By Richie Burke Contributor Published Jul 24, 2023 at 2:01 PM

Mayor Cavalier Johnson has been busy since becoming Milwaukee’s first elected Black mayor back in April of 2022. 

He inherited a city with a number of issues: a stagnant population, an increase in crime (including the rise of the Kia Boys) and a long history of segregation, to name a few. 

So, how did the 36-year-old (35 at the time of his election) become mayor?

When he was young, he moved around several times including growing up in the 53206 zip code, known for having the highest incarceration rate of Black males in the entire country. He attended six different MPS elementary schools, joking on the podcast that he had “city-wide experience at an early age.” 

A couple of things happened in 2011 that would inspire him to go into politics. The first was an after-school program for low-income students where he fell in love with service. The other was 9/11 where he was inspired by President Bush’s response to galvanizing our country. Those two events sparked a journey into service and politics. 


That said, it certainly wasn’t an easy start. Johnson ran for a County Board seat in both 2011 and 2012. In 2011, he finished dead last out of the five candidates; in 2012, he finished sixth out of seven candidates and received even fewer votes than the first go-around. 

He never gave up, though, and finally broke through years later in 2016 when he won the primary election for the 2nd District Alderman. 

On the podcast, he mentioned he wasn’t expecting to become mayor of the city this early on; as we have had very long-standing mayors, he thought it was outside possibility. When Tom Barrett took the position as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, he was ready to answer the call and was excited to officially be elected the city's first Black mayor last spring. 

Fighting crime 

With the rise of the Kia Boys and well-publicized shootings, Milwaukee has been under fire for its crime – especially over the last couple of years. But does the mainstream media paint the full picture of what is actually happening in our city? The short answer: No.

On the podcast, Mayor Johnson stated that in his first full year (2022) the total crime rate had dropped 15% and violent crime is down 7%, stating he's proud that these trends have continued so far in 2023. 

Why is this? His answer was a multi-pronged approach that consisted of working with the police department, non-profit organizations, and the private sector to improve safety and create more quality jobs for citizens. 

To go along with these efforts, Mayor Johnson has been focused on his “Camp Rise” initiative where he has partnered with Employ Milwaukee to create a free seven-week summer enrichment and career exploration program that aims to provide Milwaukee youth with the tools to become leaders in their community. Last year, the program was comprised of 200 boys of color and this year the camp is adding spots for 50 girls. Mayor Johnson also added that this is helping kids be productive, learn valuable life skills and prevent them from getting recruited into the Kia Boys. 

The 2024 RNC in Milwaukee 

Something on a lot of Milwaukeeans' minds is the Republican National Convention (RNC) coming to the city next year – including a potential third consecutive Donald Trump nomination. I asked Mayor Johnson for his views on this, as he's a proud Democratic Mayor of a city that skews Democratic. He responded by saying, “This is not about politics; this is about business.” He also cited the $200 million economic impact that will play a significant role in helping local businesses and how the RNC can be a stepping stone to attracting other large-scale events to Milwaukee.

Growing Milwaukee’s stagnant population 

In the 1960s, Milwaukee was the 11th largest city in the United States. Today it comes in at 30. 

Mayor Johnson boldly came out with the goal of increasing the population to one million residents; it currently sits just south of 600,000. So how does he plan on making this happen? As with crime, it’s going to be a multi-pronged approach over time, but he does believe that Milwaukee has the potential.

Some of the key initiatives he mentions on the podcast are: attracting large-scale events (like the RNC), stabilizing neighborhoods and getting rid of out-of-state absentee landlords, improving roadways and bike paths, attracting companies with large headquarters Downtown (like Milwaukee Tool and Fiserv), expansions like the Wisconsin Center District, more developments (Couture, Heinz and Edison Mass Timber), and the MMAC Region of Choice initiative are all things that will help the city grow and that we will need a lot more of in the coming decades. 

In closing

I really enjoyed talking to the Mayor; he has an inspirational story, has great energy and genuinely cares about the city, its residents and its growth. I think it’s great that we have a young Black mayor to represent the diverse city that we have and someone who can empathize with residents who need help the most. 

P.S.: To celebrate the launch, we’re giving away Milwaukee event tickets, $500 in Central Standard Gift Cards and more! Enter here:

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Milwaukee Uncut is produced by Story Mark Studios and sponsored by Central Standard Distillery.