What to Watch for in the Milwaukee Mayoral Primary

With seven candidates in the race, every percentage point counts, and their previous campaigns may not help predict the outcome of this one.

Instead of asking a pundit for predictions on the Milwaukee mayoral race, you might want to turn to your investment advisor. That’s the guy who will warn you that “past performance is no guarantee of future (election) returns.” It’s the first thing to keep in mind in a race that pits veteran politicians against each other.

With the latest action by the Milwaukee Election Commission, seven candidates will be on the Feb. 15 ballot in the special election to replace former Mayor Tom Barrett, now U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.

Acting Mayor Cavalier “Chevy” Johnson; photo via City of Milwaukee

It’s a historically diverse field that could produce the city’s first elected Black mayor, first female mayor or both: Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson, Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas, state Sen. Lena Taylor, Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic, former Ald. Bob Donovan, events planner Michael Sampson and community activist Ieshuh Griffin.

That could have been an even larger field, as state Rep. Daniel Riemer registered his campaign but then pulled out; state Sen. Chris Larson flirted with a bid but decided against it; and scandal-plagued City Attorney Tearman Spencer registered but never submitted nominating petitions.

The remaining candidates now have just a few short weeks to present their qualifications and their policy visions to the voters who will narrow the field to two for the April 5 general election. 

But once the voting starts, every election comes down to the numbers. Here’s a guide to which numbers will matter the most:


A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME

Six of the candidates have run for office before, including four who have mounted citywide and countywide campaigns. Yet those previous races may tell us more about who’s going to lose than who’s going to win. 

That’s because every campaign is different, and the biggest difference is that most of these candidates have never run against each other.

State Sen. Lena Taylor; Photo via campaign Facebook

Taylor may be the best example of how that works. She ran for county executive in 2008, losing to then-incumbent Scott Walker. Much was made of the fact that she carried the city with 44,952 votes, or 53%, suggesting she might be better positioned for a citywide race. However, the first time Taylor ran for mayor, in 2020, she lost to Barrett, picking up only 33,572 votes, or 37%.

It mattered who she was running against. Because Walker, a former Republican legislator, was far more conservative than Taylor, voters who wanted a more progressive county exec were likely to choose her. By contrast, Barrett was a fellow Democrat who had lost two gubernatorial races to Walker and had long represented much of the city’s Black community in Congress, allowing him to command many of the votes Taylor had captured in the exec’s race.

Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas; Photo via campaign Facebook

Lucas racked up an even more impressive margin, picking up 40,802 urban votes to dominate the city 2-1 over Acting Sheriff Richard Schmidt in the decisive three-way 2018 Democratic primary. But Schmidt was strongly associated with his ex-boss, the increasingly right-wing former Sheriff David Clarke, and progressive forces united behind Lucas to wipe any trace of Clarke from the Sheriff’s Office.

This time, Taylor and Lucas are running in a field with multiple progressive and Black candidates, all competing for the same base.

The opposite is true of Donovan, who lost to Barrett in 2016. In that race, Donovan advanced out of the nonpartisan primary with 20,347 votes, or 32%. Then he was crushed in the higher-turnout general election with 33,572 votes, or 30%.

Then as now, Donovan was the most conservative candidate in the race. And while conservatives  are clearly a minority in this largely blue city, they’re a big enough minority to make a difference in a primary if they vote as a bloc, especially when the progressive vote is fragmented among multiple contenders.

Former Ald. Bob Donovan; Photo via campaign website

If Donovan’s supporters stick with him, he could easily advance to the general election, say former Democratic lawmaker Mordecai Lee, now a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Republican activist Craig Peterson.

But if Donovan was on the general election ballot, progressive forces presumably would unite behind the other candidate to defeat him, Lee and Peterson predict. Of course, the smart money also was on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to defeat businessman Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, and we all know how that came out. Even with only two candidates left in the race, the outcome isn’t always certain. 

Griffin is the fourth candidate who previously campaigned for citywide and countywide office, including a losing challenge to Barrett in 2012. She earned national media attention for her unsuccessful fight to run under the banner of “Not the White Man’s Bitch” on the ballot as an independent in her first race for a state Assembly seat in 2010. But she overwhelmingly lost that race and five others over three years, with her vote total topping out at 1,520 in the 2011 special election for county exec. 

Here’s where it gets weird: Although she received only 243 votes in a five-way special election for county supervisor in 2011, Griffin finished 72 votes ahead of a then-unknown Johnson and 234 votes behind an equally unknown Spencer. Union activist Eyon Biddle led the primary field and defeated Spencer in the general election.

It’s a safe bet that Griffin won’t outpoll Johnson this time. Although neither Johnson nor Dimitrijevic have run for citywide office before, they’re both savvy politicians who are putting together formidable campaigns.


TWO’S COMPANY

In a nonpartisan primary, the goal is to finish in the top two and advance to the general election. However, nobody knows for sure how many votes that will take.

If all seven candidates were evenly matched, the second-place finisher could advance with as little as 15% of the vote. But they’re not evenly matched.

Michael Sampson; Photo via campaign Facebook

Historically, a relatively unknown candidate like Sampson and Griffin will be eliminated with less than 5% of the vote. Sometimes even better-known figures finish down at that level: In the 10-way 2004 primary, then-Ald. Tom Nardelli took 4%, former Municipal Judge Vince Bobot received 3%, and former Police Chief Arthur Jones and then-School Board member Leon Todd ended up with less than 1% each.

