Wisconsin For Us got an interview with Mandela Barnes, a community organizer in Milwaukee. Barnes is running for State Assembly in District 11 against incumbent Jason Fields.
You can view a map of the new Assembly District 11 here.
WI4US: Why are you running for office?
MB: I’m running for office because of my work as an organizer. People are disappointed. I’m disappointed, myself. A lot of things are going on in the community. I live in the inner city and I see what is going on in Milwaukee everyday. We’re disappointed, especially with what goes on at the state level. We need leaders that are willing to stand up and say “no, we’re not going to let this happen.” We need leaders that are bold enough to not be afraid to challenge the governor and not afraid to challenge the powers that be. There needs to be an unconventional form of governance. Especially in Milwaukee. We’re #4 in poverty and have 55% black male unemployment. It’s time for leaders to stand up.
WI4US: What is your background?
MB: I’m from Milwaukee, born and raised. I went to Alabama A&M. I would say my profession is community organizing. My first job out of college I was an organizer for a political campaign. I worked in the minority communities, low-income areas, organizing people and getting them to vote. My job was to generate new voters, whether that was students or people who hadn’t participated in the electoral process before. I came back to Milwaukee in 2009. After that experience, I worked in the mayor’s office a little while. I also worked at the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board for a while as a youth and program specialist.
Most recently, I was the Director for MICAH, the Milwaukee Inner-city Congregation Allied for Hope. It is an interfaith social justice community organization, comprised of over 35 congregations, mainly inner-city but there are some outside the city, in Mequon and Wauwatosa. MICAH is made up of synagogues, mosques, and churches that all come together to organize around social justice issues. “To do what is just” is the motto of the organization, same as the prophet. Michah 6:8 says “God has shown you, o mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord ask of you? To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” So that is the entire basis of the organization. It’s not an organization that pushes it’s faith on people, it is just a body of people who are united by their common faith and believe in justice.
WI4US: How does your background qualify you for public office?
MB: For one, I’ve only been amongst the people, in every capacity. Whether that is working at the mayor’s office or my job as an organizer, seeing the issues first hand, even living the issues as a resident of the city, knowing what goes on, working in the mayor’s office, knowing how government can play a role in shaping and framing the situation. Working firsthand in those capacities has shown me what has been done right, what has been done wrong. I’ve also had the opportunity to go to a number of places, travel, and work with other leaders of community organizations. I’ve been a part of the Milwaukee Jobs Act coalition. We’re working for an investment to put people back to work. I’ve had the chance to work with officials on every level of government, city, county, state, and federal on different issues. I’ve gone to Washington DC to meet with our representatives and try to push them on certain issues regarding public transportation. I’ve worked with the County and one of the issues we worked on was to “ban the box.” That was an effort to get the convictions box eliminated from employment applications, because that’s a barrier to getting a job. I’ve been able to study and learn how government works and what it can do along with my experience as a community organizer. I’ve been able to successfully navigate City Hall, the Courthouse, the Capitol, Washington. I feel that I’ve had a lot of experience working in government.
WI4US: What are your top three priorities if elected?
MB: Job creation is number one, of course. I will keep working for the Milwaukee Jobs Act. I’ve had a chance to really work with that coalition. And I would like to work on a Wisconsin Jobs Act, so we can put Wisconsin people back to work. The money is there, it’s just how we spend it. We have to spend our dollars from Wisconsin wisely. Especially at a time like this, we don’t have time to use local investment to make other people wealthy, who don’t even live here. Not being #4 in poverty, not with 55% black unemployment. Something has to be done differently. Local hiring is something I’ve always pushed. I would like to work on a Wisconsin Jobs Plan.
My second issue is that we need to refund education. There is no way we can build a strong society without a good public education system. Public education teaches any and every child. I say this and I will repeat this: no one is going to bring jobs to an area that continues to close schools. In my district there are a number of schools that have been closed. I don’t know the likelihood of them being reopened before being purchased by another entity. Property values decline when schools close. Anybody who wants to hire people is going to look at long-term sustainability. If there is no education, what is the point of investing in this area with no long-term future?
