Mandela Barnes Sees Our Greatest Opportunities in Our Biggest Challenges

Mandela Barnes has no prescribed duties as lieutenant governor. All the better to advance his agenda of equity and sustainability.

Mandela Barnes doesn’t stay in one place too long these days.

Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor has been crisscrossing the state almost constantly since January, when the 32-year-old Milwaukee native and Marshall High School graduate became the youngest person in the country to hold a second-in-command spot in state government. 

He’s visited a health care center in La Crosse, gone ice fishing up north in Washburn County, attended the groundbreaking for a new medical center in Racine, toured the troubled Lincoln Hills juvenile correctional facility in Irma and met with local leaders in Stevens Point to discuss clean water initiatives.

He’s met with tribal leaders in Hayward, discussed the need for rural internet expansion in Reedsburg and visited a homeless shelter in Rice Lake. Barnes has also made dozens of stops at schools and community centers and shuffled between Milwaukee and Madison numerous times for meetings on the business of government, the state budget and upcoming legislation.

At most of these excursions, the 6-foot-1 Barnes dresses on the upper border of business casual: many suits, very few ties.

“I enjoy getting out in the state,” Barnes says in his unwavering deep, bass-filled voice. “There’s a whole lot to see.”

And, as he and his boss, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, are still within their first year on the job, he’s finding there’s not only a whole lot to see, but there’s a whole lot of work to do.

As lieutenant governor, however, Barnes finds himself in a unique position of having no officially defined job duties. From the looks of it so far, Barnes’ job seems to be part cheerleader – showing up to recognize and acknowledge different efforts and initiatives across the state – and part policy pusher for Evers – traveling around the state to inform residents about how the two want to improve the quality of life in Wisconsin.

To that end, Barnes and Evers have big plans.

They want to expand BadgerCare, the state’s low-income health care program; decriminalize or possibly legalize marijuana; and increase funding for all levels of public education, from kindergarten through college, among many other issues. They also want to reduce the state’s record-setting incarceration rates and address other criminal justice inequities.

Barnes knows that’s an ambitious list. “I see our greatest opportunities in our biggest challenges,” he’s fond of saying.

That confidence is a large part of Barnes’ magnetic personality, along with a casual, calm demeanor, intelligence and approachability. In personal interactions, he has an earnest inquisitiveness that makes someone feel like Barnes really wants to understand them.

Barnes seemed to add just enough charisma to the Democratic ticket to push himself and the bookish and sometimes awkward Evers over the edge to victory against two-term incumbents Scott Walker and Rebecca Kleefisch. With it, Evers and Barnes did something Democrats couldn’t come close to doing in three elections – including a failed recall attempt – over eight years.

And Barnes became only the second black person, behind Secretary of State Vel Phillips some 40 years ago, to be elected to statewide office in Wisconsin.

“I want to be sure that we’re focused on creating a more equitable & sustainable state.”

Whether it’s humility or perhaps political tact, Barnes deflects credit for his role in ending the fractious Walker era. He stands firm that their commitment to the issues is what got Evers and him elected. “People wanted to see a more positive vision for the state of Wisconsin,” he says.

Tackling topics like these and making other major policy changes “gives Wisconsin the opportunity to be an example for the rest of the nation,” continues Barnes. “We have to do a better job at making Wisconsin the leader that it could be.”

IF AND EXACTLY HOW he and Evers achieve those goals remains to be seen. Barnes knows that accomplishing anything with a Legislature completely controlled by Republicans will be a challenge.

And while lieutenant governor is a relatively powerless position, Barnes is finding his own ways to focus on their priorities.

“It’s very flexible. And I think that’s one of the things that attracted me to it,” he says of the job. “It depends on the relationship that you have with the governor. In this situation, [Gov. Evers asked me] ‘So, hey, Mandela, what are you thinking about doing? What do you want to do?’”

Barnes’ reply: “I want to be sure that we’re focused on creating a more equitable and sustainable state.”

While that sounds like a great campaign tagline, Barnes is still fleshing out how such efforts can become attainable goals.

On sustainability, he says, “the biggest tangible initiatives are going to be moving Wisconsin toward a clean energy future.”

To do that, he plans to implement clean energy initiatives through an end-run around the Republican-controlled state Assembly and Senate by working directly with local elected officials. “A lot of it, at least for this year and the next year, is going to be working with local elected leaders who have demonstrated that commitment,” says Barnes. “The Republican Legislature is not going to act on environmental issues.”

