Engaging Black voters means showing up for Black issues.
When Felesia Martin was traveling around the state last year to attend Democratic Party of Wisconsin congressional district convention meetings, everywhere she went she was asked the same question.
“Someone would always ask me what happened to Black turnout in Milwaukee,” said Martin, first vice chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and a Milwaukee County board member. “I literally responded by saying ‘Thank you for the question but that is not the question to ask.’ I never told them the answer, and I still won’t. I don’t want to spoon-feed people the obvious. Everyone needs to do the soul searching on their own.”
The question Martin and other political activists want the Democratic Party and its members to be asking is not why Black voters did not show up for Hillary Clinton in 2016, for example, but why members of the party are not showing up year round to fight for issues important to Black voters.
“Where are the members of the Democratic Party when they hear there are health care disparities,” Martin said. “Why are we not addressing this? Too often, the party is silent.”
To Martin’s point, Wisconsin is one of the worst states for racial disparities in education, incarceration, income, unemployment and health care outcomes. She said both the Republican and Democratic parties bear some responsibility for these statistics. However, she decided to get politically involved, successfully running for her leadership position in the DPW and the Milwaukee County Board roughly three years ago to hold the party accountable.
“If you say you are a Democrat and you say you have these values, then why aren’t those values reflected in your conversations,” Martin asked. “The party’s platform is about lifting all citizens. It’s about lifting up the working class and meeting the needs of our poor segments and making certain no person is ever hungry. I see the Democratic Party as the party that leads with its humanity. And it is so disappointing when that is not the reality.”
Angela Lang, a political activist in Milwaukee, said one of the reasons she founded Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, or BLOC, was due to the blame being placed on Black voters following President Donald Trump’s 2016 narrow victory in Wisconsin.
“Part of the reason BLOC exists is what did and didn’t happen in 2016,” Lang said. “Everyone wanted to blame Black votres. We were taking the blame for it rather than blaming those who actually voted for the man.”
Like Martin, Lang said the party needs to pay more attention to the issues that are impacting Black communities. For example, criminal justice reform and defunding the police are topics members of the Black community have been talking about for years, she said.
Only now, since the death of George Floyd, has defunding the police become more of a mainstream conversation, she said.
“A lot of leaders in the Democratic Party are white folks,” Lang said. “They need to listen to folks on the ground and listen to what their demands are for their communities.”
Ben Wikler, state chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said the state is doing things differently heading into the November election. For starters, it worked with Organizing Corps 2020 last summer to train 29 young, mostly people of color, from Milwaukee. Those individuals went on to further organize and knock on 20,000 doors of Milwaukee County residents this past year.
“We are making a historic investment in the African American community,” Wikler said.
He said it is important for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin to show up not only when they want the community’s vote, but to show they are standing with them on their issues and to lay the groundwork for a partnership going into November.
He added the party is following the lead of young people of color who are leading the organizing effort in the wake of George Floyd’s death. He said he “wants folks to know we are standing with them.”
“With African American voters, in particular, we have to recognize as a party that sometimes Democrats show up a few weeks before election day and say ‘hey it’s been three years but we want to talk to you about voting,’” Wikler said. “ We’re not doing that this time.”
Lang and Martin believe this year-round engagement and commitment to issues like criminal justice reform, health care access and more employment opportunities from Democratic leaders will drive Black voter turnout.
“As a member of the party, I need to hold other members accountable,” Martin said. “We need to start showing up and not just during election season but especially during the off-season.”