Photo by Narayan Mahon
For more than a year now, you’ve been a Democratic state senator from Milwaukee in a Republican-controlled Legislature. What Republican legislator do you get along with best?
I can’t name one that I like any better than the other. But I have been able to, in the weirdest way, work with some of the Republican legislators. Sen. Glenn Grothman [R-West Bend], for instance. I show myself to be friendly, and so there’s some friendliness on the other side.
In your 2013 holiday newsletter, you said reality has set in. What did you mean?
I came in with this blissful ignorance, a sense that I could save the world. Then, you get a reality check. For instance, you’re expected to give a long explanation right on the spot on whatever issue is out there. That was challenging and intimidating. BadgerCare is an example. People wanted me to know what would happen even before Obamacare took effect. But I like to dissect an issue and find a solution before I speak. I soon realized I had some homework to do.
Vel Phillips, Wisconsin’s first black female secretary of state, says she faced more discrimination in politics as a woman than as an African-American.
I agree 100 percent. Being respected as a woman is a struggle on both sides of the aisle. And even when I do give an opinion, you worry that it won’t count because somebody is taking apart every little thing you say. Sometimes, something specific around race comes up, like the [school] mascot issue. I spoke out on the floor on that and talked about the history of white privilege. But so many issues focus as much on economics or gender. I certainly have felt that lack of respect is much stronger because I’m a woman, not because I’m African-American.
You lost your father in 2013. While paying your respects, you met three new siblings.
My story is complicated, which is why I’ve never really told it. I’m 39, and on my mother’s side, I have eight siblings, and four more on my dad’s side. And they’re all my half siblings. So I’m the oldest of 13. When people talk about the intricacies of the modern family, I understand that.
You’ve seen major changes in your life.
From about 22 until 32 years old, I was an ultraconservative Christian who wore skirts down to my ankles. I didn’t wear makeup; I didn’t dance. If my church told me Christ was coming back soon, I believed that. I drank the Kool-Aid 120 percent. However, I never voted conservative. I joined the church when in college and felt I needed guidance. My mother was on drugs and alcohol all of my life. My dad abandoned our family when I was young. And I was raised by my grandmother. Having grown up with that past, and then leaving to go to college, I was kind of lost.
What made you change?
The loss of my mother and understanding that life is too short to be living in conflict with my heart. I didn’t believe that gay people were a problem or that abortion was evil, but in my religion, those were sins. The death of my mother reminded me of who I truly was.
What issues are closest to your heart?
Certainly education, that’s No. 1. Black male unemployment is another, and the high incarceration rate. In my district, foreclosures are a huge issue. When I was doing doors, it blew my mind to see so many people living in abandoned properties, or doubling up with family, or in homeless shelters, or living on the street. People don’t disappear just because their homes are foreclosed. And you ask yourself, what is going on here?
Who is your political hero?
Bill Clinton. I came of age in the Clinton era, and he had this ability to connect with all people. And he has this flair about him that is obviously attractive. And he had a lot of power. And to bounce back off the scandals he had, that’s amazing. But what also struck me, he was a phenomenal fundraiser at a time when it was challenging.
You were a Milwaukee County supervisor for two years. Are you pro-Abele or pro-board?
I have friends on the board, and I consider Chris Abele a friend. They have to work out their situation among themselves. It’s like when you’re younger, and your mom tells you to stay out of other folks’ business.
What are your ambitions?
I can see going back to school to get my Ph.D. in political science to teach college. Or perhaps be the president of a black university. I’m open to wherever the universe sends me.