In The News
Racial politics among dirty tricks marring primary
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted August 9, 2012
Political surprise came August 7 when Facebook erupted and trusted political websites such a wispolitics published Elizabeth Coggs’ campaign stationery press release proclaiming that, while she is getting money for her Senate District 6 race from a national voucher school network run by Republican figures and the Koch brothers, she was being endorsed by the public school champion and president of the Milwaukee Public Schools Board, Michael Bonds. At a forum the next day she openly flagged Bonds’ endorsement to varnish her education credentials.
More shocked than the community was Bonds himself when told of what was rapidly making the rounds online. Because he had long said that, given his position and his early interest in actually running for this seat, he was staying out of any endorsements, much less choosing the person with Koch support, since voucher schools have been robbing public schools of taxpayer money.
I was in the room when Bonds told phone friends he had not for months even talked to most aggressive and least-Coggs-like Coggs, Elizabeth, and hadn’t endorsed her. But being a gentleman academic responsible for working with all legislators to help children, he faltered on how to proceed in knocking down the lie while still maintaining neutrality.
As of this writing he had not responded to phone calls urging him to speak out – though many expect the revelation of the endorsement deception will force a response. It takes considerable political guts to go against some big names in your community to reveal the untruths or knock down racial politics -- particularly reverse racial politics where blacks become as bigoted as the “white flight” citizens they railed against for decades.
But political surprise can stir up defiance and did when another shocker came from candidate Coggs at an earlier community forum when she said “vote for someone who looks like you” – to immediate cries of foul from blacks at the event.
Even since she has tried to dance around those words – at that Wednesday August 8 6th district forum she said she was merely talking about the Voting Rights Act protecting minorities, but people at the original event dispute her memory and pinpoint her real meaning – which was: black people, vote for your own color.
Worse, she was not referring to her own contest, where there are only blacks, but to the Assembly 10 seat she was leaving where there is only one white candidate, the progressive Sandy Pasch. “She’s talking about me,” Rep. Pasch told friends, distressed because she had been a strong supporter of black causes throughout her legislative tenure – and Rep. Beth Coggs darn well knew it.
“Martin Luther King must be turning over in his grave at such remarks,” said an angry but saddened black leader, the Rev. Willie Brisco, head of the influential MICAH and outspoken leader in social justice for the central city. “I can’t believe there are people going back to this kind of strategy and mindset. It sort of shows what we’ve accepted in politics.”
It was not a fly by night decision, Brisco noted, when he decided to endorse Pasch, a rare move since as a noted minister he usually sits out such primaries. But after interviewing such opponents as Mildred Coby and Isesuh Griffin, who has also attacked the “racial division” engendered by blacks in this contest, “I engaged in careful study,” said Brisco. “I applied no race to that position. Pasch is the best candidate and the best chance to do good things for my community.”
The real matriarch organizer of this racial politics game turned out to be another black politician who had enjoyed Pasch’s support on minority causes, Sen. Lena Taylor, whom Democrats publicly praise for her flight to Illinois and privately moan about because of her constant inflated self-promotion above all other issues. “It’s always all about Lena,” one colleague privately told me. “She has become the Sarah Palin of the left.”
Taylor is promoting the need for pigmentation continuity over worth by paying for extensive “Continue the Legacy” literature featuring her against no one, Coby against Pasch, and Beth Coggs against a quite impressive African American slate in Senate District 6, led by County Supervisor Nikiya Harris, veteran and community organizer Delta Triplett, Supervisor Michael Mayo and Allyn Monroe Swan, all known in the community for their accomplishments and fortitude.
(In contrast, Beth Coggs has a famous last name and two decades n office that prove that not all acorns fall close to the tree. When at the forum she boasted about her work with religious leaders at the county on alcoholism support and safety net issues, one MICAH official texted me that she “ranks as the most ineffectual supervisor I ever dealt with.”)
The introduction of race may in the end turn out to be a sideshow. The voters are smart and know Pasch’s record. But it has outraged many prominent black figures though only a few have Brisco’s gumption to put their names behind their opinions since they will have to work in the future with Taylor and many members of the Coggs family regardless.
Among those not afraid to speak out were Rep. Tamara Grigsby and Sheila Cochran (head of the MALC) whom no one would ever call Uncle Toms. Outspoken as well was Mandela Barnes, opposing traditional Democrat Jason Fields in District 11 and now responsible for one of the most memorable phrases in this primary, chastising voters who would choose “melanin over merit.”
But some African American ministers who didn’t engage in careful study embraced Coby after a church forum July 31, leaving other black ministers in attendance “appalled” at hand-picked questioners tilting the scales for Coby and the refusal to examine the full weight of Coby’s record. That includes doorway flyers by the voucher school network despite her public salutes to public education and a questionnaire answer opposing same-sex adoptions because she didn’t want children put in homes “with pedophiles.” That will sure go over big among the strong LBGT community.
These were hardly the only political tremors. Not just Senate District 6 and Assembly District 11, where progressive Democrat Barnes is taking on establishment figure Fields. Not just the truly repulsive tinges in District 10, where Rep. Pasch is not only the most experienced and admired figure, but something of a model public servant forced to switch to District 10, where her core Shorewood voters were moved via GOP elimination of her original district.
Games are also occurring in District 17 where voucher money is trying to tilt the crowded field seeking to replace long admired Grigsby, who had to retire because of health reasons. Here it is Jason’s brother Jarrett who is dragging the voucher network money in to upset the Grigsby progressive tradition, which is definitely anti-voucher.
