“The middle class in Wisconsin is fading rapidly at a frightening rate,” says Mandela Barnes. “We have one of the fastest-declining middle classes in the entire country. People in Wisconsin have not seen a raise in years and they are essentially working more for less. If people’s incomes aren’t keeping up with inflation, they will no longer be able to be consumers.”
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Barnes is young – 31 – but still old enough to remember when the Brew City had an abundance of family-sustaining, blue-collar jobs, workers had benefits and pensions, wages weren’t stagnant, housing was affordable and health care costs and college tuition prices weren’t crippling families. That significant middle-class decline that has hit Milwaukee, has also hit the rest of the state. As a young, black man traveling to largely rural (and very white) areas of Wisconsin as he campaigns to be Wisconsin’s next lieutenant governor, Barnes is finding that the people everywhere throughout the state have much more in common with the people of Milwaukee than they don’t.
“I like meeting people face to face and talking about ideas and dispelling myths and preconceived notions. People have an idea about Milwaukee, and you show up and you talk with them and they get a different perspective,” Barnes tells Madison365. “I think that this campaign is ultimately healthy for relationships across the state and our urban/rural development.”
Wisconsin will then hold elections for governor and lieutenant governor on Nov. 6. In August, the Democratic primary will take place for lieutenant governor and the winner will be paired with the winner of the primary for governor. That means Barnes has less than 5 months left to get his message out throughout the state. Barnes’ campaign slogan is “Restoring and Expanding Opportunity.”
“This campaign is based upon the essentials of opportunity – education, jobs,” says Barnes, who served in the Wisconsin State Assembly from 2013 until 2017 representing District 11, the north side of Milwaukee. “It is also based upon health care. People on the western borders of our state, for example, are very frustrated that their neighbors a few miles over the border [in Minnesota] are paying about half of what they are paying for health insurance costs because their governor made the right decision to accept the federal Medicaid expansion.
“Now, our governor is trying to play catch-up and spend more of our own money to give directly to the insurance companies which doesn’t benefit the consumer,” he adds.
Barnes and I go back to talking about the state-by-state analysis from the Pew Charitable Trusts a couple years ago that showed how Wisconsin experienced the biggest decline in middle-class households in the country.
“I’m getting everywhere in this state and I hear an overall general frustration. You look at the economics of this state, and we really haven’t bounced back from the recession from 10 years ago,” Barnes says. “And that’s a huge problem because the people who voted for Donald Trump, voted for him with the expectation that this would no longer would be the case. People who voted for Scott Walker and his quote-unquote ‘pro-business agenda’ have been failed. There is a frustration. People are tired and they are fed up with both parties. That’s understandable.”
“But the fact is that here in Wisconsin we’ve had one party in control of each branch of government since 2011 and we have a 12 percent rate of poverty. Two years ago, it was at it’s highest point since 1984,” Barnes adds. “Right now in this state, there has been some unequal growth distribution. There are some people who are doing really well but the unequal growth distribution has led to the highest rate of income inequality since the Great Depression.”
For years, Barnes battled with Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker in the Wisconsin State Assembly. In November of 2016, he took a job as the Deputy Director of Strategic Engagement State Innovation Exchange where he was happy to be out of office and out of the public eye and doing research and policy work for state lawmakers. But his passion for politics led him back and he announced that he would seek the state’s No. 2 post after a meeting with Sen. Tammy Baldwin where he said that she encouraged him to run.
“A lot of the decision to run for Lt. Governor came from the work I have been doing over the past year for the State Innovation Exchange, an organization that provides research and policy support to progressive state legislators across the country,” Barnes says. “Through that work, I had a chance to travel the country and to work with a number of different legislators and legislative caucuses – a lot of different advocacy groups as well – to help promote a more progressive agenda in this state so that we’re not constantly always playing defense against a lot of these extreme regressive attacks that are happening in states across the country … Wisconsin very much included.”
When Barnes announced his candidacy earlier this year, he said he is running as a champion of public education, economic possibilities and environmental protection.
