Milwaukee’s son makes a Senate run

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes rejects the BDS movement and has expressed support for Iron Dome funding

On a brisk evening in late November, Mandela Barnes, the Democratic lieutenant governor of Wisconsin who is now emerging as a high-profile Senate candidate in one of the most consequential races of the upcoming midterm elections, was celebrating his birthday at a post-industrial community center on the east side of Madison.

Despite the festive occasion, the fundraising event was, at points, relatively subdued, perhaps in part because the gathering had been scheduled on the Monday after Thanksgiving, two days before Barnes would officially turn 35. But it was also hard not to feel as if the tumultuous events of the past week or so had contributed to a lingering sense of unease in this liberal redoubt of south-central Wisconsin.

As the governor’s gregarious sidekick, Barnes is something of a ubiquitous presence at public events throughout the Badger State, and so it was hardly unusual that he had been planning to attend the holiday parade in Waukesha at which a driver had careened his maroon SUV into the crowd and killed six bystanders. Instead, Barnes was in Kenosha that day, an hour’s drive south, where protesters were objecting to the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, had killed two people and injured a third amid widespread demonstrations following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in the summer of 2020.

The last-minute schedule change had clearly shaken Barnes, who described “a bitter irony that encapsulates all the stress and pain of this past week” in social media comments the day after the car attack in suburban Milwaukee. “The only reason I wasn’t at the parade in Waukesha yesterday is because I needed to be in Kenosha.”

During the unrest in Kenosha two summers ago, Barnes spoke candidly of his exasperation with racial disparities in the criminal justice system — and, as the first Black lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, his national profile rose in tandem with a growing awareness of police brutality that placed Wisconsin at the red-hot center of an intensifying and all but unsettled political battle. Barnes expressed disappointment with the Rittenhouse ruling in a recent statement, but he struck a note of even-handedness that seemed to eschew some of his rawer prior comments on the issue. “While we can easily view this as a setback,” he said, “we have to transform this moment.”

At his birthday bash, speaking before a modestly sized crowd of contributors, Barnes made no mention of the controversial ruling, which, aside from his written statement, he appears to have avoided discussing publicly. Still, the lieutenant governor stuck to a similarly optimistic message as he outlined his quest to become Wisconsin’s first Black senator, occasionally lightening the mood with a series of aw-shucks asides that he has honed over the past two years in countless appearances throughout every region of the state. 

“I looked at this race long and hard because I honestly very much enjoy my time as lieutenant governor,” Barnes, who was sharply dressed in a dark blue suit, bright orange tie and brown-leather solo monk-strap shoes, told supporters. “I’ve had an incredible wealth of experiences,” he added, teeing up for the punchline. “I’ve been able to tap a maple tree.” 

He paused for effect as the audience chuckled. “I got to go to a cranberry marsh — and before somebody corrects me, it’s not a bog,” he clarified with bemused authority, speaking through a purple face mask emblazoned with the logo of a local union. “We have cranberry marshes in the state. It’s a little fun fact. You’ll also be happy to learn we’ve got five Springfields in the state of Wisconsin — another interesting fact for you to use.”

Barnes holds no major procedural authorities in his current role, which he has occupied since 2019. “You cut a whole lot of ribbons,” he said self-effacingly. “It’s a function of the job.” But the veteran elected official, who sits on a number of task forces and is first in the line of succession for the governorship, was perhaps underselling himself for effect. His historic victory alongside Gov. Tony Evers three years ago — when Barnes positioned himself as an outspoken and unabashedly progressive foil to his even-tempered running mate, now 70 — was widely viewed as a transformative moment for Democrats.

“Wisconsin is a much different state since 2018,” Barnes said at the community center, indirectly alluding to the tenure of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who assumed office in 2011 as a brash Tea Party prototype and would wage fierce battle with labor unions in Wisconsin. Walker was unseated by Evers in 2018, but Barnes suggested that Democrats still had unfinished business. 

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (R) speaks at a news conference on August 27, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The perennially purple swing state of Wisconsin is one of the most closely divided in the nation, with bright-red rural swaths encircling predominantly Republican suburban areas as well as reliably Democratic metropolitan enclaves like Milwaukee and Madison, the latter of which has been described as “77 square miles surrounded by reality.”

