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‘Getting to Yes’: How a New Mayor Plans to Reshape His City

On Tuesday, Milwaukee voters elected Cavalier Johnson as their first new mayor in nearly 20 years. He harbors great hopes of rebuilding a city that suffers from a serious crime problem.

Cavalier Johnson
Cavalier Johnson plans to hit the ground running in Milwaukee.
Photos by David Kidd/Governing
Milwaukee had only elected three men as mayor since 1960. The city has finally elected a fourth.

Cavalier Johnson, who had been serving as city council president, took over as acting mayor a couple of days before Christmas, when 17-year Mayor Tom Barrett was confirmed as ambassador to Luxembourg. Johnson won the job officially on Tuesday, easily defeating former Alderman Bob Donovan.

Johnson, who is 35, is the first Black man elected mayor of Milwaukee. (The city has yet to have a woman mayor.) Along with Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley — a high school classmate in one of the roughest sections in town — Johnson represents a racial and generational change in local leadership.

He sat down with Governing journalists in his City Hall office a few days before the election. It was still sparsely decorated, Johnson not wanting to presume victory. But he already has numerous plans in place for reshaping the city as a whole. What follows are edited excerpts from that interview:

Governing: Can you talk about what kind of shape your city’s in at this stage of the pandemic? Milwaukee’s downtown hasn’t emptied out like some cities, but foot traffic and street traffic still aren’t exactly heavy. At the same time, you’ve had some big announcements for downtown developments.

Johnson: Yeah, we’re fortunate in that way. I mean, certainly, our downtown was impacted by the pandemic. But Komatsu — a large company with an international presence — has decided to invest $285 million in a campus right here in the city of Milwaukee. Milwaukee Tool was another one where, when I was sitting as council president, we worked diligently — along with the company, along with other groups on the ground that had some demands — to make sure that we were able to come to an agreement. Additionally, just down the street from Milwaukee Tool is a 44-story high rise called The Couture that’s going into the ground. It’ll be the tallest luxury residential tower in the state of Wisconsin. And that’s a skyline-transforming development.

We are welcoming to business and we want to see more of that happen. That can’t be understated. I’m going to be a mayor that champions a business-friendly climate, to make sure that businesses have success and that the people who live here have access to family-supporting work. My goal as relates to business is to get to yes. I want to see the investment, I want to see the jobs, I want to see the growth, I want to grow the population of the city.
Cavalier Johnson sitting down speaking.
“We are welcoming to business... That can’t be understated.”
Governing: You have talked about wanting to grow the city’s population to more than 1 million, but Milwaukee has fewer than 600,000 residents now. The Census Bureau just put out data showing most counties across the country are shrinking and nearly all the growth is in metro areas in warm-weather states such as Florida and Texas. How do you get to a million?

Johnson: It’s people-centered development. We focus on making sure we have family-supporting job opportunities that help to stabilize not just the individuals and their families but their neighborhoods. You make them safe and I think that it becomes attractive to business. It becomes attractive to entrepreneurs or becomes attractive to folks that want to add to the cultural amenities that we have in the city, and those things help to grow the population.

Governing: In terms of making neighborhoods safe, you’ve consistently called public safety the top issue facing the city. Milwaukee is on track to top last year’s record number of homicides. What is going to be your strategy? A lot of mayors are having to straddle the problem of rising rates of violent crime with calls for police reform.

Johnson: Well, in Milwaukee, we never took up the mantle of defunding the police. As a matter of fact, when I was on the council, there was this very controversial COPS grant, federal grants that come through the cities. Because George Floyd had just died, or was killed, this one became very, very controversial. And it came before the council and I was president and it was defeated. And I worked behind the scenes, I called up people to help put pressure on council members, because I know that the sentiments of the people in the city overall, generally, they believe in reform, but they also want police. And we ultimately got it back before the council and we got it passed.

