. Having a safer street design is key too — narrowing down the roads, having road diets, putting in curb extensions and bump outs and actual protected bike lanes, not just paint on the ground, but concrete that's poured to protect bicyclists and scooter riders and the like away from the traffic that too often travels too quickly down the streets in our city.

WUWM: We're facing a major crisis that could mean huge reductions to services like parks, transportation, police, the many things that make Milwaukee the city it is. What is your plan to get more funding for the city so we can really fund these programs?

Johnson: Yeah, and that's a great question. I think we should leave all the options on the table to find additional revenue. But there are two sources of revenue that we really need help on, that we're just not getting and that's where a relationship, a new rehab, rebuilt, stronger relationship with state government comes into play.

I tell people all the time, look I, you know, I'm a Democrat and I have a great relationship with Gov. Tony Evers and I support him and I support his reelection. However, at the same time, I understand, because I'm a political realist, that the Legislature is controlled by Republicans, and it's likely to be controlled by Republicans for the foreseeable future. So, in order to get something done for Milwaukee you have to work with the people who are in charge. And, so that's why I talk about having that cot in the Capitol rebuilding those relationships. I think we need to tell a different story about Milwaukee, and convince members of the Legislature that, you know, Milwaukee is actually a value added to the state of Wisconsin, right.

More people come here than any other place in Wisconsin. Milwaukee is the cultural center of the state, it's the economic center of the state, it's the population center of the state. And if we're going to have a metropolitan area anchored by a strong city that is able to compete for talent and compete with other cities across the country, then Milwaukee needs to have some additional tools at its disposal that just haven't been present, tools that other cities across the country happened to have.

I think we can tell that story. I think, you know, ultimately we'll be successful in drawing additional support from the state in order to take on our local challenges here — such as a local option sales tax as well as having increased investments in our shared revenue to address the issues that we have here at the city of Milwaukee.

WUWM: What would you say is the most important thing people should know about the city?

Johnson: You know, Milwaukee for such a long time has kind of been meek about its position. This is a dynamic city where people are proud of and people like to celebrate. And, we have traditions. I don't want Milwaukee to be a best kept secret anymore. I want Milwaukee to be, you know, this city that people flock to, that people come to, that people want to invest their time, their talent, their energy in, a city where people move to and lay down roots and start families, and stabilize neighborhoods and start businesses and grow businesses and relocate businesses too.

And I'm happy, I'm so happy to be in the position to be the cheerleader for that. Not just in our region or our state, but as you mentioned, nationally, as well, because Milwaukee is a great place, the people who are here know it, but we've got a lot of work to do in order to make sure that people everywhere else know that too. And I'm happy to be the one leading the charge.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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