At a socially distanced event at Bay View High School, Cavalier Johnson was sworn in as Milwaukee’s new mayor last Thursday, Dec. 23.
Johnson used his inaugural speech to describe his childhood, growing up in the 53206 ZIP code and attending six different MPS elementary schools, his 20 years of service, and his vision for where he wants to take Milwaukee.
“My family didn’t have much,” Johnson said. “Like many families in 53206, we moved from place to place. It was challenging, but one thing I gained was an understanding and an appreciation of the whole city.”
He continued, “Some of my family, my friends, and my community have fallen into the numbers we all know too well. I have one brother who runs a prison, and another brother who has been in his prison.”
After graduating from Bay View High School, Johnson went on to attend UW-Madison.
“I know the challenges our community faces, and I know how easily I could have become just another number,” Johnson said. “My childhood story, unfortunately, isn’t that far off from so many of our neighbors. Poverty, crime, eviction, a combination of good choices and bad, sometimes it’s just luck that separates us. But our job as civic leaders, as community leaders, is to do our best to help lift everyone up.”
Johnson, who has been serving as the president of the Milwaukee Common Council, became the acting mayor when former Mayor Tom Barrett resigned after being confirmed as the new U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. Barrett had been mayor for 17 years, most recently reelected in April, 2020.
The swearing-in ceremony featured speakers, singers, and dancers from across Milwaukee and it’s diverse ethnic and racial communities. A Native American flag ceremony, Hmong dancers, and Black and Jewish faith leaders all participated, alongside Johnson’s 5th grade teacher. Johnson’s 11-year-old son led the Pledge of Allegiance, Bucks favorite Ben Tajnai sang the National Anthem, and the program closed with Khalia Baker presenting the Black National Anthem, Lift Ev’ry Voice & Sing.
Johnson described how his career in service began by raking leaves and shoveling snow in Milwaukee neighborhoods as a YMCA volunteer, and how it took him to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as well as to London, South America, New York City, and then back here, to his home in Milwaukee.
Johnson worked at Employ Milwaukee, and then in the Mayor’s Office, before winning a race to become the 2nd District Alderman in 2016. He was elected Common Council president in 2020, and is now headed back to the Mayor’s Office, only now he’s in the top job.
Johnson expressed that we are at a moment in our city’s history where there is generational change happening. He noted that Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson, and now he, represent a new era of leaders that are guiding Milwaukee forward.
Johnson said his top priority is to address Milwaukee’s problem with rising crime.
“This morning, I took my first official act as mayor and declared a public safety crisis in Milwaukee,” Johnson said. “This will mean that every department, every office, led by the Mayor’s Office, will prioritize addressing the scourge of reckless driving and the rising gun violence that plagues our neighborhoods.”
Last week, before he even took office, Johnson laid out his comprehensive plan to combat reckless driving called STAND for Safer Streets.
“By bringing on a safe streets coordinator, engaging stakeholders across the city … and holding ourselves accountable for real action, we will address this crisis, combat reckless driving, and positively impact the lives of the people of Milwaukee,” Johnson said.
Johnson also pledged that in the coming weeks, he will release a plan for addressing the rise in gun violence.
“I’m not going to stand up here and just beat the drum and say the only solution is to get tough on crime. I understand the root causes… because that is where I came from,” Johnson said. “I’ve lived this. I drive these streets and I’ve got a bullet hole in my car to prove it.”
“This is my lived experience, not just my learned experience,” Johnson continued. “It’s woven into my DNA. You can trust that I will lead with eyes wide open, to actually solve the problem, not just give you talking points and suggest there is some sort of magical silver bullet.”
Johnson said that beyond crime, there was much that the city needs to do.
He said he plans to focus on creating more family-supporting jobs, help raise wages, and support the growth and sustainability of small businesses all across Milwaukee. He wants to extend the prosperity that has been achieved Downtown to every neighborhood and every commercial corridor across the city.
The mayor also focused on the fact that the COVID crisis is not over that and only half of Milwaukee’s residents are fully vaccinated.
“The number one thing we can do for each other, so we can truly get back to normal, is to get vaccinated. If you are vaccinated, then get boosted. This is the easiest thing we can do for our friends, family, and neighbors in this season of giving,” Johnson said.
The mayor also pointed to opportunities ahead with the critical investments from the federal government that Milwaukee has received. He pledged to do everything the city can to ensure that we capture every federal dollar available, and then use those dollars to improve the lives of all of our citizens.
“This help, for example, will allow us to do incredibly vital things like aggressively address our lead paint and lead pipe problem, rebuild roads in our neighborhoods, and retrain workers to help improve their lives,” Johnson said. “We will make sure we can keep city services strong for everyone.”
Johnson said that he wanted to take on the challenge of improving our justice system and making it more fair, working toward a more racially just and equitable society, and making sure every child has a great public school.
“Together, I know we can make Milwaukee stronger,” he concluded.
Johnson will serve as mayor until a special election can be held this spring. The elected candidate will fill out the remainder of Barrett’s term until 2024. There are at least eight candidates vying for mayor. The primary election will be held on Feb. 15, with the top two vote-getters facing off in the general election on April 5.