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Jessie Opoien: Tyrone Cratic Williams brings a compelling perspective to the race for the isthmus’ Wisconsin Assembly seat

Jessie Opoien: Tyrone Cratic Williams brings a compelling perspective to the race for the isthmus’ Wisconsin Assembly seat

Tyrone Cratic Williams was already a compelling candidate for Wisconsin’s 76th Assembly District.

He’s young — 31 — and his “Madison Made” slogan is more than a catchy phrase. After spending his early years on Chicago’s south side before moving to Madison and graduating from East High School and Edgewood College, his first career was teaching employment education and financial literacy to underserved young people. He eventually started his own financial education business, still focusing on educating underserved communities.

If elected, he would be the first black man to represent Dane County in the state Legislature, and only the second black person to do so, following the election of Rep. Shelia Stubbs in 2018.

He’s also a police officer.

Cratic Williams launched his campaign long before the protests and calls to defund the police began in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Racial and social justice efforts were key tenets of Cratic Williams’ campaign before they emerged at the forefront of the national discourse.

He is one of several qualified candidates to enter the field to represent the 76th Assembly District since Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, announced that she would not seek re-election after nearly a decade in office. Given the high concentration of liberal Democratic voters in the district, which covers almost the entire isthmus, the seat is all but certain to be won by another Democrat. That makes the Aug. 11 primary essentially the real election for the seat.

Others who have declared include: Heather Driscoll, an advocate for environmental issues and violence prevention who ran unsuccessfully for the Dane County Board in 2018; Francesca Hong, a restaurateur (co-owner of Morris Ramen) and community activist; Marsha Rummel, a seven-term Madison alder who works for the Wisconsin Department of Revenue; Nicki Vander Meulen, an attorney and a member of the Madison School Board, also the first openly autistic person to hold such a position in the U.S.; and Ali Maresh, a mental health advocate.

It’s tempting to focus on this one facet of Cratic Williams’ candidacy — he’s a young, black police officer with serious proposals for criminal justice reform — in this moment. It would be a disservice to him to ignore it. But it would also be a disservice to limit him to it.

He has plans for workforce and economic development, health care access, curbing gun violence, broadband expansion and more. His perspective is as much grounded in his experiences as an officer as it is in his years providing implicit bias training and financial literacy education. And it is all connected to that “Madison Made” slogan.

“‘Madison Made’ is an homage to the community that has spent so much time investing in me … being mentored by the leaders who have paved the way and set a standard and taught me how to put communities and families first,” Cratic Williams told me. “This is an homage to them to see the results of what happens when we invest locally and develop locally so we can continue to bring things full circle and continue to advocate for the best opportunities for our community.”

Cratic Williams moved to Madison in 2003, where he attended East High School after spending his early years on the south side of Chicago. He spent much of his adolescence in community centers on Madison’s north and east sides, then graduated from Edgewood College on the city’s west side with a bachelor’s degree in art and four years of experience in the college’s Community Scholars program.

That program led him after graduation to Common Wealth Development to mentor young people in financial literacy and employment education, which led him in turn to launch Cratic Capital Development, LLC, to offer financial education to underserved communities.

“This is my home, and I see that there are a lot of opportunities that can be brought about to enhance our community,” he said. “We need criminal justice reform, as well as we need to provide economic opportunities for our youth, women, communities of color, also supporting small businesses — not to be a detriment, but to be a support for them.”

When I asked Cratic Williams about his top policy priorities, he offered these thoughts: Working to increase equity in resources for small businesses, both through expanding opportunities and providing education about existing resources; ensuring access to affordable health care (and reproductive health care free of government control); helping connect underrepresented communities with emerging industries (particularly as the state seeks to expand its broadband infrastructure); and encouraging communities to invest in young talent.

He also talked about criminal justice reform.

“From my personal experience, officers of diverse backgrounds are able to lead by example and really relate to communities of similar backgrounds on a natural level and provide an empathetic connection that no training can give,” he said, arguing for more efforts to hire multilingual officers and officers of color.

Cratic Williams offered a detailed set of policy recommendations for Dane County law enforcement in a recent op-ed, and I would encourage voters to read that rather than relying on my summary. His recommendations include policies designed to fight implicit bias in policing, limit use of force and increase transparency, along with policies designed to provide additional support for multilingual officers and officers of color.

Asked what drove him toward law enforcement, Cratic Williams said he met a few officers while attending Edgewood College who discussed the importance of serving as a role model and setting an example. One officer in particular had a story that resonated with its parallels to his life.

As Cratic Williams works in the 76th Assembly District as an officer, he said, he brings his own deep relationships and skills to the job — “knowing the people that I work with on a deeper level to address their specific needs.”

“One of the greatest things about this country is the First Amendment and people’s rights to protest their government, and I support peaceful protests,” he said when asked about the protests that erupted after George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis. “I think it’s important that we as a community take a look and work to understand the reasons why people are protesting, and why there is a huge need for reform in the criminal justice system and … use-of-force tracking, but also increased transparency and policy in use of force. I want to bring to the table, and I challenge the Dane County chiefs to commit to working in partnership with underserved communities, to bring them to the table, to work together to address the needs that they want and that they see.”

The candidates lining up to represent the 76th each bring a compelling set of qualifications to the table. Cratic Williams’ candidacy reminds us of what good can come from a community that chooses to invest in its youth and foster racial equity — even when there’s still so much more work to be done.

“My life really has been dedicated … to being mindful of what it is that I’m doing and how I can use my position and my power to affect change for the better in partnership with the community that I'm a part of and that I serve,” he told me.

We would all do better to live with the same mindset.

Jessie Opoien is opinion editor of The Capital Times. and @jessieopie

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.

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