“Man, I love this state, but we can do so much better. We’re lagging behind,” says Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mahlon Mitchell.
Minutes ago, Mitchell and I were sitting down at the Old Fashioned Restaurant on the Capitol Square in downtown Madison but neither of us were all that hungry so we both grab a coffee to go and head out to a park bench overlooking the state Capitol building where Mitchell hopes to work after a successful gubernatorial campaign. Right now, he is in the stretch run of a very competitive race that will culminate in the Democratic Party primary on Aug. 14 and, if all goes well, the general election facing off against Gov. Scott Walker on Nov. 6.
“I’ve been talking to a lot of people; traveling the state. People feel voiceless. Not everybody has a lobbyist working for them in that building,” Mitchell says, pointing the state Capitol. “People everywhere in this state feel like nobody cares about them and nobody is listening to them. All you hear is noise. You hear noise from eight to 10 Democrats. You hear noise from Walker and his cronies in the GOP party. Who’s left behind? The normal person who is just trying to make it in Wisconsin. Who’s looking out for them? Nobody. Meanwhile, we’re just talking at each other. That’s all we’re doing.”
Mitchell, the president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin union – the youngest and first African American to serve in that post, says that he is willing to talk to anybody and everybody about his plan to, as governor, make Wisconsin what he knows it can be.
“You’d never see Scott Walker having a forum or town hall unless he invites people and controls everybody who’s going to be there. Having a town hall where he gets to make the guest list – and, by the way, they have probably donated to Scott Walker at some point in time – is what he does,” Mitchell says. “But we have open forums. We have open tall halls. I want to hear people who may not agree with what I’m saying. We invite everybody.”
Mitchell uses a recent construction round table he hosted where most of the people leaned politically toward Republican as a case in point. “We sat and talked it out. That’s why we’re doing a state tour right now. We’re not just inviting people that agree with us. We’re not locking the door for anybody who doesn’t agree with us,” Mitchell says. “No way. Come one, come all … and ask questions. That’s the kind of governor we need right now – an open, transparent governor who will beholden and accountable to the people.”
Mitchell has five weeks left to separate himself from a crowded field of Democratic candidates who are itching to take on Gov. Walker in the November election where many people are predicting an energized Democratic turnout and a possible “Blue Wave” across the United States.
“My message is resonating well as I travel the state,” Mitchell says. “People are struggling in this economy. I try to keep things focused on the positive, but this current economy is not working for so many Wisconsinites. It’s working for those who it’s always going to work for. The racial disparities that we’ve seen in our state, the people working two or three jobs just to make ends meet … that’s unacceptable.”
But we have low unemployment, I interrupt.
“Wisconsinites are not statistics. Go talk to real live people. So many are hurting right now,” Mitchell says. “I talk to folks all the time who are not doing well in this low-wage economy that Walker has created.
“I met with 15-20 food service workers yesterday in Milwaukee. They are working way more 50-60 hours a week,” Mitchell continues. “They’re trying to get by and take care of their kids the best they can. One of the people I talked to was going to live in a shelter because they couldn’t afford to put a roof over his or his children’s head. That’s really sad … and unacceptable”
20-City Badger State Beer Tour
Mitchell will talk to even more people in every corner of the state as his campaign just embarked this past weekend on a 20-city tour called the Badger State Beer Tour. “We’ve been around the state before. This tour, however, will be a little more structured with some planned stops where we’ve invited folks to come out,” he says. “Normally, you go around the state – you go to La Crosse or Sheboygan, your hometown … you go out and hit a few spots in those cities and you make your way back home. Now, we’re going to be out for 10 straight days hitting 20 cities that we’ve mapped out. Of course, on the road things happen, so there will be some impromptu stops.
“We are going to hit a good variety of places and have some round tables and get the word out,” Mitchell adds. “We’ll be getting as far north as Superior. We’ll be all the way down in Kenosha, get over to LaCrosse and then all the way back to Green Bay. We’re really going to criss-cross this state. There will be a lot of traveling …this is a bigger state than people think. “
What will the message be on the tour?
