Wisconsin’s Rising Democratic Star Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes Is Scared

Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes says Democrats are busy after winning Wisconsin in 2020 by such a narrow margin. (Photo: AP Photo / Morry Gash)
Joe Biden won Wisconsin. That's a big deal. Donald Trump won it in 2016 and it was high on the list of states the Democrats had to fight for in 2020.
But the democratic Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes says his party should be careful not to get too excited about the victory.
"So of course I'm very happy that we won. You know, we've done a lot of work to make this happen," Barnes told HuffPost in an interview. "The only thing is, I thought the margin would be a bit bigger would, to be completely honest. "
President-elect Biden won Wisconsin by just over 20,000 votes - a smaller lead than Trump, who won the state in 2018. The Wisconsin Electoral Commission approved the Trump campaign's motion to recount the votes in Dane and Milwaukee counties - the two largest Democratic strongholds in the state - as Trump continues to deny his crucial loss, now more than two weeks after election day . It is extremely unlikely that the recount will undo Biden's victory in the state.
Barnes is a 33-year-old rising star in the State Party. As Wisconsin's first Black Lieutenant Governor, he is frequently mentioned as a potential challenger to Senator Ron Johnson (R) in 2022, a race that could crush or demolish Democratic hopes for complete control of the government. And he criticizes the Democrats' performance in this cycle.
Democrats should have fought for even bolder ideas like Medicare for All, appearing more in rural areas, and building more trust among color communities, Barnes said.
Voter turnout in Milwaukee stagnated in 2020 compared to 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost Wisconsin in large part due to low turnout in cities. More worrisome for Democrats: voter turnout in predominantly black neighborhoods has actually reduced that cycle, according to early unofficial results. Biden made amends in the suburbs. Meanwhile, Trump consolidated the vote in rural areas. The Republicans retained control of the state legislature, although the Democrats took two seats in the suburban assembly.
Voters masked against the coronavirus vote at Riverside High School in Milwaukee. (Photo: AP Photo / Morry Gash)
Barnes pointed out that as a warning sign for Democrats, Trump received 10 million more votes than in 2016.
“A lot of people sat on the fence because they thought it might be racist. And then he started doing a whole bunch of racist things in office and suddenly he got 10 million more votes. And that's a scary thing for me, ”said Barnes. "It's a scary thing for a lot of people and a scary thing for democracy. Any policy that failed and that we thought would overthrow it only got stronger."
This is HuffPost's conversation with Barnes.
I saw you tweet on election night saying there was still a lot to do. And to start that, did I want to get a feel for what this work is?
Yeah, obviously I'm very happy that we won. You know, we've done a lot of work to make this happen. The only thing is, I thought the wiggle room was going to be a bit bigger, to be completely honest.
I think we got a little over 300,000 [more] votes from 2016 until last week. Donald Trump received over 200,000 additional votes. I remember how I've spent the last four years almost mocking Donald Trump for getting 5,000, 6,000 fewer votes than Mitt Romney. Everyone apparently heard me say so. And they showed up. If you look at the percentage of votes across the country, Donald Trump gets 10 million more votes than in 2016. It's like a lot of people were on the fence because they thought he was racist. And then he started doing a whole bunch of racist things in office and suddenly he got 10 million more votes. And that's a scary thing for me. It's a scary thing for many people and a scary thing for democracy. Any policy that had failed and that we assumed would go under only got stronger.
I don't want to confuse people because taking over and defeating an incumbent president is a very difficult task and the fact that we did it is still remarkable. But what it says about how many votes he got is something that worries me.
Lots of people sat on the fence because they thought it might be racist. And then he started doing a whole bunch of racist things in office and suddenly got 10 million more votes. And that's a scary thing for me. It's a scary thing for many people and a scary thing for democracy.
Wisconsin Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes (D)
In 2012, Barack Obama did not get the number of votes he received in 2008. And we really need to see ourselves as a party and think about our reach, not just in color communities but in rural areas as well. We have to come up and not just be an alternative to the Republicans, just come up and basically say the same things and hope they will vote for us.
There has been much more reach and investment in Milwaukee this cycle, and particularly in the Black and Latino communities in Milwaukee, than in 2016. How do you explain that this time turnout either stagnated or declined in these communities?
