Wednesday, July 13, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth

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
Once upon a time, Lena Taylor was highly regarded by state Democrats and her senate colleagues for her energy  –  a graduate of my favorite MPS high school, Rufus King, a property rights lawyer, elected to the Senate in 2004 and every four years after, taking time to run for Milwaukee County exec in 2008 against Scott Walker (she lost by 18%), one of the 14 who fled to Illinois to block a senate quorum and force the Republicans to change Act 10 into a non-financial bill,  This action alone gave her oodles of speaking minutes on cable television.

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.
I first became aware of Barnes when, as a young community organizer, he spoke on a Milwaukee labor council panel about runaway incarceration of blacks.  Soon after he became a social justice organizer for  MICAH, the interfaith group, and in 2012 against all predictions (except mine) he beat 8-year veteran Jason Fields to represent Assembly District 11. That was largely based on Fields’ support of voucher schools and payday loans, along with a seeming indifference to the progressive goals of his Milwaukee peers.  Fields became facetiously known in Madison as the Republicans’ favorite Democrat

Darrol Gibson
Barnes announced his shift to the Senate race in April  but filed notice of noncandidacy for the Assembly late. That did not help his handpicked successor, veteran progressive organizer Darrol Gibson. It opened the door for Fields to climb back in to a chorus of hallelujahs from right-wing talk radio and websites – along with another opening for outside secret money, this  new coalition that raises past specters of the tampering of American Federation for Children, voucher allies and dark money aimed at the inner city.  Many suspect that is what “Leaders” is really all about.

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.
There is similar liberal enthusiasm for Rep. LaTonya Johnson who after a mere three years seems ready to elevate herself to State Senate District 6 – putting her support for replacement in Assembly District 17 to  another highly regarded progressive community organizer, David Crowley. Working Families supports both as do several groups like Wisconsin Jobs Now.

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.

David Crowley
She hopes to make even more noise in a fairly deaf senate. Her Northwest side district is home to many important neighborhoods  including much of Sherman Park, Lenox Heights, Enderis Park, Dineen Park and  Capitol Heights.

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.

Token opposition

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
His district also has 53206, the ZIP code that signals extreme poverty and neglect. It is even the subject of a recent film and a center of outraged community brainstorming. Issues of mass incarceration and even economic development seem strangers to him, sneered colleagues (“Young couldn’t tell you which statute relates to criminal justice”). There is a quiet consensus -- Young has little to offer the Democrats but a reliable vote, often useful to trade.

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 Cabrera

The 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.

Marisabel Cabrera
This time he is facing someone with a growing reputation for dynamism – Marisabel Cabrera, an immigration lawyer chosen by Mayor Barrett to sit on the Fire and Police Commission.  You can look out from anywhere in AD9 and see booming economic development nearby, but little affecting her district, which is one of her big arguments for change. She says the district needs someone leaning forward and positive – again, the argument that it’s not about the reliability of votes but the passion she lives.

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
But Goyke’s analysis goes further looking at the entire city of Milwaukee. “Eight primaries involving some 575,000 citizens!  And only Sinicki and Zamarippa seem confident of making it through.”

“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. 

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for


  1. Excellent column. LaTonya Johnson is the model of what a legislator should be: sincerely committed to do her best for her constituents. And one more possible source for Leaders for a Better Community: the NRA, as a reward for Lena Taylor's votes for the castle doctrine and concealed carry.

  2. Agree, this is a great rundown.

    Also note that Chris Abele hsd endorsed all of the candidates being backed by this voucher/dark money group. And yet some people insist that Abele is "progressive." Riiiight

    1. I agree, and don't know what people are thinking. Further, who is funding the radio wnov860 non[-stop radio attacks on all candidates that do not support their hidden right wing agenda.