“I’ll be talking about working families, wages, our health care system and our educational system and bringing local control back to our municipalities,” Mitchell says. “I’m running for governor of the entire state of Wisconsin. There are so many voices that need to be heard that aren’t being heard right now. Everyone should have the opportunity for their voices to be heard.”
But what’s the number-one thing you want to do as governor?
“I always think about education first. I would restore the funding for things that have been cut,” Mitchell says. Mitchell was a prominent figure in the Madison protests that accompanied Gov. Walker’s Act 10, which effectively ended collective bargaining for most public-sector workers. “But I also really want to bring this state back together. The motto for the campaign is ‘Together we rise.’ I want to bring this state back together because it is hurting us. We can’t even talk to each other anymore and that’s because the governor has done a great job of divide and conquer. This low-wage economy is really hurting folks and we’re not talking about solutions to fix it.”
Mitchell says one solution to fix Wisconsin’s declining middle class is not Foxconn which President Donald Trump recently came to Wisconsin to promote. Mitchell echoes the thoughts on many editorials in liberal-leaning publications – and some conservative-leaning publications – that Foxconn is a terrible deal for Wisconsin.
“Foxconn is a bad deal. To give $4.5 billion to a foreign company with no real claw-back provisions or not much transparency or accountability is wrong,” Mitchell says. “The bill has been passed, the contract has been signed. If we can give $4.5 billion to Foxconn, how can we be second to last in roads in our country? Our roads are terrible. If we can give $4.5 billion to a foreign company, why can’t we have the best educational system for our kids here in Wisconsin? Why did we have to cut $1.6 billion from public education in his first budget?
“Now that Foxconn is here, we must make them accountable to the taxpayers of the state of Wisconsin,” Mitchell adds. “We can do that by getting to those Wisconsinites I spoke with yesterday who are underemployed and getting them jobs at Foxconn. We shouldn’t be subsidizing 13,000 jobs or 10,000 jobs, depending on who you talk to, for the citizens of Illinois. We’re sending them a check for $4.5 billion from the state of Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin’s nation-leading racial disparities
In the list of things Mitchell would like to change about this state as governor, Wisconsin being one of the worst states in America to be an African-American is very personal for him. When it comes to disparities between black and white communities, Wisconsin is considered one of the worst states in the nation for racial inequality, according to a report released by The Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS).
“It doesn’t escape me that I’m raising two black kids in the state that is the worst place to do so,” Mitchell says. “Unfortunately, Gov. Walker has done nothing to help that; in fact, he’s done everything to hurt it. You know, we talk about the state being the worst place for black kids and we talk about the state incarceration rate for African Americans and we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline – and they all hurt our state – and we can’t even begin to tackle them if we don’t take care of step one.
“I’m a firefighter by trade: we make things simple,” he continues. “At the end of the day when construction changes or when technology changes, we still have to put the wet stuff on the hot stuff. We have to put the fire out. In order to actually make things happen in this state, to tackle the school-to-prison pipeline, to look at the huge racial achievement gap, to tackle the African-American incarceration rate, we have to create opportunities for communities of color … because there are none right now. You tell people to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, but then you hand $4.5 billion to a foreign company like Foxconn.”
Folks will hustle any way they can to support their families, Mitchell says, absent opportunity. “We have to create family sustaining jobs and we need to do it in communities of color and communities that need them the most,” Mitchell says. “We need to look out for our most vulnerable. And what people have to understand is that when people have family sustaining jobs, it’s better for the overall community. It’s better for you and me.”
Mitchell insists that Wisconsin can do this. “It’s not going to be a magic wand. It’s not going to be some Democrat with a cape on doing this … it’s going to be all of us working together across the state to tackle the problem and examine the root cause,” Mitchell says. “Getting back to the original analogy, we’re not even acknowledging that there’s a fire right now. If we don’t acknowledge what is obvious and how it came to be, we’re never going to put it out. And it’s going to continue to get worse.