The pair of Wisconsin senators currently in office present a study in contrasts that underscores the state’s unique political identity. Elected in 2012 as the country’s first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin, 59, is an old-school progressive Democrat who remains popular among the majority of voters throughout the state. Ron Johnson, on the other hand, assumed office in 2011 as a business-friendly Tea Party insurgent whose political transformation during the Trump era has made him one of the most endangered Republicans in the Senate. In recent years, Johnson, 66, has pushed conspiracy theories around the 2020 presidential election, and he is now leading a GOP effort to take control of federal elections in Wisconsin. All the while, he has repeatedly amplified misinformation about the pandemic. Last week, for instance, Johnson suggested that gargling mouthwash “has been proven to kill the coronavirus.”

While Johnson has yet to announce whether he will seek re-election next year, most observers speculate that he is likely to run again, notwithstanding his apparent vulnerability, because of what is expected to be a windfall year for Republicans as they seek to regain control of the Senate.

For Democrats, the GOP-held seat represents a chance to hold the line, if not by expanding their razor-thin Senate majority then at least by preserving it. At the Madison gathering, Barnes made no mention of Johnson, but indicated that he was prepared for whatever fight lay in store for the general election. “It’s important for us to get the train on the tracks, for us to be pointed in the right direction, and it’s important for us to deliver for the people of this state, the people of this country,” Barnes said. “That’s one of the biggest frustrations folks have about Democrats — that we don’t fight hard enough and that we don’t do the work to deliver. And I can’t say that I completely disagree.”

The answer, Barnes suggested, lies in reshaping the ideological makeup of the upper chamber. “That’s why not just expanding the majority but making sure that we have a progressive majority in the United States Senate,” he emphasized, “is so important.”

After his speech, a chocolate cake with multicolored frosting was presented before him, and those in attendance sang “Happy Birthday.” Rather than blowing out the candles, Barnes, conscious of the emerging Omicron variant, waved his hand forcefully over the flames, extinguishing them in just a few seconds. Then, clutching a long, serrated knife, he carefully cut the cake.

The image of Barnes, the man of honor, dutifully divvying up dessert for his guests was a classic demonstration of midwestern manners. But it was also an apt visual shorthand for an abiding tension that has hung conspicuously over his Senate campaign since he entered the race this past July.

“Republicans are, I think, salivating to face Barnes,” said Jessica Taylor, a Senate elections editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “They argue that he’s too progressive for the state.”

Barnes, who boasts that he is the most progressive candidate in the race, has so far established himself as an early frontrunner among nearly a dozen other Democratic primary candidates. But even as his message appears to be resonating, at least at this incipient stage, political experts who spoke with Jewish Insider are divided as to whether the qualities that might propel Barnes to a primary victory next August would backfire in the general election.

“I do worry personally that if we put forward the most progressive candidate in a tight year for Democrats, that may not be the best strategy,” said one Democratic consultant in Wisconsin who is not active in the primaries. Barnes will “very clearly be seen as the most or one of the most progressive members in the Senate,” the strategist added. “He would have a big national profile in that role in the same way that the Squad members do in the House.”

“But knowing that’s what’s coming, it could work against him.”

Barnes, who favors progressive policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, is a staunch supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and he has expressed admiration for such far-left Squad members as Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Those affinities have already drawn conservative attacks that are sure to intensify if Barnes advances to the general election.

“Republicans are, I think, salivating to face Barnes,” said Jessica Taylor, a Senate elections editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “They argue that he’s too progressive for the state.”

The conservative editor Charlie Sykes, who lives in Milwaukee, offered an even blunter assessment. “If Mandela Barnes is the Democratic nominee, then Democrats can take Wisconsin off the board,” asserted Sykes, a founder of The Bulwark. “I could put that more diplomatically, but that’s what I believe.”

“For Republicans, the anti-Mandela Barnes playbook is already written,” Anthony Chergosky, an assistant professor of political science at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, told JI. “What I’m wondering is if Mandela makes some movement back to the ideological center or if he doubles down on his progressive views.”

While Barnes has made no public indication that he is interested in tempering his beliefs, some of his recent public remarks do hint, ever so slightly, at a more cautious approach. But even if Barnes remains largely unbending, the aspiring senator argues that, given the stakes of the race, his campaign is about more than ideology. In many ways, Barnes is engaging in something of an audacious experiment as he embarks on his first bid for federal office — that is, whether his approach will allow him to not only have his cake but eat it, too. 