As one African American leader told me but refusing to be named, “We’ve got some Democrats learning from the GOP playbook – have you noticed? They’re saying anything to win and hiding their own race-baiting by accusing the other side of race-baiting.”
What set him off Aug. 8 was African American Harriet Callier, who borrowed from the Romney playbook in withdrawing from the District 10 race and throwing her support behind Coby.
Callier admitted she didn’t want to split black support between her and Coby, suggesting that only if you were black could you vote for either. But it was her second reason that raised broad alarm for mendacity since it attacked Pasch, who has studiously stayed away from the racial issue. Callier openly accused Pasch of “race-baiting and race hate speech as Pasch has supported throughout this campaign” -- knowing full well that the only baiting pit was in Taylor’s backyard, fed by Coggs and Coby and fuller financial backing from American Federation for Children, the national voucher network.
The only sly remark Pasch could ever be accused of was how, if people voted only for color, then Barack Obama would never have been elected president. When pressed by the media to respond to Callier’s libelous remarks, Pasch declined, just suggesting that intentionally turning people “against each other” is not done by politicians with “any interest in the common good.”
Those doorway flyers from the AFC conduit led by a former Michigan Republican billionaire and advised by leading Wisconsin Republicans brought ironic comment from JS columnist Daniel Bice since the come-ons were addressed to “fellow Democrats” and “Democratic values” – aha, the return of the fake Dems – to support Coby, Jason Fields, his brother Jarrett, and Beth Coggs. The flyers are photo-packed, professional and colorful, causing one black pastor to note, “If we can be bought, this will do it.”
The obvious intrusion of Republicans into a Democratic race had provided an ideal message for progressive Democrats, particularly combined with the efforts of local voucher advocates to deflect a slam-dunk city ordinance requiring every new school to have an outdoor playground. Despite the obvious benefits for physical exercise, group interaction and conflict resolution that has led every existing public elementary school to have playgrounds, voucher-crazy business leaders forced a delay because of costs, not what was good for children.
Those factors combined in a news conference by Harris, Pasch and Barnes outside a voucher school on Sherman Blvd. closed by the state because of cruelty to students, underlying the problem with voucher schools bleeding taxpayer money away without sufficient safeguards or even playgrounds.
As Pasch noted in a press release, “Unfortunately, it is no surprise to see extreme Republican special interest groups like the Koch-funded American Federation for Children – which has spent millions of dollars to recklessly attack progressive Democrats – desperately attempt to smear my record as a proven leader for Milwaukee’s communities.” Harris and Barnes offered similar sentiments.
Two things interfered with that strategy. One was the right-wing media world. Since this voucher school misbehavior was largely neglected by mainstream media, rather than have their noses rubbed in their failure they avoided the press conference.
The other impediment was extremism from the left. With all this clear ammunition against Coggs, the We Are Milwaukee group run in part by AFT and SEIU members went too far with a flyer reaching into the past to accuse her of votes that helped Scott Walker eliminate collective bargaining. It was way over the top and embarrassed many nonprofit progressive groups who had sat in on We Are Milwaukee meetings when the group was focused on the recall – but these nonprofits, including labor federations, barred by law from having anything to do with campaign literature, were as upset as the Coggs camp over the excessive claims. A similar We Are Milwaukee effort to attack Jason Fields has now raised eyebrows even among committed Barnes supporters. Unions that had nothing to do with all this had to acknowledge that other unions they work with were involved.
As it so often the case when activists agree on direction but disagree on strategy, this overstep played into Coggs’ hands, providing an escape route whenever she was cornered in candidate forums.
When confronted with blunt questions from voters whether she truly thought outside money should flood into local campaigns – a pointed question since her campaign lives on that Koch brothers largesse – or when asked to detail legislative accomplishments or specify her views on education, she instantly described her outrage over the despicable flyer suggestion that she supported Walker.
It was dodgeball made possible by extremism on the other side that allowed her to disguise her actual behavior. Such is the partisan atmosphere where one side excuses its own race-baiting by accusing the other side of race-baiting.
Social media technology has also changed the game, and the establishment media, particularly in Milwaukee, has been slow to catch up. For instance, Taylor has her code language for blacks voting for blacks, thus supporting the AFC candidate slate without revealing her own reliance on the AFC support. She used racial division in social media to try to bring down Pasch who is actually a big rival for attention in the Milwaukee legislative caucus while simultaneously trying to line her future legislative career with knee-jerk acolytes Coby and Coggs.
She actually deleted after a few weeks her worst Facebook comments that called Pasch a liar, one of the “hypocritical progressives” and a carpet-bagger.
Rev. Brisco doesn’t believe such racial division will work because “African Americans understand that character and willingness to fight for minority principles are more important if we recall our history.” He laments how choosing by color not content of character or vision has caused the black community to suffer a parade of ineffective black leaders. Some bear honored last names of true fighting leaders, such as the late Marcia Coggs.
Brisco, not only a preacher but a historian, noted in a conversation how the civil rights advances of the 1960s would not have happened were not so many groups working together – whites, unions, Jews supporting the cause of oppressed blacks. Taylor’s call for more blacks in the state legislature neglects how “it takes all people working together” to advance social causes and how more advances have come from diverse groups acting in concert than from individual conclaves insisting on their narrow rights.
“They talk about taking back the hood. Occupying the hood. I don’t want the ‘hood’ – I want the ‘neighborhood,’” he said. “I believe in my people standing up and being accountable, but also choosing knowledgeable people whatever their color.”