Who Voted for Whom in the Mayoral Primary?

Primary results show Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson appealing across racial lines as he and ex-Ald. Bob Donovan advance to general election

After Tuesday’s primary, Cavalier Johnson is positioned to do what Marvin Pratt couldn’t.

Like Pratt in 2004, Johnson is a Black acting mayor running for his own term in Milwaukee’s top job. Like Pratt, Johnson came in first in a crowded and diverse primary, defeating his Black rivals on his way to a general-election showdown with a well-known white politician.

But unlike Pratt, Johnson went beyond unifying Black support and captured most of the city’s majority-white wards as well – including territory that belonged to Pratt’s 2004 nemesis, Tom Barrett, in all five of the mayoral elections that Barrett won.

That puts Johnson in a stronger position than Pratt was as Johnson advances to the April 5 general election against the second-place finisher, former Ald. Bob Donovan. The winner of that contest will serve the two years remaining in the fifth term of Barrett, now the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg

Cavalier “Chevy” Johnson; photo via City of Milwaukee
Former Ald. Bob Donovan; Photo via campaign website

Donovan, meanwhile, looks politically weaker than he did heading into his 2016 general-election matchup against Barrett, says 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 Cavalier Johnson).

Complete, unofficial results of Tuesday’s seven-way primary show Cavalier Johnson in first place with 42% of the vote, followed by Donovan with 22%. Eliminated from contention were Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor (13%), Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic (12%), Sheriff Earnell Lucas (10%) and minor candidates Michael Sampson and Ieshuh Griffin (less than 1% each).

The acting mayor carried 216 of the city’s 315 wards and 12 of its 15 Common Council districts, according to an analysis by Marquette’s Johnson.


 

 

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Donovan carried the remaining three council districts, along with 85 wards, while Taylor carried six wards and Dimitrijevic carried five wards. Three south side wards were tied: Two between Cavalier Johnson and Dimitrijevic, and one between Johnson and Donovan.

But what was even more notable was which areas each candidate carried, the analysis by Marquette’s Johnson shows.

Based on voting-age population, Cavalier Johnson carried 129 of 134 majority-Black wards, 58 of 107 majority-white wards, seven of 41 majority-Hispanic wards, 21 of 32 wards in which no racial group holds a majority, and the city’s only Asian-American-majority ward. He tied with Donovan and Dimitrijevic in one majority-Hispanic ward each, and with Dimitrijevic in one majority-white ward.

The acting mayor also carried white progressive turf loyal to Barrett since 2004, including the East Side’s 3rd Aldermanic District; Dimitrijevic’s Bay View-based 14th District; and parts of the west side, where Barrett lives.

Among the council districts that Johnson carried were all seven represented by Black alders, three of the six represented by white alders and Hispanic Ald. Jose Perez’s Walker’s Point-based 12th District.

Johnson’s share of the vote was greater than the 38% that Pratt commanded in the 10-way 2004 primary, the last mayoral race with no incumbent on the ballot. Pratt then lost the general election to Barrett, a former congressman who finished second in the primary.

However, in an interview with WisPolitics.com, Pratt predicted that if Johnson, Taylor or Lucas were to face Donovan or Dimitrijevic in the general election, “the African-American person is going to win.”

In 2004, Milwaukee was already a majority-minority city, but its voting-age population was still 54% white. Now, according to the 2020 census, the voting-age population is 39% white, 35% Black and 18% Hispanic.

That means “a candidate today certainly couldn’t win a citywide election relying only on white voters,” Marquette’s Johnson told WisPolitics.com.

White voters – and specifically what Marquette’s Johnson calls “legacy white ethnic voters” – form much of Donovan’s base. He’s a lifelong south sider and an outspoken law-and-order conservative who served on the council for 20 years before retiring in 2020.

Donovan carried 43 majority-white wards, 32 majority-Hispanic wards and 10 wards with no racial majority. He didn’t win any majority-Black wards, and he scored single-digit percentages in five of the seven council districts represented by Black alders.

However, those numbers might make Donovan’s Hispanic support seem a lot bigger than it is. Marquette’s Johnson warned that turnout and registration issues in the Hispanic and Asian communities could mean that they were outnumbered by their white neighbors at the polls.

Among aldermanic districts, Donovan carried his former 8th District, now represented by Hispanic Ald. JoCasta Zamarippa; the southwest side’s 11th District, represented by Ald. Mark

Borkowski; and the far south side’s 13th District, represented by Ald. Scott Spiker. Borkowski and Spiker are the council’s two most conservative members.

“Even within his geographic base, fewer people voted for Bob Donovan in 2022 than last time he ran in 2016,” Marquette’s Johnson notes.

History offers one bit of hope for Donovan: The second-place finisher in the last three wide-open mayoral primaries – in 1960, 1988 and 2004 – wound up coming in first in the general election. Former Mayor Henry Maier, then the incumbent, also rebounded after finishing second to ex-legislator Dennis Conta by just five votes in the 1980 primary.