***

“I’m not going to ever compromise my values,” Barnes said in an interview with JI last month over coffee in Washington, D.C., where he was in town fundraising while also tending to some official duties in his capacity as lieutenant governor. “I do fully believe and support the same things I’ve always supported, and in many ways, I feel like maybe I’ve gotten even more progressive in this position having traveled the state and seeing the challenges folks are dealing with.”

Barnes, who is tall and thin, with a shaved head and a short, scruffy beard, gives off an athletic bearing that befits his reputation as a long-distance runner — a hobby highlighted in his first campaign video. He had already been on a jog before arriving at Dua Coffee in downtown Washington on an early morning in mid-November. It was chilly outside, and the wind was picking up, but Barnes, dressed in a slim gray suit and sneakers, scoffed at the suggestion that he would need a coat. 

The first-term lieutenant governor, who grew up in Milwaukee, knows from cold — and in many ways, his political ascendancy is one of endurance. Born Jesse Mandela Barnes, he has long gone by his middle name, a salute to Nelson Mandela, the late South African anti-apartheid activist. Like many families in Wisconsin, Barnes was raised in a proud union home, and an activist spirit was instilled in him at a young age. 

As a kid, Barnes attended Walter Reuther’s United Auto Workers camp in Black Lake, Mich. 

His father, who is also named Jesse, is a retired autoworker who identifies as a socialist and in 2011 participated in widespread demonstrations against legislation in Wisconsin that would end collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions, according to an interview with the journalist Dan Kaufman in his 2018 book, The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics.

Mandela Barnes speaks at his birthday fundraiser (Credit: Matthew Kassel)

After attending Alabama A&M University, Barnes took a low-level job in the Milwaukee mayor’s office and was subsequently hired as an organizer with Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope, a nonprofit organization dedicated to social justice causes. While with the group, Barnes developed a reputation as something of an interfaith bridge-builder, engaging a number of local lay and religious leaders. 

Richard Schwalb, a Jewish community activist in Milwaukee who now serves on the Wisconsin chapter of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, described Barnes as a trusted ally during that time. “I was part of a larger group of activists that organized a counter rally that took place, essentially at the same location, before this neo-Nazi rally,” Schwalb told JI. “We worked side by side planning the event.”

In 2012, Barnes launched his first bid for public office, successfully picking off an entrenched incumbent in the state Assembly. Barnes, who went on to lead the now-defunct Black and Latino Caucus, earned a reputation as something of a “proactive” policy wonk among his fellow Democrats, according to Jonathan Brostoff, a longtime friend and state assemblyman. But Brostoff also appreciated that Barnes was, on occasion, capable of striving for levity in the service of advancing his goals. 

“He does great impressions,” said Brostoff, who has endorsed Barnes’s Senate bid. At one point, he told JI, Barnes delivered a “significant part of his floor speech” in the gravelly voice of Bane, the villain in Christopher Nolan’s final Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” As Brostoff understood it, Barnes was critiquing what he viewed as a lack of transparency around a set of bills the Republicans were seeking to advance. “‘These bills were born in darkness,’” Brostoff recalled Barnes intoning during his monologue. “That was pretty funny.”

Four years into his Assembly tenure, Barnes embarked on an ill-fated campaign for higher office, challenging Lena Taylor, a popular Democratic state senator in Milwaukee County. His friends and colleagues tried to talk him out of it, but he remained steadfast. “I begged him, ‘Oh, my God, please, Mandela, don’t do this, you’re gonna lose, you’re gonna get beaten, you’re gonna get crushed, don’t do it!” said Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI), a friend and mentor who has endorsed his campaign for U.S. Senate. “But he did it out of a sense of idealism about what representation ought to be about. He did it out of a sense of the importance of collegiality and being able to make public service more horizontal than vertical.”

He lost, miserably, and was out of a job because he had given up his Assembly seat to run. But Moore was still impressed with what she described as Barnes’s natural ability to connect with voters, even as he had taken on her own state senator. “When he was running against her, the now-deceased, beloved mentor of mine, Vel Phillips” — the former secretary of state who, along with Barnes, is the only Black elected official ever to have won statewide office in Wisconsin — “called me up and asked me, ‘Do you know this Mandela?’” Moore recalled. “I said, ‘Sure, I know Mandela.’ She says, ‘Well, would you give him my phone number? I want to talk to him.’ And I said sure.” 

