On Tuesday, April 5, acting mayor Cavalier Johnson will become Milwaukee’s next elected mayor. Turnout in the election will be low. Johnson’s opponent, former alderman Bob Donovan, will lose in a 75%-25% blowout. Johnson will celebrate. Donovan will make his concession speech at McKiernan’s Irish Pub and move back to Greenfield. The end.
It shouldn’t be this boring, this easy to predict. But it’s all there: “Mayoral Race Will Likely Have Low Turnout” reads one headline. “Bob Donovan says he would probably move back to Greenfield if he loses the Milwaukee mayoral race” reads another. Over at The Recombobulation Area, Dan Shafer notes that “Donovan won the support of the roughly 20%-25% of the city that votes Republican [in the February primary], but there’s little expectation he’ll make it a close contest on April 5.”
There was a brief moment when it wasn’t this boring, this easy to predict. Last summer, when news broke that President Joe Biden would gift longtime Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett with the super-chill retirement position of U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg, the field for Milwaukee’s next mayor (to finish the two years left in Barrett’s term) was wide open. This was a once-in-a-generation event, we were told, the first time the name “Tom Barrett” wouldn’t be on ballots in nearly two decades. Milwaukee’s next mayor could be anyone! It could be you!
The excitement didn’t last long. A few rushed months later, the field was mowed down to seven primary candidates. Debates were held and the media did its thing, but the outcome seemed inevitable. “Johnson is favored by 41% of the 673 respondents, followed by Donovan (24%),” Urban Milwaukee said of a January poll. The final primary results? Johnson: 41.79%. Donovan: 22.28%. Third-place primary candidate Lena Taylor took home only 12.77% of the 61,634 votes cast.
And now we’re faced with an even more inevitable outcome, a likely repeat of the 2016 mayoral race where Donovan lost to Barrett 70%-30%. “Since the primary,” Shafer writes, “the enthusiasm for the race has all but evaporated. The mayoral forum at Turner Hall Ballroom held before the primary was in front of a packed house; the ‘Tussle at Turner’ between Johnson and Donovan drew far fewer attendees. Debates held over the last couple weeks have not attracted much attention. […] The campaign feels like it’s sputtering to the finish line.”
Part of the problem is with the candidates themselves. Johnson is the obvious left-leaning Democrat, and Donovan is the obvious right-leaning Republican, yet neither are that far-leaning to inspire much passion. Sure, Donovan palls around with David Clarke and buys into conspiracy-theory B.S. about drop boxes, but he’s always struck me as little more than a tired blowhard whose core supporters come from the ever-dwindling “loud on Facebook” crowd. Johnson, meanwhile, is a self-described “proud urbanist” who wants to transform Milwaukee and rehab its relationship with the Republican-controlled legislature in Madison. (Good luck!) And yet his mayoral campaign has been mostly muted and safe. He clearly knows it’s his election to lose. In recent debates—and there have been a ton of them—both candidates have seemed resigned to their respective fates.
So what to do? How to get excited for this less-than-exciting but still wildly important race? The answer is simple:
That’s it. Vote. Burnt out by the media calling this thing before it even begins? Who cares. Vote anyway. Not particularly inspired by either candidate? Welcome to planet Earth. Vote anyway. You can vote early. You can vote on April 5. If you’re able to vote, you can vote. So vote. (There may be a Milwaukee County Board race on your ballot, too.)
Only 22% of registered Milwaukee voters bothered to vote in the February primary. Twenty-two percent. To quote a great Milwaukeean, that’s senseless, man. But what about the upcoming April 5 election? Surely general mayoral elections brim over with voters, right? Well, over at The Recombobulation Area, Phil Rocco tells us that “in the last two decades, [Milwaukee] mayoral turnout crested 40% only twice.” (That would be in 2004 and 2016.) He goes on:
The real power players in the new Milwaukee are not working-class organizations but the real-estate developers whose PR shops promise that prosperity is yet another highrise away, the nonprofits whose program officers promise that a safer, cleaner, and more equitable Milwaukee can be accomplished with pilot programs rather than politics. This is a managed democracy—in which governing institutions, run by a small number of professionals, are legitimated by elections sanitized of conflict and participation.
Is that what we want to do with our lives? Suck down peppermint schnapps, let PR firms control the city, and not vote?
We can do better than that. The prospect of doing better than that is the thing that’s keeping me excited. “More voters, more problems,” is how Rocco sums up his piece. Let’s put that to the test on April 5. Let’s put that to the test every single time.
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