“I want to play a role in this election and a compliment to whomever the candidate for governor is,” says Barnes, who is currently the 2nd Vice Chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin “The stakes are too high in this election. I am the candidate with experience in this race. It’s funny because you don’t usually get the youngest person being the most experienced – but I do bring the experience to this race.”
Barnes says that he loves traveling around the state meeting people and having conversations and says that people approach him concerned about education and the environment. “In terms of education, we are funding 700 schools with the same pot of money that used to be available to 400 schools with the expansion of voucher programs,” Barnes says. “Here in Milwaukee, along with in other parts of the state, we have issues with drinking water and water contamination. These are quality-of-life issues that people in Wisconsin have come to expect from their government, but it’s just not the case anymore.”
What’s something we can do immediately to raise that quality of life for Wisconsinites?
“Raise the minimum wage. People who work full-time should not live in poverty. Eighteen states have enacted laws to raise the minimum wage. Wisconsin is not one of those states,” Barnes says. “It’s a very common-sense approach and it’s good on both sides of the economic coin. It means that people will have more money in their pockets, businesses will have a much larger consumer base. It’s better for communities. It’s better for individuals.”
Barnes adds that it is so important right now more than ever that we invest in the Wisconsin people instead of out-of-state corporations.
“We’re dead-last in new business start-up growth in Wisconsin,” Barnes says. “If we have billions of dollars to hand over to FOX Conn, that means we have at least some money that we can use to help spur new business start-up growth. We need to get our own homegrown businesses going right here in Wisconsin.”
In order for Barnes to win in Wisconsin, he knows he is going to have to engage and get young people and people of color to turn out in big numbers, too. Hillary Clinton, for example, just couldn’t hold onto the Obama coalition of black, Latino, and younger voters who failed to show up at the polls in sufficient numbers. And that proved to be a large part of her undoing.
“Looking at electoral maps in ’08, ’12, and ’16, the most significant fall-off was in communities of color. It was Milwaukee County overall, and we never had voters under the age of 35 to the degree that we needed them to be successful,” Barnes says. “Those are crucial parts of our base that we did not engage very effectively or authentically in the 2016 election and that’s what we’re going to do here in the 2018 election.
“Mired in chaos and scandal, Donald Trump is not doing himself any favors and he’s not doing the Republican any favors right now,” Barnes adds. “We still have a governor in Wisconsin and a majority in the state Legislature who subscribe to the president’s ideology and it’s very dangerous and it’s very scary when you look at marginalized communities – immigrant communities, LGBT communities, the black community, communities of color, in general. These mid-term elections, I will suspect that you will see a higher than average turnout as a rebuke.”
Barnes says that he’s not counting on people simply voting against the Republican Party agenda. The Democratic Party has to be about something, he says. It needs to have ideas. It needs to be energetic and forward-thinking.
“We have to make sure that we’re putting resources together and getting legislators equipped with what it takes to actually put together a bold, progressive platform to advance the ideas of meeting the needs of the working people and meeting the needs of the people they represent instead of always pointing fingers and talking about where the Republicans are bad,” Barnes says. “That’s what we’re doing in those states where we were successful and we saw electoral victories happen. Doing that work, some of the ideas that we were seeing that we were helping to implement are things that we should be doing right here in Wisconsin.
“Looking at how Democrats have run campaigns against Scott Walker the last 8 years, and it’s been primarily maligning him as a governor. And he’s doing an awful job, but people by now understand who Scott Walker is and what he stands for,” Barnes adds. “This is a time and this is the moment where we have to define ourselves as Democrats. If you ask a room full of Democrats what the entire Democratic Party stands for, you’re going to get an entire room full of answers.
“We can’t be that scattered right now. We have to be unified in the way we approach the election year that is 2018 if we want to be successful,” he continues. “Seeing 38 special election victories since Trump took office in statehouses across the country gives me all the optimism I need that we’ll be successful this year. But it won’t just happen. It’s going to take people with the right ideas, the right energy, the right enthusiasm and the right organization to make it happen.”