An Interview with Cavalier Johnson: Focus Campaign Funding, Public Land, Policing, a broad range of questions

By Austin Greenberg

Acting Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson spoke with Riverwest Currents on March 21, 2022.. The mayoral election between Johnson and former Alderman Bob Donovan is April 5th.

RC: There was an ad made for you by a group called Fair Future Action. Does Chris Abele fund that?

CJ: I can’t tell you who funds it. I’m unaware who funds it, exactly.

RC: There appears to be at least some close connections – obviously it’s public that Jennifer Abele [wife of Chris] works for you, and I know that they’ve donated, I believe the maximum amounts. I have some questions about some things that he had done that I’m wondering if you would support or not. For instance, when he was County Executive, in 2013 and 215 there was legislation passed that transferred a lot of policy-making decisions and authority from the County Board to the County Executive’s office – his office – and he had reportedly told Mike Gousha in 2020 that he felt that most policy decisions should be made by “experts” appointed by the Executive and he characterized county supervisors’ advocacy for their constituents as, “wanting to get involved in a lot of decisions about which they don’t have a lot of expertise.” Is this something – the transferring of power into the County Executive’s office, and that characterization – are those things that you would agree with?

CJ: Look, I’m not looking to turn the clock backward or to look in reverse here. I’m trying to move forward in the City of Milwaukee, not Milwaukee County. I know that there was, and had been even before Chris Abele became County Executive, a contentious relationship, unfortunately, with the Executive, and the Board, whether that was Chris Abele and the Board, for a time, and certainly with Scott Walker, when he was County Executive, and the Board. So I understand that those things happened, I’m not looking to re-litigate the past. I’m trying to move forward here in my position as Mayor, and I’ll be working collaboratively with the City Council, and with everybody necessary in order to do just that. And the question about Jennifer Abele working in my office [brief interruption due to this reporter’s technical difficulty].. As far as Jennifer Abele is concerned, you know I got to know Jennifer, and appreciate the work ethic and know-how of Jennifer years before she became Jennifer Abele. She worked for the City of Milwaukee and I was an alder, and even before that I was a staff person in the Mayor’s office, and I go to know her as Jennifer Gonda. So she’s in the office, absolutely, because I wanted to bring in her skills and talents. She’s volunteering her time, on leave from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is not being paid. So yeah she’s there, and I’m happy that she is there, and she is a value added to the Mayor’s office, and she is a value added to the City of Milwaukee.

RC: Another thing that Chris Abele was doing was selling, or attempting to sell public land, for instance parks, and charging, or attempting to charge citizens to use them – parking fees and so on, are those policies that you support?

CJ: Well the City of Milwaukee doesn’t control parks, at least not county parks..

RC: I’m sure they have some public land though..

CJ: Yeah, we have public lands, we have city playgrounds, and no, I have no intention on selling off any city parks for whatever reason.

RC: Last question on this, in terms of [Abele’s] characterization of who could be making decisions, whether it’s people who are elected, or “experts” that he would appoint. How do you feel about that?

CJ: My view is that as I go to form my cabinet, whether that’s keeping people, or bringing new people on, they will be experts in their field, and they will work collaboratively with me and my vision for the city, and they will also work with the public and members of the City Council as well. This is about, I believe, what my vision is for moving Milwaukee forward, not re-hashing the finished time in office, the finished tenure of a former elected official.

RC: In terms of political campaigns, should they be publicly funded?

CJ: Yeah, absolutely. Oh, well, you mean, should campaigns be funded by the public, should taxpayers foot the bill for funding a political campaign?

RC: Yes.

CJ: In a perfect world, yeah, I would be in favor of something like that. Look, if there’s a way to make sure that folks are able to get their word out, and taxpayers agree to foot that bill, so that we can communicate with them, so that they know what the options are for elections, then yeah, I’d be in favor of something like that.

RC: And should any group that’s doing political activity have to report all of their funding to the public?

