Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Milwaukee’s New Mayor Seeks to Rebuild City Plagued by Shootings

Wisconsin’s largest city suffers from a soaring murder rate and serious budget problems. Cavalier Johnson, the first new mayor in nearly 20 years, can’t wait to turn the city around.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson.
Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson. (All photos David Kidd/Governing)
Sadness and frustration were written across the mayor’s face. He comforted aunts and cousins of victims in a triple homicide at an apartment complex, then ducked under yellow police tape to address reporters gathered at the scene. “You can hear the cries right now of family members whose lives are never going to be the same because they’ve just lost loved ones,” said Cavalier Johnson, the mayor of Milwaukee. “It’s senseless.”

That was back in March. On Friday, 21 people were injured in three shootings in the city’s downtown entertainment district. Milwaukee has seen record numbers of homicides in each of the past two years — double the rate from as recently as 2019 — and is on pace to break the record again this year. In January, six people were killed across the street from a home where Johnson grew up. “Milwaukee is in the midst of unsustainable and unacceptable violence,” Johnson says.

Milwaukee has other public safety problems. Vehicle thefts have doubled over the past couple of years to more than 11,000 annually, many ripped off by minors known as “Kia Boys” in reference to one of the preferred brands for break-ins. Milwaukee is a mostly flat city criss-crossed by long, broad, straight streets. If you’re driving 40 mph in a 30 mph zone, you will get passed. Last year, 65 people were killed in the city due to reckless driving. “It’s become a social contagion,” says Jordan Morales, a resident of the Sherman Park neighborhood. “It’s not just teenaged kids in stolen cars.”

Johnson was elected mayor last month. Just 35, he is the first Black mayor elected in the history of Milwaukee. He joins a cohort of millennial mayors of color elected over the past couple of years in cities including Boston, Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati. In Milwaukee, it’s not just a novelty to have a Black mayor, but to have a new mayor at all. Until Johnson won, the city had elected only three men as mayor all the way back to 1960.

Johnson repeatedly stressed that public safety was the top issue facing the city, but he knew he was inheriting other challenges. The city’s annual pension payment is on track to balloon from $71 million to $145 million next year. A pension task force warned last fall that the spike could lead to layoffs for a quarter of city workers. One voter told Johnson that, as mayor, he’d have to choose between “a whole pile of no good.”
Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson speaking to two other people in front of yellow caution tape.
The mayor speaks with residents at the scene of a triple homicide in March.
The city relies on property taxes for most of its locally generated revenue. Since rates are already double those in surrounding suburbs, they can’t go higher. Johnson is hoping the state will offer Milwaukee greater fiscal flexibility by allowing the city to raise its sales tax. Wisconsin lawmakers are in the habit instead of passing bills to make life more difficult for Milwaukee, but Johnson repeatedly promised during his run to set up “a cot in the capitol” to rebuild relations. “It’s important that we have a better relationship with the state,” Johnson says, “because if we don’t, then the city really will be in for a world of hurt.”

Johnson projects a calm, almost unflappable demeanor. His expression is deadpan until he breaks into a broad grin, which he can hold as long as people want to take selfies. He’s the kind of civic leader who engages in quiet discussions with many people before releasing multi-point plans on an issue. He grew up in 53206, notoriously the poorest ZIP code in the state, and experienced hunger and eviction and having to move almost every year in elementary school. “Coming from 53206, you have a certain amount of perseverance and tenacity that comes from growing up in an environment like that,” says Marcelia Nicholson, who chairs the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.

Johnson emerged as an optimist. He talks about trying to grow Milwaukee, currently home to fewer than 600,000 people, into a city of 1 million. He brags about Komatsu Mining’s new $285 million plant near the harbor, which is likely the largest urban manufacturing facility being built in the country, and the 44-story downtown apartment tower that will be the largest luxury residence in the state. He got a bit of a breather last Tuesday, when the common council approved using $79 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to maintain city services in the face of the pension spike, along with spending for programs such as housing and streetlights.

For all its problems, Milwaukee’s downtown didn’t take as much of a hit economically from the pandemic as many major cities. Low costs and short commute times have kept it competitive with its suburbs. “Milwaukee, compared to its peers, has really outperformed during the pandemic,” says Gard Pecor, a commercial real estate analyst. “We haven’t seen this deluge of companies leaving the downtown and the multifamily market is red hot.”
Downtown Milwaukee.
Hotel, office and apartment construction is well underway near the city’s basketball arena. The downtown area has fared better than many other cities of its size.
Johnson believes he can take a city that has become one of the worst places in the country for African Americans to live and make it again one of the best. “I tell kids these days when I go to their school that you haven’t failed until you’ve given up,” Johnson says. “You just found ways that didn’t work.”

