Guest host Natasha Alford, in for Farai Chideya, explores political coalition building through three lenses. From the national stage - to hotly contested state races - to local politics - elected officials owe a duty of care to the constituents they serve. But how do politicians at all levels of government communicate with marginalized communities and how do those communities get their voices heard?
Natasha Alford [00:00:00] Hi, folks. We're so glad you're listening to Our Body Politic. If you haven't yet, remember to follow us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have time, please leave us a review. It helps other listeners find us and we read them for your feedback. This week, we're thrilled to share that Our Body Politic has been nominated for a Webby Award. We're up for best individual episode in news and politics and for a Webby People's Voice Award. Voting closes on April 20th. Find out how to vote on our Instagram and Twitter @OurBodyPolitic. We're here for you, with you and because of you. So keep letting us know what's on your mind. We'd also love for you to join in financially supporting the show if you're able. You can find out more at Our BodyPolitic.com/donate. Thanks for your support. And as always, thanks for listening.
Welcome to Our Body Politic. I'm guest host Natasha Alford, senior correspondent at the Grio, sitting in for Farai Chideya. From the national stage to local politics to who gets the opportunity to run for office in the first place. Elected officials owe a duty of care to the constituents they serve. But these days, political coverage can sometimes feel more focused on shock and awe than on getting people the information they need to understand and impact the pressing issues that affect their families and communities. At Our Body Politic, we're dedicated to having conversations that center marginalized communities. To understand the full context of what's happening and why. So we're spotlighting three political figures, national, state and local, on how they're giving more people access to the political process in their communities. We're starting at the national level with a veteran politician, fierce advocate and representative of California's 12th District in the United States House. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, welcome back to the show, Congresswoman.
Representative Barbara Lee [00:02:05] Really happy to be with you, Natasha.
Natasha Alford [00:02:07] Yes. So there have been so many different things happening in the news over the past few weeks. You have been a vocal advocate of abortion rights and have even shared your own personal abortion story publicly. Can you explain this latest legal battle involving the FDA approval of a drug commonly used in medical abortions and how it affects women seeking care across the nation?
Representative Barbara Lee [00:02:32] First of all, this is another attack and another chapter in the agenda to establish a national abortion right ban. This judge from Amarillo, Texas, issued a court ruling that in essence, said that misoprostol would not be available for use. And again, a precedent is not only used for abortions, it's also used for miscarriage management. It's the most serious decision since the Dobbs decision. And once again, we see these radical right wing Republicans trying to erode our rights. And this is another step toward the erosion of our reproductive freedoms. And it's in the context, of course, they're trying to roll the clock back on so many of the rights that we have fought for, including voting rights.
Natasha Alford [00:03:19] Well, it's important to note it's been almost a year after the Dobbs decision. And as you suggested, the ball continues to roll forward in terms of trying to roll back abortion rights. Now, you serve as the co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus. Can you talk to us about the impact that all of this has? Just from a bigger picture level. We know that states are taking different approaches to abortion rights right now, but how can you speak to the state of the entire country when it comes to abortion rights?
Representative Barbara Lee [00:03:52] So what we are witnessing is just in general, these decisions that take away an individual's personal health care decisions and put the decisions in the hands of elected officials and judges. An individual should be able to determine when and what they want to do with their bodies. And if abortions are the decision of that individual, then that should be available. And in fact, what we see now is intrusion of government into people's personal lives. When you look at what is taking place with regard to travel, you know, they're trying to stop women from traveling to other states that have abortions that are accessible. They're trying to even look at how to ban contraception. Looking at big picture is an attempt to establish a national abortion ban. And that's why the pro-choice caucus is working very hard to pass. Once again, the Women's Health Protection Act that would actually put into federal law the right to an abortion.
Natasha Alford [00:04:56] Congresswoman Lee, you were just talking about this idea of national rights. I want to go to the states for a second. Let's turn to the south, where we just saw Tennessee state representatives Justin Pearson and Justin Jones. These are two young Black Democratic lawmakers expelled from the state legislature while their counterpart, Representative Gloria Johnson, who is white, she barely managed to hold onto her seat. And all three of these lawmakers were vigorously advocating for gun control laws after a mass school shooting in Nashville. This was seen by many as an extreme move by the white Republican controlled Tennessee legislature. Talk to us about these two lawmakers and what this could mean in other majority Republican state houses.