Specifically, Barnes hopes to connect mayors, county executives and others with state agencies to take steps toward clean energy by helping those municipalities apply for funding, arranging large group buys of energy-efficient technology and sharing best practices. “We want to empower our local leaders to drive the change because they have all the opportunities [and], in many instances, they could be even more effective than the state,” he says. “But the state has to be a partner.”

Barnes attended an Inner City Sportsmen Club fishing outing at Washington Park in May – an example of the various and often ceremonial duties of the lieutenant governor.

On equity, Barnes’ ideas are less formed, but he knows the areas he wants to target – Milwaukee is certainly among them – and where the problems are. “The end goal is to make Wisconsin a place where everybody has a chance. We’re not there right now,” he says. “Look at the rate of poverty [in Milwaukee at more than 27%]. Look at the impact of mass incarceration. There are gaps in education that stem from a lack of opportunity.

“We have to look at the barriers to education that exist. We have to work to eliminate those barriers so that all children can be on a level playing field,” he says. “We have to make sure that opportunities exist for good-paying, living-wage jobs.”

Drawing attention to these issues is the reason Barnes got into politics to begin with. “I want to drive that policy conversation,” he says. “And I want to do that as lieutenant governor because … there’s a larger microphone to talk about these issues.”

The GOP, meanwhile, sees lots of talk but no action. Charles Nichols, research and communications director for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, says Barnes’ office produced nothing of substance in its halfyear or so. “I think there are some times that Barnes has gotten a little ahead of his skis on some issues,” Nichols says. “It still remains to be seen what this administration is going to make of the office.”

Under scrutiny

IN MANDELA BARNES’ VIEW, he’s been dragged by Republicans since taking office for doing his job, forgetting about a few parking tickets and paying a bill a little late.

The string of headlines began this spring with a report that Barnes had amassed nine times the hours of State Patrol security protection during his first two months in office than his Republican predecessor Rebecca Kleefisch had all of last year. The cost to the state was almost $37,000, on pace for $220,000 for the year.

Then, two stories on his personal finances: Three unpaid parking tickets in Milwaukee were so overdue that registration of the car was blocked; a judge fined him $108. Lastly, Barnes missed property tax payments on his Milwaukee home, a condo he owns just south of Good Hope Road. (Barnes also owns a small condo on Madison’s north side.) Barnes owed a bit more than $2,000 in taxes, interest and penalties.

Clearly angry, Barnes took to social media, describing the negative news coverage as “way more ridiculous that it ever should have gotten.”

“Security presence would obviously increase if more work is being done, a parking ticket is a [rite] of passage in Milwaukee, and yes, a bill sat on the refrigerator a little too long.”

He ended his online rant stating all of this was “disappointingly expected.”

In an interview this summer, the lieutenant governor called the unpaid parking tickets and late tax bills – which he says have all now been paid – “simple oversights.”

On the extra security, Barnes says the coverage is reminiscent of an old, racially tinged Republican campaign talking point from the 1980s. “[It] goes back even to Reagan and the welfare queen with a Cadillac. … That’s the same exact imagery, using taxpayer dollars to live this luxury lifestyle,” he says.

Questions about the need for Barnes’ security detail were referred to Kristin McHugh, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, which oversees the State Patrol. “The level of security for dignitaries is based on threat and risk assessment. We do not comment on threats because of the potential to put the dignitary at risk.” She declined to comment further.

Citing ongoing investigations, the St class=”sans”;ate Patrol denied a Milwaukee Magazine records request for any documents related to threats of violence against Barnes. 

BARNES WAS BORN AT MOUNT SINAI hospital near Downtown in 1986 and is named after South African political revolutionary Nelson Mandela. Barnes’ mother, LaJuan, was a Milwaukee Public Schools teacher, and his father, Jesse, worked at the General Motors plant in Oak Creek. Both were active union members.

With their only child, Barnes’ parents were “super strict,” he says, partly joking, with a classically Wisconsin dry wit. “Unnecessarily strict. They’re still strict.”

For the early years of his childhood, the family of three lived on North 26th Street, between Center and Locust streets. While the Barneses had middle-class income, they lived in the North Side’s now-notorious 53206 ZIP code, where poverty was prevalent and crime was common.

Barnes speaks to the graduating class of his alma mater, Milwaukee Marshall High School, this May.

