Of the four announced candidates for Mayor of Madison, none are white men.
In the four statewide races — US Senate, governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state — all but the Senate race has one prominent, credible person of color running.
And the Democratic primary for the 77th Assembly District, representing much of Madison’s south side, features not one but two women of color.
If you think that seems unusual, you’re right, says political scientist Barry Burden.
“My sense is the numbers are up right now,” says Burden, who directs the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin. Unsurprisingly, he says it’s a Trump effect.
“It seems to be a response to the Trump administration. Pretty directly,” he says. “There are just more people running for office this year, and especially on the Democratic side. Not just in Wisconsin, but nationwide. The number of candidates who have filed for, say, seats in Congress or governorships, is much higher in 2018 than it’s been in other election cycles. And that’s disproportionately on the Democratic side of the aisle. That’s the side that’s generating lots of new candidates. And because that’s the party where people of color tend to find themselves. For governor here, we had ten candidates on the ballot on the Democratic side. That’s about three to four times as many as we normally see. So, just given that you go from a normal primary where there’s three or four and all of a sudden there’s ten, it’s not shocking that one of them is an African American man. People who would not normally run have decided that 2018 is the year that they want to step into the ring. And because that’s mostly happening in the Democratic Party rather than the Republican Party, you’re just more likely to get, not just black and Latino candidates, but also women and other groups that are not as represented in public life.”
Some of the candidates themselves, however, say they’re not exactly running against Trump.
“I think Barack Obama paved the way for a lot, and showed what was possible for people who saw an arena that didn’t always seem inviting or didn’t always seem to present the most possibility for people of color,” says Mandela Barnes, a former State Assembly representative from Milwaukee who is running for lieutenant governor against Kurt Kober of Sheboygan. “I mean, he flipped that on its head. And, you know, since that time, I think that a lot of people who have grown up during his presidency, or coming of a professional age during his presidency, kind of saw something different, and sought that opportunity, saw a chance. Saw something that was in themselves, that reflected what they saw in the president.”
Madison Alder and Mayoral candidate Maurice Cheeks agrees.
“Barack Obama’s candidacy and election and reelection was, I think, transformative to a generation who started to be able to imagine diverse representation in their politics,” Cheeks says. “That time period of Barack Obama’s Presidency fueled a hopefulness in our politics. You know, for a lot of my friends, a lot of the millennials that I know, regardless of where they live, we came of age under the 44th President of the United States. I remember being in a room once and a young person asked, maybe five or six elected officials, ‘how did you decide to run for office?’ And almost everybody said, ‘watching Barack Obama getting elected turned my mind towards the idea that running for office was even a thing, was a possibility.’ I think for so many people of color, his election was inspiration to be able to imagine ourselves as public servants in a new way.”
Assembly candidate Shelia Stubbs, who has represented the South Side on the Dane County Board of Supervisors for 12 years, doesn’t necessarily think this is anything new — it certainly isn’t for her.
“You know all my life I’ve been fighting systems, systems of oppression, systems that have barriers,” she says. “I figured out a way to actually deal with a lot of these problems. It’s to get elected and write good policies.”
Regardless of their reason for running, local and statewide candidates agree that their presence in their respective races can change the conversation.
“We’re going to have a genuine conversation about issues that affect all of us and not just issues as viewed through the lens of one particular segment of our society,” says Raj Shukla, who is also running for Madison mayor against Cheeks and former Alders Brenda Konkel and Satya Rhodes-Conway. “I think that’s a really good thing. It’s a really healthy thing.”
Madison Alder Arvina Martin, who is challenging 40-year incumbent Secretary of State Douglas LaFollette in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, says candidates of color might have easier access to communities that often aren’t engaged in campaigns.
“I think it opens different constituencies because we have places that we are comfortable, places that we know better than others,” says Martin, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee band. “I feel perfectly comfortable going to … a tribal building or going to a pow wow or some kind of event in the Native community where someone who isn’t Native might not feel that level of comfort. And we’re all Wisconsinites and we all deserve to have candidates that come and reach out to us and talk to us so we can share our concerns with them.”
Barnes laughs as he says many white voters outside of Milwaukee don’t quite know the difference between him and gubernatorial candidate Mahlon Mitchell.
