When The Nation published a list last April of 10 progressive candidates from across the country who promised “not just a change in party, but an end to status-quo politics,” most of the contenders were bidding for governorships or congressional seats. But one of them, Mandela Barnes, was running in Wisconsin for the often-neglected office of lieutenant governor. The argument for Barnes was that, in a year when Democrats believe they can finally defeat Republican governors like anti-labor zealot Scott Walker, strong gubernatorial contenders are going to need strong running mates like the 31-year-old former state legislator from Milwaukee. “Barnes’s appeal to people of color, young voters, and union activists marks the veteran grassroot organizer is as a contender who can energize and expand the base with unapologetic responses to economic inequality, a tough line on environmental abuses that calls for reining in corporate exemptions, and a stance on gun violence so bold that the gun-safety group Moms Demand Action named him a Gunsense Candidate of Distinction,” read the editorial.
But Barnes faced a competitive primary in his first bid for statewide office. His businessman rival, Kurt Kober, had a 3-1 fundraising advantage over Barnes going into the final weeks before Wisconsin’s August 14 primary.
When the ballots were counted, however, Barnes won with 68 percent of the vote—the highest level of support secured by any Democrat running in a competitive statewide primary Tuesday. That’s an impressive finish, and it was truly a statewide win. Barnes swept his hometown of Milwaukee, where he won 78 percent of the vote, along with the progressive stronghold of Dane County, where he took 76 percent. At the same time, Barnes was maintaining a 2-1 advantage in many of Wisconsin’s small towns and rural counties.
What worked for Barnes? Certainly high energy and quick wits—Barnes’s Twitter handle is “TheOtherMandela”—helped. But so, too, did the candidate’s grand vision for his state’s future.
Like a number of contenders for so-called “down-ballot” offices across the country this year, the veteran community organizer invited Wisconsinites to reimagine the post he was seeking.
Instead of accepting the notion that the lieutenant governor is simply a “sidekick” who might inherit the governorship if the state’s top job were to be vacated, Barnes offered an activist agenda for using the post to advance economic and social and racial justice. He said he wanted to fight for free two-year college and debt-free four-year college, a BadgerCare public option to expand access to health care, and a plan to encourage citizen entrepreneurs to form employee-owned cooperatives. “Company profits belong in worker’s paychecks, not CEO bonuses,” announced the candidate, who proudly participated in the Wisconsin uprising of 2011 and never hesitated to highlight his support for the unions Walker attacked.
This progressive populist program earned Barnes a statewide vote total that in some parts of Wisconsin rivaled the combined total for the top three finishers in the Democratic gubernatorial race. Those numbers suggest the political strength that Barnes brings to a ticket headed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, who won Tuesday’s eight-way gubernatorial primary by a comfortable margin.
Under Wisconsin law, Evers and Barnes will now run together against Walker and Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch. Like Barnes, Kleefisch is an engaging candidate who can generate enthusiasm among the party faithful. But Walker has rarely treated her as a political partner.
Evers, on the other hand, is signaling that he wants to align with and empower Barnes.
Linking a 66-year-old statewide elected official who has roots in the rural Wisconsin community of Plymouth with a 31-year-old community organizer who has roots in the African-American neighborhoods of the state’s great urban center is smart politics. But this isn’t just about combining experience, energy, and demographics. Evers and Barnes share values and ideals. And Evers has a history, over many years of service at the Department of Public Instruction, of entrusting younger officials with major responsibilities.
This makes the Evers-Barnes ticket more than just a credible vote-getting operation. It’s possible to imagine Evers and Barnes working together as the sort of governing team that a governor and lieutenant governor should be—but that, in Wisconsin and most other states, is rarely deployed.
Overcoming the deep divisions fostered by Scott Walker’s “divide-and-conquer” approach to governing, and getting state government focused on serving all of Wisconsin, is going to be an all-hands-on-deck project. Tony Evers is a smart enough man to know that he is lucky to have Mandela Barnes at his side.