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Constituent called 911, suspecting drug deal, on Dane County Supervisor Shelia Stubbs while she canvassed for Assembly seat

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It was a Tuesday evening in August when a Madison police officer responded to a call on the city’s west side, where a silver sedan had been reported on suspicion of drug activity.

“FULLY OCCUPIED SILVER 4 DR SEDAN NEWER MODEL - THINKS THEY ARE WAITING FOR DRUGS AT THE LOCAL DRUG HOUSE - WOULD LIKE THEM MOVED ALONG,” read the notes from the call for service, made shortly before 7 p.m. on Aug. 7.

The driver of the car was 71-year-old Linda Hoskins. Her 8-year-old granddaughter sat in the backseat. Her daughter, Shelia Stubbs, stood nearby, talking to a resident of the neighborhood in his doorway. The two women and the child are all African-American.

Stubbs, 46, was a candidate for state Assembly and a 12-year veteran of the Dane County Board of Supervisors. She was knocking doors, introducing herself to voters in the 77th Assembly District. Exactly one week later, her name would appear on the ballot in the Democratic primary election, which she would win with nearly 50 percent of the vote.

But in the moments when she spotted the squad car next to her own vehicle, asked the officer what was wrong, explained what she was doing and tried to then explain to her daughter why any of it had happened, she was heartbroken and humiliated.

"It's 2018," Stubbs said in an interview. "It shouldn't be strange that a black woman's knocking on your door. I didn't do anything to make myself stand out. I felt like they thought I didn't belong there."

The 77th District is a diverse one, covering some of Madison’s poorest neighborhoods — Allied Drive and Lake Point, as well as some of its wealthiest — Nakoma and Shorewood Hills. It was represented by Terese Berceau, who endorsed Stubbs for the seat when she decided not to run for re-election, for nearly two decades.

Because a police report detailing the incident redacted the names of the streets where the call was made, Stubbs declined to name the neighborhood she was in at the time. Yet she indicated that it was a predominantly white community.

But for Stubbs, who faces no Republican opponent in the Nov. 6 general election and is now, effectively, the district’s representative-elect, it doesn’t matter where she was. She wasn’t doing anything wrong, she said, and she deserved to be there. And if she could ask the person who called the police — identified in the report as a man, but with no other details — she would ask what made him think she didn’t belong in his neighborhood.

“I belong where I choose to go,” Stubbs said. “You don’t have to like me. You don’t even have to respect me. But I have a right to be places.”

Stubbs will be the first African-American person elected to represent Dane County in the state Legislature, in a state that continues to rank among the worst in the nation for racial equality. She was, at the time of the campaign, the Dane County Board’s only African-American supervisor.

Stubbs is a former parole agent and educator. She campaigned on criminal justice reform, diverting funding for prisons to education, implementing universal background checks for gun purchases, protecting abortion access, providing universal access to health care, supporting workers’ rights, strengthening the social safety net and bolstering environmental protections.

She’s far from the first African-American person to find herself interacting with police after engaging in a normal activity. She’s not even the first elected official to have it happen this year. Oregon state Rep. Janelle Bynum said she was approached by a sheriff’s deputy while canvassing in July, after a constituent called police concerned that she was planning to rob homes because she was taking notes on her cell phone between houses.

Stubbs had been in the neighborhood no more than 20 minutes, she estimates, having knocked on five or six doors and had conversations with residents before the officer showed up.

“It was just so degrading,” she said. “It was humiliating. It was insulting.”

Stubbs wants to make clear that her interaction with the officer who responded to the call, Katherine Bland — a former social worker — was positive. Madison Police Department spokesman Joel DeSpain deferred to Bland’s report recounting the incident, which aligned with Stubbs’ description. According to Bland’s report and Stubbs’ description, the two ended their conversation with Stubbs and her mother sharing their cell phone numbers with Bland with an offer to help the officer work to improve race relations in other Madison communities.

But Stubbs still felt that she needed to go above and beyond in proving to Bland that she was who she said she was, and that she was doing what she said she was doing. She showed the officer her name tag, her campaign literature and her list of doors to knock. She kept her emotions in check. She held herself together.

What Stubbs hopes is that the person who made the call will read her story and get in touch with her — that he’ll tell her what led him to make the call, and that he’ll learn who she is.

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"It's just not OK," Stubbs said. "When you specifically target people of color and call the police, sometimes there's different outcomes."

At this point in the campaign, she said, constituents had received three pieces of campaign mail from her. She’d been featured in media coverage, and she’d been a local elected official for more than a decade. It should not have been alarming to see her knocking on doors in the district, she said. 

“I think it was the hardest journey of my life,” she said of the experience.

Over the course of her four-month campaign, Stubbs said she knocked on thousands of doors. But on this evening, she ended the effort early. She could hold herself together in the moment — for her daughter, for her mother — but she couldn’t keep knocking. From that day on, she said, she has been more “mindful" as she canvasses for herself and for other Democratic candidates. 

The experience has changed her approach, but it has also motivated her to make deeper changes in policy and in society.

“I’ve worked so hard. This is something I’ve always wanted,” she said. “I wasn’t going to allow someone to take that, but it puts a hole in your heart, and it takes so long to mend it.”

Stubbs said she wants people to know Madison — despite its progressive billing — has a problem with racism, and that the city has work to do.

And that's why, she told her daughter, "mommy's working hard to make this a better community." 

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.