Cavalier Johnson paused to choke back tears before expressing gratitude to supporters during his inaugural speech as Milwaukee’s first African American elected as mayor. At just 35, he is responsible for leading the state’s largest city, pledging to fight rising crime, increase public safety and create a prosperous city for all.
“Today we open a new chapter in Milwaukee’s history,” Johnson beamed, shortly after taking his oath of office at the Harley Davidson Museum in April. “We open it with appreciation. Appreciation of the significance of this moment. It’s a generational transition in Milwaukee. And, it’s a departure from our city’s long custom of deriving executive leadership from only men of European background. We’re a diverse city and I embrace that diversity.”
A product of the Milwaukee Public Schools, the newly elected mayor has been involved in Milwaukee community initiatives from a young age. Congresswoman Gwen Moore can attest to that fact. As a teen, he looked Moore in the eye during a political event and forecasted his future in politics.
“He declared to me then, that he was going to be the mayor of Milwaukee,” Moore recalled. “He was just 17. … Milwaukee is so very proud to have elected someone who, like a phoenix, rose from the ashes of the 53206.”
Johnson grew up in Milwaukee’s 53206 neighborhood that is infamously known as America’s most incarcerated Zip code. Blanketed with concentrated poverty, pervasive joblessness and plunging incomes, few Black men live long enough to see adulthood or escape hard times. Johnson is an inspiring exception.
Johnson grew up as one of 10 siblings. His father worked as a janitor for the Milwaukee Public School District and his mother as a certified nursing assistant. Johnson, who’s been described as a respectful man with quiet confidence, won the mayor’s race capturing nearly three-quarters of the votes. His priorities in office include rebuilding a city plagued by shootings, addressing employment disparities and stopping rampant reckless driving.
“I strongly believe the most important ingredient needed for neighborhood stability, safety and hope is a strong economy,” Johnson said during the historic swearing-in event. “That means good jobs, and good pay and increased opportunity. I want fewer evictions and I want more homeownership in Milwaukee. In this city, I want less hunger and more hope.”
Johnson, now a husband and father of three, graduated from Bay View High School in 2005. He then received a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Elected to the Milwaukee Common Council in 2016, he became council president in 2018 and then acting mayor in 2021 following Mayor Tom Barrett’s appointment as ambassador to Luxembourg.
He also worked in the Milwaukee mayor’s office prior to serving as alderman, and he has served on the boards of the Milwaukee YMCA, ACLU-Wisconsin, and the Milwaukee Community Brainstorming Conference, according to his campaign website.
Hundreds were on hand to witness history during Johnson’s swearing-in ceremony ̶ Milwaukee’s first new mayor in 18 years. Those included U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, Gov. Tony Evers, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, and Johnson’s second grade teacher Carolyn Neumann. The Invocation was given by Bishop Sedgwick Daniels of Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God In Christ. The mayor’s son led the Pledge of Allegiance and Johnson’s wife, Dominique, shared some loving remarks.
“This is a pivotal and defining moment for this city as it reflects all what Milwaukee has overcome,” Evers said. “Being elected the youngest mayor of Milwaukee in 80 years reflects a new generation of leadership. This victory is also a story of the future of Milwaukee yet to become. For the first time in 176 years, kids across the city of Milwaukee will look at its leaders and see someone that looks like them, and that matters folks.”
Here are scenes from the inauguration of Milwaukee’s 45th mayor through the lens of photographer Kim A. Robinson.
life-long Milwaukee resident, husband, and father working towards a stronger, safer, and more prosperous city for all.