“Democrats and Republicans … we need to work on this. I know that’s become a dirty word in this state – bipartisanship. But if we don’t work on all of these issues, it will get really bad in Wisconsin for a long time, he adds. “We don’t get the worst roads overnight. We don’t get the highest incarceration rate for African Americans overnight. There’s a reason for this. We can do much, much better in this state.”
In a crowded Democratic field, what makes Mitchell the unique candidate to get this done?
“There is a lot of hopelessness in this state right now. We need to have a candidate that can bring people together to tackle that. We need somebody younger who can energize the base but also who’s able to go out to rural areas and get those people fired up and energized, as well,” Mitchell says. “We need a crossover candidate. I represent a union that if you came to my convention two weeks ago, of the 250 delegates, 248 are white males. I’m the only person of color and I’m their president and they’ve elected me three times.
“I grew up in a small town – Delavan, Wisconsin. Went to the same high school as Scott Walker … now, we obviously took some different classes,” he adds. “I’m very comfortable talking with people in a rural setting. I’m very comfortable talking with people in an urban setting.”
Walker has done a great job of dividing us, Mitchell says. “That’s what Trump does, too. I want to bring us together,” he says. “We can do so much better in this state.
“We need a leader in the executive branch right now. You can have somebody who is good at legislating or good at politicking, but at the end of the day we need a leader who can bring people together to get things done for all of Wisconsinites,” Mitchell continues. “I’m the candidate that can do that.
“Being the president of Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin and being a lieutenant in the Madison Fire Department, we sit at the kitchen table and we don’t always agree. We have Democrats and Republicans and people who don’t identify as either,” he adds. “But when that tone goes off, we get in the fire truck and do our jobs. And we should expect the same from our elected officials. You’ve been elected to do a job. Do it!”
But is Wisconsin really ready for an African-American governor?
“Yes, I think Wisconsin is definitely ready. We need something uniquely different. Last time the Democrats won statewide, there was an African American at the top of the ticket – Barack Obama. Now, I’m not comparing myself to Barack Obama,” Mitchell smiles. “But he won our state pretty handily with a message of bringing our people together while Republicans were trying to tear us apart – like they are now. How do we work together to tackle our common problems?
“I represent an all-white union, for the most part. The majority of my members are white males and they’ve elected me three times by acclamation,” Mitchell says. “But I’m just as comfortable going to the north side of Milwaukee and sitting down. We just did a roundtable and community forum on policing, education, and criminal justice there and the majority of our audience was African American and we talked about issues that affect not just Milwaukee, but the entire state.”
Mitchell’s campaign recently opened an office on the north side of Milwaukee to increase African-American voter turnout. He has an endorsement from Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Milwaukee. But he also has the endorsement of the Operating Engineers Local 139, the largest construction union in Wisconsin. “I’m so proud to have Congresswoman Gwen Moore’s endorsement. Meanwhile, the Operating Engineers are 10,000 men and women across the United States who help build roads. They endorsed Scott Walker the last three times. They’ve now endorsed me,” he says. “I’ve been endorsed by a lot of the labor unions that people will say that the Democratic Party has lost – a lot of working-class white Wisconsinites.
“We need a unifier right now. Somebody that can bridge that urban/rural divide and bring people together,” Mitchell continues. “That’s what I’m running on. Firefighters, we respond to people on the worst days of their lives. When people are at their worst, we have to be our best. There are people that are really struggling in this state and they don’t think that anybody really gives a damn about them. There’s hopelessness throughout this state and people who feel like they are voiceless.
“A lot of times, people I talk to throughout Wisconsin feel like they just don’t have a voice right now,” Mitchell adds. “But that’s going to change. A new day is coming.”