Soon enough, they had forged a close relationship. “This old, old lady and this young man struck up an independent relationship,” Moore marveled. “She liked him, and I think she supported him in that run for that Senate race. I had nothing to do with it.”

That relationship would, as it happens, prove somewhat fortuitous. Following his defeat, Barnes worked briefly with the State Innovation Exchange, a national progressive policy organization, in Madison, before mounting another quixotic campaign for the lieutenant governorship. “Barnes is the luckiest politician in Wisconsin politics in my lifetime,” said Mordecai Lee, a professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who previously served in the state legislature. “The fact that Barnes won his primary and then had this shotgun marriage with Evers was totally a roll of the dice.”

“He was out of a job, he was out in the wilderness and then two years later, he ran for lieutenant governor in this lower tier race and won,” Lee added. “Now, suddenly, he goes from this former defeated position to being lieutenant governor. That’s a fairy-book story.”

Throughout his two years in the role, Barnes has proven himself as something of a workhorse who, as the governor’s chief pitchman, has been enthusiastic in his support for Evers without,  according to Lee, drawing undue controversy. “He’s done a lot of events throughout Milwaukee,” Lee said of Barnes. “In all those events, he has never put his foot in his mouth.” 

While Barnes and Evers have markedly different personas, their yin-and-yang relationship has worked, Lee suggests, because Barnes isn’t the sort of progressive whose style and rhetoric match up with the flame-throwing ethos of the far left. “He’s always been, if there is such a thing, a moderate progressive,” Lee surmised. “He’s very much in the mainstream silo of the progressive wing.”

***

Interviews with nearly 30 political scientists, Democratic strategists and elected officials in the state, as well as friends and acquaintances of the lieutenant governor, suggest that many believe the same, even if Barnes has expressed an affinity for some of the most outspoken progressives in Congress.

“He’s really running with the Obama playbook in lots of ways,” said Paul Nolette, an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Barnes, he said, has smartly framed his campaign around “moving forward,” echoing the former president’s hopeful message, which helped him win Wisconsin in both 2008 and 2012. “An important point is staying optimistic and having an upbeat attitude,” Nolette said, “which I think Obama was very good at.” 

Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist in Wisconsin, believes that Barnes would be successful in a statewide general election matchup, where he will need to consolidate support in urban centers while holding down the margins in rural and suburban portions of the state. Zepecki compared Barnes to such Wisconsin senators as Russ Feingold, whom Johnson unseated in 2011, and Baldwin. “Pretty independent, you know where they stand and even if you don’t agree with them, you at least respect where they are on the issues,” he said. “That’s more the mold that I would expect than anyone in the Squad.”

In conversation with JI, Barnes described himself as an admirer of Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Jon Ossoff (D-GA), the latter of whom won election this January in a remarkable upset. “Prior to Ossoff, I was the youngest Democrat elected to statewide office, so I should probably talk to him,” Barnes said of the 34-year-old Democrat from Georgia. “He’s younger than me by, like, three months, three or four months. His birthday is in February. You research these kinds of things.”

But even as he ties himself to some of the more even-tempered Democrats in the Senate, Barnes says his progressive values are right at home in Wisconsin. In the early 1900s, Robert La Follette, otherwise known as “Fighting Bob,” presided over the state as governor and then senator before mounting a failed bid for the presidency as a member of his own Progressive Party. “We have proud progressive traditions in Wisconsin,” Barnes said. “We have a responsibility to live up to that. We can’t just can’t rest on our legacy. We’ve got to continue to build upon it.”

“When I’m out of town, if I’m at a conference or something, I tell people about the things Wisconsin had led,” Barnes went on. “The first state to declare the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional, the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment, the first state to have anti-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation on the books, the first state to have anti-discrimination laws based on ability on the books. This is who we are as a state. Unfortunately, we’ve back-slid a bit, but I have no reason to believe we can’t do this — that we can’t lead the nation once more.”

