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“We’re supposed to be public servants. We can’t ever forget that:” Brian Benford’s grassroots campaign for State Senate

Brian Benford  (Photo by Julia Matthews Photography)

“We are fighting two battles right now – with COVID-19 and with racism. When you look at all of the problems we are facing right now, everything is tied together. When you think about COVID-19 and you think about the lack of quality health care and the lack of access to culturally informed mental health services and lack of sustainable jobs that pay a living wage, the lack of affordable housing,” says Brian Benford. “It’s all connected with systemic racism. And now with COVID-19, the veneer is stripped off and the spotlight is glaring on these inequities.

“I believe I am the candidate that is best to work on these issues,” he adds. “My primary focus in on protecting those in the community that are most vulnerable and marginalized and bringing us all together.”

Benford has become very well known as a family advocate and a grassroots activist for over 30 years in Madison. He announced his candidacy for the race for Wisconsin’s 26th Senate District back in May declaring that he would “provide a voice for all, especially those that are underserved and marginalized.”

“We are tired of politics as usual at every level,” Benford tells Madison365. “I think we can create a model where we can get money and power and special interest out and really put people at the forefront. That’s the way it should always have been.”

“I’m passionate about education and criminal justice. Being a former alder, I probably have the best perspectives of any of the candidates on how the police departments work and how we could reimagine them and reimagine public safety. We have an opportunity to create a brighter future rather than go back to the things of the past that haven’t served so many people.”

Benford served on the Madison City Council from 2003 to 2007, representing District 12 on the north side, where he built a reputation for his grassroots activism.

“I’m not a career politician. I’ve said that over and over. My goal is to get in and help us navigate out of COVID by protecting the most disenfranchised and marginalized,” Benford says. “I believe I can do that better than anybody else in this race.”

Benford lists education, housing reform, health care, institutional racism, and protecting the environment as key issues in his campaign, but says we have to “do much more than keep talking about these issues.”

Brian Benford with son, Nick

“Everybody throws these issues up on their websites and it’s all fine and well but it’s shocking to me – and maybe it’s been my 30 years on the front lines with people who are super-hurting and suffering – that there has not been that much action taken,” he says. “There is a meteor heading towards us. It’s the perfect storm with COVID-19 and centuries-long systematic racism and all the detriments of poverty and we are going to be dealing with this for a long time. We need somebody who will address these issues head-on.”

Along with Benford, there are six other Democratic candidates vying for Risser’s seat including former Lt. Gov candidate William Davis III; Madison-area activist Nada Elmikashfi, who is a former staffer for Gov. Tony Evers; Wisconsin Environmental Initiative head John Imes; Amani Latimer Burris, a small business owner and a former field organizer for the state Democratic Party; former gubernatorial candidate and State Rep. Kelda Roys; and recent UW-Madison graduate and former legislative aide Aisha Moe.

The winner of the Aug. 11 primary will be unopposed in the November general election.

The diversity in the race for Wisconsin’s 26th Senate District, which covers Madison’s downtown and west side, is something that Benford really enjoys. He’s been in Madison since 1979 and he says he’s never seen anything like it.

“If you would have told me 40 years ago that there would be five candidates of color that were running for a State Senate seat in Madison, that would have been unheard of,” he says. “What that is showing us is that for far too long we’ve been governed by White policymakers that just don’t have the lived experiences and perspectives to really effectively advocate for communities of color.

“People are self-reflecting deeper than they ever had in their lives and demanding change and action. The reality is that when it comes to power, people don’t want to give that up,” Benford continues. “We are well-represented by White middle-class women here in Dane County, and that took some years in coming. But other than [newly elected State Rep.] Shelia [Stubbs], we haven’t elected a person of color in the most progressive district in the state of Wisconsin forever.”

A proud father of five children (Lucas, Brianne, Maya, Jacob, and Nick), all of whom have gone through the Madison public school system, Benford is currently a success coach for the UW-Madison Odyssey Project where he helps underserved and at-risk students overcome barriers to achieve their educational goals. In May, Benford earned a master’s degree in social work from UW-Madison.

It was a tough decision for Benford to jump into the race.

“I felt like I had to jump in. I’ve seen the toll that this pandemic has taken on everyday people and we haven’t even hit the apex. For years to come, we are going to be feeling the detriments of this,” he says. “I just want to bring my experiences of working with people directly and bringing people together to try to get us out of this as soon as we can.”

“Immediately after I announced, all of these young folks started reaching out to me and even high schoolers began to reach out. It blew up fast.  We got over 800 signatures in four days. The excitement for my campaign really was a big boost for me.”

Benford is looking to succeed retiring State Senator Fred Risser, the longest-serving state legislator in American history, who has served in the Wisconsin Assembly or Senate since 1963.

“I think he has served amazing. He had quite a career. He’s from a different generation. I would be honored to follow in his footsteps,” Benford says. “He gives us big shoes to fill and a lot of lessons to look up to.”

Brian Benford speaks to Franklin Elementary children, their families, school staff, and other community members.

Benford recognizes the fact that he is being wildly outspent in this campaign. It doesn’t bother him. In fact, it’s one of the reasons he thinks he can win.

“I’ve said from day one that money in politics really disturbs me and we’ve run this grassroots campaign that’s not like any other that I’ve ever seen where I haven’t had to pick up the phone and call somebody directly for money,” Benford says. 

Initially, Benford says, he had a pie-in-the-sky dream that he wouldn’t spend any money on the campaign.

“Every dollar that is spent on my campaign I could use to buy people food and medicine and housing. Every piece of literature that comes in the mail costs thousands and thousands of dollars. I just didn’t want to do that,” he says.

“But now, for whatever reasons, we’re at a point where we are very competitive and I believe we can win this with the least amount of money,” Benford continues. “We’re gaining so much traction every day. It’s been pretty powerful.”

Brian Benford

It’s a little weird campaigning during a coronavirus pandemic, Benford says.

“There’s absolutely no playbook on campaigning during a pandemic. The old days are gone of knocking on doors,” he says. “One of the things that we do have during this pandemic is real grassroots support. I love being in the room and at events with people and building those personal relationships outside of politics and you can’t do that during a pandemic, but I’m really blessed to have this young dedicated team of social activists who really know social media and are so creative.

“We’re going to be launching our own homemade ads these next couple of weeks,” Benford adds. “The other campaigns rely upon tens of thousands of dollars to do direct mailings. We might do one mailing, maybe two. But we’re really trying to think creatively to build those relationships.”

Benford says that one of the biggest goals of his campaign is to bring as many diverse people together as he can. 

“I want diverse people to come together not because of guilt, not because it’s politically correct, but to come together in community, unity and respect. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this,” he says. “If we don’t act soon, we are going to create more harm for those who have been marginalized way before this pandemic hit. 

“However, Aug. 11 [election day] turns out, I feel fortunate to bring these years of perspectives and experiences to the table,” Benford continues. “I’m not trying to be a career politician and I don’t care about political capital and political stock because, quite frankly, I’ve seen the power corrupt the best people with the best intentions. 

“We’re supposed to be public servants,” he adds. “We can’t ever forget that.”