Cavalier Johnson: A photographic retrospective from before becoming Milwaukee’s first elected Black Mayor
It would be overly dramatic and an inaccurate stretch to say that I always knew Cavalier Johnson would become Mayor of Milwaukee. But from the beginning I had the feeling that he was going somewhere special in his political career.
In my early career as a photojournalist in Milwaukee, I really enjoyed not knowing who people were. It allowed me to focus on anyone, regardless of social rank or station, to capture their humanity in images. In the years since, I have obviously learned more about who is who in the city, which is an unfortunate necessity for prioritizing how I spend my limited time.
While I can practically walk into any event space around Milwaukee and recognize someone, I certainly am unfamiliar with many people. So I continually rely on my intuition by watching the gravitational flow of a room.
If I had been a child of the 1960s, I would say I learned to look at the aura that surrounded individuals. But I was raised between Carl Sagan and Bill Nye the Science Guy. That taught me to look at the “gravity” around people, the invisible force that drew and repelled physical bodies.
Looking back to 2016
The ability to observe and make deductions helped me to adapt in foreign countries, before I understood the languages. It has also been a spiritual guide with my photojournalism. That was how Cavalier Johnson got on my radar.
On Inauguration Day – April 5, 2016, I stood inside the Milwaukee Common Council chamber of City Hall and recognized few of the many political leaders there. Before the day was done, I would have photographed everyone.
I remembered Cavalier because of his youth, and how other Aldermen gave him a good natured hard time about being so young – like a little brother they would give a noogie to. He had a likable smile, but I knew nothing about him.
Over the course of that day I heard many people speak, but I tuned out most as I focused on taking photos. Cavalier spoke, as did all the Common Council members who accepted their elected position. But I remembered nothing about his speech and never formed any impression of him.
It was a time when I was happy to know nothing about anyone and just take photos for the pure enjoyment of the experience. I did not know what to think about him, and had neither a need to or enough information to form an opinion for myself.
So it was not until a few months later that I heard Cavalier speak in public for the first time. There was a protest over alleged corruption under former Governor Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) on August 23, 2016. Cavalier was invited to share his views, along with other politicians at the small rally.
By then I had become more interested in listening to politicians speak at events, and experienced a mix of many styles unrelated to gender or ethnicity. What got my attention about Cavalier was his intelligent logic that made me think. He did not just blurt out a bunch of generic rhetoric designed to stoke my feelings or put my brain to sleep.
I admit, I was not prepared for how sharp he was – considering my experiences had not brought me into the orbit of very many people who were. All these years later, I do not recall what he said to the crowd, but it was captivating to me at the time.
I had no idea where this newly elected young Alderman would go with his career, but I had the distinct feeling that he was someone worth watching from that moment on.
Looking back to 2020
I am not a student of local politics, and understanding that realm is not my natural skillset. For example, at an election party in 2014 someone asked me what I thought about Bob Donovan. With excitement, I answered that I knew Bill Donovan had created the OSS and how important was in World War II, confusing the legendary spymaster with the then-Alderman in Milwaukee.
But over the following years I have learned a lot more about the game of politics, simply from the constant exposure to those swirling currents for so long. The biggest lesson I am reminded of is how I never want to be a politician. It is not an easy job, and someone is always mad at you.
So I rarely underestimate politicians, because I avoid setting expectations for them. As in any relationship, a failure to reach unrealistic expectations has a negative affect on actual achievements. It takes energy to manage, because success can inspire a lot of hope. While the lack of it can instill doubt.
For years I had wanted to do a very deep and personal interview of Cavalier. But even though I had always found him very interesting, I was limited in where I could commit my time for such an intensive project.
And I confess that I did not want to be seen as playing politics by playing favorites. I could not justify singling him out, above another member of the Common Council. He was doing a lot of good things, but the same could be said for other Aldermen and Alderwomen of color. In the end my concern for not moving forward sooner came down to the possibility that if I produced an intense profile of him, I would end up interviewing all 15 council members in order to be fair.
So as a compromise with myself, I always made sure to focus on Cavalier in photography, as a figure of interest, and highlight him as situations allowed. I did that with many Alders who were not getting enough public attention, and other people in general.
As I look back in my photo archive, it is interesting to see people who caught my eye – because of their gravity. Those times were random and uneventful. Yet those individuals went on to become accomplished in their work now. I managed to photograph them years ago in those early days of their personal development.
Which brings me to April 2021. Cavalier became President of the Milwaukee Common Council right as the pandemic shutdown the world in March 2020. With his new position came the opportunity to finally produce an interview. But public health safety issues would delay that for a year. By the time I spent my day with him, for the “Day in the Life” photo series, I had just gotten my first COVID-19 vaccination and Milwaukee City Hall reopened after many months. In fact, Cavalier had not even had the chance to sit in the Common Council chamber in his official capacity as president in all of that time. Meetings up until then had been held either virtually or in a small remote chamber with limited in-person attendance.
It was a very professionally rewarding moment, as well as personal, to document Cavalier’s day as President of the Milwaukee Common Council in images.
Within a year he would become Mayor.
Marvin E. Pratt became the first African-American to serve as Mayor of Milwaukee, while I was living overseas. He was appointed to the position of Acting Mayor when John Norquist resigned, and then lost in the general election to former Congressman Tom Barrett in 2004.
I began reporting on Mayor Barrett in 2013, about 9 years into his 17 year administration. So while I covered two of Mayor Barrett’s re-elections, Cavalier is the first new Mayor that I have documented who went through the election process to become Mayor.
And in context, it all feels a bit surreal to have documented his political career since the first day he became an Alderman of the 2nd District, to Common Council President, to Acting Mayor, to the first elected Black Mayor of Milwaukee.
