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Meet 2022 Forward Award Recipient Cavalier (Chevy) Johnson ’09

As the leader of the state’s largest and most diverse city, Johnson is on a quest to see that Milwaukee’s success is infused with the Wisconsin Idea.

Cavalier Johnson ’09

Photo by Pat A. Robinson for the City of Milwaukee

Milwaukee, Wisconsin
City of Milwaukee
UW Major:
Political Science

At UW–Madison, his classmates knew him by his nickname, Chevy.

Today, Cavalier Johnson is back home in Milwaukee, where he’s best known as mayor.

As the leader of the state’s largest and most diverse city, Johnson is on a quest to see that Milwaukee’s success is infused with the Wisconsin Idea.

“I recognize, and I think my fellow Badgers do as well, that when Milwaukee does well, then the region does well,” Johnson says.

After winning office in April 2022 by a two-to-one margin, Johnson is focused on economic development and public safety, including reducing reckless driving and gun violence.

At the same time, Johnson is a booster for Milwaukee’s many upsides: famous food and beverages, a world-renowned lakefront, and do we hear a Bucks in Six?

“We’re a city that loves to celebrate,” Johnson recently said.

Many across Wisconsin celebrated Johnson’s historic election. He’s the first African American elected mayor of Milwaukee since the city was founded in 1846. He’s also the second African American elected mayor in all of Wisconsin.

In just six years, Johnson has served as alderman, Common Council president, acting mayor, and now, at age 35, he’s Milwaukee’s first millennial leader.

Johnson grew up in some of Milwaukee’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, witnessing segregation, disinvestment, violence and poverty, he says. He credits a YMCA youth program for his interest in public service and inspiring him to become the first in his family to attend college. It was a chance to follow his father’s advice: Get off the block.

“Part of that story is going to UW–Madison,” Johnson says. “It put me in a position to know that the things that are happening in my little corner of North Avenue don’t necessarily have to be. I wanted to come back to work, to serve my community.”

As a first-generation college student, Johnson says he initially found UW–Madison a difficult place to find friends and navigate academia. So he leaned on his mother’s advice: Never give up.

“It felt like there were like 40,000 people in one bubble, and there was me in my own, other bubble,” Johnson says. “This is a challenge I think that other young people of color experience when they’re the first in their family to do this. But I told myself that I needed to stay — this was my school.”

Service became a hallmark of his college experience. For all four years, Johnson lived at a residence hall near campus, supporting fellow students in his work as a resident director. He spent his first spring break in New Orleans with fellow College Democrats, helping people recover from Hurricane Katrina. He later worked with at-risk youth while studying abroad in London.

As part of Students for Barack Obama, Johnson recalls hopping on a bus to Iowa, knocking on doors to seek support for then–U.S. Senator Obama’s presidential campaign. And when Obama visited Madison during his first presidential run, Johnson was on the floor of the Kohl Center, helping people find their seats.

“A lot of good things in Madison helped to open my eyes in terms of my continued desire to serve, including in elected office,” Johnson says.

Now as Milwaukee’s mayor, Johnson says he’s a champion for positive change in his cherished city.

“This city is a place that really gets its hooks in you,” Johnson says. “Folks have a true, genuine love for Milwaukee. This is my home.”

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