Wisconsin’s Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor has been mistaken for a dead car crash victim, been confused with a white guy, been wrongly accused of kneeling during the national anthem and had his name left out of voter guides.
Mandela Barnes is also shaking up the governor’s race in a way rarely done by a running mate in Wisconsin.
Barnes, who is black, has accused Republican Gov. Scott Walker of ignoring “people who look like me,” said President Donald Trump wants to create “a superior race” and alleged that Republicans are “using the Donald Trump playbook trying to come at me with the most racially excitable things.”
It’s a fine line for Barnes, whose job is to not overshadow his running mate, Tony Evers, or to cause distractions that take the focus off of the message that the less charismatic Evers is trying to deliver against Walker.
But Barnes is also not backing down when he sees criticism that borders on racism.
“I never wanted to run a cookie-cutter campaign,” said Barnes, who is trying to become the state’s first African American lieutenant governor and only the second black person in Wisconsin’s 170-year history to hold statewide office. “I’ve never wanted to be a cookie-cutter candidate.”
Former Lt. Gov. Barb Lawton, who served under Gov. Jim Doyle between 2003 and 2011, said Barnes isn’t running away from difficult questions.
“There’s probably an implicit risk in that, but there’s a bigger risk in my mind of being completely scripted and not letting people know who you are,” she said.
Barnes, 31, is 35 years younger than the 66-year-old Evers. Their differences have been a running joke for them on the trail, or what Barnes calls the “Tony and Mandela Show.”
“When you see Mandela and I standing side by side … it’s the oddest couple that you would ever want to see,” Evers told the Milwaukee Rotary recently.
Walker is 50 and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch is 43.
Barnes said his youth and upbringing as a black person in Milwaukee complement the ticket and will bring Democrats who sat out prior elections to the polls, though he acknowledged they won’t decide which candidate for governor to support based on their running mates.
Barnes ran for the state Assembly in 2012 and defeated Democratic state Rep. Jason Fields. Barnes served four years before deciding to again take on a Democratic incumbent, this time state Sen. Lena Taylor.
He got blown away, losing by 21 percentage points.
Barnes left politics for a couple of years but re-emerged for the lieutenant governor’s race this year, easily winning the primary by 36 points despite his name being left out of three voter guides a week before the election. While he questioned what was happening, he also showed a sense of humor, briefly changing his Twitter name to “Mandela Barnes is running for Lieutenant Governor.”
More slights were to come.
The night before the primary, a Milwaukee television station mistakenly showed a photo of Barnes while reporting on a car crash that killed a different man, leading Barnes to tweet messages assuring voters that he was still alive and kicking.
Even after he cruised to victory, Barnes struggled for respect.
A Green Bay TV station on election night showed a picture of state Rep. Dana Wachs — a white candidate who had dropped out of the governor’s race two months earlier — when reporting on Barnes’ win.
Barnes mostly laughed it off, joking, “I am alive and I am black.”
Barnes speaks freely and engages with his opponents through his Twitter account, @TheOtherMandela — as in, not Nelson Mandela. It was a January tweet Barnes posted about supporting people who kneel during the national anthem that caught Walker’s eye. After Walker retweeted it in September, his running mate, Kleefisch, said without evidence that she had been told Barnes knelt during the anthem at the Wisconsin State Fair’s opening ceremonies.
Barnes called her a liar and Kleefisch eventually apologized, saying she had simply passed along what someone had told her.
Barnes said Walker was attacking him on that “racially excitable” issue, not policy disagreements, because Walker wants to create a distraction.
Barnes helped to create his own distraction when, at a candidate forum with Evers in September, Barnes said he wasn’t interested in voters who supported Barack Obama but then voted for Trump, if they’re still with the president. Republicans likened it to Hillary Clinton calling Trump supporters “deplorables.”
Then in a podcast interview, Barnes said the Trump administration appeared to want to create a “superior race” and urged resistance. Republicans alleged that Barnes was comparing Trump to the Nazis, which Barnes forcefully denied.
Barnes defends his decisions to speak out, even though Walker has tried to use it against Evers.
“2016 showed us that people crave authenticity, people want to know the real candidate,” Barnes said. “If all of a sudden I stop being expressive, people will ask ‘What happened to Mandela?’”