But history is otherwise not on Donovan’s side. Excluding John Bohn, another council president who was acting mayor in 1942, no sitting or former rank-and-file alderman has won the mayor’s office since Socialist Emil Seidel in 1910, when the council was elected from the city at large rather than from districts.

Perhaps more to the point, nobody as conservative as Donovan has won a Milwaukee mayoral election in more than a century, if ever. The city has a long history of electing Democrats and Socialists to its highest office.

For the other three major candidates, the results were even more disheartening, both in comparison to their past performance and in light of their campaign spending as they vied for second place.

Taylor had carried the city in her 2008 challenge to then-County Executive Scott Walker. In the 2020 mayoral election, she dominated a large swath of the North Side in both the four-way primary and in her general-election face-off against Barrett.

But on Tuesday, Taylor couldn’t even carry her own Senate district. Of the five wards she carried, four are majority-Black and one has no dominant racial group, according to Marquette’s Johnson.

Taylor suspended her campaign for lieutenant governor to jump into the mayor’s race. Her campaign did not respond to a question about whether she would return to the statewide contest, where she would face Milwaukee’s Rep. David Bowen and Brookfield’s Rep. Sara Rodriguez in the August Democratic primary.

Dimitrijevic, like Taylor, was seeking to become Milwaukee’s first woman mayor. As the former state director of the Wisconsin Working Families Party, she was the most progressive candidate in the race, winning endorsements from an array of liberal and labor organizations.

Yet on Tuesday, Dimitrijevic fell short in the lakefront liberal strongholds, running behind Johnson in both her own Bay View-based district and Ald. Nik Kovac’s East Side 3rd District.

Dimitrijevic, whose husband is an Uruguayan immigrant, also had made a strong play for Hispanic votes. Zamarippa and immigrant-advocacy organization Voces de la Frontera endorsed Dimitrijevic after Cavalier Johnson disappointed Hispanic hopes for a third council seat when he signed a redistricting plan that they opposed.

All five wards that Dimitrijevic carried are majority-white, according to Marquette’s Johnson.

This might be the second election in which one of Dimitrijevic’s opponents benefited from heavy outside spending by former County Executive Chris Abele, with whom she clashed when she was County Board chair. In 2014, Abele backed attorney Dan Adams over Dimitrijevic in an Assembly race that both of them lost to fellow Democrat and now-Rep. Jonathan Brostoff.

In the current campaign, Abele is believed to be funding a secretive outside organization that has spent more than $120,000 on television advertising for Johnson.

Lucas overwhelmingly carried the city when he won the 2018 Democratic primary for sheriff against Abele’s favored candidate, then-Acting Sheriff Richard Schmidt.

On Tuesday, however, Lucas didn’t carry a single ward. He didn’t even place second in any aldermanic district, Marquette’s Johnson found. And he garnered less support than the last two Black sheriffs to run for mayor: Richard Artison, who took 40% of the vote in his 1996 general-election loss to then-Mayor John Norquist, and David Clarke, who finished third with 17% in the 2004 primary.

In 2018, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities had led the progressive forces rallying behind Lucas to defeat Schmidt, who had been second-in-command to the right-wing Clarke.

But BLOC sat out this primary. The group issued a statement lambasting the five major candidates, saying none would commit to shift some funding from the Police Department to human services that might address the root causes of rising violence.

Lucas, a 25-year veteran of the Police Department, would not support defunding it, while Donovan wants to increase officers’ ranks. Johnson would strike a balance between maintaining police strength and funding the alternate approaches backed by Dimitrijevic and Taylor.

An April victory by Cavalier Johnson could set the stage for two more historic choices.

Council president: Johnson could be sworn in as mayor as soon as the general election results are final, City Clerk Jim Owczarski says. His position as council president then would pass to Ald. Michael Murphy, chairman of the council’s Finance & Personnel Committee, but only until the next regularly scheduled council meeting on April 19, Owczarski says.

At that meeting, Ald. Milele Coggs and Perez are expected to face off for the presidency, the Recombobulation Area reported.

Coggs, who is Black, would be the first woman to lead the council, while Perez would be the first Hispanic president. Together with Johnson, County Executive David Crowley and County Board Chairwoman Marcellia Nicholson, all four of the top positions in local government would be held by people of color for the first time.

Sheriff: After his mayoral defeat, Lucas doesn’t plan to seek a second term as sheriff, his campaign manager Brandon Savage confirmed to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In anticipation of that move, telegraphed last fall by the Lucas campaign, six candidates have already registered for the fall election. Among them are Chief Deputy Sheriff Denita Ball, Inspector Brian Barkow and Capt. Thomas Beal.

Ball would be the first woman to serve as the county’s top law enforcement officer. She and Beal are Black.

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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.