Mandela Barnes, 31
Mandela Barnes for
Wisconsin Lt. Governor
At age 25, he was a Wisconsin State Assemblymember. At age 31, he’s hoping to be Wisconsin Lt. Governor. The youngest statewide candidate and one of the few people of color, Mandela Barnes is a community organizer with a vision of bringing back to the state’s progressive tradition of supporting the working class.
What was the best advice you received before you ran for office?
So this is actually the second time I ran for office. I'll say the best advice I got was, “Are you prepared to lose?”
It’s not that you're going to lose but you need to accept that possibility.
You're running for Lieutenant Governor. What does the Lt. Governor position normally entail? What do you hope to reshape this position into?
The role varies from state to state. I want to make sure that we’re taking a long-term approach to the way we govern. As a former State Representative, I want to be involved in the legislative process so that we are more than just getting elected but are being as effective as possible.
If you could get a beer with any politician, who would it be and why?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her and I both used to bartend so we could make drinks.
You first ran for office when you were 25. When did you hear the call? When was the moment you realize you wanted to run for office?
There’s a group called Wisconsin Progress, and their model is “don’t get mad, get elected.”
I was an organizer for an interfaith social justice organization. We worked on issues of jobs, economic development, education, and immigration reform. Doing that work got me involved in policy to some degree because we weren’t getting the responses that we should be getting from our leaders and lawmakers.
Traveling to Madison to testify at a public hearing on different pieces of legislation, leading different informational sessions, I saw the real absence of representation. And it was one of those moments where I said, “Don’t get mad, get elected.”
Your experiences in organizing are felt by many activists who are at odds with their elected officials that are not listening. As a former organizer, how do we take the lessons of organizing to government?
When I first got elected there were very few people of color, so what we had to rely on was some form of organizing. Too often when politicians get elected, they lose touch. I think that my organizing background has always kept me humble and always kept me in place. It was always about the people.
You were out-fundraised by a wide margin, yet still won in a landslide. What do you attribute that success to?
Delivering a positive message and actually getting back to the basics of organizing. We were outspent but we were not outworked. We were able to galvanize more volunteers, people were knocking on doors. Usually, you don’t get a lot of door knocking in a statewide primary, but we had people who are knocking on doors, people who are making phone calls, we also had a text messaging program. It was it was a real grassroots operation and we were able to connect with voters in a real way. There was a degree of authenticity that the campaign was able to bring. People understood what we were talking about it. We had a campaign video that featured my parents and included some outtakes of my dad making fun of me.
It’s just presenting yourself in an authentic way. The last six years or so we’ve seen that voters crave authenticity and it is only through that can we organize in a real way because the issues I talked about in the campaign are the issues that actually impacted me. They’re issues that I actually dealt with to some degree.
Your campaign has been unapologetically progressive. What does progressive mean to you? How do you define it?
Progressive means that we have to get from where we are to where we should be, knowing that is not necessarily a destination but it's a journey. There's no there's no finite end to progressive public policy because you always want to be better than you were.
Whether it’s raising the minimum wage, the expansion of healthcare, nothing stops or is ever done. With the 2008 election of Barack Obama, a lot of people went to sleep. Then in 2010, we lost it all.
I think that being a progressive means that you understand that there's always more and you won't always actually get it your first try. It sometimes it takes a very long time. Look at public opinion on things like same-sex marriage or legalization of marijuana, these are things that people have been talking about for decades. But now, we're finally getting to a place where people feel not only comfortable but actually embracing those issues and talking about them.
Even four or eight years ago it would’ve been difficult to even talk about same-sex marriage on the campaign trail. Four years ago, talking about marijuana legalization is something every political consultant would tell you to run away from. Now you look at people who are running towards these issues, embracing them and wanting to be the champion on each of those. So being progressive means that you have a positive vision to improve the lives of people that you want to represent.
What first got you interested in politics?
So my dad always took me whenever he went to vote. My dad always had me paying attention to the news. In college, I was very active student government, I was active in our NAACP chapter. And it was just something that I was always exposed to in some sort of way.
But the idea of pursuing this in a serious way came in college. The thought that I could actually run myself came after college when I worked on my first campaign.
If you could wave the magic wand and you know you get universal support for one thing, what would you change?
Of the bills I worked on in the state legislature, one of my favorites was creating a system of community-based education. It was about more than just school, it was about community. It was about getting parents involved.
Campaigns often only focus on the worst things going on in your area. What is your favorite thing about Wisconsin?
Wisconsin is a very unique place. Wisconsin is just a unique place with a with a very rich heritage. We have a culture of a strong working class. We have rich progressive traditions in this state and I think that we can get back to that.
Look back at our abolitionists roots in the state of Wisconsin. People like Ezekiel Gillespie who took his case to the Supreme Court for the right to vote. They told him he couldn't vote as a free black man he said I'm going to vote. He took his case to the Supreme Court and won. You can look at Joshua Glover who was an escaped slave. They tried to come get him from here in Wisconsin and they were unsuccessful.
So we have some very rich proud traditions. We have a very rich legacy and I think that we can get back on that track. It just takes leadership to make that happen.
You are the youngest person on the Wisconsin statewide ballot, and one of the few people of color. What advice would you give to another young person considering running for office?
If you want to, go up and get up. Just go for it. You’ll face different roadblocks than your counterparts. However, when you approach those hurdles, jump right over and run through them.