Cavalier Johnson is the first Black elected mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Located on the shore of Lake Michigan about 90 miles north of Chicago, “Brew City” is a Midwestern prototype, known for fish fry and cheese curds, German heritage and Black culture. The largest city in Wisconsin is also a political stronghold for the Democratic Party. That includes Johnson, who was a surrogate on the ground for President Joe Biden’s campaign in 2020 and firmly backs his reelection efforts this year. But for one weekend this summer, Johnson will also play host at the epicenter of the conservative universe, when the Republican National Convention rolls into town.

Hosting the event (which begins July 15) presents a unique challenge for Johnson, a husband and father who believes it’s possible for political partisans to “disagree without being disagreeable.” Not all Milwaukeeans agree; one group, the “Coalition to March on the RNC 2024,” is already planning protests. Johnson, however, is taking a different tack. When Republicans held a presidential primary debate in Milwaukee last August, he welcomed them with open arms, asking his city to do the same this time around.

Pragmatically, the event will be a boon to the local hospitality and tourism sector. But what motivates Johnson is the principle. He hopes that hosting the convention in Milwaukee will provide residents with a platform to model healthy, productive civil discourse, something that is lacking in today’s hyperpoliticized environment. The Deseret News spoke with him about preparing his city for the convention and promoting healthy conversations.

Deseret Magazine: Why have you maintained such a welcoming approach to Republicans in your city?

Cavalier Johnson: Even though I’m a Democrat, I’m also a mayor. And as a mayor, I’ve got a responsibility to do the things that I laid out when I was running for this office. That includes growing the population in Milwaukee, growing our economy and creating good, family-supporting jobs here. And this convention and other large-scale political, sports and entertainment events like this are a great opportunity to put the city on the map. And that’s why we were able to put partisanship aside, be gracious hosts and be in a position where we’re able to have the eyes and attention of the country and the world on Milwaukee.

DN: We’ve all seen the partisan divide increasing across the country. Do you see that at the local level as well?

CJ: I believe that the vast majority of people in Milwaukee, in Wisconsin and across the United States are looking for people to be able to disagree but not be so disagreeable. Do I personally believe that we can do that? Yes. And I believe that the way that we do that is by listening and by understanding, but still looking for progress. Personally, I believe that the path to achieve that is center-left. But we can be gracious hosts. We can respectfully disagree. I think that’s a way for us to bring people together and still get great things accomplished.

DN: How do you quantify the effects of hosting a major political event — like a debate or a political convention — in your city?

CJ: Well, there was a ton of media exposure with the debate in August. There are people who travel from elsewhere in the country to attend those debates, and especially the first one to start a presidential election cycle. Those folks are eating at restaurants and staying at hotels. They’re putting money into the pockets of people who work in our tourism and hospitality sector here in the city of Milwaukee. But I remember the day of the debate. It was a triple-digit weather day — just really, really hot. But on the street, you could feel the energy. You could cut it with a knife, even with all the humidity. That sends the message that this place has a lot of love. That’s a good thing, whether you’re Democrat or Republican.

There’s roughly 50,000 people in the city that cast ballots for Republicans. So this is also the single largest source of Republican votes in the state of Wisconsin. As mayor, I’ve got to understand what good can come from that level of exposure for the city and also recognize the fact that I’ve got those constituents who live in my city. Some people voiced discontent with the Republican Party and its platform, but were also able to benefit from having the debate here.

It is never OK for someone to use violence against another person because they have a disagreement with them, especially a political disagreement.

DN: What goes into hosting a debate? What did you learn that will help you deal with the Republican National Convention?

CJ: Security is a big part of it. We have worked closely with partners in law enforcement — the police department, Secret Service, fire departments — to make sure that we’re able to host a safe convention. I’ve been lobbying to increase the security grants. The $50 million that communities typically receive to host a convention is not enough. We’re asking for those additional dollars so that we have the manpower on the ground to make sure there’s a safe convention. I was alerted just a couple of days ago that Congress is seemingly moving forward with our request to up the security grant to $75 million.

Huge events like this often leads to counter protests and sometimes even violence. In a time when formal polling shows that Americans increasingly think that is a reasonable way to express their disagreement, how do you send a message of peaceful disagreement?

It is never OK for someone to use violence against another person because they have a disagreement with them, especially a political disagreement. The way that you fight that out is at the ballot box. You work to engage and to elect another candidate who falls in line with your view of the world, with your purview, and executes policies that fall in line with that. So it’s not OK to strike people physically or damage property over a political issue. My message is, look, we’re happy to have people here. We’re happy to be great hosts. You can disagree with people. The “disagreeable” part is if you commit physical or property damage to folks in our community. That will not be tolerated. And we’ll have the personnel on the ground to make sure that you’re held accountable for your actions.

DN: What do you want the average American voter, living in a polarized time, to learn from Milwaukee?

CJ: We are a deep, deep blue city. That is widely known throughout the state of Wisconsin. At the same time, we also have the most votes, I believe, for Republicans of any community in the state. We are the economic center of Wisconsin. We’re the population center of Wisconsin. We’re the cultural center of Wisconsin. We’re the diversity center of Wisconsin, too, and that diversity means that we can also express diversity of thought. Now, Democrats tend to rule the day here, and I think that people in Milwaukee believe that the path to prosperity, the path to a better and just society is somewhere in the political middle. And I think that people in Milwaukee think that’s in the middle-left, center-left. So you see that play out in elections, when people cast their ballots here. But I want people to know that about the city. It’s a big city. It’s a city that is diverse. It’s a city that we’re working to grow. But it’s a city for everyone to come to, for everyone to find their place.