A new ad in the Wisconsin governor’s race represents a tonal shift in the state’s closely watched Democratic primary to take on a prominent national Republican.
Similar to other Democrats in the race, Mahlon Mitchell is proposing wage increases and expanded investment in education. His new effort to reach voters on the airwaves, however, includes a promise to address racism and division with respect to the state’s future.
The ad lends another dimension to the primary race to face Scott Walker, the two-term governor who’s been warning Republicans face dire consequences if they don’t start mobilizing voters soon. For weeks the campaign has been mostly defined by a back-and-forth on education policy between state schools Superintendent Tony Evers — the frontrunner in most public polling — and Walker. “It’s crazy,” said Mitchell, that Walker is talking about how he is the education governor after making drastic cuts to school funding after taking office in 2011. And while Mitchell is more than willing to inject himself into the education debate, he hopes shedding light elsewhere helps him gain momentum in the race’s last two weeks.
“There’s no doubt that we’ve got to shore up our public education, but there are so many issues hurting our state besides education,” he told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “Our roads suck. I believe we should raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. People are making their health care decisions having to decide whether to pay their rent or mortgage or get prescription drugs filled.”
Mitchell, who was recently endorsed by California Sen. Kamala Harris, said he’s the most prepared candidate in the race to lead the state in a fraught political environment. Yes, he thinks Wisconsin is ready for a black governor, citing the fact that he was thrice elected by acclamation to lead a union composed of mostly white men. He said Evers is a perfectly nice guy with “good intentions.” (“He’s like your grandfather,” he said of the 66-year-old educator.)
But politically, he argued, Evers is a “retread,” the kind of candidate who has unsuccessfully run against Walker in the past. And his campaign is missing what Mitchell thinks is a centerpiece issue.
“When we look at having the highest African American male incarceration rate in the country, that’s not a Republican issue, that’s not a Democrat issue, that’s a Wisconsin issue,” he said. “We can’t tackle those things head-on without talking about the root of the problem, [which is] there are no economic opportunities in vulnerable communities and communities of color all across this state. Until we work on that we will not actually end racial disparities or put a dent in racial injustice — not until we solve the economic justice piece.”
Mitchell, a career firefighter and president of the state’s firefighters union, has strong labor support, touting endorsements from SEIU Wisconsin, and another group, Strong Wisconsin, a group associated with the International Association of Fire Fighters, which has endorsed him as “a leader with plans, vision, and experience to give all Wisconsinites the opportunity to succeed.”
Mitchell is critical of the way Wisconsin Democrats have organized communities of color, saying the party takes their votes for granted by, for instance, pandering to black congregations right before an election — and not doing much else.
But perhaps more than anything he’s done on the campaign trail, it’s Mitchell’s sense of humor that has been the crux of the Wisconsin political press corps’ coverage of him. “They’re not gaffes,” he said confidently, referring to the public quips he’s made that have made headlines. He says they’re meant to lighten the mood. None of them was his finest hour: There was an off-color dad joke; he pretended to almost use a well-known, but hardly used, colloquialism in black vernacular some found offensive during his tour of Wisconsin breweries (“You’re the head n— no, I can’t say that!”); he awkwardly formulated a response to the question of who would play him in a movie, which earned him a reprimand from the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities.
Mitchell, who says he’s never one to use race as an excuse and loves being black, says the press coverage brings into question whether there is a double standard at play because other parts of his actual campaign for governor aren’t covered with the same rigor or enthusiasm. “When I make a joke that someone might not find appropriate or [timely], that gets more coverage than anything [positive].” Mitchell said he’s raised more money than any other candidate, notwithstanding loans candidates have made to themselves, and has laid out plans for the state “that’s never made a headline.”
Mitchell promises that he’s not going to change, though. While that may be — by his own admission — driving his operatives and donors crazy, the ad is going to introduce a lot of new voters, many of whom felt they had little to be excited about in November 2016, and who may rethink their feelings on voting this midterm election. His message for the next two weeks is that he’s been listening, and he hears them. “There are a lot of people who are struggling in Wisconsin,” he said, “and a lot of them are people who look like me.”