With eight months to go until the primary, Barnes has already far outpaced his opponents in the limited publicly available polling on the race, while amassing a war chest sizable enough to afford him some leeway against two well-funded challengers, Alex Lasry and Sarah Godlewski, who have collectively spent nearly $2 million of their own money. For his part, Barnes, who launched his campaign later than most contenders in the crowded field, has raised just over $1.1 million — a total that some elections experts have assessed as somewhat modest for a candidate of Barnes’s stature. 

Still, the lieutenant governor has raked in a number of big-name donations that suggest he is gaining traction on the national stage. Among his most high-profile contributors are the actors Bradley Whitford and Edward Norton, the billionaire business executive Laurene Powell Jobs, the former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and the political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus. 

Barnes has also gained backing from a diverse and influential group of elected officials in Washington. In September, Barnes earned dual endorsements from Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a close ally of Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who is among the most progressive Democrats in the Senate. Last month, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the powerful House majority whip whose endorsements have helped boost President Joe Biden as well as Rep. Shontel Brown in Ohio to victory in recent primaries, gave Barnes his coveted imprimatur.

Lasry, who is on leave from his position as a senior vice president with the Milwaukee Bucks, has been shoring up major support from statewide labor unions, while Tom Nelson, an Outagamie county executive who is running in the progressive lane, has notched an endorsement from the Wisconsin chapter of the Sunrise Movement, the national climate advocacy group.

Barnes, who chairs the governor’s climate change task force, has put environmental issues front and center in his messaging — even as, like most of the leading candidates, his campaign site includes no policy section. “As an agricultural state, I do fully believe that the answers lie within what we’re already doing,” he said last month, seated in a nook at the back of the D.C. coffee shop. “We’ve brought so many farmers into this conversation about climate change because they’re the ones getting hit.”

As he concluded his thought, a small bug flew into his mouth, and he appeared to have accidentally swallowed it. 

“Excuse me,” Barnes said as he began to cough. “Ugh. A bug.”

***

Still, Barnes remains confident. “This is an incredibly broad coalition,” he told JI. “Like, I’m a progressive. That’s how I got here. I started in grassroots organizing. But we are building a coalition of everybody. We are uniting all shades of blue. That’s what this is about. That’s how we win. We can have arguments when we’re in power, but right now, we’ve got to win.”

His endorsements indicate that, at least up to this point, Barnes is transcending some of the bitter intra-party divisions that have driven a wedge between far-left and moderate Democrats in recent elections. While Clyburn has expressed resistance to far-left messaging on police funding and socialized medicine, issues that Republicans will likely use against Barnes if he makes it to the general election, the South Carolina congressman said he had given no thought whatsoever to the lieutenant governor’s platform before making his endorsement. “I have not studied his policies at all,” he said in a recent interview with JI, noting that he had made the endorsement on the enthusiastic recommendation of Gwen Moore, his close personal friend. 

That’s not to say the congressman didn’t check Barnes out. But Clyburn suggested that because his instincts have treated him well in the past, policy considerations were perhaps beside the point. “I like his demeanor,” he said of Barnes. “He would be a refreshing presence. Wisconsin has been in the news a lot these days for many, many reasons, like South Carolina is in the news for many, many reasons,” Clyburn elaborated. “And oftentimes, those reasons are not positive. I think Mandela offers an opportunity for some real positives to come out of Wisconsin.”

Last week, Barnes released the first policy plan of his campaign, advocating for such proposals as ending the filibuster, strengthening voting rights and overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. 

“There’s so much at stake right now, so much on the line, just the things that are keeping this country together,” Barnes told JI. “We can talk about the policies, climate change, rebuilding the middle class, health care, but we’ve got to think about the social and political infrastructure, as well, like voting rights and access to democracy in general.”

Sean McElwee, a co-founder of the polling firm Data for Progress, said that “Barnes is the example of what” he hopes “to see more often from progressives.” McElwee, whose firm conducted a poll on the race but is not involved with any of the campaigns, believes that progressive candidates have too often acted against their own interests in primary elections by positioning themselves in opposition to their own party rather than presenting progressive values as the embodiment of Democratic ideals, as he suggested Barnes is doing. “Barnes,” McElwee told JI, “is absolutely what it means for the progressive movement to move beyond adolescence and into adulthood.”

“I am very deliberate about reaching out to people who are a part of my own party, not just the ones who I agree with 95 to 100% of the time, but the ones who I’m maybe with 75% of the time,” Barnes said. “We want you here, want you to be a part of this big tent.”

