The Race To Replace GOP Sen. Ron Johnson In Wisconsin Begins With Mandela Barnes

Nine months ago, Mandela Barnes received an unexpected phone call from Ron Klain, President Joe Biden’s chief of staff, asking him if he was interested in potentially becoming the president’s national climate adviser. 

Barnes, elected Wisconsin’s first Black lieutenant governor in the Democrats’ blue-wave 2018 election cycle, obviously did not get the job. Just two weeks later, on Dec. 15, Biden tapped former Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy to the post instead. 

But for a brief moment, the call prompted a whirlwind of considerations for the young politician. Barnes, 34, has spent the last year gaming out the different paths his life could take. Wrangle a Biden administration job? Run for another term as lieutenant governor with eyes set on the governorship one day?

In July, he settled on one: He announced he would run for the U.S. Senate, a move that was anticipated by many political observers in the state. He’s coming into the primary as a favorite; his internal poll shows him 29 percentage points ahead of anyone else in the race. Republican Ron Johnson currently holds the seat, but he hasn’t yet said whether he will run for reelection.

Those in the Democratic Party’s power center are keeping a close eye on him — even if he’s not ready to be a chief adviser to the president. Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general under President Barack Obama, described Barnes as a “budding star for the Democratic Party” and equated his authenticity to that of Obama’s. On Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) endorsed him, cementing the national progressive organizing world’s support. Those in the orbit of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are working for Barnes.

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes was under consideration for a post in the Biden administration. Now his sights are set on a

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes was under consideration for a post in the Biden administration. Now his sights are set on a U.S. Senate held by a Republican.

If Barnes wins, he’d make history as the first Black senator from a state that helped deliver Donald Trump the presidency in 2016, elected Barnes and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers two years later and flipped for Biden in 2020. He would replace a senator who has spread conspiracies about COVID-19 vaccines, questioned the seriousness of the disease and downplayed the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.

“Of course, the dude has got to go,” Barnes said about Johnson, parroting a phrase Vice President Kamala Harris once used about Trump. “But more than anything, we have to fix the Senate. It’s not representative of the American public. It is a less than Democratic institution at times — and by at times I mean most times.”

Barnes is the archetype of a rising liberal name; he’s a young Black Midwesterner with progressive ideals, born in the state’s poorest neighborhood, who has climbed the ranks of state politics. He’s good at making connections. He’s not the establishment, but he’s not a leftist rabble-rouser either. 

Those around him talk about his “authenticity” before they talk of his record. Even his detractors will talk about that “energy” but only before saying, albeit hyperbolically, that he’s been on the ballot more than he’s actually done any one thing. That he’s a man looking for the next promotion.

Barnes’s profile captures much of the new Democratic project. But no one is billing 2022 as a Democratic wave election year. He’s running in what will likely be one of the most heated Senate races in history as Democrats’ few shots at expanding their majority. And he’s certainly not the first man to have been billed as a rising star.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has not said whether he will run for reelection. 

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has not said whether he will run for reelection. 

‘The “It” Thing’

It was early May, and Barnes was sitting under a picnic shelter at a park near his Madison home, tired. His last 24 hours had taken him to the north of the state and back down. He was selling the #BadgerBounceBack — Wisconsin Democrats’ branded economic recovery plan.

After a year largely doing Zoom calls and virtual events, Barnes was back on the road. This was tourism week. Encouraging vaccinations, talking to small businesses about the relief money coming into the state, throwing baseballs, visiting schools and eating ice cream. 

His schedule was as close to campaigning as a state official could have while on the clock. 

He knew he was going to run for senator. He had told the governor. He had lined up some campaign staff. But he was on official duty talking about the state budget and reopening the economy. 

“I’m so tired of my living room,” Barnes said. He likes campaigning. “The goal is not to be where we were in February 2020. The goal is to exceed that. The goal is to remedy the inequities, the struggles not just businesses face but also individuals. The pandemic exacerbated inequality. It basically highlighted the problems we have, and we need to address those problems.”