And that was not without controversy or hardship at home because council members — and I certainly did — had people come to their homes, late into the evening, in caravans of 50 cars blaring their horns, swearing, banging on people’s doors after 10 o’clock at night. They certainly did that to me. It scared my wife and my kids, but we stood our ground and we ultimately got it passed. Today, because of that effort, we now have 26 officers who largely live in the city of Milwaukee, who are protecting and serving the people of the city. They’re African American, they’re Asian, they’re Latino, they’re out there serving in the city. And it’s a good thing.
Cavalier Johnson standing in an office.
“In Milwaukee, we never took up the mantle of defunding the police.”
Governing: How do you reconcile the needs of downtown and businesses with the problems of neighborhoods that are facing generational poverty and intense rates of crime?

Johnson: When you tell stories, like we just did about the Couture, that’s a downtown development, but there are benefits for people who live in the neighborhoods, too. It’s going to take a million construction hours to put the building together. We have a program in place called RPP, Residents Preference Program, that targets individuals who are unemployed or underemployed and presents an opportunity for them to work 40 percent of those hours. That’s 400,000 hours for folks who live in the neighborhoods I live in. So there’s a connection, what was good for downtown is also good for the neighborhoods. And so we need to make sure that there’s more connectivity between the projects that we have in downtown and the more affluent, prosperous neighborhoods that hug the lake, and pair those with opportunities for people to work in our neighborhoods. And we’ll continue to do that.

Governing: During the campaign, you’ve talked about setting up a cot in the state capital in Madison to help rebuild relations with lawmakers at that level, since you need their help on shared revenue and other things. Yet Wisconsin is one of the most active states when it comes to local pre-emption and the Legislature voted this year to break up Milwaukee’s school district. How can you realistically win them over?

Johnson: Well, I think part of the problem that we had in the previous administration was — there just was bad blood, quite frankly, between Mayor Barrett and the Legislature. I have the benefit of not having that baggage. And as somebody moving forward here, who looks different, feels different, talks different, acts differently than Tom Barrett, and somebody who has been literally campaigning on improving the relationship between the city of Milwaukee and the state government, I think it opens up the door for a new path forward.

And I’ll tell you that I’ve been pretty well received, at least thus far, by Republicans in Madison, and Republicans nationally as well, because the city of Milwaukee is vying for the Republican National Convention in 2024. And as mayor, as a Democrat, I am on the front lines of trying to bring it here. And I think that Republicans, whether in Washington or in Madison, where I have been frequently, I think they’re taking notice, and they see that I want to build those relationships.
Cavalier Johnson sitting and talking.
“I came from the most depressed neighborhoods in Milwaukee. And there are a lot of problems out there in the city that affect kids who live in those neighborhoods now.”
Governing: Being a mayor who acts different and looks different — you will be the city’s first elected Black mayor and certainly its first millennial mayor. Do you reflect sometimes on what it means to sit in this office, having grown up in a number of Milwaukee’s most difficult neighborhoods?

Johnson: When I think about my own life and experience growing up in the city and the challenges that I faced, I do reflect on that. Before I came here, even before I was on the council, I was in the mayor’s office, and I was a staffer here. And in the roughly two years that I was serving out of this office, I had 24-hour access to the mayor’s office, and many times I was the last one in here. And I never sat behind that desk, even though I could have a million times. I said that, if I ever did sit in that chair, it’ll be because I’m mayor. It hasn’t worn off on me yet. Whenever I leave the office, I do tend to turn back and look at look at it and say, “Wow, I am the mayor.”

Look, my experience growing up in the city — I came from the most depressed neighborhoods in Milwaukee. And there are a lot of problems out there in the city that affect kids who live in those neighborhoods now. And they deserve to have a city where they feel safe and feel like they can walk to the park and not have to worry. I’ve got children that my wife and I are raising in the city now, too, and I want my son to be able to go outside and ride his bike without fear of a random bullet. I want to be able to take my 4-year-old twin daughters outside and walk around the block and not have fear of a reckless driver coming on the curb, you know. I want to get stuff done. Because that’s how you make life better for the people that grew up in the situations that I did.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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