Batman Fan

Johnson is a true son of the city. One of the guests at his inauguration was his second-grade teacher from Parkview Elementary. He was named not after the car but Eric the Cavalier, a character in the Dungeons and Dragons universe. The nickname “Chevy,” granted by a YMCA counselor, however, has stuck since childhood. Johnson was one of 10 kids and grew up surrounded also by cousins, but he couldn’t always gain their attention. “I was alone at home in the dark and I stumbled upon Batman,” he says. “There were similarities. He’s a dark, brooding person who’s alone, so I just kind of gravitated to that.”

The week before the election, one of his brothers was charged for allegedly shooting someone three months earlier. “My family is no different than any other family in Milwaukee that has faced challenges,” Johnson said in response. “I’ve often said on the campaign trail that I’ve got one brother who has run a prison facility and another brother who has been his prisoner, who has been his inmate.”

The mayor recalls stealing gummy worms as a kid and remains grateful that the store clerk sat him down and explained why doing that was wrong, rather than calling the cops. Johnson seemed to take advantage of every youth advancement program around. On his way to the triple homicide in March, Johnson had been set to speak at a news conference for an “earn and learn” summer jobs program, which he’d participated in, then helped run as an adult. He also took part in a YMCA program designed to help poor kids go to college and he still wears a green rubber bracelet embossed with the organization’s core values: caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.

Johnson majored in political science and knew he wanted to work in public service, inspired both by the help he’d received and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Not long after graduation, he ran for a seat on the county board of supervisors. He finished dead last in a field of six, collecting fewer than 200 votes, then managed to win even fewer votes in a second run. He went to work for the mayor’s office and in 2016 got elected to the city’s common council.
Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson holding a proclamation document while speaking.
Johnson presents a proclamation of appreciation at a city firehouse.
He was elevated to president of the council fairly quickly, but not without rancor. He received no support from the other Black aldermen. He couldn’t get their support during his run for mayor, either. For the first time, the local advocacy group Black Leaders Organizing Communities did not endorse a mayoral candidate, complaining that Johnson lacked a vision for helping the Black community thrive.

But like other mayors elected last year such as Justin Bibb in Cleveland and Tishaura O. Jones in St. Louis, Johnson won with a combination of support from Black voters and professional-class white voters with progressive views. Johnson knows that equity — finding some way of spreading the wealth — is one of his primary tasks. He talks constantly about creating “family-supporting jobs.”

Forty percent of the construction hours at the new luxury apartment tower downtown, he says, “will go to people from the neighborhoods I grew up in,” Johnson says. “We need to make sure there’s more connectivity between the projects 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.”

Chance for a Fresh Start

The mayor exemplifies the start of a new era in Milwaukee politics. Johnson, County Board Chair Nicholson and County Executive David Crowley are all Black, all in their 30s and all from 53206. José Pérez, who replaced Johnson as president of the common council, is the first Latino to hold that position. “In the 176-year history of Milwaukee, there’s never been a mayor who looks like me, who grew up in the most challenging neighborhoods of Milwaukee,” Johnson tells members of the Milwaukee Athletic Club.

Any new mayor in Milwaukee is as rare as a comet. Over the past century, only nine men have served in the office. Tom Barrett stepped down in December to become ambassador to Luxembourg after nearly 18 years in office. That made him the longest-serving big-city mayor in the country at the time, but only the third-longest serving in Milwaukee history.

Johnson began laying the groundwork to succeed Barrett as soon as he was nominated last summer. Until his inauguration on April 13, he was technically the acting mayor but he convincingly seized the mantle of the office by, well, acting like the mayor — releasing detailed proposals on public safety and other issues while making the rounds of ribbon cuttings, firehouses and downtown booster clubs. His air of incumbency helped him easily outpace a number of candidates with longer tenures in various state and local offices.
Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson standing on the porch of a blighted property speaking into a microphone.
The mayor addresses a crowd at a blighted property that is scheduled for rehabilitation.
He presented himself as a pragmatic problem-solver. At the end of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and the waves of protests that followed, the common council rejected a $10 million federal grant to hire more police officers. “That was not without controversy or hardship,” he recalled during an interview in his City Hall office. “We had people come to our homes, late in the evening, in caravans of 50. Cars blaring their horns, swearing, banging on people’s doors after 10 o’clock at night.”

