At exactly 5:01 p.m. on December 22, about a half hour after former Mayor Tom Barrett departed City Hall, Cavalier Johnson became acting Mayor of the City of Milwaukee. It was the first change of office since 2004.
Followed by a small entourage that included his son Oliver and staff members, he made the ceremonial walk across the second floor, from the offices of the Common Council to the office of the Mayor. Surrounded by TV cameras that documented the event, Johnson answered a few questions, making his first public statements as acting Mayor.
“I’ve been serving this community for 20 years, and have the opportunity to walk back into this office that I have wanted to serve for a number of years. After all the experiences that I’ve had growing up in the city, living in 53206, I’m ready. I’m ready to serve the city. I’m ready to be the Mayor. I think that the next Mayor of the city is going to have to be able to work collaboratively with the Common Council. I’ve been able to do that in my time. The Mayor of this city is going to have to be able to make sure that they’re able to send a message of hope to the people who live in this city, especially in the most depressed neighborhoods here. I’ve done that in 53206. And the next Mayor of this city is going to have to be able to work with our neighborhoods in order to solve the most pressing issues that we have. And I’m ready to do that.”
With the resignation of Barrett, the City charter immediately promotes the Common Council President to acting Mayor. Johnson has the complete authority of the Mayor’s office, in addition to his job as Common Council President. However, he is restricted from voting on Common Council matters.
In April, the “Milwaukee Independent” published an extensive Q&A with Cavalier Johnson, supported by several hundred intimate photos that documented an average day for the then Common Council President. It took place after pandemic lockdown measures started to ease, during what was thought to be – at the time – the end of the pandemic.
Johnson shared personal stories from his childhood, both the traumas he experienced and the inspirations he embraced. He also explained what the most common question he got asked was, when are you running for Mayor? Now, just over eight months later, that query is no longer an issue. Instead, the questions surround what issues he will focus on as acting Mayor.
As the second Black Mayor of Milwaukee, Johnson is already well underway in his campaign, with a special election set for the February 15 primary, followed by the April 5 spring election. There are currently eight candidates, including Johnson, who seek to replace Barrett and serve the remainder of his term through 2024.
If successful, Johnson would be Milwaukee’s first elected Mayor of color at age 35. He would, however, not be the city’s youngest elected Mayor. That distinction belongs to Sherburn Merrill Becker, who became the 41st Mayor of Milwaukee in 1906 at age 29.
“Here in Milwaukee, this is an important moment and I’m ready to step up and lead. We will make Milwaukee safer, we will make our community stronger, and we will make our economy and our environment more sustainable,” said Johnson. “We will create more family-supporting jobs, and we will continue building on our successes, while rising to address our challenges. Let’s go.”
The Common Council held a session virtually on the morning of December 23, to order dates for the special election. Because Barrett left office before a December 28 deadline, the special election for Mayor could take place on the already scheduled 2022 election dates. The alignment saved Milwaukee taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Later in the day on December 23, a special swearing-in ceremony was held for Johnson at Bay View High School, where he was once a student. Due to the surge in Milwaukee of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the event was by invitation only but broadcast live to the public.
As Johnson was sworn in, his wife Dominique Johnson and three children stood by his side. Afterwards, he shared the story of his first encounter with the man who he was taking over the position of Mayor from.
“I first met Tom Barrett as a 19 year old political science student. We were at the NAACP freedom fund dinner. Tom was a relatively new mayor, and he still had his mustache or I believe he did. And honestly, I was slightly reluctant to approach him. But when I worked up the nerve, I went and asked him… what should I be doing if I ever wanted to do what you do? Tom asked me about my goals. And as I described my interests in service, what I had been doing right here at Bayview High School, what I had been doing at UW-Madison. He took the time to listen to me and to encourage me. He told me that if I was doing all those things, I was doing more than he was at my age. And then if I kept it up, one day I’d be Mayor. Well, Mr. Ambassador… You’re right.”
Johnson also shared many personal experiences in his speech, and connected his own story to those of other Black families in Milwaukee.
“We all know as well as anyone that growing up in 53206, too many young Black people don’t get the chance to see beyond the stress, the trauma, and the struggles in our neighborhoods. I got off the block, and I’ve gone far, while always remembering where I came from. I know where my service began. I know the people in the neighborhoods, the teachers, the trials. I always wanted to be here, right here in our home, in our community, in Milwaukee.”
This collection of images features the moment at City Hall that Cavalier Johnson became acting Mayor, and his official swearing in ceremony the next day at Bay View High School. Also included are previously unpublished photos from Milwaukee Independent’s April 18, 2016 coverage of Inauguration Day, when Johnson first became an Alderman of Milwaukee’s 2nd District.