LifestyleBlack History Month


From humble beginnings to high-profile jobs, Milwaukee natives Barnes, Crowley, and Johnson share their stories

Posted at 6:35 AM, Feb 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-15 07:41:15-05

They are young, ambitious, and sit in powerful political positions.

As part of TMJ4's Black History, Charles Benson had the rare opportunity to sit-down with Common Council President Cavalier Johnson, County Executive David Crowley, and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes to talk about their journey from humble beginnings to high profile jobs.

Benson: How many knew they were going to be in public life as a kid?
Lt Gov. Barnes: Chevy's been running since Kindergarten (laughs)

All three agreed to sit down for a conversation at the Milwaukee Black Historical Society and Museum.

All three share more than just a few laughs and a flair for fashion, their walk into public life has several shared experiences.

Cavalier Johnson, David Crowley, and Mandela Barnes are all MPS graduates. Born and raised in Milwaukee, including living at times in the city's 53206 zip code, known for the highest incarceration rate of Black men in the country.

Oh, and they were all born in the same year. They're just 34 years old.

Benson: What challenges did you overcome and did you think people would not see you as a leader and politician
Crowley: I think just being young and a person of color in the most segregated places in the country is a challenge within itself.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley is the first elected African American to run the county.

He was drawn to politics and policy issues during a life-changing moment as a teenager.

"It was really introduced to me as a young person, a junior in high school when I was recruited to be part of Urban Underground," said Crowley. "Which literally saved my life. It introduced me to outside of the norm - taken me outside of my comfort zone, taking me outside the city and the state to learn best practices."

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes broke barriers when he became the first to win his job at the state capitol, something that didn't seem possible when he was a young boy.

"Having lost friends to gun violence, having lost friends and family members to the criminal justice systems, to addiction, this is the reality, " said Lt Gov. Barnes and it's oftentimes the things that will prohibit or prevent someone from ever considering a life of public service."

Common Council President Cavalier Johnson, nicknamed Chevy, had similar life-changing moments.

"I remember being in fourth grade and sitting on the porch, at the time we lived on 21st Street between just south of Clark and thinking to myself, 'Man, I want better for myself and my family than what I see around me,'" said President Johnson.

All three will tell you their success did not come without setbacks.

"There are a number of things," said Johnson. "Including before becoming president and alderman, even running for office and losing a couple of times. Mandela would know because he was my campaign manager in my first election. I'm not blaming it on him, but he was there."

Crowley also lost his first election.

"When I lost it was a gut check," said Crowley. "But 30 days later, I ended up announcing I was running for state representative and won that seat in a three-way primary with over 55% of the vote, and that helped reignite that fire within me."

With success, all feel the responsibility of paying it forward.

Benson: You are the mentors now - people look to you - do you feel that responsibility?
Barnes: Oh absolutely- absolutely feel a sense of responsibility. Because there are so many kids that grew up in neighborhoods like ours - who have never seen a person who looked like them or shared their experiences having a chance of being in the highest positions.

Before running for office, they found themselves competing for the same job but these days they see each other as allies and good friends.

"I want them both to know I got their back," said Crowley.

"Is that on the record," joked Barnes.

"I think all of us can agree that there have been times in our lives where we were either the youngest person in the room, we were the only Black person in the room or the only person from the inner city in the room," said Johnson. "And we constantly had to go in and prove ourselves every single time."

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