After Tom Barrett's resignation, Milwaukee's first open mayoral race in nearly two decades features seven candidates

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  • Tom Barrett
    Mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1953-)
The sun rises over the Milwaukee skyline on Jan. 3. Milwaukee voters will elect a new mayor this year for the first time in nearly two decades.
The sun rises over the Milwaukee skyline on Jan. 3. Milwaukee voters will elect a new mayor this year for the first time in nearly two decades.

Milwaukee's first open mayoral election in nearly two decades was bound to draw more than a couple candidates.

In fact, it drew seven.

Most names are familiar in Milwaukee politics. Another is a newcomer from the business community.

All filed to run to fill the remaining two years of the term left open by Mayor Tom Barrett's resignation last month to become ambassador to Luxembourg.

Barrett's departure after more than 17 years in office set off the race first to get on the ballot and then for the top political job in Wisconsin's largest city.

RELATED: Milwaukee's citizens agenda: What we're hearing so far from residents on the mayoral election

Candidates had to turn in at least 1,500 signatures from Milwaukee residents to get on the ballot.

A primary is scheduled for Feb. 15 and the spring election is April 5.

Whoever wins will take on significant challenges, from reckless driving and record-high homicides to the city's pension challenge to the ongoing pandemic response.

The Journal Sentinel would also like to hear what readers see as the biggest issues the next mayor will need to tackle. Email adirr@jrn.com to share your thoughts and questions for the candidates.

Here are the candidates for mayor in the order they filed to run:

Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson

Cavalier Johnson is sworn in as Milwaukee’s acting mayor during a ceremony Thursday at Bay View High School in Milwaukee.
Cavalier Johnson is sworn in as Milwaukee’s acting mayor during a ceremony Thursday at Bay View High School in Milwaukee.

Cavalier "Chevy" Johnson is the Milwaukee Common Council president who took over as acting mayor after Barrett's resignation. He holds both jobs simultaneously but cannot vote on the Common Council during this period.

In August, Johnson announced plans to run for the remainder of Barrett's term after the ambassadorship nomination was announced by the White House.

He has ascended quickly at City Hall. He was first elected to the Common Council in 2016 and in April 2020 became president of the 15-member body in a divided vote of his colleagues.

He has highlighted what he calls a "trifecta of experience," being a Black man in Milwaukee and living in some of the city's most challenged neighborhoods, working in the Mayor's Office during Barrett's administration and then serving as president of the Common Council.

As he prepared to step into the acting mayor role, Johnson said his top priority would be combating reckless driving. His first act in office was to declare reckless driving a public safety crisis and direct city departments to address the issue.

Johnson has announced he has $350,000 cash on hand. And he's got the backing of former Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who has a history of throwing significant sums behind candidates he supports but has not decided how much he'll spend in this race.

Former Ald. Bob Donovan

Former Ald. Bob Donovan.
Former Ald. Bob Donovan.

Former Ald. Bob Donovan, a longtime conservative council member, represented the city's 8th Aldermanic District on the south side. He was first elected to the council in 2000 and did not run for reelection in 2020.

He told the Journal Sentinel he wanted to return to City Hall because he felt he could move Milwaukee in a different direction — and he didn't want to be left wondering what could have been if he did not run.

"This is something that I've wanted to do," he said. "I believe I can do it. And I'll say this: I believe that politics and public service is more than a job to me. I believe it's my vocation."

Donovan said in his two decades as an alderman he saw ensuring citizens' safety as the top responsibility of local government. He highlighted his work as chairman of the council's Public Safety and Health Committee.

And Donovan raised concerns about the decrease in police officer positions through attrition in recent years but also reckless driving, the record homicides during the pandemic, car thefts and more.

"I think we all want a city that's policed effectively and efficiently and fairly, and in order to do that, you've got to have the appropriate level of officers," he said.

As for why he got a condo in Greenfield shortly after retiring from the city, Donovan said his mother left him the home when she passed away. He said he and his wife, Kathy, moved there to open up their larger home in Milwaukee to his son, who has an aggressive form of muscular sclerosis that makes him unable to work, and his son's family.

Donovan said his son and his family moved to Illinois, and this week the alderman said he had moved back to Milwaukee from Greenfield.

Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas

Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas poses for a photo with paradegoers.
Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas poses for a photo with paradegoers.

Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas was first elected to public office in 2018 when he defeated Acting Sheriff Richard Schmidt.

He previously worked as a Major League Baseball security official and served more than two decades with the Milwaukee Police Department.

"After my time here at the Sheriff's Office and watching our city and what it needs in terms of leadership, I felt that it was time for me again to sacrifice this wonderful opportunity I have at the Sheriff's Office to serve the city in a broader capacity as its next mayor," he said.

He highlighted his leadership positions in law enforcement and in Major League Baseball, saying his experience managing people and budgets set him apart in the race.

Lucas said his top priority as mayor would be public safety, saying the city needed to get crime under control but also had to reimagine the role of law enforcement.

He also said he would want to focus on pandemic response and solving the city's fiscal challenges by working with the Common Council, business community and state legislators in Madison.

