The current Lt. Governor would be Wisconsin’s first Black senator if he defeats incumbent Republican Ron Johnson, who’s running for a third term.
Sleeves rolled up to expose his fully-tattooed forearms, Mandela Barnes looks straight into the laptop his team propped up on a stool in his campaign headquarters.
“Ready to go,” he says, with an enthusiastic nod and clap of his hands.
We’re printing this interview exactly as it happened, transcribed word-for-word. We believe this transparency is important, to prove we have no agenda, other than to hold our public officials accountable for the actions they’ve taken while representing you.
Christina Lorey, UpNorthNews Associate Editor: You are Wisconsin’s first Black Lt. Gov. and, if elected, would become the state’s first Black senator. In a world where many people think we’re so far past segregation and it’s “progressive” to “not see color”— can you explain WHY this kind of representation still does matter?
Mandela Barnes, Democratic Senate Candidate: Well, I’ll just go into the larger topic of the Senate being broken in and of itself. The Senate doesn’t truly reflect the American experience. I’m fortunate that my story’s a very Wisconsin story: growing up in a proud, hardworking Union household with a dad who worked third-shift on the assembly line and a mom who was a public school teacher.
I do see this as a campaign of building bridges all across the state of Wisconsin, talking about the things we have in common and how we are so much stronger when we’re on a united front.
I’m really proud to share my story and proud of the example I could potentially set for younger people growing up in situations like mine, those growing up in marginalized communities.
Being born on 26th and Locust, there are so many young people who grow up in that community and aren’t necessarily told they can go out and chase their wildest dreams, and that’s something we have to change.
Christina: Speaking of representation— Women want to be represented, too. We know you support women’s reproductive freedom, but you mentioned the Senate is broken. How soon could that 50-year freedom realistically be restored to Wisconsin women?
Mandela: I’m telling you, if we expand this majority and get rid of the filibuster, it can happen that fast.
Christina: Really? It’s that simple?
Mandela: I firmly believe that. If the House stays in Democratic control and if we get a couple more Democrats in the US Senate to get rid of the filibuster, and bring it up to a vote to codify the right to choose into law, then we will be there.
Christina: Wisconsin, I don’t have to tell you, is known for close elections that often hinge on turnout. Can you speak directly to the voters you’d like to attract and explain why their vote matters?
Mandela: Your vote certainly matters. If it didn’t matter so much all across the country, people wouldn’t be trying to take your vote away or make it harder for you to vote.
This is a fight for fairness, this is a fight for freedom, this is a fight for our future that we’re in right now.
And with that being said, this is about rebuilding the middle class, and bringing opportunity back to a state where we have one US Senator, Ron Johnson, who wants to take opportunity away from people. He’s going so far as to say, “We have enough jobs here in Wisconsin,” when people know that is not actually the case.
He’s a person who wants to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block, the benefits that so many people have worked their entire lives for. To have one Senator who wants to take that all away from you is disqualifying.
But that person will remain in office if we don’t show up and vote this November.
Christina: Since you did mention Sen. Ron Johnson, we have to mention the headlines. Many have focused on how much money he’s gotten since taking office. I always shudder at headlines like that because yes, it’s important to report, but the average person just wants to know what their senator is doing, or going to do for them. How their life is going to change. What is the biggest problem with distractions like the headlines like Ron Johnson taking money from China?
Mandela: We see the headlines about him doubling his wealth, too. And the thing about him doubling his wealth, whatever.
The problem is that he’s doubling his wealth without caring if anybody else’s life gets better.
And, if you’re talking about campaign contributions, the money that he gets from these wealthy, well-funded special interest groups that want to keep him in office are the same folks who make it harder for people to afford prescription drugs, create good-paying jobs, and transition to renewable energy.
That’s who’s propping up Ron Johnson, not the average working person. And that’s why he’s turned his back on us time and time again.
Christina: But you’ve seen the numbers: There is still a large group of working class people, really good people here in Wisconsin, that back Republicans and back Ron Johnson. Why is that, when the record is clear who they’re working for?
Mandela: That’s why we’re spending our time in this campaign holding Ron Johnson accountable, taking our message to every community, especially those communities that may not typically vote for Democrats.
It’s a reminder this isn’t always left or right, red or blue, it’s about the folks who’ve been at the top and who are allowed to stay at the top because of people like Ron Johnson.
Christina: Enough about other candidates, let’s get back to you, and I saved the most important questions for last. I want to know your favorite Wisconsin-brewed beer.
Mandela: You know, I’m a Milwaukee person at heart, so I’m just gonna go with Riverwest Stein.
But look, Miller High Life is really my go-to, but we’ll go with Miller High Life or Riverwest Stein if I want to be fancy.
Christina: Good. We’ll attract two different beer audiences here: a low class and a higher class.
Mandela: Hey! No, no. Miller High Life is the champagne of beers. That’s the beer for all classes!
Christina: Best Wisconsin city for a long weekend?
Mandela: Probably Bayfield.
Christina: And what do you do there?
Mandela: I mean, if you’re in Bayfield, you can hang out there. There’s a lot to do. You just get on the ferry and go to Madeline Island.
Christina: You get season tickets to one Wisconsin team for a year— which team are you choosing?
Mandela: Alright, this is the problem: If you do baseball, you’ve got so many games. You do football, you only got 16 or 17 games. It’s always an experience going to Packers games. I’m going to say Packers.
Christina: And if you do become Senator, you might not have time to go to every baseball game?
Mandela: Yeah, that’s a lot. A lot of brats, too. I don’t want to end up with gout.
Christina: You have 24 hours to show a group of senators your state—where are you taking them?
Mandela: We are going all the way up to Bayfield, Madeline Island, then, it would have to be my hometown, Milwaukee. Wait, you said how many places again?
Christina: If you have 24 hours to show them around…
Mandela: Wait, 24 hours? Oh man, going to Bayfield… that’ll take up all the time.
Christina: Are you stopping anywhere on the drive there?
Mandela: That’s the thing. You gotta go around (draws map with his hands.) You go through La Crosse, Eau Claire, then hook back up eastward. You can do it in 24 hours…
Christina: But you’d suggest they at least spend an entire weekend here?
Mandela: We fly into Milwaukee, hang out for a little bit, then hit the road right away.
Christina: Last question: bags or corn hole?
Christina: Thanks so much for playing along!
Mandela: No, this is fun! Thank you!
Note: We’ve asked Johnson’s team multiple times to help arrange an interview with the sitting Senator. Not once have they returned our emails or phone calls.