“It’s not just the ideology,” he added. “This is multiracial, multi-ethnic, intergenerational, people from all across the state.”

2018 Democratic candidate for Wisconsin Governor, Tony Evers running mate and Lt. Governor candidate Mandela Barnes speaks to supporters at the Racine County Democratic office on November 4, 2018, in Racine, Wisconsin. (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

But a number of players have yet to get on board. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, for example, is currently evaluating the race but has not decided whether it will make an endorsement, according to a source familiar with the group’s thinking — as is the case for all non-incumbent candidates in contested primaries.

Most Jewish groups are also taking something of a wait-and-see approach, if an endorsement is even in the pipeline. Marvin Tick, a member of the Wisconsin chapter of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, says the organization has interviewed a number of candidates but will otherwise be staying out of the primary. Pro-Israel America, the bipartisan advocacy group, is “keeping close track” of the race but has not determined who it will be supporting, according to Jeff Mendelsohn, PIA’s executive director. Democratic Majority for Israel declined to comment on the record.

J Street, the left-leaning Israel advocacy outfit, is backing four candidates in the primary, including Barnes, Lasry, Godlewski and Nelson. “Mandela Barnes, like many of the candidates in this race, has been pretty clear about his support not only for a two-state solution but understanding the importance of really calling out some of the negative actions that move us farther away from peace,” said Laura Birnbaum, J Street’s national political director. “For someone who doesn’t necessarily have a foreign policy background, he has a decent understanding of both the nuances of the policy issues but also how they play out in American politics — and I think that he’s someone who has been very sensitive to making sure that he’s representing both the views of the folks in his state and listening to all kinds of groups.”

Barnes says he has long-standing ties with Jewish community members in Wisconsin going back to his organizing days. “That’s just my natural positioning, engaging people from all communities,” he told JI. In 2013, Barnes attended an African-American and Jewish community leaders mission hosted in Philadelphia by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, after which he was invited to speak about voting rights at a JCPA plenum.

“As a former interfaith organizer, Mandela is part of a long legacy of Black and Jewish leaders standing together to support human rights and civil rights,” Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY), who has endorsed Barnes’s Senate bid, told JI in a statement. “His long record of delivering for Wisconsin is proof that he won’t settle for what is when he knows what can be.”

Shahanna McKinney-Baldon, who was Barnes’s English teacher at John Marshall High School in Milwaukee, said she is “excited” for the lieutenant governor’s “collaborations with members of the Jewish community.” McKinney-Baldon is now the executive director of the Edot Midwest Regional Jewish Diversity Collaborative, an organization promoting Jewish racial and ethnic diversity. “I continue to be impressed by Mandela’s commitment to building relationships across our diverse Wisconsin,” she told JI in an email, noting that the lieutenant governor “embodies” such Jewish values as “responsibility,” “honoring the collective” and not standing “idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

Barnes has continued to engage with the Jewish community since entering politics, but the lieutenant governor said he has often been dismayed by the circumstances of his meetings amid rising incidents of antisemitism across the state. 

“We’re not building real inroads right now,” Barnes argued. “Of course, we’re standing together in community, which we should do. But the more that we do when it’s not a tragedy, the better off we’ll be, the less we’ll see these things happening. That’s what it comes down to, like genuinely working to build those bridges, to have those conversations, to develop understanding.”

***

Several Wisconsin Jewish leaders say they are unclear on where Barnes stands on the Middle East and Israel, which has become something of a litmus test for progressive Democrats who have veered sharply toward the critical end of the political spectrum. 

Moshe Katz, the immediate past chairman of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, said he had met Barnes on a few different occasions over the years. “He is extremely likable, and I underline likable,” he told JI. “He’s funny. He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s extremely bright. He’s well-spoken. He is a potentially really great representative of Milwaukee.” But Katz, who says he is now supporting Lasry as well as Steven Olikara, a political activist in Milwaukee, remains unsure of Barnes’s foreign policy views. “I am a little concerned because he is affiliated with much of that progressive side, and I don’t know what that means,” he told JI. “I want to see some of his policy statements. I have not seen them yet. That will help me make the decision one way or the other.”