For the last two years, this has more or less been Barnes’s job; he’s the younger, more charismatic, Twitter- and Instagram-addicted, TV-ready sidekick to Evers. His role is less about power (the lieutenant governor in Wisconsin doesn’t really have any) and more about visibility.

“In many ways he was one of the most significant faces of the Democrats’ campaign,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said. “Even more than in 2018, in 2020 he stood out as the state spokesperson for the Democrats. That was an important role. Clearly the state was in play.”

The Senate race is still in very early days. The Democratic primary is August 2022. Barnes’s contenders are state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, the EMILY’s List candidate who worked in defense contracting in Washington, D.C., and for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign in Wisconsin; Alex Lasry, the son of Milwaukee Bucks basketball team owner Marc Lasry, who was behind the Bucks’ new stadium and bringing the Democratic National Convention to Milwaukee, even though it became virtual; and Tom Nelson, a progressive county executive from a fairly conservative part of the state. 

His competitors see an opening. But for now, Barnes’s internal polling shows him leading the field with nearly 40% of the vote with no other candidate breaking 10%. More important, most people in the state already know who he is, and he’s popular. 

When those around Barnes talk about his talent, this is the kind of thing that comes to mind first. At just 25, he was elected to Wisconsin’s General Assembly by trouncing a four-term incumbent Democrat in the primary. He served two terms, entirely in the minority. He chaired the Black and Hispanic Caucus and authored a list of progressive bills that would go nowhere in a conservative statehouse but that have defined his politics.

Mandela Barnes speaks to supporters at the Racine County Democratic office on Nov. 4, 2018, as he runs for lieutenant governo

Mandela Barnes speaks to supporters at the Racine County Democratic office on Nov. 4, 2018, as he runs for lieutenant governor.

Barnes remembers the names of people he met just once a year prior. He’s good behind a microphone, whether on a stage, on the radio or on television. It’s that raw talent that draws people in — that “it” factor that has gotten candidates on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine with the headline “I’m Just Born to Be in It.” The Beto O’Rourke schtick, for better or worse. 

“The fact that he has the ability to use the bully pulpit for issues that are important — the fact that he has that… an undefinable thing,” Holder said, recounting his experience campaigning with Barnes over the course of a weekend in 2018. “Some people have it and some don’t, and he does. That ‘it’ thing. He’s got that.” 

It’s easy to see Barnes getting the same kind of attention that those like Beto O’Rourke or even Obama got. He has a similar confidence — the kind that really can only come from being labeled a “rising star” from age 25.

“He is a guy who believes his own mythology to a certain extent,” a Wisconsin Democratic operative said.

Former President Barack Obama campaigns for Democrats Tony Evers (left) for governor, Mandela Barnes for lieutenant governor

Former President Barack Obama campaigns for Democrats Tony Evers (left) for governor, Mandela Barnes for lieutenant governor and Sarah Godlewski for state treasurer at a school in Milwaukee on Oct. 26, 2018. All three were successful.

‘He Didn’t Allow Himself To Get Typecast’

In Milwaukee in 2018, Eric Holder watched Barnes get on stage in front of a primarily Black audience and talk about how climate change was ravaging rural Wisconsin. It caught Holder off-guard. 

“He didn’t allow himself to get typecast as a Black politician,” Holder said. That sort of stereotype — of Black lawmakers who only narrowly focused on matters of race — didn’t fully capture Barnes’s breadth, he said. 

“He’s not only interested in criminal justice or police reform, but he also talks about economic issues for the larger community, climate change,” he added.

It’s deliberate on Barnes’s part.

To be clear, Barnes is interested in those issues. He announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate at a Black entrepreneurial hub in Milwaukee built in the place of a building burned down in 2016 during violent protests after a fatal police shooting. He’s been outspoken about police violence and the lack of accountability for law enforcement. And his last job before politics was faith-based organizing in Milwaukee that touched a lot of these issues — from public housing to prison populations.

A police car drives past a sign showing support for Jacob Blake Jr., who was shot seven times in the back by a Kenosha police

A police car drives past a sign showing support for Jacob Blake Jr., who was shot seven times in the back by a Kenosha police officer on Aug. 23, 2020. Blake was left paralyzed from the waist down.