But while he was still an elementary school student at Holy Redeemer Christian Academy – where he skipped a grade – the Barnes family moved to the predominantly white neighborhood of Bradley Estates, just north of Good Hope Road. “I was young, but I understood that things were much different from where I was previously,” he says. Those differences included “income, race, mobility. What people had and what people didn’t have. It was a very stark contrast.”

At Marshall High School, Barnes was on the debate team, which taught him “how to craft an argument … and then convey to an audience the things you care about, the things you’re passionate about.”

He was also the captain of his football team. “My senior year, I was a middle linebacker, which is almost a metaphor for this position I’m in now – you gotta be present everywhere. Every issue is your issue.”

Mandela Barnes, No. 77, on Marshall High School’s football team
Mandela Barnes’ yearbook photo at Marshall High School

From there, Barnes attended Alabama A&M University, where he says he spent five years studying telecommunications and was a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He joined the frat, he says, because “it was an organization where I saw a lot of campus leaders – people who are not just active in the fraternity but active in other organizations [like] student government.”

It was around then, in 2008, when Barnes says he started getting tattooed. His most visible ink covers much of his left arm, which he usually hides under a shirt sleeve. He’s uncharacteristically shy talking about his tattoos and why he got them, stating only they’re a combination of words and symbols – “fraternity stuff … things that represent different periods in my life.”

After a brief stint working on an unsuccessful 2009 congressional campaign in Louisiana, Barnes landed back in Milwaukee and bounced from being an intern to receptionist in the office of Mayor Tom Barrett.

“You could definitely see very quickly that he wanted to make public service his vocation,” says Barrett. “He was very proactive [and] asked lots of questions. It was clear that he was a person who wanted to be more knowledgeable about community affairs. He was very sponge-like – he soaked it all in.”

What finally pushed Barnes into politics was the work he did as an organizer with the Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope community group advocating for social justice. “It was the issues that we were working on, like job and economic development, education, immigration reform and treatment instead of prison,” he explains. He wanted to have more impact.

So, in 2012, when he was just 25 years old, Barnes threw his hat into the ring for the state Assembly’s 11th District on the city’s North Side, challenging fellow Democrat Rep. Jason Fields. “This was the first election since Scott Walker had been elected, so tensions were high, people were engaged,” he says. “And people wanted leadership.”

After trouncing Fields (who would eventually regain his Assembly seat after Barnes left the office) in the primary, Barnes would serve two terms in the Assembly before setting his sights on the seat of another Milwaukee Democratic incumbent – State Sen. Lena Taylor – in 2016.

That race didn’t go well for Barnes. He lost handily to Taylor, who had a much longer and stronger legislative track record. “Every time I was knocking on doors during that campaign, all I heard about was how [Taylor] had passed 100 bills,” says Barnes, who failed to get any of his own legislation signed into law as a state representative during a time when Republicans controlled all branches of government. “People ask me, ‘Would you do it again?’ I would definitely do it again. Given that my first race, I won – I didn’t know what it meant to lose. You learn a lot. Beating an incumbent is never easy.”

Out of office and out of work, Barnes then took a gig as the deputy director of strategic engagement for the national progressive policy organization State Innovation Exchange. But it wasn’t long before the itch to enter another election had to be scratched.

“The direction this state was in was still very important [to me and], I wanted to be involved in one way or another [but I] didn’t know what that looked like or what it meant,” he recalls. “In 2018, I had a choice to either run for my old seat in the Legislature or try something different.”

He chose something different – the lieutenant governor’s race – because “during my race for the Senate, the issues that we talked about were broader and had an impact across the state” and that office “was an opportunity that wasn’t just going to come back around in the next four years.”

And, in an echo of his riding the wave of intensity and anger over Walker into office in the Assembly, the presidential race of 2016 also played a part in Barnes’ decision to run for lieutenant governor.

“We had a vulnerable incumbent Republican governor, and I knew that one of the keys, looking at some of the gaps that need to be filled between 2016 and 2018, was more authentic engagement with younger voters and voters in communities of color. I knew that if we can have a slight uptick [with those voters], then we could win,” he says. “Looking at who Wisconsin went for in 2016 for president, I knew that we could easily beat that back with real organizing, a real message and a real vision.

“I definitely wasn’t ready to run for governor in 2018, [so] lieutenant governor seemed like the perfect spot,” he adds.

