Cavalier Johnson Made History in More Ways Than One

Not only did he become Milwaukee’s first elected Black mayor, but he also won his first term by a margin not seen in at least 122 years.

It was a victory of historic proportions – and not just for the reason you might think.

On his way to becoming Milwaukee’s first elected Black mayor, Cavalier Johnson won Tuesday by the widest margin of any new chief executive in more than a century, if not ever.

Johnson, the acting mayor, crushed former Ald. Bob Donovan, 72% to 28%, in the special election to fill the remaining two years of ex-Mayor Tom Barrett’s term. However, only 31% of registered voters participated in the off-year balloting, the city Election Commission reported.

Both Johnson’s landslide victory margin and the lackluster turnout resembled an incumbent mayor cruising to re-election, rather than a struggle for a rare open seat in the top office.

Barrett, now the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, won his first term in 2004 by defeating the city’s first Black acting mayor, Marvin Pratt, 54% to 46%. That was pretty similar to the 55% of the vote that Barrett’s predecessor, John Norquist, mustered against former Acting Gov. Marvin Schreiber’s 45% in 1988.


 

 

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And it didn’t differ much from the first-term victory margins of the last five mayors before Norquist. Among them:

  • Former Mayor Henry Maier scored a 58%-to-42% victory over then-Congressman Henry Reuss in 1960.
  • Former Mayor Frank Zeidler beat a then-unknown Reuss, 56% to 44%, in 1948.
  • John Bohn, the last acting mayor to win his own term, defeated his former police bodyguard, John Seramur, 54% to 46%, in 1944.
  • Zeidler’s brother, Carl, ousted former Mayor Daniel Hoan, 53% to 47%, in 1940.
  • Hoan unseated his predecessor, Gerhard Bading, by just 51% to 49%, in 1916.

No mayor elected between 1900 and 1916 won by as much as Cavalier Johnson did, either, according to a tweet by John D. Johnson, research fellow in the Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education at Marquette University Law School (and no relation to the mayor-elect).

Cavalier Johnson’s 72% share of the vote was even higher than the 70% that Barrett commanded in 2016, when Donovan lost with 30%. Barrett scored higher margins against political unknowns Andrew Shaw and Edward McDonald – winning with 79% and 71%, respectively, in 2008 and 2012; his closest re-election victory was in 2020, when he took 63% of the vote to state Sen. Lena Taylor’s 37%. Taylor was eliminated in this year’s primary.

Turnout in mayoral elections has been decreasing for years, according to an analysis by Philip Rocco, associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Based on figures from the Election Commission and from historical data that Rocco compiled:

  • Tuesday’s turnout was almost identical to the 32% for Barrett’s 2020 re-election victory over Taylor, when COVID-19 precautions sharply limited the number of polling places.
  • This was the fourth-lowest mayoral election turnout since 1900. The low point was 26% for Barrett’s 2012 re-election, followed by 27% each for his 2008 re-election and for Norquist’s 2000 re-election over conservative businessman George Watts. Unlike most spring general elections – but like Tuesday – no presidential primary was on the ballot to attract voters in 2008 (when it was moved to February), while Democratic front-runners Al Gore and Barack Obama faced little opposition in the 2000 and 2012 contests, respectively.
  • Norquist’s first election, in 1988, attracted 67% of registered voters, with a hotly contested county executive race (Dave Schulz vs. Bill O’Donnell) and a Democratic presidential primary (Michael Dukakis vs. Jesse Jackson) on the same ballot. But since then, the only other mayoral elections that drew more than half of registered voters were Donovan’s 2016 loss to Barrett (52%) and Norquist’s 1992 re-election victory over firefighters union leader Greg Gracz (51%). In both 1992 and 2016, turnout in the largely blue city could have been boosted by lively Democratic presidential primary contests on the same ballot (Bill Clinton vs. Jerry Brown in 1992 and Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders in 2016).
  • Tuesday’s turnout was also lower than the turnouts for Barrett’s 2004 defeat of Pratt (47%) and Norquist’s 1996 re-election win over then-Sheriff Richard Artison (42%). Until Taylor’s 2020 race, those were the highest-profile mayoral contests featuring major Black candidates.

For this analysis, Rocco used turnout as a percentage of registered voters, because that’s how the Election Commission has always recorded it. Most current discussions of turnout focus on the percentage of eligible voters, a figure that wasn’t available for all the years that he studied. In general, however, the mayoral turnout numbers would be even lower if they reflected eligible voters rather than registered voters, Rocco said.

In February, Johnson came in first in a crowded primary field of unprecedented diversity,  garnering strong citywide support. On Tuesday, the acting mayor’s support was even broader, while Donovan lost ground in some of the neighborhoods that backed him in the primary, Marquette’s Johnson found.

Compared with the primary, according to John Johnson’s analysis:

  • Cavalier Johnson held onto all of the 216 wards that he carried in the primary, and picked up 26 of the wards previously carried by Donovan, along with all of the six wards won by Taylor, the five wards won by Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic and the three wards that had been tied.
  • Donovan held onto only 58 of the 85 wards that he carried in the primary. He and Johnson tied Tuesday in a ward previously won by Donovan.
  • Based on voting-age population, Johnson carried all 134 predominantly Black wards, up from 129 in the primary; 76 of 107 predominantly white wards, up from 58; 19 of 41 predominantly Hispanic wards, up from seven; 26 of 32 wards where no racial group holds a majority, up from 21; and held onto the only ward with an Asian-American majority.
  • Donovan carried 31 majority-white wards, down from 43 in the primary; 22 majority-Hispanic wards, down from 32; and five wards with no racial majority, down from 10. He and Cavalier Johnson tied in another of the wards with no predominant race. However, because of turnout and eligibility issues in the Hispanic community, it’s possible that Hispanic voters were outnumbered by their white neighbors at the polls in Hispanic-majority wards, Marquette’s Johnson cautioned.

Compared with his last race in 2016, Donovan ran a bit better among his South Side base, while Cavalier Johnson improved on Barrett’s margins in most other areas of the city. According to the analysis by Marquette’s Johnson:

  • The acting mayor carried 12 of the 13 aldermanic districts and 250 of the 270 wards that Barrett won in 2016, plus six wards that previously went to Donovan. Cavalier Johnson won all 12 of those districts by slightly more than Barrett did, most notably by 6 percentage points each in the East Side’s 3rd District and downtown’s 4th District, and by 5 percentage points each in Dimitrijevic’s 14th District in Bay View and the North Side’s 15th District.
  • Donovan held onto 38 of the 45 wards that he carried in 2016, while picking up 20 wards that previously went to Barrett. The candidates tied in a ward won by Donovan in 2016.
  • Among South Side aldermanic districts, Donovan’s performance was most improved in the 8th District, which he represented for 20 years on the Common Council. In 2016, he lost his home turf to Barrett with just 48% of the vote, but on Tuesday he carried it with 53%. He also ran slightly better in the Southwest Side’s 11th District and the far South Side’s 13th District than he did in 2016.

The victory in his home neighborhood was a tiny ray of good news for Donovan in what was otherwise a full-scale rout. And it might not be his home neighborhood – or even his home city – for much longer: Before the election, he said that if he lost, he might move back to his late mother’s former condo in Greenfield, where he and his wife lived for a while after he retired from the council.

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.