Mandela Barnes Is Running for Wisconsin
|Mandela Barnes, a candidate for lieutenant governor, got his start in
politics as a field organizer for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008.
I got moved down to Natchitoches, Louisiana an hour south of Shreveport. I was a field organizer there. We ended up losing that race by about 350 votes. I came
back to Milwaukee afterwards in January 2009. I knocked on a whole lot of doors trying to find a job. And I ended up doing an unpaid internship in Mayor Barrett’s
office. I became the receptionist in his office. I turned the position down initially. I didn’t necessarily want to do it, but I took the job. And it helped me in Milwaukee
because I got to meet so many people as the receptionist.”
While being a receptionist in the Milwaukee mayor’s office allowed Barnes to get to know a lot of political people, it didn’t allow him to pursue his passion of social
“I ended up going back into organizing for MICHA, Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope,” Barnes said. “We worked on job issues and jobs and
economic development, education, immigration reform and treatment instead of prison. It’s an inner-faith, social justice organization involving churches, synagogues
and mosques all working together to promote the cause of social justice in the Milwaukee area under the state umbrella of WISDOM. It was through working on those
issues and working for that organization that I decided that I wanted to seek a seat in the legislature. I ran successfully for the state assembly in 2012. I served two
terms and ran for the state senate unsuccessfully in 2016. During the interim, I worked for a group called State Innovation Exchange. We provided research and
policy support to progressive state legislators across the country.”
Barnes decided that he wanted to help engineer the change that he felt Wisconsin needed and so he put his hat in the ring to become the Democratic nominee for
lieutenant governor and won the primary. He is now on the Tony Evers ticket for governor.
Barnes is excited to be on the ticket because he thinks that things are different this time and his ticket has a positive message.
“We’re running for something,” Barnes emphasized. “We’re leading with a vision. That’s the important part. Even with my gig at State Innovation Exchange, we
wanted to make sure that people are leading with a vision, not just talking about ways to improve lives of people in a given area, but diligently working towards it.
For legislators who were in the majority that we worked with, we didn’t just want them to be in the majority for the sale of being in the majority. We wanted to move a
whole progressive agenda. And for those in the minority, we didn’t want them to just be languishing in the minority. We wanted to make sure that there was still a
cause being promoted and issues that were being out in the forefront, so ultimately we shift the conversation and change the hands of power in those states. And
here we are. That’s what is different about this race. We have Tony leading with big ideas. Past election cycles have been more about being against Scott Walker
with the recall. My primary campaign was about opportunity because that is what is important. People need a fair shot. And if you don’t have opportunity, it’s very
difficult for you to get ahead. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t gotten anywhere without opportunity.”
What the Evers-Barnes ticket is trying to do is follow the winning strategy of the Obama 2008 and 2012 elections in Wisconsin: Get out your base.
“Our prime opportunity is with the Obama-no show voters,” Mandela said. “That is our natural constituency, people who showed up in 2008 or 2012, but not 2016. It’s
not a job of convincing those voters. It’s a job of communicating with them. We haven’t communicated. We haven’t always expressed the shared values in the way
that we should. That’s a voting block that we should not leave on the table because these voters have shown that they will show up with the right message. But we
can’t just say, ‘We’re against Scott Walker.’ We can’t just say, ‘We’re Democrats, give us a chance.’ We have to actually talk about our plan to improve their lives.
And I think we’ve done that pretty effectively, talking about expanding healthcare, working to create living-wage jobs, promoting the cause of public education by
restoring the state share of funding to our public schools that should have never been taken away.”
In January, Barnes hopes to be the working lieutenant governor of Wisconsin and do much more than public appearances. He wants to be an active member of a
team that utilizes his legislative experience to effect change in Wisconsin.
“I always say that being a former member of the state assembly, it never really leaves you and there are a lot of things that I wanted to see get done and never got
done,” Barnes said. “For example, there is the work on criminal justice reform. I was the ranking Democrat on the committee on corrections. I wanted to see the
community schools model get implemented in more challenged areas of the state with higher poverty school districts. I want to see not only the investment in
schools, but also investing in children, making sure they are on a level playing field. Overall, it’s about seeing that vision through. We’re leading with a vision. I want
us to govern with that same vision. I want us to get into office and be bold when we get there. I do want to be involved in the legislative process. I still maintain my
relationships in the state assembly. I have relationships in the state senate as well. And these are on both sides of the aisle. The last thing I want to do is get there
and then not do anything with it. I want us to be known for pushing us so far ahead of other states in this country where we have fallen behind, especially in terms of
job growth, investment in renewable energy, and access to quality and affordable healthcare. I want Wisconsin to be a leader again.”
Barnes is injecting a heightened level of energy in the campaign that complements gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers’ style. While they want to make Wisconsin a
leader again, Barnes would also become the first African American lieutenant governor in Wisconsin’s history. Not a bad outcome at all.
By Jonathan Gramling
His father must have had an inkling of what was to become.
“My dad thought that we should go with that name because it was very appropriate
during the time,” said Mandela Barnes, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.
“I was born in 1986 and that’s when Nelson Mandela was still in jail nearing the end of
his 27 year imprisonment. The whole anti-apartheid movement was going on then. My
dad fancied himself as an activist. He’s very active and was very involved in
demonstrations growing up in Milwaukee in the 1950s and during the push for fair
housing. When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate the name, but I do now.”
Barnes didn’t set off with the intent to be a public servant through politics. Born and
raised in Milwaukee, Barnes attended Alabama A&M and majored in mass
communications. But they say that timing is everything and as Barnes was set to
graduate in 2008, Barack Obama’s quest to be the first Black president of the United
States was taking off. And like many of his generation, Barnes was enthralled by Obama’
s message. He went and worked for the Obama campaign upon graduation.
“I found myself in Shreveport, Louisiana,” Barnes said. “I was a field organizer. And then