Third is criminal justice reform, how we incarcerate people, which is another issue that I’ve had the opportunity to work on. There are too many people in the prison system. We spend way too much more on incarceration. We spend about $1.5 Billion on incarceration in Wisconsin [$1.3 Billion allotted in the current budget]. Compare that to Minnesota which spends about $500 Million [$460 Million allotted in current budget]. So we’re spending almost 3 times as much as they are in Minnesota. And it has taken a hit on our state budget. We talk about everything else which is a strain on our state budget, I mean we’re taking federal foreclosure settlement money to patch gaps in our state budget. But the money is there. We spend too much money putting people in jail who may not even belong in jail. We haven’t expanded our treatment programs, we have programs in place but it’s not enough. We can do way more. It costs less to treat someone and it’s better for our community when you treat people. A lot of people who go to jail have underlying issues that don’t get addressed. So when they get out they still have those issues, but their mindset is even more distorted because they’ve been locked in a box with either a substance abuse issue or mental illness. They come out with those issues, so clearly they’re going to recidivate, because the issue hasn’t been addressed.
WI4US: What would a Wisconsin Jobs Act look like?
MB: It would mirror the American Jobs Act which unfortunately didn’t go anywhere in Congress. It would call for us to use the resources that we have and spend our money wisely. We need to spend all of our money in Wisconsin. We need to use all our resources in the state to help regenerate the economy. We need to buy local and sell global.
WI4US: How will you preserve the services we have while seeking to raise local investment?
MB: That’s really the easiest part. If there are budget constraints and we spend money here, then those people are going to be paying taxes. That money is going to put itself back into our economy. People are going to be able to pay their taxes if they’re making money. Consumer spending will go up because people will have the money to go out and spend it.
WI4US: How will you work to improve your district?
MB: Well, one thing specifically is the Westlawn redevelopment. Westlawn was the largest Housing Authority project in the city. What they’ve done is they’ve taken it down to redevelop it into a mixed income residential area. It is a $600 Million investment [our research found that the project actually costs roughly $220 Million. We have asked the Barnes campaign to offer a source for the figure of $600 Million. We will update when they provide a source]. That’s $600 Million that could be well spent to put people to work in that area. We saw that as a location that did not meet the hiring standards whether they are related to HUD Section 3 or the MORE Ordinance [Milwaukee Opportunities Restoring Employment], even though the MORE Ordinance is voided now because the Governor nixed that out of the budget. MORE required that 40% of the work hours on public works projects to be completed by minority, underemployed, and unemployed residents of the city. Even though that was removed from the governor’s budget, we expect that our leaders to adhere to a standard such as the MORE Ordinance to put people back to work, to restore employment in the city. That is a huge opportunity. This $600 Million could create a surge to our local economy if we were to wisely spend that $600 Million.
WI4US: How will you be accessible to constituents?
MB: I will be completely accessible. I plan to go out into the district. I’ll still act like a community organizer. As an elected official I still want to go out into the community, including regularly scheduled town hall meetings. I will make sure to get back to constituents within 24 hours. That’s a commitment I’m willing to make. I don’t want to lose my connection with the community, or else I won’t be effective as a legislator. The State Assembly is the lower house. It’s the People’s House and it needs to be in touch with the people.
WI4US: Why are you running against an incumbent, Jason Fields?
MB: It goes back to the whole disappointment thing. It isn’t me running against Jason Fields, it’s running from a point of disappointment. Black male unemployment wasn’t addressed in the state legislature until the governor was being recalled. That’s not okay. This was an issue that existed before Scott Walker. This is an issue that Tim John [a Democratic candidate for Governor in 2010] ran on. But no one listened to Tim John when he talked about black, male unemployment. Now people are starting to take notice, people are moving on the issues. We need leaders who are going to stand up for our community, people who won’t side with special interests.
