The effort to encourage Madison firefighter Mahlon Mitchell to run for Wisconsin governor next year is gaining steam, says Tomika Gray-Vucovic, the woman behind the movement.
The “Draft Mahlon Mitchell for WI Governor” Facebook page, which Gray-Vucovic quietly launched Friday night, already has more than 300 people following it, and two videos she’s posted have been viewed more than 74,000 times.
“I’ve had people who are not necessarily on Facebook that heard about it,” she tells Madison365. “I’ve had people that I am connected to in Door County say, ‘Hey, Tomika. Who’s this guy?’ Some people need to be familiar with him, but they are going, ‘Oh, wait a minute. Who is this?’ Then, they get a little bit excited. ‘Wait a minute. This is somebody new, but what is his background?’ When you tell them his background, ‘Oh, that’s good. That’s good.’ He’s been doing public service all this time. Just not as elected official capacity, but he’s been working for the people. I have people in Green Bay and Oshkosh and La Crosse and Platteville and all these places that I know people who are reaching out to me and saying, ‘Hey, who is this guy? Where can I get some more information?’ I’m trying to get it out there.”
Mitchell, 40, is a longtime Madison firefighter and became the youngest president of the Firefighters Local 311 seven years ago. He was vaulted to prominence during the protests against Act 10, which stripped most public employee unions of most of their power. He led firefighters to continue to protest the law, even when legislators and Governor Scott Walker offered to exempt public safety workers like firefighters and police.
He eventually was the Democrats’ nominee for Lieutenant Governor in the 2012 recall election, earning 47 percent of the vote against incumbent Rebecca Kleefisch.
Mitchell had no comment on the 2018 governor’s race.
Gray-Vukovic is no stranger to Democratic politics, having served as Milwaukee director for US Senator Russ Feingold and field director for State Senator Chris Larson’s bid for Milwaukee County Executive. She’s also an elected official herself, serving as an alder in the City of Glendale and a member of the Glendale-River Hills School Board.
She says she’s known Mitchell since that run for Lt. Governor.
“I was at a Democratic event with now-Senator LaTonya Johnson and I met him,” she recalls. “Over the course of the years, I’ve seen him here and there, and every single time I talked to him or I’ve heard him speak, it was dynamic. He had a great message. Whether it was talking about unions and firefighters or community or getting together, whatever it was, it was never divisive. It was always like, ‘Let’s figure out how to work together,’ and it’s always been like that.”
She says she first suggested the idea of a gubernatorial run at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, where she and Mitchell were both delegates for Bernie Sanders.
“That’s when I started on him,” she says. “I said, ‘Mahlon, you’ve got to run for governor.’ He’s like, ‘No.’ Then, over the course of the next year, the whole year, I call him one to two times a month. Meet with him when he came to Milwaukee. Took a couple of my political friends with me. Introduced him to my husband. ‘Hey, Mahlon. You need to run. You are the one that is going to, I believe, lead us to a victory.’”
She says he’s coming around to the idea.
“It was 0 percent at the convention,” she says. “Then, it was at 10 percent by September. Then, it got a little bit to 30 percent. After Trump won, he said, ‘I’m still at 30 percent. I’ll see what it’s like, after the inauguration.’ Then, he said, ‘I’ll wait until his (first) hundred days and see what’s going on.’ Then, it got to 50-50, 60-40. Now, I think he knows he should do this, but I have to make sure that he has the support and he knows that we’re backing him and we’re ready to work.”
She thinks not only that he’ll have the support to win the primary if enough people get to know him, but that he has a shot to beat Walker next fall.
“People want a little bit of a change, which I understand, but also they want somebody who is not a conventional politician, which he’s not, but still he knows what he is doing,” she says. “He’s getting people excited.”
Excitement is key, she says — maybe even more important than his stance on the issues, which generally align with the other Democratic candidates.
“I am friends with, at least, two of the candidates that are out now and they are wonderful, wonderful people. I don’t have anything negative to say about them,” she says. “It’s just this is the man that makes me want to get out and do doors. This is the man that makes me want to figure out in my busy, busy schedule that I have, you know, with my aldermanic seat, my school board seat and a full-time job, where can I find the time to do something? That’s what we need. We need those people who have busy lives, but still will take a couple of hours to do doors or make phone calls or knock because they believe in the candidate.”
She also thinks he can drive voter turnout among people who might be inclined to stay at home.
“I believe he has a message that will resonate to people that are not in the political circle,” she says. “One of the things that I truly believe that messaging and making somebody want to vote for you. Like, ‘Actually, wait a minute, I have to schedule time to go vote because I can’t miss voting for this person.’ That’s where we have to go and I think that’s where he is.”
But then of course there’s the elephant in the room — is Wisconsin finally ready to elect its first black governor?
Gray-Vukovic thinks so.
“First of all, I ran in Glendale. There is a small section of my constituents that are African American. I won by 70 percent of the vote … against a 30-year incumbent,” she says. “There’s going to be that sector of people who will not vote for a black man, but if your message is on point, and they feel that their lives will be enriched by this particular person being a governor, that’s where we get. I think this is about messaging. It’s about ideas. Yeah. It would be great if he was the first African-American governor here. There’s only one African American who has ever won a statewide race (former Secretary of State Vel Phillips). Let’s make it two.”