By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
For the first time in nearly 18 years, the City of Milwaukee is getting a new mayor. Many have thrown their hat into the ring, but only one will be elected mayor. Said winner will fill out the rest of former Mayor Tom Barrett’s term, which is set to end in 2024.
The spring primary election is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 15.
Earlier this week, local organizations such as Milwaukee Turners, Rid Racism Milwaukee and more, hosted a virtual mayoral forum.
The candidates in attendance included Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson, Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic, former Ald. Bob Donovan, Sheriff Earnell Lucas, Michael Sampson and Sen. Lena Taylor.
The candidates were asked six questions related to voting rights, Milwaukee’s fiscal health, housing access, incarceration and police, lead poisoning and accessibility barriers. Emilio De Torre moderated the panel.
De Torre asked panelists what they will do to ensure that Wisconsin’s elections are accessible to all eligible voters especially those who have been disenfranchised such as people of color and people with disabilities.
Many of the candidates agreed that work needs to be done to protect voters’ rights.
“I think the right to vote is sacred,” Johnson said. “We’ve had so many people in our country who have fought and died not just for people who look like me but for people throughout our country to have the right to vote.”
Johnson noted that he has defended commissioners on the Election Commission when they were attacked for allowing seniors to vote early in Racine, advocated for funding for personal protective equipment for election workers and called for a midnight meeting to protect the city’s early voting site locations.
As mayor, Johnson said he would work to expand early voting sites and make it easier for everyone’s voice to be counted and for everyone to participate.
Lucas stressed the importance of making sure that everyone has access to voting from those with disabilities to individuals who are pre-trial detainees. Taylor noted that she believes voting on Sunday should happen and that the Milwaukee Center for Independence could be used as a polling place for individuals with disabilities.
Dimitrijevic said she would use every opportunity and resource to expand voter turnout.
“You will see an increase in Milwaukee voter turnout in 2022 and in 2024 under Marina’s Milwaukee,” she said.
When answering the questions Dimitrijevic spoke about the need to challenge the status quo. What was considered normal wasn’t working, she said.
When asked what the candidates will do to ensure that all Milwaukee residents have access to respectful and discrimination free policing and mental health responses, Dimitrijevic said that the Fire and Police Commission is the biggest opportunity to make changes. They are citizens who want to make reforms, she said.
“As mayor I’ll appoint people from the community that look and feel like they’re from our community,” she said. “It’s transparent and they’re accountable to our community and they’re willing to make change.”
She continued, “The system needs to be reimagined. People deserve to feel safe in every part of the city, no matter where you live, in your car, in your house and on the streets.”
In another question, De Torre asked panelists to share their vision for Milwaukee’s fiscal health. Several of the candidates such as Taylor and Sampson spoke about innovative approaches to address the situation.
The city’s budget challenges are huge, and its pension is an issue, Taylor said. As mayor, she would think outside of the box to address and handle the problem. Some of her ideas include starting new industries such as urban agriculture and finding ways to be more efficient with the city’s budget.
“What we cannot do is just do Band-Aid fixes like the oppressive sales tax kind of concept,” she said.
Sampson likewise spoke about ways to be more efficient with the city’s budget. One suggestion he had was to work with surrounding cities and neighborhoods to see if they can work together in new ways such as combining the fire and police departments to form one call service.
Donovan said that past elected officials and administrations kicked the can down the road, but now the bill has come due.
“It’s critical that the next mayor be able to work in partnership with the State of Wisconsin,” he said. “I believe that I can do that.”
In another question, De Torre asked candidates how they would increase access to housing and support housing first efforts in conjunction with Milwaukee County. Lucas and
Johnson discussed past efforts to provide affordable housing to low-income individuals and individuals with disabilities.
Lucas said that during his time with Grand Avenue Club, the group worked with a developer to provide affordable and accessible housing to individuals with mental health issues.
“As mayor, I would work with developers here in the City of Milwaukee to provide affordable housing all throughout the City of Milwaukee so that we can provide opportunities for individuals to move into affordable homes,” Lucas said.
He said the next phase would be to move individuals from occupancy to homeownership.
Johnson spoke of the city’s current efforts to increase affordable housing and homeownership. These efforts include using American Rescue Plan Act dollars to fix up houses owned by the city and then selling them at an affordable rate. He acknowledged that the city is on the right path but more needs to be done.
For example, Johnson would like to use TIF district that close out and invest those dollars in opportunities to help homeownership.
“What Sen. Taylor said is right,” Johnson said. “When folks have access to homeownership, it builds pride, and it builds dignity in our neighborhoods. If we can do that more, then we can tackle so many other things around public safety.”
When asked about lead poisoning, all the candidates agreed that the city needs to do better at tackling the problem. The issue has long existed, even if elected officials weren’t always aware of it.
Taylor discussed taking this opportunity to create jobs while addressing the issues. And Dimitrijevic stressed that there is no safe level of lead.
On the topic of accessibility, the candidates agreed that more needs to be done to make the city accessible for everyone not just able-bodied individuals. Several talked about the importance of listening to individuals and ensuring that everyone has access to the same opportunities, events and so on.
As the candidates prepare for the upcoming election, Milwaukee residents are likewise encouraged to do their parts. That includes registering to vote, being informed about candidates and knowing where to vote. All this information can be found on myvote.wi.gov.
The full forum can be found on the Milwaukee Turners Facebook page at Milwaukee Turners at Turner Hall or visit https://www.facebook.com/139747107004/videos/1300579443780006. The video contains each of the candidates’ full responses, introductions and closing remarks.