CJ: Yeah, absolutely, I’ve said that a number of times during this campaign, that that’s what my belief is, and everybody who’s given to my campaign, we’ve done that. We’ve put their name, we put their address, and we put the dollar amount that they’ve contributed to our campaign. Everything’s been public, we’ve followed every single rule around that.

RC: I suppose I have to specify because there’s a lot of political campaign activity that’s not technically associated with campaigns. So for instance, if Fair Future Action is involved, it’s very clear that there tries to be some separation, but should a group like that, it’s sort of the dark money question, should the public know where all of their financing comes from?

CJ: Yeah, I mean anybody who contributes to anything that tries to influence the public on something should have all their donors and contributors listed. I’ve said, not just about my own specific campaign, but about money in politics generally. And what you’re asking is a question of current state law, which the mayor of Milwaukee of course does not control. If I did, then we certainly wouldn’t be in the dire financial position that the City of Milwaukee finds itself in today.

RC: But like you said, you’re not familiar with where that specific group [Fair Future Action] gets their financing.

CJ: No, I don’t know who the contributors are to the group.

RC: Moving on to police. Should police respond to situations such as mental health crises, situations that might arise due to poverty such as homelessness, or domestic disturbances, things like this?

CJ: Police certainly play a role in our public safety infrastructure overall, but police are not the be-all end-all. And [inaudible] police officers, and I do pretty routinely in my job, not just as mayor, but even previously as City Council President and Alderman, they’ll be the first ones to tell you that they can’t do it alone. So no, I don’t think it’s necessary for a police officer to respond to every incident, especially if it’s a mental health-related one. That’s why I was happy to support, and lead the charge on making sure funding was available to expand the CART program, the Crisis Assessment Response Teams, so that we have resources and individuals with the skills and expertise to go out and address the situation, because not every situation that arises requires somebody with a badge and a gun. Sometimes you need somebody that has the ability to take a different approach.

RC: In terms of police training, obviously you’re not running for police commissioner, but police training has been reported as lacking, and in many cases, I believe in Wisconsin – I know we’re talking about Milwaukee – but in Wisconsin there’s no required field training according to [The Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform], and in some cases there’s less police training than there is to be, I believe, a cosmetologist. Also there is [reported] lack of diversity training, sometimes they’re just shown a Hollywood film – what are your thoughts on that?

CJ: Certainly there have been issues, not just here, but nationally, as it relates to policing. But I was also happy to work, myself, and with members of the Common Council to push the Fire and Police Commission to adopt a series of reforms to the police. As I said, they’re a critical part of our public safety infrastructure, but that doesn’t mean that they’re without issue. And so reform of the department is I think crucial as well, and something that I’ve led on. As a matter of fact, right now, due to my efforts, the Police Department, via the Fire and Police Commission’s action, has a new standard operating procedure that requires them to follow these eight rules – it’s called 8 Can’t Wait – it was a national campaign that when each of these initiatives are adopted, it reduces the likelihood that someone ends up dying when they come into contact with a police officer. So there’s that. I also supported crisis intervention training for every single police officer in the wake of the killing of Dontre Hamilton back in 2014. So, there’s that. I also supported other initiatives as well, that were supported by, or sponsored by other members of the Common Council at the time, to have the Fire and Police Commission to take up, such as requiring police to report when they draw their weapon, even if they don’t fire a shot. Another area that we touched was cultural competency training for police, and it’s something that I led on, and the Fire and Police Commission adopted as well. And you’re right about the diversity of the force. This is a majority minority city – 65% people of color in Milwaukee, and I would like for Police Department to reflect that. And it’s my hope that over time, we’ll be able to continue to move the needle on that, and I think we will move the needle on that so that we have better representation from people who have lived in the city, have the connections with folks that live in the neighborhoods, and preferably people who actually live presently in the City of Milwaukee as well. Because I think that the lifting of the residency rule that the state government did years ago was the wrong move, it was bad, and it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. I think it sets us up and puts us in a position where you have individuals who have been accustomed, who have been acclimated to be fearful of Milwaukee and the people in it, to come to this area – not even live in the city, not even have any real connection with it – get a badge and a gun, and police those neighborhoods that they’d been accustomed to be afraid of. And I don’t think that’s right. So I also led in pushing the Fire and Police Commission to redouble its efforts to recruit for its services people who actually live in the City of Milwaukee too. So, all of these issues are important, all of these issues I’ve led on, and will continue to lead on as Mayor as well.

