Cavalier Johnson for Governor?

A couple of weeks ago Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson appeared at a joint news conference with Republican Speaker Robin Vos to announce their agreement on language for a new sales tax for the city. Yesterday details of that agreement came out.

The deal, which will be part of the state budget, would allow Milwaukee to levy a 2% local sales tax, making it the only city in the state with that power, and Milwaukee County could levy an 8.75% sales tax, higher than the 5% allowed in every other county.

But these provisions come with more strings than a bull of spaghetti. For one thing each tax would have to be approved by local voters in a referendum. Then the money could only be used to fund the city and county retirement systems for their employees. (That in itself could set up a problem — do you want to vote to tax yourself to pay for somebody else’s comfortable retirement?)

Vos and Johnson at their joint press conference.

Then there are a myriad of other restrictions on local budgets in Milwaukee, going beyond the use of the new sales tax revenues — no cuts in police or fire service, restrictions on the power of the local Police and Fire Commission, requiring the Milwaukee schools to maintain cops in high schools (never mind that the schools don’t get any of the sales tax revenues), and a bunch more nitpicking. One especially curious provision would prevent Milwaukee from using tax incremental financing to build street car extensions with the exception of a lake front line. That suggests pretty strongly that Johnson wants to build that line and that he negotiated that exception.

Apparently, Johnson agreed to this stuff because his comment in this morning’s paper was, “The public needs to understand, we either accept what’s on the table, or we watch the city of Milwaukee go bankrupt, and that’s not something that I think most of us are willing to do.”

That’s bold and that’s leadership. Johnson negotiated with Vos and gave up a lot to get a lot. The sales tax could bring $120 million a year to his city coffers and increases in shared revenues would add about $22 million more. And, while it’s true that he needs to accept all kinds of affronts to local control, there are always ways to move money around. As a mayor I’d take another $142 million from the state and accept the restrictions, knowing that more money gives me more options. Money is like water in that it has a way of flowing around barriers.

Then, of course, Johnson knows that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers will probably be able to use his line item veto authority to leave the sales tax while stripping out most of the limitations.

But, speaking of Evers, there was another curious thing in this morning’s story. Evers said he had not spoken with Johnson or Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley in quite some time. How is this possible? Johnson and Crowley were carrying on negotiations with Vos and keeping their own governor out of the loop? Maybe that was Vos’ condition for the talks. We don’t know, but it’s odd to say the least.

What’s important here is that Johnson saw a problem and an opportunity. He identified where the power to solve his problem was located and he went there. He horse traded, no doubt swallowing hard at Vos’ price, but he came to an agreement. This is the way the process should work and it shows that progress can be made even with Republicans, hostile to cities in general and to Milwaukee in particular, when you have the will and the skill.

Johnson wants his city to have a million residents. It’s an audacious goal for a city that is at a little more than half that number and is losing residents. But whether or not he ever gets there, it’s that kind of goal that energizes a city.

At only 36, Johnson is already showing himself to be the kind of pol that combines big visions with the ability to work behind the scenes to make gritty deals. You don’t think a Black guy can get elected statewide? Barack Obama won here twice and easily both times. Mandela Barnes, despite lots of self-inflicted wounds, lost to the other Johnson (Ron, no relation) by only about 20,000 votes. Assuming Evers won’t run again in 2026, keep your eye on Cavalier Johnson.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

7 thoughts on “Cavalier Johnson for Governor?

  1. I’ll keep an eye on Cavalier Johnson but it seems like the ’26 Democratic gubernatorial nomination is Josh Kaul’s to lose.


  2. Why does it appear that Tony Evers doesn’t regularly meet with other legislative and other elected leaders in Wisconsin? It seems to me thst this is a basic role for any elected official and especially for the Governor. What am I missing?


  3. A City of MKE leader has a steep hill to climb to be Governor.

    Tom Barrett tried to be Governor – TWICE and failed after being encouraged that he could win state wide each time. I know because I was there. His tenure in MKE ended to be charitable on a quiet note. Heck, Jim Doyle beat him with support from then powerful WEAC.

    Living in the MKE metro area gives one a wee bit different viewpoint of Mayor Johnson.

    Not much is getting done as it is on hold as the Mayor claims he’s waiting for more state funding. A number of well delivered speeches and outrage at the crime, but not much different coming from the City Council.

    The COVID funds have been burned through without addressing the pension liability. That could have been a little leadership there – using even a portion of the one time funding to pay down a debt rather than plug a budget that continues to rupture inadequacy and takes care of his allies.

    I would say Josh Kaul, Tom Nelson, or Rodriguez stands a better chance three long years out from the next election. Long shot, keep an eye on Corey Mason, mayor of Racine.

    There are whispers the Mayor may take an appointment in DC with a second term from Biden. Not a bad move if I do say so myself.

    Finally, lets choose optimism and see what Mayor Johnson does with the added funds for the City of MKE; with any restrictions or rules added that get by the coveted veto authority of the Governor.

    Action not word make for a real leader.


    1. All fair points. What impressed me about Johnson was his willingness and ability to work with Vos, to swim upstream when he needed to. Few Democrats are able to get much of anything done in this environment, but Johnson has apparently found a way to get $140 million a year infused into his city’s budget. That suggests some significant political skill. I like all of the other potential candidates you mention, but I don’t think any of them have pulled off anything like this.


    2. Tom Nelson will never win a statewide office. He’s charmless and has the same ideological baggage that doomed Barnes. Johnson and Mason are very attractive outside options.


  4. I’m a week late commenting on this. Some years ago Wisconsin clawed back the sales tax that had been accruing to cities. Milwaukee lost $80 million dollars. (This data is readily available.) The city has never been the same since. Why on earth does Wisconsin need both an income tax and a sales tax? Simply leave the sales tax with local communities. Municipal governments pick up the garbage and patch the streets. Money well spent in my opinion. Let’s start with the basics. A real conservative should favor avoiding a tax increase and increasing local control and accountability. Maybe we could suggest that approach to Speaker Robin Vos. As a statewide leader he should be interested in the wellbeing of cities like Milwaukee and Racine.


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