Barnes isn’t a strict ideologue. As for now, there’s no campaign policy platform to be found on his website — though it’s coming. His video announcing his campaign supports the kinds of things liberal Democrats support: lower health care costs, improve education outcomes, create jobs, protect family farms, fight climate change and expand voter rights.

But he’s clearly a progressive. He’s backed building a Green New Deal, the framework championed by Sanders, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to rebuild a green economy. He doesn’t think “Medicare for All,” the proposal that would move all Americans to a single government run health insurance program, is that radical.

After the 2020 election, he said Democrats could have won bigger if they had championed bolder ideas, showed up more in rural areas and built more trust among communities of color. 

“Because the stances we took this election as a party were stronger than the stances we took four years ago and our vote share increased by 12 million,” Barnes said, “I think that if we keep moving forward, we stand a chance to grow even larger. Now is definitely not the time to turn back. And I feel like if we get into these fights and we end up going to a place where less bold is the path, then I think we kiss those votes goodbye.”

Biden narrowly won Wisconsin in 2020 — with a margin of victory smaller than Trump’s in the state in 2016. Just two years prior, Sen. Tammy Baldwin won reelection with an 11-point sweep in a wave election year. (Baldwin is not expected to throw around an endorsement in the primary.) But this cycle is going to be harder. Republicans in the state are raring to get one of their own back in the governors mansion and nationally take back control of Congress. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, says he expects Johnson to run again. 

That’s why Barnes is running. He wants to end the filibuster to pass things like a minimum-wage hike and a voting rights bill. He wants to get the stuff passed he had no chance of passing in Wisconsin. As a state lawmaker, the bills he authored were along those lines: wage bills, marijuana legalization, police reform.

As lieutenant governor, Barnes’s biggest project was heading up the governor’s Task Force on Climate Change, which after two years produced a report with 55 climate solutions for across the state. It was a role he felt gave him a “presence in governing.”

When asked about his record, Barnes’s backers acknowledge the limitations and say he has to run close to Evers. This issue is not unique to Barnes. Godlewski, too, as state treasurer, serves in a role stripped of authority. And she is in an even less public-facing position.

“Much of the legislative time, we were in the minority, and he was just a very good spokesperson for the Democratic position,” said Pocan, who was elected to the U.S. House the year Barnes began as a state legislator. “As young as he is, he’s very savvy. He knows how to articulate some of the biggest issues we’re facing.”

It was early in his career, pre-politics, working on a doomed organizing project to reduce Wisconsin’s prison population, when Barnes learned to talk to everyone about everything.

The statewide campaign aimed to reduce the prison population to 11,000 by 2015. Building the movement required convincing parts of the state that weren’t particularly racially diverse.

“If you can organize people all around the state on an issue like criminal justice reform, then it’s pretty evident we have a whole lot more in common that we can work together to pursue,” Barnes said.

Mandela Barnes speaks in support of Wisconsin expanding Medicaid coverage during a news conference as a state lawmaker in 201

Mandela Barnes speaks in support of Wisconsin expanding Medicaid coverage during a news conference as a state lawmaker in 2013.

That movement wasn’t ever able to produce results. The state still has close to 20,000 inmates. And Barnes left the organization far before the project’s end date to run for the state Assembly. 

“He understands the differences between Milwaukee and a more rural part of the state but, more importantly, understands the issues that connect those two,” Eric Couto, who runs Wisconsin Progress, a progressive organization that recruits and trains candidates for office. He trained both Barnes and Godlewski, Barnes’s competition.

Why talk to Milwaukee residents about climate change in rural Wisconsin?

“If I get into that climate change conversation, I can talk about food access in general, and what’s accessible in certain communities and why that’s the case,” Barnes said.

A Man On The Move

Barnes grew up in a middle-class family in Milwaukee. But his first childhood home was in the city’s most impoverished ZIP code, where two-thirds of the children live in poverty, 95% of the community is Black and the majority of men have spent some time in jail or prison. 

He’s an only child. His dad was a union worker in the General Motors plant, his mom a schoolteacher. By elementary school, his family had moved to a predominantly white neighborhood sandwiched between country clubs. 

