A fascinating pattern emerges when you examine August 9 contests in Milwaukee. With some notable conflicts (voucher schools, castle doctrine, debt methods) all the candidates describe themselves as reliable votes on issues near and dear to Democratic hearts.
Today this is no longer enough. There may be times when working across the aisle makes sense, but these “reliable Democratic voters” who frequently do so either poorly explain themselves or tack to the right, more to accept the status quo than challenge it.
Constituents are toughening up. In community after community they want to sense a passion, a ferocity for the downtrodden, an intelligence with tactics, something deeper than social patter about general values. They can still be conned by old allegiances, but who really speaks or knows how to speak for the people on the street, high and low? Who really wants to be measured by accomplishment not rhetoric?
A fire for neighborhood needs is building in this election. It is no longer vaguely stabbing at the core issues the Democrats fight for in the Senate and Assembly.
What the constituents want is that sense of belonging, despite fancy clothes and social parties required by etiquette, to the hearts and souls of long neglected children, schools, environment and communities. It’s not change for change’s sake – in several cases it is retaining or elevating a proven commitment, not just any new face in the storm.
These sentiments underlie many Milwaukee races and explain why contests are erupting where veteran Democrats can’t yet grasp why they’re in trouble. Officials who once placidly believed they were shoo-ins have reason to fear an upset.
Mandela vs. Lena
|Mandela Barnes looks like the face of change for SD4|
Today’s Taylor is a far different creature – the peppy flirtatious manner more annoying than effective, the days long past when Emily’s List posed her with Gwen Moore and the late Tamara Grigsby as a female black trio to watch. Things change. Remember 2013 just before her relapse and death, when the highly regarded Grigsby was contemplating a return to elected life? She got unusually personal on Facebook and accused Taylor of going to any lengths to "ruin my personal life and professional career."
Those flights of rhetorical fury with which Taylor mouths off on inner city issues? Well, they no longer cause fear or create attention in Madison. Some believe her work as a lawyer has diminished her progressive credentials. Journalists digging for truth have become furious at her tendency to talk her way around any issue they raise. Her personality positions have become controversial and testy – such as when she openly suggested that Sandy Pasch, as a white woman, had no business running in AD10 (Pasch won), or her two-step with the voucher school movement (whose campaign money dump into this race will arrive too late for this cycle’s financial reporting).
Her instincts to drive a wedge between the black and white communities are still alive and being pushed today by surrogates, such as WNOV-AM talk radio host Sherwin Hughes, who rails against Mandela Barnes for something most political observers call astute – holding some fund-raisers in the more affluent and more politically involved Shorewood, part of Taylor’s district.
Anyone close to Barnes knows of his visceral commitment to inner city issues and his dedication to effective solutions. But his common sense in a tough campaign only brings radio sneers from Hughes that “They’re buying something” -- on a station heavily accepting advertising from a group supporting Taylor that Hughes has been linked with, the anonymous Leaders for a Better Community. (I called WNOV to ask for details and they offered nothing.)
Is this Taylor’s secret money group? It’s dropping flyers under the name Leaders for a Better Community -- and not just for her. Under the state’s new partisan ethics board, the public can’t begin to find who they are till next week.
The same printing style and name are helping the least progressive candidates in several races, playing on understandable but backwards-looking suspicion of all whites. At the time of Dallas, when Obama seeks to bring together Black Lives Matter and the killing of white policemen, pleading for shared improvement, these campaign cackles seem particularly regressive shout-outs to the black community.
Then there are Taylor’s philosophical differences with Democratic colleagues, such as backing the castle doctrine that allows home owners to shoot trespassers on sight in an era when the residents of Senate District 4 wish fewer people owned guns and were more cautious about using them.
In the legislature she is more known for starting fights than accomplishing results. Her once celebrated charisma has waned. Otherwise she would not be under such notable danger from Barnes, who abandoned the Assembly to take her on – and seems likely of success.
|Years ago on Fourth Street Forum, Barnes (right)|
was considered expert enough on mass
incarceration to share a panel with DA John Chisholm
and Benedict Center's Jeanne Geraci.
Gibson in contrast has gained widespread grassroots support with a platform that emphasizes an end to mass incarceration and improved public education. He has been slogging away at such issues behind the scenes at many levels of government.
Barnes is friendly in person, but stoic compared to Taylor. He works the doors with precise examples and controlled authority. Don’t underestimate his chops, lobbyists tell me – he is quicker to the point in legislative matters, where even Taylor supporters admit she is prone to ramble. His effectiveness for Assembly 11 – which is within the Senate territory – is convincing over two terms. Almost out of nowhere his campaign has proven deeply rooted in the community and well organized.
Even mainstream media recognizes that this contest is turning into a referendum on progressive values – Barnes the future, Taylor the fading past. To that end the Working Families Party is among the groups throwing their full organizational weight behind both Barnes and Gibson.