After spending so much of my life overseas, I am used to an accelerated pace of social and environmental change. But I do not have a good basis to measure how fast people can climb in their careers for some industries, and at what age. For some it is a long slow pace of continuous growth over time, for others it is a quick rocket boost in youth and then a long plateau.
I have had a front row seat to watch Cavalier’s political journey to become Mayor, and I am as amazed as anyone. Not because I ever underestimated him, I just never thought I would have the privilege to be a close witness of something so extraordinary.
Looking around in realtime
In February, just before the Spring Primary, I had the opportunity to cover an event at the Old Soldiers Home. I have reported on the historic venue for many years, and earned an award for my photojournalism of its restoration process. That occasion was the first time I had been there with a new Mayor.
And after sorting through thousands of images to assemble this visual compilation of Cavalier’s political career, I had one side question for the then-Acting Mayor. Over all the years I had photographed him, Cavalier always wore a teal colored silicone bracelet on his right wrist. Every now and then I would take a photo close enough to read the inscription on the band, and it was inspirational. But that did not answer the why he wore it, so I asked.
“The wristband is a YMCA wristband. It has the four core values of the YMCA, which is caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility. As we were touring Old Main and I saw some of those World War One era posters, my YMCA had some of those vintage pictures. I had seen them years ago, so it kind of made me have a flashback from my time growing up. I wear it because it keeps me grounded. The wristband reminds me every single day of how I got my start in service, which was helping seniors to rake leaves and shovel snow in a pre-college mentorship program to get poor kids in Milwaukee Public Schools off to college. If it were not for that program, and people taking a chance on me, to give me an opportunity – we probably wouldn’t be standing here having this conversation right now. That’s why I wear it, the wristband reminds me of how I got my start in serving others.” – Cavalier Johnson
When Mayor Tom Barrett left office, it came with a level of closure. Milwaukee Independent published my photo retrospective that showcased many years of his time leading Milwaukee. For Cavalier, the future is unknown and in many ways it is all just beginning. So looking ahead, only time will give me the opportunity to fill in the blanks of those stories with images from my photojournalism.
However, looking back at the path that led here, I have many images of that journey. In those early years I find myself wishing I had taken more pictures. But I remind myself that I still have a great many photos of a man who other media outlets rarely thought twice about in those early days. That was one motivation for me to photograph him above all else, and many of his peers, to uplift people of color who were overlooked for their hard work. Mandela Barnes, David Bowen, David Crowley, Supreme Moore Omokunde, Marcelia Nicholson, and Deshea Agee were also part of that group who I took pictures of every chance I had at events.
Will Cavalier make a good Mayor? I was asked that question a lot during the campaign season, and my answer was always “yes.” He proved himself in that capacity as Acting Mayor.
Many times over those weeks I watched TV reporters, who either had a disrespectful political agenda or were simply clueless, ask very unfair questions. Cavalier answered thoughtfully and with a real desire to communicate his passion for using the office of Mayor for helping the residents of Milwaukee. It showed a depth of character that most people lacked in general, and reminded me that I did not have the fortitude to run for public office.
I remember hearing a lot of criticism that people had for former Mayor Barrett. I have gone through an evolution of understanding about politics as I have matured in years, and stood closer to the political systems. Leadership is important, but so is the process. That is why history has seen good leaders falter because the system under them was disruptive, and bad leaders neutralized as other forces sought to mitigate the impact of their poor decisions.
There is only so much the Mayor of any city can do, particularly with the political pull at county and state levels. Expectations are always high for supporters and low for detractors. Those are unfair and imperfect measures for judgement, especially since they take a very narrow view. What often goes unseen are the outside forces. Like the oligarchical machinations of Republican lawmakers in Madison who are openly hostile to Milwaukee.
So any new Mayor of Milwaukee will be presented with complex challenges. Added is the fact that Cavalier is Black, in an institutional system entrenched by design to impede him. Every top level of public office in Milwaukee is currently held by a person of color. It is an overdue and historic situation. But it is also a catalyst for fear mongers and peddlers of hate who want to preserve the White social order to double down on their corrosive interference.
Looking ahead to 2024
The 2022 mid-term election cycle still has a few months to play out, and will decide which political party controls Congress. If the Republican-sanctioned lies about Trump’s 2020 win are any indication, the tactics to drive fear and division for 2024 will go nuclear. And as Mayor, Cavalier’s campaign will be caught under that mushroom cloud as he most likely runs for re-election.
That is why, from my observations in this election cycle, that I believe there will be more racist and anti-democratic forces aligned against him. There are people in Milwaukee who cannot tolerate a Black man, let alone a Black Mayor. Two years in office will be all the justification they need to blame Cavalier for every failure beyond his authority to fix. Even problems that were institutionally designed to remain broken.
My fear is that a narrative will be used against Cavalier, much in the same way the elevation of Trump came as a backlash to President Barack Obama. It is not my wish to make any dire predictions at the very moment Milwaukee elects its first Black Mayor. It is historic, but history is also a guide.
Should I have the privilege to continue documenting Cavalier’s term as Mayor of Milwaukee for the next two years with my photojournalism, it is my hope that those images will continue to tell his story where my words fall short.
This photo collection presents many unpublished images of Cavalier Johnson between 2016 and 2021. They were taken from more than 40 public events over those 6 years, from first being elected to as an Alderman to becoming Acting Mayor.
What the photos show is that Cavalier was present and involved in Milwaukee long before the general public was paying close attention. As the saying goes in Hollywood, an actor can become an overnight success but it takes twenty years of work.
These images showcase highlights of the journey that brought Mayor Cavalier Johnson to the City of Milwaukee’s highest public office.