Milwaukee mayorship candidate crowd narrows following filing deadline; at least 6 in the running

Following Tuesday’s filing deadline, at least six candidates are still in the race to become Milwaukee’s mayor.

Milwaukee’s Common Council called the election late last month following longtime Mayor Tom Barrett’s resignation. It’s the city’s first mayoral election without an incumbent since 2004.

Candidates still in the running include acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson; state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee; Common Council Alder Marina Dimitrijevic; Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas; former Milwaukee Alder Robert Donovan; and Swarmm Events founder Michael Sampson.

As of 5:20 p.m. Tuesday evening, according to an election commission spreadsheet, City Attorney Tearman Spencer, businessman Joel Paplham, Wenona Gardner and activist and former Common Council candidate Nicholas McVey were listed as not having filed their nomination papers, while Sheila Conley-Patterson was listed as having an insufficient number of signatures. Former State Assembly candidate Ieshuh Griffin’s nomination papers were marked as “insufficient for ballot placement.”

“Anytime there’s a seat that opens up, you have lots of people who are politically ambitious and they’ve been either waiting for an open seat to come about or they have thought, could they mount a challenge to an incumbent mayor?” said Kathleen Dolan, a distinguished professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “There’s clearly a lot of interest, both from sort of typical politician candidates, and then also from a good number of people in the community.”

Campaigns have been filing with the city’s election commission since mere days after the August announcement of Barrett’s nomination as the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. Johnson registered his campaign on Aug. 27. The field continued to grow since then.

“This will be, I think, an important sort of race for making some declaration, maybe, about the future of Milwaukee and about Milwaukee sort of continuing to evolve,” said Dolan.  

Taylor had submitted a bid for the lieutenant governor’s race, but retracted in December. A few days later, she announced she’d be filing for the Milwaukee mayoral race.

Candidates require a minimum of 1,500 elector signatures on their nomination papers to be eligible for ballot placement. Candidates are also required to submit a statement of economic interests by Friday afternoon.

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Dolan said she expected while each candidate’s campaign will have its own focus, inequality will be a significant theme of the race.

“People were largely complimentary of Mayor Barrett’s administration,” said Dolan. “I think if there was a weakness, people pointed to the fact that development downtown was robust and real estate issues were attended to and commercial and business interests, and that certainly efforts were made to help people who are struggling in the city, but that perhaps not a lot of progress was made or as much progress as some people might have wanted to see.”

Dolan pointed out the city’s history as one of the most segregated in the country. A Brookings Institute report released in 2018 placed Milwaukee at the top of a list of cities with the highest Black-white segregation between 2013 and 2017.

Dolan said it would be “huge” if the election resulted in Milwaukee’s first elected Black governor. Both of the Black mayors in the city’s history, including current acting Mayor Johnson, served as acting mayors after the resignation of another mayor.

“It would be an enormous step forward, I think, for the city and an enormous boon,” said Dolan. “I think there are lots of people in the city, all over the city, who probably feel strongly that it’s time for somebody from the Black community to lead the city.”

She said a woman ending up with the mayorship would also be significant. 

“In my time living in Milwaukee, I’ve always been quite taken by the small number of women who serve on the Common Council or who serve on the County Board,” said Dolan. “That is another evolution that needs to continue to take place, but I think in this mayoral campaign, we’ll probably hear more about issues around race than around gender.”

The primary is scheduled for Feb. 15. The top two candidates will advance to the special election on April 5, coinciding with other city elections being held that day. The winner will serve out the last two years of Barrett’s term.