While J Street asked that candidates submit position papers on Israel as part of its approval process, the Barnes campaign declined to make one available for JI. But in the interview in Washington as well as a series of follow-up questions conducted via email, Barnes laid out his broad-strokes approach to Middle East foreign policy. His views, in part, are informed by a trip he took to Israel in 2012, after his election to the Assembly but before he assumed office, on an African-American leadership tour sponsored by the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation.

“It gave me a perspective,” Barnes said. “You know how it is. You read, watch the news, but I had a chance to go there and see a lot for myself, to develop a certain understanding. It was the AIPAC-tilt trip, so it was a little bit different than where I’d normally be. But it was good to be there and to hear that perspective.” He said he had been in Israel when the United Nations voted in favor of granting the Palestinian Authority nonmember observer state status. “I personally thought it was a good thing,” Barnes told JI. “But people on the trip didn’t.”

Barnes would not reveal whether he has had more recent conversations with AIPAC. A spokesperson for AIPAC did not confirm whether the group had reached out to Barnes.

In conversation, Barnes suggested that he would take a somewhat more balanced approach to the Jewish state than might be expected of a candidate who identifies with some of the most vocal Israel critics in the House. He says he opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, for instance, and supports additional funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system that is currently stalled in the Senate.

But Barnes admits to some reservations over how the Iron Dome supplemental aid was introduced. “That vote was taken out of a larger package, and it was pretty hasty, and it was also in the middle of us figuring out infrastructure, still figuring out Build Back Better,” he said. “Personally, military spending is something that’s always difficult for me, just in general. Like, I think about communities and community development, just things that aren’t happening here domestically.”

“Now, I get it,” Barnes clarified. “This is to defend Israel against many threats that do exist around it. Understood. And I support it.”

“I believe that true friendship between the United States and Israel means speaking out, clearly and directly, when the policies of the Israeli government undermine the values that connect us and our own national security interests,” Barnes told JI.

Broadly speaking, Barnes said he will always support funding for Israel “that goes toward legitimate security purposes,” as he wrote in a recent email exchange with JI. “I want to ensure that no American taxpayer dollars go toward activity that violates human rights, including the demolition of homes, forced evacuations or promoting new settlements.”

But Barnes was less forthcoming about how he would do that. Some House members have, with varying degrees of specificity, called for conditioning U.S. aid to Israel that is guaranteed in a 10-year memorandum of understanding between the two countries. Last spring, Sanders sought to block an arms sale to Israel but abandoned the effort after he learned that the deal had already been finalized, according to a Senate aide who spoke with The Wall Street Journal. In April, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) sponsored a bill that would place restrictions on American military assistance for the Jewish state. And J Street now advocates for placing what it describes as “end-use restrictions” on U.S. aid to Israel.

Barnes, who said he had not read McCollum’s bill, was otherwise reticent on what approach he would take. 

“I believe that true friendship between the United States and Israel means speaking out, clearly and directly, when the policies of the Israeli government undermine the values that connect us and our own national security interests,” Barnes told JI. “In the Senate, I’ll continue to be a friend and ally of Israel, and I’ll speak out when I feel our friends take actions that are counter to our interests and to human rights.”

As a state elected official, Barnes has rarely commented publicly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In May, however, amid escalating violence between Israel and Hamas, he weighed in on social media. “Normalize saying Free Palestine,” Barnes wrote in a short Twitter thread. “We cannot be more comfortable with chaos and the deaths of innocent children than we are with those two words. There’s a lot of history and context, but this approach has not previously brought about a resolution, and it won’t now. Innocent people on each side deserve a ceasefire.”

Daniel Riemer, a friend of Barnes who serves in the Wisconsin state Assembly, said he took issue with the lieutenant governor’s statement, which, like many comments from left-wing progressives at the time, had avoided direct criticism of Hamas. “Let’s say I disagree with the way he’s talking about it,” Riemer, who is Jewish and describes himself as a strong supporter of Israel, told JI. 

Despite his disagreement with Barnes’s approach to the conflict, Riemer, who has endorsed the lieutenant governor for Senate, said he was in no way indignant, because he trusts that Barnes is open to engaging in good-faith dialogue on the matter. “I can say sincerely he’s a guy where, if I disagreed with him on an issue, including an issue related to Israel, I would still trust him,” Riemer said. “I think he’s the kind of leader who’s not doctrinaire in his positions. I don’t think he’s too rigid or too wishy-washy.”

