Photograph courtesy of Kate Duffy
Photograph courtesy of Kate Duffy

Angered by a series of mass shootings and the Supreme Court’s decision striking down Roe v. Wade, Wisconsin mom Kate Duffy launched Moms for Mandela, a grassroots group working to elect Democrat Mandela Barnes to the US Senate. “He has empathy for the working class people of Wisconsin,” Duffy said of Barnes. “He gives a lot of people hope.”

It was late June and Kate Duffy was full of grief and anger. 

The US Supreme Court had just overturned Roe v. Wade, revoking the constitutional right to abortion and stripping millions of American women of the right to make their own family planning decisions. Duffy, a 35-year-old Greendale mom, was devastated. 

“It’s your bodily autonomy you’re talking about,” Duffy said. “When a group of people take that away from you, it feels really, really awful, and it does almost feel like we are turned into second-class citizens in our own nation.”

With Roe struck down, Wisconsin reverted back to an extreme 1849 abortion ban that makes no exceptions for rape or incest and criminalizes doctors and nurses. The law—classifying abortion as a felony—only includes an exception for a “therapeutic abortion” to “save the life of the mother.” 

Roe’s reversal has already had devastating impacts in Wisconsin, causing pregnant women to wait days, in some cases, before they can receive care for severe complications.

“We’ve seen so many stories come out of Wisconsin already because doctors are only able to interfere if it’s truly the life of the woman at risk and there’s so many legal, tricky things in that,” Duffy said. “Why should it be up to a lawyer to make those decisions that are medical decisions, and furthermore, why does a woman almost have to die before she has her rights?”

Duffy was a regular voter and paid attention to elections, but had never been involved in organized politics. But watching Republicans—including Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson—celebrate the fall of Roe and the stripping of women’s reproductive freedom drove Duffy to get more involved. 

The digital marketing professional decided to use some of her skills to launch an Instagram account dubbed Moms for Mandela, in support of the Democratic nominee for US Senate, Mandela Barnes, who has vowed to get rid of the filibuster and restore the nationwide abortion rights previously guaranteed under Roe.

At first, Duffy just used the account to highlight how the Senate race could impact Wisconsin families and communities, but she was soon inundated with messages from other moms who wanted to get involved and help elect Barnes, a candidate who inspired them.

“I quickly realized that there was this untapped market of women and moms, many of whom have never been involved in politics before, but were fed up with what has been happening and wanted to do something to impact some change,” Duffy said. “It quickly grew into this larger grassroots coalition of moms all over the state.”

The Issue of Gun Violence Becomes Personal and Drives Duffy

When Duffy launched Moms for Mandela, she’d also been motivated by the mass shootings at a grocery store in Buffalo, NY, and an elementary school in Uvalde, TX, back in May. Those horrific acts of violence left Duffy furious over the state of America’s gun laws.

Then in early July, the issue of gun violence became much more personal for Duffy. While Duffy, her husband, and their two-year-old son live in Greendale, Duffy’s two step-children split their time between Wisconsin and Highland Park, Ilinois. 

On July 4, a gunman with far-right beliefs carried out a mass shooting during the Illinois town’s Independence Day Parade, killing seven people and wounding 48 others. Duffy’s step-children were not present that day, but the shooting nonetheless left Duffy terrified and angry. 

“We live in the United States of America. We shouldn’t have to worry every time we drop our kids off at school or go to the grocery store or things like that,” she said. “Whether it’s my two year old, dropping him off at daycare, or my step-kids—who are a little bit older and have a little bit more freedom—and dropping them off at the movie theater alone and wondering if they’re going to be okay and if you can go to a parade with your family–it’s just something that is so out of control in this country.

Duffy is furious that Republicans, including Sen. Johnson, have refused to act on gun safety laws—even as gun violence has surged and 74% of all murders in Wisconsin are gun-related, according to a 2021 report from Everytown for Gun Safety.  