He went to both private schools and public ones. He was a football player and a member of the debate team. He skipped a grade in elementary school and at age 16 ended up at Alabama A&M University, a historically Black university, where he joined a fraternity that remains an important part of his life. He officially received his college diploma last year, resolving unfinished coursework that he called a “technical issue” with his transcript. That “issue,” along with questions about some late-paid property taxes, were the source of many attacks against him in his run for lieutenant governor and will surely rise again should he make it to the general election.

This is a man always on the move. He left college for internships and low-level jobs in the Milwaukee mayor’s office before becoming a faith-based community organizer in Milwaukee. It wasn’t long until he decided to challenge an incumbent in the Democratic primary to represent Milwaukee in the state Assembly. Barnes won in a landslide in 2012 and ran unchallenged for reelection two years later.

So in 2016, he decided to take on one of the most entrenched Milwaukee state senators, Democrat Lena Taylor. It’s a race that has become one of the most defining times of his career ― for being a low point.

“I got into the Assembly by kicking a door open, and I thought I was ready to go for it,” Barnes said. “Some of the shit was wild. People were legitimately angry with me for running.”

There were days when he would sit in his car knowing he was on a political suicide mission, Barnes told HuffPost. By the time he’d finished knocking on doors, he hated everything he was doing. It was too soon. He had listened only to political insiders and yes men, and it turned out the naysayers were right.

“I could see something was totally off, but it was too late,” Barnes said. “There would be a time I would drive to a turf and I would just sit in my car dreading the thought of getting out, and I knew it would be a hellish day.”

He lost by 30 percentage points, and he created a lot of enemies. He was painted as too young and inexperienced. Taylor has a long record of working with Republicans to pass bills in Wisconsin, even if controversial. Crucially, Barnes maintains he didn’t embarrass himself. And those relationships have mostly mended, he says.

Taylor campaigned for him to win the lieutenant governorship in 2018.

Over the course of an hour call, Taylor didn’t criticize him outright once, but instead she nibbled around the edges. She went back to his community organizing days with the Milwaukee faith-based organization, saying she wished he had finished his projects before running for the state Assembly. She emphasized the need for people to look deep into the candidates’ records and follow the “receipts.” She listed the achievements of the other candidates in the race.

“The lieutenant governor has made great relationships across the nation and more than some other candidates,” Taylor said. “I see the lieutenant governor as someone who has gone to different places in the state, and I think that’s useful because people knowing who you are is a large portion of the battle, even if they don’t know what you’ve done, even if you haven’t done anything.”

Then she said what everyone else says about him. Barnes has energy. He’s excited. He is masterful at connecting with people. She hasn’t endorsed any candidate in the race.

“I’ve seen him in multiple ways, and every time I can consistently say there’s that energy that I remember him having,” Taylor said. “Everyone can’t really rile a crowd; there is no question that he is someone who can do that. He has an athlete kind of way.” 

But the moment Taylor hung up, her chief of staff called HuffPost and was far blunter. 

“Somebody needs to say it out loud,” said Michelle Bryant, who is also a former candidate for state Senate and now has her own radio show in Milwaukee. “The most successful thing Mandela Barnes has done is get elected. No one’s life has been made better because Mandela Barnes has been elected to office.”

“Tammy Baldwin needs some legitimate help after this Ron Johnson fiasco, and just sending a pretty face isn’t going to cut it,” she added.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) speaks with Mandela Barnes at a campaign stop in Milwaukee.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) speaks with Mandela Barnes at a campaign stop in Milwaukee.

It’s the kind of criticism that is expected of the general election. Already Republicans in the state have called Barnes “just another empty suit” trying to get a promotion

Barnes would surely grumble at this depiction of himself. He was careful not to announce his Senate bid until well after the state’s budget process, until Evers himself had announced his reelection bid. He’s wary of what it looks like.

“I’m not going to put the ambition before the work,” Barnes said. “Outside of politics, before I was elected, that was one of my pet peeves about elected officials…. I have never wanted to be that person.”

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