“Most crowds, I tend to be the only black guy or one of two,” he says. “When I’m the only one, a lot of people ask me, ‘aren’t you a firefighter?” Mitchell is president of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin.
Representation matters once candidates become elected officials, too, whether it’s race, gender or any other underrepresented class that’s being represented.
“When you have 99 assembly members, I’m just saying hypothetically, who are all white men, they may never understand how important it is to have parking spots for women that are pregnant,” says Shabnam Lotfi, an Iranian-born immigration attorney running against Stubbs for the 77th District Assembly seat. “It’s usually somebody that’s a minority or a woman or just coming from a different background, with a different perspective that could say, ‘Hey, there’s a whole population of people that have a need and this government is not addressing it.’”
“Right now we have so many belief systems and values that have been disenfranchised,” says Stubbs. “All my life I’ve had to deal with being disenfranchised and we need a fighter, someone during these challenging times going to stand up to make sure our voices are heard. At the state assembly, there are 99 State Assembly members and zero are African American women. That’s a big void.”
She also notes that no person of color has ever been elected to the State Assembly from Dane County — indeed, only a handful have even attempted a run.
Martin cites the Madison city flag as a specific example of representation in elected office leading to positive change. When adopted in 1962, the City’s official flag contained a Native American sun symbol. Many white residents didn’t even recognize it as a sacred symbol, but many Native Americans have come to see as an example of cultural appropriation.
“The Madison Native community has known this for decades,” Martin says. “And people have talked about it but no one really knew how to do anything to change it. So it took a person from the community going in to really being able to take action on something like that.”
Martin, along with fellow Alder Cheeks, spearheaded and effort to remove the sun symbol and a new flag was just adopted in June of this year.
From a statewide standpoint, Barnes says it’s significant that Tuesday’s primary could see one or even two black men win spots on the Democratic ticket for governor — and come November, one or two black men might assume the highest offices in the state.
“There’s definitely a significance in this state that voted for Barack Obama twice, but also we’re a state that’s home to some of the largest disparities between black and white residents,” Barnes says. “So, from a social standpoint, it would mean a lot. You know, from being seen as a state that has the highest black male incarceration rate, from being seen as a state that’s specifically ranked as the worst place to raise a black family.” Electing African American leaders to the East Wing of the State Capitol could, he says, be “the biggest signal that we want to change. To be a better Wisconsin.”
With the statewide primary elections fast approaching, the question on many people’s minds is whether or not, when it comes down to it, a person of color can win statewide. It’s not easy, says political scientist Barry Burden.
“(Candidates of color) face some specific obstacles. Candidates of color have more difficulty raising money, traditionally,” he says. “They’re just embedded in different networks of actors within the political parties and tend not to be tied into the fundraising operation as closely as white candidates are. There’s also evidence that voters discriminate to some degree against candidates of color. That varies a lot from voter to voter and from election to election. But on average it looks like there’s some disadvantage for being a non-white candidate.”
Gubernatorial candidate Mahlon Mitchell seems to have overcome that fundraising problem — he’s led in money raised even though he’s the only candidate who hasn’t loaned his own money to his campaign. He’s also earned endorsements from major labor unions.
“I could imagine that endorsements might reassure some white voters who are a little reluctant to vote for a minority candidate for the first time,” Burden says. “To have that kind of external validation that this person is qualified, has the right positions, is ready to go, could be helpful. And that may be true for female candidates as well. So Mitchell’s benefited, I think a lot from having union endorsements of various kinds. That’s provided him with a lot of money for the campaign that he might not otherwise have and has given him a kind of credibility in the union community.”
Mitchell likes his chances.
Obama won the state twice, he notes, and Mitchell himself has already won statewide election twice. He was the Democratic party’s nominee for lieutenant governor in the 2011 recall of Scott Walker, and he’s won the votes of firefighters statewide.
“I’m the president of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin. The majority of my union is white males and they’ve elected me by acclamation three times,” Mitchell said in a recent interview with Madison365. “There are racists everywhere in the world. I’m not going to get them to vote for me anyway. I know there are a lot of voters out there who don’t care what color you are or even where you’re from.”
The statewide primaries for governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state take place Tuesday, but early voting is open now. The nonpartisan mayoral primary is in February with the top two candidates squaring off in April 2019.