As for how he planned to get up to speed coming from a career in law enforcement to a broad array of new challenges at the city, he said he was currently working with a team of advisers and that as a new mayor he would lean on subject matter experts, whether those already within city government or those who would come in with a new administration.

Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic

Milwaukee Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic is running for mayor.
Milwaukee Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic is running for mayor.

Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic is a progressive in her first term on the Milwaukee Common Council. She served on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors from 2004 until winning a council seat in 2020.

She was the youngest person to be elected to the County Board and the youngest board chair in the county's history. During her tenure, she sparred with former County Executives Scott Walker and Abele and some board colleagues and also fielded criticism in 2014 about her work hours at the county courthouse.

Dimitrijevic was state director of the Wisconsin Working Families Party until stepping away to run for Common Council.

She said her experience in local government sets her apart from other candidates in the mayoral race and she promised to "challenge the status quo."

"We have been stuck in some of these challenges for far too long, whether it be racial injustice, economic injustice, and it feels very systemic," she said.

She said she felt she had been confronting the status quo as an alderwoman, including in her push for paid parental leave for city employees.

Dimitrijevic, who chairs the Public Safety and Health Committee, said her top priority would be to not only get the city out of "emergency mode" as it confronts the pandemic but also to address issues such as affordable housing, lead poisoning and infant mortality.

State Sen. Lena Taylor

State Sen. Lena Taylor.
State Sen. Lena Taylor.

State Sen. Lena Taylor, an attorney, was elected to the state Assembly in 2003 and the next year won a race for the state Senate.

She challenged Walker, then Milwaukee County executive, in 2008. Although she lost the race, she carried the city by 5,000 votes.

Taylor's announcement that she planned to run for mayor came just days after she suspended her Democratic primary campaign for lieutenant governor. She said of her decision to switch races that "I had to follow my heart" and cited her concern that Milwaukee is "a tale of two cities."

"We need a voice on the ground that is connected to the people and believes in inclusion, believes in constituent relations in a way that hears the people and creates results," she said.

Taylor said a "lack" exists in Milwaukee that has led to the city's disparities in health, education, violence and crime.

She advocated for creating "hubs of opportunity" that would help residents get on the path to employment, entrepreneurship and homeownership.

She said she brought to the race experience, "hands-on representation" and a history of working across the aisle and getting results, including on the Legislature's powerful budget committee, which she was appointed to in 2004.

Taylor has also been at the center of controversies over her tenure in office, including in 2018 over using a racial insult at a Milwaukee bank and her removal from the budget committee following a Senate human resources report that she bullied staff.

At the time, she disputed the exact phrase she used at the bank and said in a statement that the worker was a “disgruntled employee who was both unable and in some instances unwilling to meet the requirements” of the job. She called her removal from the budget committee a "political lynching."

Michael Sampson

Michael Sampson
Michael Sampson

Michael Sampson, a newcomer to city politics, submitted about 1,800 signatures Tuesday to get on the ballot, according to the Election Commission.

Sampson owns Swarmm Events, which organizes events such as the Shamrock Shuffle. He said he had political aspirations for a while and decided to jump into the race after advocating against the city's restrictions and fines on businesses at the height of the pandemic.

"Running the City of Milwaukee is a business," he said, citing the pension and financial issues as evidence that it had been poorly run.

He previously worked in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, according to his biography on Swarmm Events' website.

Ieshuh Griffin

Ieshuh Griffin
Ieshuh Griffin

Activist Ieshuh Griffin is running under the slogan "The Poor People's Piece of the Pie Campaign."

She said she was the best candidate to represent Milwaukeeans because she has experienced the same struggles as many of the city's residents.

A question remained after signatures were turned in about whether Griffin would make it onto the ballot.

Ultimately, commissioners Terrell Martin, Douglas Haag and Chair Patricia Ruiz-Cantu found that enough of her signatures were valid to get her on the ballot.

She has previously sought elected office, including trying a decade ago to run for state Assembly under the slogan, “NOT the whiteman’s bitch."

A challenge she filed to the signatures submitted by Taylor and Johnson was dismissed by the city's Election Commission.

Others who had filed to run did not return the necessary signatures.

Have any of the candidates run for mayor before?

Yes.

Taylor challenged Barrett in the 2020 mayoral race, losing with 37% of the vote to Barrett's 63%.

Donovan ran unsuccessfully for mayor against Barrett in 2016, losing with 30% of the vote to Barrett's 70%.

Those winning margins were on par for Barrett in the four races he ran as an incumbent since he was first elected mayor in 2004. In that contest, he beat then-Acting Mayor Marvin Pratt with 53% of the vote to Pratt's 46%.

Were there any surprises on filing day?

Yes. City Attorney Tearman Spencer, who had declared his intention to run for mayor on Dec. 30, did not submit the required signatures to get on the ballot by Tuesday's deadline, according to the city Elections Commission.

Contact Alison Dirr at 414-224-2383 or adirr@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter @AlisonDirr.

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The Journal Sentinel would like to hear what readers see as the biggest issues the next mayor will need to tackle. Email adirr@jrn.com or call 414-224-2383 to share your thoughts and questions for the candidates.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee has seven candidates for mayor in 2022 primary election

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