Johnson has opposed virtually every gun safety bill introduced during his 12 years in the Senate, including a universal background checks proposal. Johnson’s opposition comes despite a large body of data showing that more guns lead to more gun deaths.

“To see so many people—especially the GOP—just have every other excuse other than dealing with the gun problem in this country is just ridiculous,” Duffy said. 

She finds Johnson’s refusal to act particularly galling given his campaign’s near-singular (and misleading) focus on painting Barnes as being soft on crime.

“All of the commercials [Johnson] is putting out are about crime, yet he won’t do anything about gun legislation, not even an inch,” Duffy said. “It’s public how much money he’s getting from the NRA, and he cares more about staying in Congress and the gun lobby than he does about our children and our families in the state of Wisconsin.” 

The National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups have spent more than $1.2 million supporting Johnson during his political career. 

“[Crime] is a real issue, but until the Republicans can talk about the real issues with gun violence and access to guns being entirely out of control, I don’t want to hear about talk about the out of control crime in our state or in our country,” Duffy said. 

Unlike Johnson, Barnes supports gun safety laws—which is part of why Duffy supports him.

Moms for Mandela Goes Big Time

As the summer went on, Moms for Mandela grew from an Instagram account to a full-fledged grassroots organization that hosts events, collaborates with the Barnes campaign to host meet-and-greets, and even employs savvy organizing techniques to meet voters where they are, whether it’s at farmer’s markets, food truck festivals, or one-on-ones in living rooms. During these moments, the Moms for Mandela volunteers make their pitch for their candidate. 

When asked why she supports Barnes, Duffy was glowing in her praise of Barnes’ policies, which include a pledge to tackle inflation by cutting taxes for the middle-class, raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, expanding domestic manufacturing, cracking down on Big Ag monopolies, increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and fighting for universal pre-K and to make sure that no family spends more than 7% of their income on child care. 

“What we would like to see is continued tax cuts for the middle class and not as many tax cuts for the top 1%, expanding the child tax credit, and talking about maybe things like universal pre-K and helping subsidize costs for childcare, helping to subsidize costs for paid maternal leave, things like that,” Duffy said. “Those are all things Mandela Barnes and other Democrats are talking about that are really going to help impact costs for most everyday families.”

She heaped even more praise upon Barnes for his character and background.

“He grew up right here in Milwaukee, in a middle-class working household. He knows what it’s like. He has empathy for the working class people of Wisconsin,” Duffy said. “He has empathy for people who need to budget, for really high astronomical childcare costs, for people who are trying to navigate our really complicated healthcare system and all the costs that come along with that.”

In contrast, Duffy was scathing about Johnson’s record, which includes repeatedly trying to take health care away from hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites, opposing efforts to lower drug costs, and passing a massive tax cut that benefited his billionaire donors but did little to help middle- and working-class Wisconsinites. 

“His record says a lot about his time in the Senate, and it pretty much says he only cares about increasing his wealth and the wealth for many of his millionaire and billionaire donors,” Duffy said.

Most recently, Johnson said that he believes Social Security and Medicare should not be guaranteed—as they currently are—and should instead be negotiated by Congress every single year, which means Congress could cut funding for them or eliminate them altogether.

Barnes, meanwhile, has vowed to protect the programs and fight for working-class Wisconsinites and seniors. 

“He knows what it’s like, he hears people, and if he gets elected, he’s not going to forget that. He is going to go to bat for everyday working people of this state and of this country,” Duffy said of Barnes.

Barnes ‘Gives a Lot of People Hope’

Between now and Election Day, Duffy and her fellow moms are doing everything they can to elect their chosen candidate. Whether or not their support for Barnes rubs off on other Wisconsin voters remains to be seen. Recent polls have shown Johnson with a narrow but growing lead. Duffy remains committed to the work, though, and to the candidate who inspired her to get involved.

“I think [Mandela Barnes] is something really different that we haven’t seen in a really long time, and he gives a lot of people hope,” Duffy said. “He has a really special energy, empathy, and enthusiasm that has really woken people up and driven them to get involved.”