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Mandela Barnes

There’s a reason why very little is written during elections for governor about the running mates of the candidates. That’s because even though lieutenant governor is technically the No. 2 job in state government, everyone knows the office has very few actual duties.

It’s much like vice president of the United States, a position many suspect has been replaced with a life-size bobble head nodding up and down behind the president. The lieutenant governor’s only real job is to go by the governor’s office every few days to make sure the governor is still breathing. During times of adequate gubernatorial respiration, lieutenant governors are free to spend their days however they want.

But Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tony Evers’ running mate Mandela Barnes, an African-American community activist and former legislator from Milwaukee, throws a major twist into all that conventional wisdom. Race has a way of doing that in the Trump era as Republicans openly move from making subtle racial appeals to intentionally inflaming racial division.

Gov. Scott Walker, like most Republicans, has long specialized in coded messages to associate Democrats with blacks receiving welfare. He talks about Milwaukee’s “problems” under Mayor Tom Barrett and advocates punitive work requirements for people who need food stamps to feed their families or Medicaid to get medical treatment.

Now he’s joined President Trump’s race-baiting of African-American football players who have knelt during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and violence by police against African-Americans. Walker tweeted: “STAND UP. Be honorable. It’s a simple ask compared to what our service members sacrifice EVERY SINGLE DAY for us.” Walker shouts CAPITAL LETTER INSULTS just like Trump at anyone who participates in peaceful racial protest.

But it was Walker’s running mate Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch who carried the attack to its full Trumpian extreme on Twitter by spreading an outright lie tying Barnes directly to those racial protests. She accused Barnes, being African-American and all, of kneeling during the national anthem at the crowded opening of the Wisconsin State Fair they both attended along with many other community leaders.

Never mind that neither Kleefisch nor anyone else in the crowd saw Barnes do any such thing. Kleefisch said someone she refused to identify told her Barnes did it. Barnes certainly supports the right to peaceful protest, but he correctly labeled the accusation absurd. “The whole damn program would have stopped,” he said, if he’d taken a knee. “This is like me saying my neighbors saw her buying a Tiki torch at Menard’s.” Kleefisch allowed the false accusation to stir controversy for two weeks without any evidence before publicly retracting it.

This just in: Somebody told Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch that Mandela Barnes shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

So there’s one advantage from Democrats nominating an African-American for statewide office. It exposes racist Republican attacks for what they are. There are many more positives than some think. Even before Wisconsin voted for Trump, it had a bad image of itself on the subject of race. Many people feel that outside of Milwaukee and Madison, African-American candidates don’t stand a chance.

That completely ignores the overwhelming success of Barack Obama in Wisconsin. Obama, who just endorsed the Evers-Barnes ticket, defeated John McCain in 2008 with 56 percent of the vote and more actual votes than any other presidential candidate in state history. He swept 59 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. In 2012, Obama won 53 percent of the vote over Mitt Romney even though the county breakdown was about even. Trump’s infinitesimal 47 percent plurality over Hillary Clinton in 2016 was only 22,748 votes.

It’s true many small towns and rural districts in Wisconsin are racially isolated. But it’s also true small town and rural people object to being considered racist simply because they don’t live in diverse communities. That’s why they were attracted to an impressive, intelligent African-American candidate like Obama. They were proud to show their respectability by voting for him.

That’s the political strength of Mandela Barnes in this year’s election and beyond. Besides assuring urban voters Evers won’t be openly hostile to them like Walker, Barnes speaks to the common struggles of families in urban neighborhoods, small towns and rural Wisconsin. Everyone suffers from drastic Republican cuts to education, health care and the social safety net. Ironically, Trump’s attempts to stir racial resentment among rural, white voters against immigrants have left many Wisconsin farmers without the immigrant labor they need.

If he’s elected lieutenant governor, Mandela Barnes will fill his days by representing the governor at community events, luncheons and dinners throughout the state. In racially isolated Wisconsin communities, small town and rural voters will meet exactly the kind of impressive, intelligent African-American politician they would be proud to elect if Barnes ever runs for higher office.

Joel McNally writes a regular column for The Capital Times.

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