Mandela Barnes

Former state Rep. Mandela Barnes is stoked. He’s talking about plans to put Wisconsin on a fast track to the future by creating an infrastructure that supports homegrown business startups and making the state a more desirable place to live for young people. His enthusiasm is palpable as he describes the multi-layered benefits of expanding high-speed internet, repairing Wisconsin’s “Scott-holed” roads, enacting gun reform, developing supply chains for green energy and making college more attainable. 

Barnes is seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor and, in that office, he hopes to help the state implement his vision. “The lieutenant governor’s office is well positioned to work with the Legislature on these issues,” Barnes said.

At the party’s convention in Oshkosh earlier this month, he won 81 percent of the votes cast in a straw poll conducted by WisPolitics. Sheboygan businessman Kurt Kober was the only other contender.

We believe the Democratic conventioneers picked the right candidate. Wisconsin Gazette enthusiastically endorses Barnes in his Aug. 14 primary race and against incumbent Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in November. 

Barnes, 31, represents a generation and a mindset that have so far been shut out of the state’s executive offices. He embodies the future he foresees.

Despite his relative youth, Barnes has the political résumé and finesse of a seasoned candidate. He was first elected to the state Assembly at age 25, and served there for four years. He was named chair of the Legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus during his first term.

In 2016, Barnes was one of 12 leaders in the nation chosen to join NewDEAL (Developing Exceptional American Leaders), a national network that is “developing, fighting for, and implementing pro-growth, progressive policies that address the challenges of the new economy,” according to the organization’s website. 

The Nation magazine named Barnes a “Top 10 Progressive Candidate for 2018.”

For the past year, in addition to serving as second vice-chair of the state Democratic Party, Barnes has worked for State Innovation Exchange, which provides policy support to progressive state legislators throughout the country.


‘Time to define ourselves’

Barnes has won the respect of legislative colleagues with whom he’s served.

State Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, who worked closely with him on several key issues in the Assembly, is among the more than half of Democratic state lawmakers who’ve endorsed Barnes. “He’s got a lot of experience both across the state and nationally,” Brostoff said.

Barnes also has the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, as well as the Communication Workers of America, Iron Workers Local Union No. 8, MoveOn, Moms Demand Action (on guns), and People for the American Way.

Barnes said he’s running a positive campaign, focusing on the merits of his agenda.

“For too many election cycles, we’ve run against Scott Walker, and we haven’t talked about our plans,” he said. “It’s time for us to define ourselves and push forward on a bold agenda for the state.”

He said the time to promote progressive values has never been better. “We can’t waste this moment and lose the opportunity to re-engage voters who lost interest in 2016. We have to general some enthusiasm, some energy,” he said.


Education, health care, environment

Barnes stressed the importance of education in improving the state’s quality of life. In addition to student-loan reform, he believes the state should offer free two-year college programs to address the state’s shortage of skilled workers.

Barnes said another area of education that needs attention is student health. “Students have physical and mental health needs that need to be addressed, and schools don’t have enough social workers or nurses. If we have $4 billion to throw at a large foreign company (Foxconn), then we can use money to improve the lives of our students.”

Barnes believes the state should have accepted Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Now, he said, the state needs a “BadgerCare-for-all option, which would reduce the costs for everybody.”

Barnes takes exception to the “reactionary way the government has handled the opioid crisis. Legislation has been at the back end and not at the root cause, which is incentivizing doctors to over-prescribe.”

Attorney General Brad Schimel, who is supported by drug company donations, has declined to tackle that problem.

Barnes also emphasized the importance of bringing back sustainable environmental stewardship to Wisconsin. For example, factory dairy farms now are allowed to dump millions of tons of manure, which seeps into the groundwater. Some residents of northeastern Wisconsin have so much waste contaminating their wells that raw sewage runs out of their spigots. Barnes said such problems stem from Republicans allowing big corporations to write environmental regulatory rules and the state’s failure to enforce the rules that exist.

As he travels the state introducing himself to people, Barnes is finding that Wisconsinites everywhere are concerned about the same things. 

“When I talk about the issues, people get it,” he said. “We have way more in common than we do differences. We’re building bridges, understanding why we’re all in this together.”

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