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Milwaukee elects first Black mayor, Cavalier Johnson

Cavalier Johnson
Carole Burns
Milwaukee PBS
Cavalier Johnson became the first African American elected mayor of Milwaukee on Tuesday.

Updated Wednesday at 8:39 a.m. CDT

Tuesday night, Milwaukee elected a Black mayor for the first time — the city’s first new mayor in 18 years. Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson won in a sweeping victory.

Milwaukee had one other Black acting mayor, Marvin Pratt. He stepped into the role in 2004, when Mayor John Norquist left the post. But Pratt lost to Tom Barrett, who served as mayor until this past December. Barrett resigned to become U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.

Democrat Cavalier Johnson handily beat his opponent, former alderman Bob Donovan, who was backed by conservatives.

The 35-year-old served as an alderman and common council president and has freely shared stories of growing up in Milwaukee’s roughest neighborhoods and changing schools often.

Lake Effect conversation about the mayoral election results.

At a victory party in Milwaukee’s downtown Tuesday night, Johnson thanked the Black leaders who came before him. "Folks like Vel Phillips. Folks like Gwen Moore, Isaac and Marcia Coggs, Mayor Marvin Pratt and so, so many more. Most importantly, I want to thank you, I want to thank Milwaukee's voters. It is because of you that after 176-year history in this city, a Black man can stand up and say that I've been elected to serve as our mayor."

Johnson addressed Milwaukee’s Black and brown youth and said that no matter where they live or how well off they are, and no matter the color of their skin, there’s a place for them in Milwaukee.

He also turned to the issues he says he’s been targeting on the campaign trail and will contend with in the months and years to come. "We got to address our crisis of gun violence and unsafe streets. We need to restore our neighborhoods. We need to create jobs and grow our city. And we also need to repair the broken relationship that we have with state government."

Johnson said he wants to hear from everyone — from small business owners to union workers to teachers and nurses — about how to do these things, and that no idea is too small.

As Johnson noted in his speech, public safety will be a key issue going forward, as the city has seen an uptick in homicides due to gun violence.

It was also a priority for others at his victory party, like Hearldean George, a retired MPS teacher. "He definitely needs to address the safety in our city. So as far as so many homicides, constant shootings and the driving situation is absolutely unacceptable," George said.

Some, like Dustin Klein, pointed to public safety, but also expanding transportation options and improving education and economic opportunity. "Because you know, one of the biggest things for me as a young person, I'm 31 years old, is I've watched so many of my friends leave the city because of the brain drain that we've had due to the, you know, alluring cities like Nashville in Minneapolis and Los Angeles. Milwaukee needs to be a destination that more people like me want to come to," Klein said.

There were many Democratic leaders, elected officials and candidates at the victory party as well, including state Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde.

He noted that it will be important for Johnson to address Milwaukee’s impending pension crisis, by encouraging the state Legislature to increase shared revenue payments to the city. "The City of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County is sending millions more in dollars to the state than we get back. And as the phrase goes for the economic engine of the state, and we're only getting a portion, a fraction of what we're sending to the state," he said.

Cavalier Johnson’s distinction as the first Black mayor elected in Milwaukee hasn’t necessarily meant public backing from all top Black officials.

The MilwaukeeJournal Sentinel reportedthat several Black common council members said they did not feel Johnson had done enough to reach out to them over his nearly two-year term as council president.

Another former council president, Ashanti Hamilton, even endorsed Johnson’s opponent, Bob Donovan.

Before the votes were counted Tuesday, Alderwoman Milele Coggs issued a statement, urging the next mayor to build a cabinet that reflects the diversity of the city.

Coggs noted Milwaukee would be getting its first new leader in two decades, and she hopes the mayor will "seize this tremendous opportunity.”

Johnson will serve as mayor through 2024, the remainder of former mayor Barrett’s term.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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