RC: Electrical fires. I’m guessing you saw the Journal Sentinel’s investigation into this. [Two] of the things mentioned in their pieces are the [option of] reinstating an inspection program for residences, and the Fire Department hiring an engineer to determine the causes of the fires. Are those things that you would support or push for?

CJ: Electrical fires are issues of grave importance in Milwaukee, especially because when you consider how when these incidents happen, how they affect the lives of folks that live in these rental units, especially. And most of those folks unfortunately are people who live in depressed neighborhoods, and people of color, who are affected by them and live in houses where they’re most susceptible to electrical fires, and become the people that suffer the consequences – whether they lose their home, whether they have some time where they’re not able to enjoy their home, or whether they become hospitalized or die. And so I’ve been working with and support the efforts of our Department of Neighborhood Services, as well as the Milwaukee Fire Department to work to make sure that we’re providing educational opportunities to the residents here in the City of Milwaukee. It’s currently happening right now – it’s a safe home program whereby these departments are going out into neighborhoods across the city to educate renters especially, on their rights as renters in order to make sure that they can hold landlords accountable when incidents like this arise, or to stop them in the first place, so they can know the signs of the potential of having electrical fires out there. So our Department of Neighborhood Services, as well as the Fire Department, I think, are doing a good job leading that effort, but there’s a lot of work to do, because this is a longstanding issue that I think that many people in Milwaukee care about, and that many people also have to be educated on. So I will be continuing to support those efforts as we move forward in the future here.

RC: Last question. A lot of the things that a reporter like me would like to ask about cost money, and everyone is aware of the budget crunch, but global warming is not something that I’ve seen [much] in the other interviews, and there are things that cities can do..whether there’s funding for things at the moment, I’m not sure, I know there are federal funds coming..but..not to anticipate a response but you might point to the streetcar, in terms of mass transport that’s more efficient, but there are other things that cities can do, such as reducing impermeable surfaces and weatherizing buildings. Are there other proposals you have for that?

CJ: Yeah, absolutely, and that’s a topic, when you mention mass transit, and where the city can be involved in that, in a way to address, this. That’s become a topic of conversation in the race for mayor here, and my desire to increase opportunities for mass transportation, and for folks to step out of their cars, and utilize things like the streetcar, as well as the Milwaukee County Transit System, whereas my opponent, Bob Donovan, is not there. I’ve talked repeatedly about wanting to be the urbanist candidate in the race for mayor, and having smart, people-centered development that encourages people to get out of their cars and to be pedestrians, to use electric scooters, to use bicycles, to transport themselves in their neighborhoods and across the city. That’s the sort of future that I want for Milwaukee. I’ve talked at length about working to make sure that we have those things available, and having a Department of Public Works that can help us realize that future. I served in the past as a commissioner on the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, and I have supported efforts throughout the Sewerage District area, which encompasses the entire city, to do just that in terms of reducing these hardened areas so that we can capture more rain where it falls – whether it’s an impermeable surface, or the installation of bioswales, or working with our partners at Milwaukee County Parks to make sure we have the infrastructure necessary to capture rainwater or reduce flooding. So I’m in favor of these things, I have three kids that my wife and I are raising in Milwaukee today, and I want for them to be able to inherit a city that is livable – not just in terms of access to family-supporting jobs and stability and safety in neighborhoods, but also in terms of the climate as well. So these things are certainly top-of-mind for me and I certainly think that’s part of the reason why I recently received the endorsement of the Sierra Club in my campaign for mayor.

RC: Anything else you’d like to add?

CJ: I certainly appreciate having the opportunity to come on and the conversation here and I’m hopeful that folks down in Riverwest will entrust me with their vote on Tuesday, April 5th!