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Mandela Barnes Makes History As Wisconsin’s First Black Lieutenant Governor

The politician talks about challenging the lack of authenticity in politics and how his upbringing plays an important role in his political career.
By Miela Fetaw, Essence

Mandela Barnes was not having it. Just a few months ago, the Wisconsin Lt. Gov.-Elect ran into a few issues that could have cost him an election nomination.

“It was wild,” he told ESSENCE.

Leading up to the primary election, he was the only candidate erased from multiple sample ballots, pronounced dead by a local TV station, and mistaken for a white man.

Yet, Barnes now laughs like he’s conquered something. And he has. On January 7, he will make history as Wisconsin’s first Black lieutenant governor and the nation’s youngest lieutenant governor.

Born in Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code, which is predominately Black and has the highest incarceration rate of Black men in the country, Barnes never envisioned that politics would be a viable career path. As a boy, his father would oftentimes take him to vote.

“He made me go with him every time, made me grab a sample ballot and learn everything,” he said.

His leadership interests developed in high school through programs like Top Teens of America and followed him to college where he was involved in student government and a NAACP student chapter.

Following graduation from Alabama A&M University in 2008, he worked for a congressional campaign before returning to Milwaukee in January 2009. Lately, Barnes has been particularly reflective on Twitter.

He would go on to work for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett as an intern and later a receptionist. After years of working as a community organizer, Barnes felt it was time for him to bet on himself.

In 2012, he successfully ran for state Assembly. He served for two terms, from 2013 to 2017,before running for state Senate in 2016 and losing to incumbent Sen. Lena Taylor.

“It was a very calculated risk, but I don’t regret it,” Barnes said reflecting on his defeat. “I knew that if I lost, I’d be a 29-year-old former State legislator. I’d find something to do.”

And he found just what to do. With no staff, Barnes went into 2018 head first.

Now with a staff and talking points on hand, he’s ready to serve and tackle the challenges that Wisconsin faces. And he doesn’t shy away from the current realities.

“We’re not a state that’s prepared for the future. We have some of the worst racial disparities, income disparities, Black male incarceration… this is bad for everybody,” Barnes said.

In Milwaukee alone, Black residents suffer income inequality, serious neighborhood segregation and education opportunity gaps. A June 2016 report found that Wisconsin has the second highest rate of Black incarceration in the nation. A project by journalism nonprofit ProPublica found that Wisconsin has some of the worst and widest achievement gaps between Black and white students in the country.

“I’m looking forward to changing the narrative and I intend to work to be a part of making Wisconsin a more desirable and habitable place,” Barnes said. “I want to get us back to a place or get us to a place where people can be proud to live here, where it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your interests are. There is a place for you.”

Barnes is focused on bringing ideas and a bold vision to the table. He is humbled at what being the first Black lieutenant governor and only the second to be elected to a statewide office means.

“It’s so much more than making history, it’s about making a difference,” he said.

One of the most prominent young voices in the political space, Barnes knows he brings a different perspective and he doesn’t plan on changing anytime soon.

He described his recent state of mind as a historic new Congress arrives on Capitol Hill and a new administration takes Wisconsin.

“As an adult, I’ve been on a [Medicaid] waiting list. I’ve been on unemployment, food share. So I can speak to these things more authentically,” he said. “But I get frustrated when people make decisions about something they have no real clue about. It’s not fair when a person who hasn’t been impacted is a part of the larger conversation.”

He plans on continuing to hold the people making decisions accountable and engaging more disenfranchised communities who wouldn’t traditionally be involved in politics.

“A lot of us get discouraged or possibly intimidated when we see people at a table. But like Michelle Obama, I too have been at a lot of tables and it doesn’t seem like people know shit,” Barnes said strongly. “There’s no way you can govern for the interest of people without having the experiences of people. We need people like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in Congress.”

Particularly, he looks to young people and the future of politics.

“We need young people that can bring their experiences. For now, I want them to know that 1, someone has your back and 2), you can do this too.”

This article originally appeared in Essence.

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