Elana Kahn, the former director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, got to know Barnes as an organizer early in his career. “My understanding is that he wants to be on the right side of history,” said Kahn, who is now the associate dean for outreach at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. “He also understands that there’s a lot he doesn’t know, so he’s always been receptive to learning.” 

Kahn acknowledges that pro-Israel advocates may take issue with Barnes’s criticisms, but she believes that they would be making a strategic error by avoiding engagement. “If the Jewish community has a ‘you’re with us or against us’ stance, then we will lose the support of people who otherwise might be able to understand issues with complexity,” she argued. “And it is complicated and it is complex.”

***

While most experts agree that Barnes is heavily favored in the primary, there is still much that could change between now and August, according to Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “There is a liability to being the frontrunner because it attracts attention and fire from the other candidates,” he told JI. “His liabilities are not being fully vetted as a candidate. There may be things that come out that may be hurdles for him.”

The GOP, for its part, already appears to be sharpening its knives. “Wisconsin Democrats are tripping over themselves to prove who’s more liberal, and Mandela Barnes is no exception,” Lizzie Litzow, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, charged in a feisty email to JI. “He is more worried about ramming through the Washington Democrats’ radical agenda than representing hardworking Wisconsin families. And the company he keeps is just as out of touch. The Barnes Brigade is full of defund-the-police-supporting, Israel-hating, socialism-loving radicals. If Barnes and the Wisconsin Democrat candidates for U.S. Senate continue to cave to Washington liberals and pander to radical liberals, Republicans will be very happy next November.”

Mandela Barnes cuts the cake at his birthday celebration. (Credit: Matthew Kassel)

Anna Kelly, a spokesperson for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, declined to confirm whether Johnson will run again, arguing instead that Barnes “lacks the seriousness or substance to be a U.S. Senator,” as she wrote in an email to JI earlier this week. “Voters will reject his far-left agenda, and grassroots Republicans will support Senator Johnson in whatever choice he makes.”

At the birthday celebration in Madison last month, Barnes said that he is anticipating such attacks. “Republicans are going to throw whatever they can at us, they are going to say whatever,” he told the crowd. “People always ask, ‘What are Republicans going to say about you?’ Anything. When I ran for lieutenant governor, I got accused of kneeling at a public event during the national anthem, which couldn’t have been even further from the truth. But it just goes to show what levels they’ll stoop to.”

“The way we respond back is not by just saying, ‘Oh, no,’ and ‘They’re wrong,’” Barnes went on. “We respond by sticking to our message, our positive message, our values, our vision about improving the quality of life for people across the state and across this country.”

Those in attendance offered varying reasons for supporting Barnes. “I don’t feel represented by our current senator in this seat, and I feel like Mandela is going to represent the average working-class person instead of other millionaires,” said Brian Lavendel, 57, a rental property manager in Madison who helped organize the event. “He knows what it’s like to live a working-class life and be raised by working-class parents, and unfortunately, I think politicians often forget that.”

Michael Traktman, 55, an emergency-room doctor in Madison, said that Barnes “represents the ideals of all the things that I think are important to people of this community,” including environmental advocacy, gun control and healthcare access. “He’s doing it for the right reasons,” Traktman told JI. “It’s obvious. You can’t hide that. It’s not like there’s some sort of financial reason that he’s doing it.”

But one person wasn’t all in — at least not yet. Richard Landay, a flavor chemist for Kerry Ingredients in Beloit, described himself as a Reagan Republican who has been disenchanted with the GOP’s right-wing turn under Trump. He had shown up at the event because he was curious if Barnes’s campaign would appeal to him. 

After the speech, Landay said he had approached Barnes with a straightforward question. “I asked him, with the divisiveness of government right now,” Landay recounted, “how would you reach across the aisle and creative cooperative government like Reagan had with Tip O’Neill back in the day?”

Barnes’s answer, Landay told JI, had been disappointing. “He turned around and said, ‘Well, we would get rid of this person, this person, this person, and we would be fine.’ It’s like, well, that’s just a my-way-or-the-highway type of attitude, and that’s not what I’m looking for.”

Still, while Landay suggested that he was unlikely to vote for Barnes in the primary, his calculus, he said, was different for the general election. “If he gets the nomination,” Landay said of Barnes, “I’d definitely vote for him over Ron Johnson at this point.”

Ed note: The initial headline was updated to better reflect the full article.

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