After announcing his candidacy in January of last year, Barnes easily won the Democratic primary in August against Sheboygan businessman Kurt Kober despite some odd incidents along the campaign. Three newspapers in Kenosha and Oneida counties mistakenly left Barnes off the sample ballots they published, and Milwaukee’s CBS 58 displayed a photo of Barnes while reporting the death of a different man in a car crash the night before the primary.

After securing his spot as No. 2, with Tony Evers on the top of the ticket, the pair led a strong get-out-the-vote campaign. The November contest between Evers-Barnes and Walker-Kleefisch pulled in more than 2.6 million voters statewide, the largest number of voters ever in a Wisconsin midterm election. In the end, the Evers-Barnes team took the victory by a razor-thin margin of just more than 1 percentage point.

Throughout the campaign and beyond, much has been said about the strong relationship between Evers and Barnes. That’s notable since the two men seem to genuinely like each other, which is no guarantee given the way Wisconsin chooses each officeholder independently. 

“Clearly, there’s an age difference,” notes the 67-year-old governor, who’s never shy about showering praise on his No. 2. “He’s smart, he’s incisive, he’s funny. He and I care passionately about the same things, whether it’s health care, criminal justice reform or making sure we have great schools. We have the same interests and same passion.”

Evers also notes that Barnes’ background balances his own lack of experience as a lawmaker. “His experience in the Legislature … was one of the reasons he was elected in the primary … and one of the reasons he’s so valuable to our administration.”

Barnes acknowledges that his being from Milwaukee is significant, and not just because the last lieutenant governor from the city was James T. Flynn, from 1983-87 under Gov. Anthony Earl.

“If nothing else, it sends a message that we are included in the conversation. It’s a constant reminder that this is an administration that will not be hostile towards the state’s largest city, where the city of Milwaukee is a partner,” he says. “There is a voice at the table. And it’s not about Milwaukee getting more than any other places, it’s about us finally getting our fair shake.”

A political rap

A FEW DAYS AFTER his election victory last November, Mandela Barnes retweeted a news article about his becoming Wisconsin’s first black lieutenant governor, adding the line: “I blame rap music.”

The “blame” word choice, of course, was full sarcasm. Like other fans born in the 1980s and later, rap music is much more than just music. “It’s how I grew up,” Barnes says.

Barnes has been sliding rap references into his political work for some time now. As a state representative in 2013, he borrowed a rhyme from Tupac Shakur while speaking against new legislation restricting abortion. “And since a man can’t make one, he has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one,” he said, quoting the song “Keep Ya Head Up.”

In an interview about the election last year with an Alabama newspaper, Barnes quoted a popular Georgia rapper: “2 Chainz said, ‘Believe in yourself. Who else gonna believe in you?’” And more recently, he used a line from Atlanta emcee T.I. – “Trying to stay alive, livin’ how I say in my rhymes” – to tag a video he tweeted of himself installing solar panels at a church in Green Bay. 

“I listen to all kinds of music, but it’s rap first,” Barnes says. Of his five favorite emcees, Barnes lists “Tupac, Biggie, Jay-Z, Nas and Scarface, in no particular order.” His earliest rap memory is hearing the staccato beat of Kool Moe Dee’s late-’80s hit “Wild Wild West.”

Barnes says he uses rap to reach out to those other politicians might ignore. “If you look at a lot of the [demographic] that consumes rap and the demo that’s super politically engaged, there’s not a whole lot of crossover,” he says. “I always want to try to reach more people however possible, [and using rap lyrics politically] is a very creative way to put a spin on things to make people understand better.”

BARNES HAS MADE IT A HABIT of taking on incumbents for most of his political career, so a natural question is whether he’ll be angling for higher office after his time as the state’s No. 2.

He says he’s focused on the job at hand. At least for right now.

“It doesn’t matter what my ambition is, it matters what the output is. I have to be good at the work that I’m doing now,” he says. “[A lot of people] get elected and all of a sudden, they’re ready for the next thing. I want to be ready for what I’m doing now.”

He adds: “If the time comes for something else, I’m all for it. But that’s not gonna happen if we don’t do good work now.”

“Next in Line” appears in the September 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Based in his hometown of Madison, Steve is a freelance reporter and regular contributor to Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus and many other publications. During his undergraduate studies at UW-Milwaukee, he wrote for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Shepherd Express. Now a graduate student at UW-Madison, he'll build on his 15 years of experience in print by focusing on multimedia reporting and data visualization.