If I’m elected, hopefully Scott Walker won’t be the Governor anymore. However, we’re still going to need leaders in the state Capitol. There are still going to be people who think that Scott Walker had good ideas. There are going to be people who think that and try to push legislation that resonate with Walker’s base. There are still people that think we need to eliminate social services and safety nets. We need leaders who aren’t going to let that happen in Madison. We need people who have proven they will stand up on issues.
Voter ID could potentially disenfranchise many people in this city. I had the opportunity to educate people and help them get their ideas. At MICAH, we had our congregations take a moment to have people pull out their IDs during service one day to make sure people were able to participate, make sure they have a say.
WI4US: If the state faces a big budget deficit, as it has in recent years, how would you seek to balance that budget?
MB: I’ll go back to criminal justice reform. That’s a huge opportunity to both save money and do the right thing. It won’t be like we’re letting violent criminals free. That’s not what the program does. We’re looking to expand treatment programs to have a greater benefit on the state in terms of budget and a greater benefit to the community because people will have their issues addressed. Many studies prove that treatment programs work. That is a prime opportunity to save money instead of cutting resources for people who are already in poverty who don’t have any other way. We should have social services that transition people out of poverty. People need to get a hand up. There are a lot of job training programs, but they don’t necessarily place people.
WI4US: How will you work to improve public transportation options for your constituents?
MB: Milwaukee County Transit System needs a dedicated funding source. But they can’t do that unless there is legislation in Madison to make that possible. Another thing that can make public transportation more accessible is creating a Regional Transit Authority (RTA). But again, we need the legislation in Madison to make RTAs a possibility. It was actually Gov. Doyle who vetoed legislation to create RTA for Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha [Doyle didn't veto the RTA, but vetoed a 0.65% sales tax increase in Milwaukee County which would have funded the RTA].
WI4US: How will you work to improve public education?
MB: Public education is a priority. I graduated from a public high school and look at what a mess I turned into – I’m running for office! We have to realize that public education is an investment. You really can’t put too much money into public education. We do need to consider how those dollars have been spent, but the public education cuts have to be restored. We can’t keep laying off teachers. Outside of the city, public education cuts didn’t necessarily hit them as hard, because they have higher property values. We’re living in poverty here in Milwaukee. That money has to come back. We give tax breaks to people who don’t even live here. We continue to take from people who don’t have and continue giving to people who have. And that’s a problem across the entire nation.
WI4US: What is your opinion on charter schools in Milwaukee and statewide?
MB: The problem with charter schools is who is educated. Public schools teach every child without discrimination including children with behavioral issues or mental health issues. Public schools have to educate all children. Charter school systems don’t play by the same rules. They may appear to be more successful than public schools but you have to take a look at the children who get into the school. It all comes down to parental involvement. When parents are active in their child’s education, it is a benefit to that child and to the entire school. We have a lot of children in schools who don’t have parental involvement and then the children don’t perform well. It affects not just that student, but all the students in the school. Charter schools need to be more strictly regulated.
WI4US: What is your opinion on the current political tension in Madison and the upcoming recall elections?
MB: It’s ridiculous. There is almost visible hate. There was always discourse, it’s going to be that way in partisan politics, but the games that are being played are just dirty right now. It’s a zoo. It’s never been like this. People disagreed before but now there is disdain. It is so partisan and so divided right now it’s crazy. But I 100% support the recall of Scott Walker. He has been a polarizing figure and people are not able to get anything done because everything is seen as a partisan issue. People were able to work together in the past. Scott Walker has to go. His way of governing is refusing to negotiate. He cancelled high-speed rail. He ended collective bargaining for workers even when the concessions were agreed upon. That is a heartless maneuver, it’s a power grab.
WI4US: What issues do you think you can work with Republicans in the Assembly on?
MB: Again, criminal justice reform. There are a lot of “tough on crime” Republicans, but there is a huge budgetary benefit. Even the state of Alabama has treatment programs. When a state that still celebrates Confederate Memorial Day as a state holiday can see that this is the right thing to do, Wisconsin can do it.