Time for LaTonya
|LaTonya Johnson -- moving up.|
Johnson has notable shoes to succeed since in just four years Nikiya Harris Dodd (who is voluntarily leaving to raise her family) learned the ropes quickly and became a strong player in the state legislature. Johnson may seem the inevitable successor because of how she identifies with constituents, but she has two curious obstacles. One is a better known name in Milwaukee -- Michael Bonds, former chairman of the Milwaukee public schools board who also ran poorly for Common Council. The other rather bizarrely is Lena Taylor’s chief of staff, Thomas Harris, who is benefiting as is Jason Fields from that curious flyer perpetrator, Leaders for a Better Community. (Have you noticed how names mean nothing in this land of dark money?)
Bonds’ presence in the race is mystifying since he has not demonstrated the sort of interest the community desires. Johnson has. A former day care operator and head of the related AFSCME local, she boasts an organizational skill much needed in Madison. She has spoken eloquently about helping children and standing up for corrections reform, worker’s rights, women’s rights and economic justice – issues the legislature can indeed address.
In her former District 17, Crowley has been working the doors hard for months. “You can't represent the people if you're not out there with the people,” he notes. He has also picked up an impressive array of endorsements – including former senator Nikiya Harris Dodd, Mayor Tom Barrett, the AFL-CIO and Working Families.
Elsewhere there are some token upstarts forcing races against established hard workers. Rep. JoCasta Zamarippa again has to fend off Laura Manriquez in Latino heavy AD8. Out of nowhere, except a mental health meeting, Julie Meyer is tackling a stalwart of union and public school values, Christine Sinicki, in AD20, and it may be a sign of Meyer’s ineptitude that public school teachers are not supporting one of their own but embrace Sinicki, a longtime advocate for public education. Over in Oak Creek AD 21, Teamsters business agent John Redmond seems to have massive support against one opponent in order to take on incumbent Jessie Rodriguez in November.
But there are also solid threats.
Is Leon Young in Trouble?
Leon Young shouldn’t assume something from 24 years in office (his aunt, the late Marcia Coggs, helped him succeed her). After decades in a rapidly evolving district, Young is virtually unknown to many in District 16. He is called a “reliable vote” aloud by colleagues but in private labeled “deadwood.” To caring voices for the inner city, he has long been regarded as a major disappointment.
He has sometimes faced no opponent and sometimes handily beaten others in a district that has notoriously shabby turnout– not the longed-for 18,000 but as little as 3,700. That has to change and probably will Aug. 9.
|Edgar Lin's strong challenge|
The much vaunted Coggs political machine no longer exists though Spencer is city treasurer and Millele is city alderman, on merit not name. So this time Young’s best chance is that he has drawn three opponents, which might split the progressive vote.
Neither Brandy Bond nor Stephen Jansen has drawn as much interest at the doors as Edgar Lin, a personable lawyer pointed out to me by several judges. But while he has distinguished himself as a public defender he sees his real calling as public service.
In interview and campaign literature he ticks off the problems and what he offers. “We need change. I’ve seen what neglect does to our communities. We’re worst in the nation for incarceration, jobs are gone, our public school funding has been gutted. I envision a Milwaukee where justice applies equally regardless of zip code.”
He even responded online after the shooting in Dallas and the deaths of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota: “We've seen what systemic oppression leads to all throughout history: Radicalization, and then, violence by the few. This must end now.” It is almost as if he anticipated Obama’s July 12 speech.
Lin acknowledges an uphill campaign hurt by two other opponents to Young, one entering late. But he trusts the response at the doors in places like Riverwest and the Harambee community. “It seems like an uphill battle but also very promising,” he told me.
Don’t Overlook CabreraThe same optimism is riding another once unlikely campaign against Josh Zepnick in AD9. He has gone from strong labor and party support to a reputation as erratic and even quirky. In any case it’s been a bad year for Zepnick, with a drunken driving conviction and a poor third-place showing against Ald. Bob Donovan despite the name recognition of 14 years in Madison.
A major Democratic figure and former legislator agrees. Interviewed about Cabrera and Lin, Gary Goyke noted, "These are the candidates asking the community to take a risk and choose someone who they believe can actually do something for the district. Many in these districts feel they are in need of an active representative who can focus on local issues.”
|Commentator Gary Goyke|
“That means this August that SIX of the legislative primaries are contentious,” he said. “The differences are certainly style but also actual dedication to the job, and an appeal to voters to expect more from their representatives. The incumbents are all more or less being challenged on that basis.”
He’s talking about an earthquake -- nearly 10% of Wisconsin and some 468,000 voters in one city’s heavily uncertain races, probably the largest potential shift of legislative names in the state.
Here’s a discussion of those state races.