But Johnson rallied supporters to call council members and got the money approved, putting 26 more cops out on the streets. It was a similar story with Milwaukee Tool. Despite its name, the power tool company is headquartered in suburban Brookfield. It wanted a $20 million incentive package from the city to bring 2,000 jobs downtown. “The council hit back with hiring requirements and a laundry list of things they wanted,” says Pecor, the real estate analyst. “Johnson came out right away and said if we want to be a competitive city, we want those 2,000 jobs downtown. It was a clear message to businesses he’s really backing up his talk and can be a bridge builder with the business community.”

Hearing Gunshots

Markasa Tucker-Harris, who directs the African American Roundtable, complains that Johnson represents the values of “the big dollars” that funded his campaign. “His values align with the people who have set him up,” she says.

There was a time when Milwaukee was one of the last stops of the Great Migration, an oasis for Black families seeking better lives. Now, it’s one of the most segregated cities in the country. The frequent claim that 53206 has the highest incarceration rate for African American men in the country is a bit of an exaggeration, but not far off. “Literally half the Black men spend time in prison,” Johnson said at the Athletic Club luncheon. “I’ve got the uncles and cousins to prove it.”

In Milwaukee, Black median household income is the lowest among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, having declined 30 percent since 1979, according to a 2020 study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. That study also found that Milwaukee has the nation’s highest Black poverty rate and its second-lowest Black homeownership rate. “When you’re a young Black kid or a young Black woman walking up and down these streets and you see this blight, you internalize it and think it’s normal, and it’s not,” Johnson said in front of a foreclosed property being rehabbed by a nonprofit group in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

A recent poll from Marquette University found that 63 percent of Milwaukee residents feel safe from crime as they go about their daily lives, compared with 82 percent of Wisconsin residents as a whole. “Hearing gunshots every night isn’t great,” says Pat Noble, a white voter from Thurston Woods, not too far from the site of the triple homicide. “I choose to live in the city because I don’t want to live where there’s no diversity, but that is one thing that may move us out of the city because it’s gotten so bad.”
Two crashed cars in Milwaukee.
Johnson has proposed a plan to address public safety, including reckless driving that is rampant on city streets.
In January, Johnson unveiled a public safety plan meant to address gun violence, reckless driving and auto theft. It included numerous components, including maintaining the size of the police force while offering more financial support for violence prevention and substance-abuse programs. The pandemic didn’t help with reckless driving — traffic fatalities are up all over the country — but Johnson was pleased to end a former chief’s policy not to have officers pursue drivers doing reckless things behind the wheel.

Since everything costs money, Johnson is hoping for more financial flexibility from the state, which hasn’t upped the city’s share of sales tax revenues in nearly 20 years. The Legislature, dominated by Republicans, seems to go out of its way to punish Milwaukee, which along with Madison represents Wisconsin’s main depository of Democratic votes. Every year, legislators consider dozens of bills seemingly designed to punish the city. This year, for example, they passed legislation to dissolve the city’s school district, breaking it up into smaller pieces. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed that idea last month.
Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson standing in front of portraits of his predecessors.
Cavalier Johnson is the first Black mayor to be elected in the city’s history. His predecessors’ portraits line the hall outside his office.
Johnson says some of the antipathy toward Milwaukee had to do with Barrett, who ran against former GOP Gov. Scott Walker twice. He hopes for a reset and some legislators at least say they’ll be receptive. “Milwaukee is our largest city and its success is everybody’s success,” says Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke. “Sure, there are things where the Legislature is going to disagree, but he seems to have the right mindset —instead of focusing on those areas where we don’t agree, let’s find some areas where we can find agreement.”

Johnson ran a campaign that was designed to appeal to residents all across the city. He took 72 percent of the April runoff vote, carrying more than 80 percent of the wards. Despite Milwaukee’s challenges, he is convinced he can create growth in ways that can ameliorate, if not eliminate, many of its crime and quality-of-life issues. Having grown up in difficult circumstances himself, he wants a city where his own children can go outside and play without fear of getting hit by a random bullet or a driver jumping the curb.

“We can’t pretend there are simple solutions to our problems,” he says. “There aren’t, or our problems would have been solved already.”
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
From Our Partners