In The News
Barnes gathers aggressive support to unseat Jason Fields
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted July 26, 2012
A central point of Mandela Barnes' challenge is he is not running against Jason Fields but out of a deep sense of disappointment with the "almost visible sense of hate" and gridlock in legislative progress.
He thinks a true leader in the Assembly would galvanize community attention at a time when poverty in his city is No. 4 in the nation, black male jobless in District 11 is over 50% and money- saving issues he has promoted in criminal justice reform have failed to budge and even gone backwards in Madison.
To many observers, Fields - the name Democrat who failed to sign a Walker recall petition -- has been a big part of the problem and not any solution at a time when the voices on the street, including Barnes, are crying out for solution.
This race has caused a profound underground split in the Democratic Party between operatives who look at numbers and results and members who assess internal fortitude.
"Except for the voucher issue," one party leader told me, "Jason is a reliable vote." Hence Democrats known as old-timer consensus builders such as Mayor Tom Barrett and Common Council President Willie Hines are supporting Fields.
Wisconsin Progress, many unions and energetic young Democrats say it is time to look at the guts and are strongly backing Barnes. Granted it is much harder to explain the success of a "community organizer" (until he becomes president of the United States) and it is easy to excuse a legislator on a general voting pattern without looking at his true impact on his community.
Fields was a co-sponsor of the recent rather virulent bill to expand the voucher program to higher income households. Colleagues point to a suspect track record and a funding stream connected with disgraced Republican figure Scott Jensen. Fields' support of voucher schools and acceptance of voucher network money now extends to backing similar efforts in Chris Christie's New Jersey - and all this strikes many educators as moving well past a principled belief in choice schools to an "unprincipled support of the money stream," as one angry school official told me.
The Steelworkers painfully remember how Fields ruined a campaign for safer conditions for black women exposed to clouds of unknown drugs they were unboxing at Capitol Returns. In the midst of the organizing campaign, Fields came in to the plant to tell the workers he thought the operators were "good people."
"The workers believed him and that broke the back of the unionizing," one organizer remembers.
Barnes in contrast has been long active and well known in the community and not as concerned about a voting record but about the causes he supports. So he still gets characterized as the "upstart," the 'young Turk," the "right guy but too early to run."
He is clearly an underdog even among some supporters. They openly worry that the community "is not there yet," that an unusual, decisive August 14 primary against an entrenched and well-funded incumbent may not be the perfect time to get the message and the voters out.
Barnes offers the other side of the argument: "If not now, when?" History demonstrates how victory often follows defeat for the progressive movement.
Ironically, the Republicans in their scramble to protect bordering centers of power may have given Barnes some fresh terrain to work unencumbered by previous incumbent influence. The GOP redistricting was really a bank-shot trying to balance legalities by making Sen. Alberta Darling’s North Shore even more Republican, so it changed District 10 to incorporate Shorewood and further remove Rep. Sandy Pasch’s old base of Democratic power.
Pasch is now running in District 10, a natural move, but the northern edge of the old configuration was added to District 11, making its residents new to the district and a fresh opportunity for Barnes to make a mark. These are neighborhoods particularly attuned Barnes’ message and his experience with the Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH).
Barnes is articulate and dedicated, college trained, was hired to organize activities for MICAH. He serves in the coalition for the Milwaukee Jobs Act, speaks out at City Hall where he briefly worked and appears as a TV panelist on issues of criminal justice, talking eloquent side by side with a chief judge, the leader of the Benedict Center and Milwaukee DA John Chisholm.
Those discussions detail how costly Wisconsin's incarceration process is, beyond how bloatedly damaging for the black community. All hands agree that better solutions are out there to return rehabilitated felons to productive jobs and how cooperation in Madison could do something about that quickly, actually reducing costs and creating greater efficiency and equity (traditionally a winning argument with conservatives). Right now, stagnation on proven policy is costing taxpayers twice as much as the procedures in neighboring states.
The legislature "can do something about that," Barnes said. "So why aren't we?" It is a winning argument at the doors.
Which brings us around to the disappointment over Fields, who has become a familiar presence in the legislature, with a recognized family name in the inner city. Being a legislator can be an important gig to create change, but it can also be a cushy job allowing a lot of social back-pats and conventiongoing - and the people the ncumbent hangs with can create a sense of distance with the street.
If there is time for Mandela Barnes to get the voters behind him, he surely has the progressive movement and many unions in his corner. He has been endorsed by the state council of SEIU, the nurses, the UAW, IBEW, AFT, UFCW, AFSCME PEOPLE and even the recent endorsement from the state AFL-CIO.