Relative unknowns who scored higher include community activists Lee Holloway (a future County Board chairman) and Donna Horowitz (in her second mayoral run), 8% and 6%, respectively, in the seven-way 1988 primary; community activist Michael McGee (a future alderman), 7% in the six-way 1992 primary; and labor leader Wendell Harris (a future School Board member), 18% in the three-way 2000 primary. 

But the only relative unknowns who advanced to the general election in recent years were firefighters union president Greg Gracz, with 37% in the 1992 primary, and academic Ed McDonald, scoring 15% to finish well ahead of Griffin’s 3% but far behind Barrett’s 81% in the three-way 2012 primary. 

In most mayoral primaries, the top two candidates have run clearly ahead of the third-place finisher, even when three or more well-known politicians are in the race. Among those third-place finishers were Clarke, with 17% in 2004; then-Ald. Joe Davis, with 19% in 2016; and then-Ald. Tony Zielinski, with 16% in 2020. 

With the exception of McDonald in 2012, the second-place finisher has scored 30% of the vote or more in every primary since 1988. 


SECOND PLACE IS AS GOOD AS A WIN … OR BETTER

Whoever comes in first in the primary can’t count on finishing in the same place in the general election. In fact, it’s almost been a curse. 

In each of the last three mayoral elections with no incumbent on the ballot, the second-place primary finisher went on to win the general election. That can happen because the general election draws a lot more voters and gives them far fewer choices, while candidates step up their game for the general election. 

In 1960, Henry Maier, then a state senator, finished behind then-Congressman Henry Reuss, 42% to 33%, in the six-way primary. Maier went on to defeat Reuss, 58% to 42%, in the general election, to kick off a record 28 years as mayor.

In 1988, former Acting Gov. Martin Schreiber led the seven-member primary field with 44% to then-state Sen. John Norquist’s 40%. Norquist beat Schreiber, 55% to 45%, in the general election, to win the first of his four terms.

And in 2004, then-Acting Mayor Marvin Pratt topped the 10-candidate primary field with 38% of the vote as Barrett came in second with 33%. Barrett then defeated Pratt, 54% to 46%, in the general election.

The same thing happened in the last three contested county exec elections. Philanthropist Chris Abele finished behind Jeff Stone, then a GOP state representative, in the 2011 special primary, and behind Larson in the 2016 primary. Larson also finished first in the 2020 primary, ahead of David Crowley, then a Democratic state representative. But Abele defeated Stone in 2011 and Larson in 2016, while Crowley edged out Larson in 2020.


RUNNING FOR DOLLARS

Campaign finance reports give a good indication of which candidates are in it to win it, and which ones might just want a spot on the debate stage to promote their ideas. 

Television advertising likely will drive up the cost of the general-election campaign, but with a field this large, a high-profile candidate with a devoted base might squeak through the primary without six-figure spending, Lee and Peterson say. 

As of Dec. 31, Johnson was leading in the cash race, having raised $320,930 and carried over $110,415 from his aldermanic campaign fund, with $353,749 left on hand.

Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic; Photo via campaign Facebook

Lucas raised $217,945, including $50,000 of his own money, and had $195,000 left. Dimitrijevic raised $148,234 and had $119,561 left. Donovan raised $81,100, including $30,100 out of his own pocket, and had $62,460 left.

Sampson, who has said he entered the campaign because of his concerns about the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, raised just $4,025, including a $2,000 loan to his own campaign, and had $3,945 left.

Taylor, who didn’t register her campaign until Dec. 27, filed a form stating she had not yet raised or spent more than $2,000. Griffin has indicated she’s not planning to raise or spend that much.

Campaign finance reports and endorsement announcements suggest Johnson has broad support from the business community – although the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce donated $5,000 to Lucas – while Dimitrijevic, the former state director of the Wisconsin Working Families Party, is leading in support from labor and progressive groups.

The firefighters’ union hedged its bets by donating $2,000 to Lucas, $1,000 to Dimitrijevic and $834 to Johnson. Bell Ambulance also donated $2,000 to Johnson and $1,000 to Dimitrijevic.

Notably, Abele has thrown his support to Johnson. That could herald major outside spending on Johnson’s behalf, although Abele’s self-funded independent expenditure organization, Leadership MKE, has been dormant since Crowley’s election.

The biggest bank account doesn’t always win. In 1988, then-County Executive Bill O’Donnell outspent his fired parks director, Dave Schulz, by a 2 to 1 margin. But Schulz, a master of self-promotion, defeated O’Donnell by the same margin on Election Day.


WHO’S GOING TO VOTE?

Turnout is hard to predict, but it’s likely that less than one-third of the city’s registered voters will decide who advances to the general election. 

This precise situation – a wide-open mayoral primary with no other major office on the ballot – hasn’t happened since the 1940s. The last mayoral primary with no incumbent running, in 2004, coincided with a presidential primary that drove turnout up to 40%, while the 1960 and 1988 mayoral primaries coincided with open races for county exec.

Of the years Barrett was seeking re-election, 2008 was the only one in which he didn’t face a primary. The 2012 primary (featuring Griffin) was the biggest race on the ballot and drew just a 12% turnout. The primaries of 2016 (featuring Donovan) and 2020 (featuring Taylor) coincided with state Supreme Court primaries and drew turnouts of 21% and 23%, respectively. By contrast, the 2018 spring primary – with a Supreme Court race but no mayoral race on the ballot – generated a 15% turnout.

Given the lack of recent comparable elections, Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the city’s Election Commission, says she doesn’t have a official estimate, but adds, “My very unscientific prediction is 30% turnout.”

Whatever the exact turnout, most of the candidates will be gone before most voters go to the polls. The next few weeks will determine who we’ll see on that final ballot. 

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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.