It’s not clear when, but Cavalier Johnson is poised to become Milwaukee’s second Black mayor.
He’s also looking to become the first person of color elected to the position.
President Joe Biden announced last month that he had nominated Tom Barrett, who’s been mayor of Wisconsin’s largest city since 2004, to be the United States ambassador to Luxembourg. The US Senate has to confirm the nomination, and it’s not clear yet when that will happen.
Under Milwaukee’s city charter, upon the resignation of the mayor, the President of the Common Council becomes acting mayor until a special election can be held. That means Johnson will take office as soon as Barrett resigns to take on the federal appointment. The winner of a special election would then serve out the rest of the current term, which would end in 2024.
In an interview Wednesday, Johnson said he “100 percent” already intended to run for the seat when Barrett’s current term expired, and Barrett’s impending departure “just makes this come a little sooner.”
Johnson, 34, will become the city’s second Black mayor, after Marvin Pratt served as acting mayor in 2004 when John Norquist resigned just three months before his term expired. Barrett defeated Pratt in the 2004 election for mayor and has held the office since.
Johnson said the city is ready to elect a Black mayor — and a young mayor, too.
“I think that Milwaukee is not only ready to elect a Black mayor, I think that Milwaukee is also looking forward to electing a mayor of a new generation,” he said. “Over the course of the past 40 years, especially in the Black community in Milwaukee, there’s been a lot of struggle as the collapse of heavy manufacturing has made our neighborhoods less stable and more porous. And we haven’t been able to find the answers to solve those problems. And so, I think that folks in this community, no matter what their age, no matter what their generation, are going to be looking for a new, fresh set of eyes to tackle those very important issues. They’re going to be looking for somebody from the next generation in order to do that. That’s what I say about that. I think that folks are looking forward to the future and what that brings, and not looking backward to somebody of the generation that the mayor happens to be a part of.”
First elected to the Common Council in 2016, Johnson was re-elected without opposition and elected president in 2020.
He said one of the accomplishments of which he’s most proud from his tenure on the Council is the creation of the Office of Early Childhood Initiatives. Johnson co-chaired the Early
Education Task Force and sponsored the resolution creating the office in 2017.
“That’s where it starts, these foundational building blocks to get our young people prepared for kindergarten and school success generally,” he said. “If we can make those sort of investments and connect the dots earlier on, that’s good for our society overall.”
He also cited the Council’s 2018 decision to ban so-called “conversion therapy,” which purports to help LGBTQ people become straight.
“The state hasn’t taken any action on this,” Johnson said. “When we kicked that door in, a number of other communities across the state followed suit from as far north as Superior, over to Madison and Eau Claire, down to Racine and a number of other places around the state as well. That’s very important. I’m proud of that.”
“I know Milwaukee”
Johnson said he grew up moving around quite a bit, but always within Milwaukee, until his family settled on the city’s north side. He graduated from Bay View High School and went on to UW-Madison before returning to work with the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board (now Employ Milwaukee).
“I’ve seen Milwaukee and I know Milwaukee,” he said. “I grew up and spent my formative years in 53206, which is known, not just here, but across the country, as the most incarcerated zip code for people that look like me, young African-American males. In fact, by the time young Black men get to be my age, half of us who have grown up in that zip code would have spent some time behind bars and I’ve got the brothers to prove it.”
Priorities: traffic safety and vaccines
Johnson said the first priority he’ll address as acting mayor is the one he hears about most from constituents, which he calls “the scourge of reckless driving.”
“There are people, too many people, who have lost lives because individuals decide to act recklessly behind the wheel and that endangers the greater public safety for everybody else,” he said. “I’m going to be focused with police, I’m going to be focused with the department of public works to find solutions with our neighbors in order to curb reckless driving in neighborhoods throughout the city.”
He also said he’ll continue to focus on economic development as well as helping people get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“As mayor, I’ll be doing all that I can in order to promote that and getting more shots in the arms of people across the city, so that we have an economy that’s truly open for everybody and not face the prospects of having to close things down again, which is harmful to our economic recovery and harmful to job creation in the city,” he said.
He also noted that often, people across Wisconsin feel disconnected from the state’s largest city, but notes that Milwaukeeans love the Packers just as much as anyone else.
“I’m going to do all that I can to reintroduce the city of Milwaukee to the state of Wisconsin because what happens in Milwaukee has a profound effect on what happens in the rest of the state. Milwaukee’s success is Wisconsin’s success and the opposite is true as well,” he said. “And I think across the country, Milwaukee has had this Renaissance and is being mentioned in this tier of emerging American cities. I want to continue that momentum. I’ll be doing all that I can to make sure that Milwaukee continues to be a part of that conversation as well. And we’ve got families that want the same sort of things that everybody else across the state wants. We want peaceful, quiet, safe enjoyment of our neighborhoods and our family. And those are the sorts of things that I’ll be fighting for as mayor.”
Speculation as to who else might run in the special election has centered on State Senator Lena Taylor, who ran unsuccessfully to unseat Barrett in 2020. Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic and State Rep. David Bowen did not rule out running when asked by TMJ4. Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas has also been mentioned as a potential candidate.
So far, though, Johnson is the only candidate to announce a candidacy.
Whatever happens in the election, Johnson predicted a World Series win for the Milwaukee Brewers — currently leading the National League Central Division by 12 games — and a repeat NBA Championship for the Bucks.
“Absolutely, 100 percent,” he said when asked if a repeat was possible. “That’s why Bobby Portis signed back up. That’s why Giannis came back to do it the hard way.”