So a couple of things. One of them is the suppression of voters. Another thing was that the Republicans and the Republican Party made very specific efforts to rhetorically suppress votes ... to convince blacks not to vote for Democrats - and not necessarily to vote for them, but to agree to it bring to stay at home.
I have really wild literature. There has been a real effort to keep people from showing up for the vote and convincing them that it is not worth appearing for Democrats. And part of that is that the [Democratic Party] hasn't built the best reputation - and it's not just for the last few years - it's over time. The party has worked in recent years to rebuild and repair relationships in black communities. We are talking about decades of growing apathy.
There seemed to be a completely redesigned campaign style to achieve and promote this cycle.
If all these efforts weren't made, we wouldn't have the result that we had.
So tell me why Why do you think the Republican vote has consolidated so much in rural areas?
I'll say that [Republicans] play a lot of blame. They say that big cities and the people who live in the cities take everything that should be yours. That is their message. That is a feeling even some rural Democrats have for not receiving a coherent response to it.
I think our message needs to be very clear. It happens to all of us. No matter where you live. Because Democrats usually preach the message of unity anyway. And I think this is one area where we can double that message and bring it home, especially when it comes to issues of inequality. These are the same forces that keep families down in Milwaukee City, the same forces that people struggle with [in rural areas].
Supporters wait for President Donald Trump to speak at a rally on October 30 at Austin Straubel Airport in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo: AP Photo / Morry Gash)
At that time I also wanted to ask about votes. How are Democrats supposed to drive the election with all of the Wisconsin Democratic Party's fundraising drives, with all of this infrastructure and Democrats in the governor's office?
That is a good question and a difficult one. Because gerrymandering is a form of voter suppression. Just because these maps are poorly drawn doesn't mean we shouldn't make an effort into the districts, as we still need to make sure that the candidates who run have an opportunity to communicate their messages effectively. And we need to make sure they have the resources to run an effective campaign to get the message across in areas where we need to get it across.
Even if you look at the districts this year compared to two or four years ago, there is a lot of movement. We won two seats in the Milwaukee suburbs in the State Assembly this year, and they were completely out of reach four years ago. You were within striking distance two years ago, but we took this mess with us. And I think there are more that we could possibly have, but there was this Trump turnout.
Which messages are not sent? I understand what you are saying that these districts are not inaccessible, the tides are slowly changing, but you have these big elections where the stakes are really high - the census is this year. So what didn't happen?
We still have a lot of data to look at. And I'm not going to say it didn't necessarily happen.
I think we can be bolder in our news - across the country too. A lot of these neglected incumbents wanted to tone down their stance, and I'm not saying you have to be out there with a megaphone or, kind of socialist, stick to the things that matter.
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People who do not want to deal with issues of racial injustice want to part with what they consider to be a radical movement on the left. ... if you are moving in the direction your Republican opponent is already headed, who will take you seriously?
Mandela Barnes
Be brave about bread and butter. Katie Porter [the California Democratic Congresswoman] changed seats in 2018. And she came back in 2020 with no problems because people knew who she was and people knew she would fight for her, even if they disagreed with her on certain guidelines. Because if the election falls on a Republican incumbent or a Democrat who may share some of the positions or political views that Republican incumbents share, they will choose who they are comfortable with. They will vote for the person who goes to their church and especially for rural parts of the state. They will vote for the person with whom they are more likely to agree on social issues.
What is brave about bread-and-butter issues like health care and what is not?
It shouldn't be a taboo to say that you believe everyone has health insurance and we'll find our way there. Some people would say that Medicare for All is the way to go. Maybe that's true. And if there is an alternative let's hear, but a lot of people want to end the conversation right away. A lot of people want to run away from such a problem and leave the conversation there. If you want to run away, you run to something. Run to something that offers people something better than what they are getting now. All of these things.
And also in environmental issues. I understand why people run away from problems like a Green New Deal because it should be different in every part of the country. Not every state has the same opportunities to carry out such reforms. The fact is, however, that the environment is in crisis and we are in an employment crisis that will get worse in the coming year if we don't do anything about it.
People who do not want to deal with issues of racial injustice want to part with what they consider to be a radical movement on the left. That's fine if you want to part with it, but where are you moving to? If you feel like I am being beaten up about this, I need to move away from this subject. If you're moving in the direction your Republican opponent is already headed, who will take you seriously?
