Milwaukee mayoral race: Johnson, Donovan debate streetcar, police funding

For the first time in 18 years, Milwaukee will pick a new mayor. Mayoral candidates Cavalier Johnson and Bob Donovan participated in a debate on Monday, March 14 at the Italian Community Center, focusing on a broad range of challenges facing the city, including the future of the streetcar.

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Johnson said he supports the streetcar expanding to the north side, up to MLK, and then down to the south side. Donovan has long been a critic of the streetcar and said it's up to the people to decide if it should expand.

"My cardiologist advised me not to discuss the streetcar," said Donovan to laughter.

The Hop streetcar in Milwaukee

He said if it is to expand, the people should approve that in a referendum.

"The ridership is just not there," said Donovan. "We haven’t even begun to charge people to ride, so we have an obligation to respect the taxpayer and if Alderman Johnson wants to move this streetcar all over town, just how does he intend on paying for it when Milwaukee is faced with so many other monumental challenges?"

Johnson is hoping The Hop will help attract people to the city.

"If we want to grow, if we want to have amenities that are attractive for the next generation of worker, people like me, young, educated millennials that want to come to the city and lay down roots, to start a family, to start a business, then we have to be able to compete," said Johnson. "I have a desire to grow the city. I want to see more population. I want to see more business. I want to see more development, and the streetcar is an economic development tool that will help us to get there."

Right now, the two-mile loop goes from the Third Ward to the east side.

The candidates also discussed other issues, including the impending financial cliff with the city's pension program.

Johnson said he'd back moving new employees to a different program.

"Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee are the only two governmental entities in the state of Wisconsin that have their own pension systems. There’s a problem with that," Johnson said. "Yes, I would work with the state to transition new employees over to the Wisconsin retirement system, then have a slow close of the city of Milwaukee’s pension system."

Both agreed working with Republicans in the state legislature is important in helping the city's finances.

"I believe I have those connections in Madison, with the members of the legislature, that can pull that partnership off," said Donovan. "Those things are needed in the next mayor: to work with the Republicans in the legislature."

"Alderman Donovan had been in office for 20 years and the problems we’ve had financially in the city have been going on for roughly that same amount of time due to loss of shared revenue," said Johnson. "If there are relationships in Madison that can be utilized to help fix the situation, I would have hoped that before we got to this dire point in our city’s history, those opportunities for those relationships would have been explored."

"Anyone who compares the authority and the clout of one single alderman against the authority and clout of the mayor doesn’t understand local government," countered Donovan.

The two served together on the Milwaukee Common Council, and criticized the others votes on the city's budget.

"Milwaukee is faced with a public safety crisis and we cannot expect our police department to adequately address those problems without the appropriate level of manpower," started Donovan. "My opponent has, every year he’s been an alderman, voted to cut police manpower."

"For the four years that we overlapped on the council, he voted no on the police budget. Four years," countered Johnson. "So if you’re not funding the department, then you’re effectively defunding the department.  So, Bob, you voted to defund the police."

"Cavalier is trying to paint me as anti-cop. That’s a good one," the former alderman said. "I voted against the overall budgets because they cut the police manpower. Our police currently can’t keep up with the calls for help coming from our constituents."

The two also disagreed about funding for the city's office of violence prevention.

"I am wholeheartedly supportive of preventing violence. I am not convinced, however, that we need to fund agencies that can’t prove to us how successful they’ve been in the accomplishment of their mission," Donovan said.

"I wholeheartedly support the office of violence prevention and I think there’s great value added to it.," said Johnson. "Just because you’re not able to put down everyone’s name that you had an interaction with, quantify it that way, that doesn’t mean it’s not effective. Certainly it is."

On COVID-19, the two also disagreed.

"Over the last two years, people’s trust in government has been challenged has diminished. People’s trust in public health has diminished, because of so many of the mixed signals. We were hearing from the so-called experts on this pandemic," said Donovan. "That is an issue that concerns me as a possible mayor of the city."

"I wouldn’t call the experts on COVID-19, the professionals who day in, day out over the course of this pandemic busting their butts to make sure all of us are safe. ‘so called professionals," responded Johnson. "These are the folks who guided us to where we are now." 

Monday's debate was hosted by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, Greater Milwaukee Committee and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

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