You seem to be referring to the current struggle going on among Democrats at the national level in the House of Representatives where some members have said don't say "Defund the Police", don't do a Green New Deal, don't say Medicare for All.
This is a frustrating fight because, with all the talk of moving away from these issues that I've been talking about, well what do you want to talk about? What should be talked about? What should your voters be told? What should your constituents be told if you are an incumbent? That's why I have a problem. We cannot agree on issues, but I think we should definitely have a debate.
OK, so you're talking about this fight. What do you think of the issues people have dealt with in this election cycle? Is it brave enough to choose a public option to get people's attention?
Yeah, I think I got into this fight somehow.
Obviously, I think a public option is far better than where we are now. And there are people who feel like the public option might be enough - and it might be enough for some people. I think that was the biggest mistake of 2009, and Joe Lieberman [an independent Connecticut senator at the time] is being blamed for it.
But people obviously want more. People want to fight for more. I think people want to fight for Medicare for All, or as close to a universal health system as possible, and if you had a public option I wouldn't have a feeling that people would see this as the end of the world too know that this will take us a lot further than it does now. A public option is a gateway drug to use a failed analogy of a gateway drug. In many ways, a public option is the move.
People want to fight for more. I think people want to fight for Medicare for All, or as close as possible to a universal health system.
Mandela Barnes
So you got out of that election thinking the margins were tighter because the Democrats weren't big enough?
Yes. Because the stance we took as a party in this election was stronger than the stance we took four years ago, and our share of the vote has increased by 12 million. I think if we keep developing we have a chance to get even bigger. Now is definitely not the time to go back. And I have a feeling that when we get into these fights and go to a place where the path is less brave, then we kiss these voices goodbye. Look, people are hurting right now.
You know this is one of the most difficult times in American history. And the Republican Party is not afraid of what it will do. You are not afraid to miss out on the reality of the climate crisis. They are not afraid to completely ignore the issue of racial injustice. And what did that do? It brought them 10 million new votes.
This choice proves that people are imprisoned. People are locked up for Trump. And we thought we could pull it off. The growth that he had proves they are there. They are engaged.
Then how does that suit you when you say you can go to these rural areas and push the vote?
I don't feel like that. Rural communities, like urban communities, just want someone who stands up and is there for them and recognizes the greatest challenges they face.
So do you see them locked up or not locked up? I'm trying to clarify that.
I think we have room for growth. As if there are still people showing up for the vote. Lots of people are locked up. Not everyone is locked up, but the new growth they have some of it might be ours. However, I think we still have opportunities to increase our share of the vote. And in every part of a part of the state, in every part of America. It is entirely possible for us to go back to an Obama margin. I believe 100%.
Joe Biden's supporters in Milwaukee respond to the November 7 announcement that Biden defeated Trump in the presidential election. (Photo: AP Photo / Morry Gash)
Democrats raised about $ 35 million more than Republicans in Wisconsin. Do you think the party should think differently about how it spends money?
There are always things you can do differently, right.
I want to hear these things.
I would say that if we hadn't spent the money, if we hadn't raised the money, there is a very real chance that we would not have won by that narrow margin.
Then what is the path to return to the Obama fringes?
Unlike having Obama on the map.
Yes no no no I just freshen up the lungs. That's all.
Obviously, Hillary Clinton, who was uniquely unpopular, was a huge influence. Being popular with Biden made a huge impact. All of this is important, but different from that
All of this is important. That being said, in 2008 I feel like the party knew who we were. I don't think there was this identity crisis. I think there was the idea that we could move forward as a nation from the disaster of eight years of George W. Bush's presidency. And there was a way we could do it together. People were inspired, and you can't take that part of politics. There's the political part of it. There is funding for elections, but there is also this deep, personal connection that exists that cannot be underestimated.
And Democrats don't have that anymore?
I'm not going to say we don't have that anymore. People like Joe a lot. He won the first hand after raising very little money and having no real infrastructure.
We can't expect another Barack Obama to show up. This is a one-time, if not lifelong, candidate. But I will say that we still have to make these personal connections.
What do you mean, Democrats knew who they were in 2008 compared to today?
In 2008 I wasn't that mature in politics. But I don't feel that there were a number of seemingly irreconcilable differences. I'm not going to say we are broken, but we are definitely faction.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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