Representative Barbara Lee [00:05:44] Yes, these two lawmakers were bold. They are bold and they show the hands of what racism really looks like. And in fact, they are fighting to save lives. I mean, can you imagine? Children were shot. And here they are fighting for gun safety laws so that children and communities can be safe from gun violence. And so what happens rather than debate the issues, they end up debating whether or not these individuals should be expelled. It was fundamentally anti-democratic. It's dangerous. And it's really a way, once again, to try to move forward, to shut up the opposition, to stifle freedom of speech and to say that white supremacy is alive and well. Justin Jones, of course, was my intern, a phenomenal young man, and then he moved back to Tennessee. But he was born and raised in Oakland and raised in El Cerrito. Right in my district. He and Representative Pearson and Gloria, they all took this on behalf of saving lives. And when a legislative body can expel people for voicing the issues and the concerns of their constituents, then I would say we need to see this in the context of another step toward eroding our democracy and stifling dissent, stifling freedom of speech. And the majority of Americans believe that we need common sense gun control and gun safety reforms to save lives.
Natasha Alford [00:07:14] You are no stranger to taking bold stances and standing on the right side of history. And I'm thinking specifically about your vote almost 22 years ago against the 2001 authorization of military force that led to the war in Afghanistan. Where does that authorization stand currently, and have there been any attempts to repeal it?
Representative Barbara Lee [00:07:36] I have constantly attempted to repeal it, and in fact, I have made quite a bit of progress. We're working now with Republicans and other Democrats to find a path to repealing it, because there are some who want to say let's repeal and replace. But that's really contradictory to what the Constitution requires. Why I voted against this is the Congress has to authorize the use of force, not give authority to the president to use force forever, which set the stage for a forever wars. And so we're working right now, once again, to develop the strategy to repeal it, but also the 2002 Iraq authorization, which, if you remember, was based on lies, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There were none. We knew that. But the Congress voted to give the president again authority to use force in Iraq last year. And this year we finally were able to get 49 Republicans on repeal before it got off the floor of Congress. The president also issued a statement of administrative policy, meaning he would support that if it that to his desk, he would sign it into law. And so we went to Senator McCain and he introduced it in the Senate. And a month ago, I was in the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the Senate passed the repeal of the Iraq authorization on a bipartisan vote, which meant Republicans did vote for the repeal of the Iraq authorization. So now it's back in the House. We're working now to bring that repeal of the Iraq authorization to the floor and to the president's desk. And so it's not easy. I mean, this has been a marathon, but we're getting very close and it's going to be up to people to continue voicing their concerns about forever wars.
Natasha Alford [00:09:17] Speaking of the power of the public and what it means for the public when they go into that voting booth and they expect to get a certain result. We've seen that some of the most expensive races for Senate played out in 2022, and that's not expected to change. And I've actually watched interviews where people ask you a lot, Congresswoman, about your own fundraising part compared to the other candidates, and you often push back and say this is about the people's votes, their voices and what they want and not necessarily about money. I just wonder, with huge spending and influence from outside groups, it's almost as if the big spenders win and not the people's candidate. Does this undermine the principle of one person, one vote?
Representative Barbara Lee [00:10:04] It absolutely does. We must get to public financing of campaigns. Otherwise, we're not going to see fairness and equality and parity in our campaign finance laws. When you look at myself, for example, an African-American woman, we have a path in my Senate race to victory, but it's a path it's going to be based on contacting voters, demonstrating to voters who I am, my because of my background and experience that I see their plights, their needs, their aspirations, and I can get the job done. There are many, many strategies that people who look like. Like me who don't have that type of fundraising base that others have because we don't have parity and equity in the fundraising, the finance system of campaigns, that there are ways we win elections by going directly to the voters. Don't get me wrong, we have to raise enough money for media, but it's got to be targeted. But we have to get to public financing of campaigns. Otherwise we won't see a level playing field. And that shows, you know, there are no Black women in the Senate. And the challenges that Black women and women of color have in running in these races are enormous. And so we start from a deficit. But because of the system and how it's structured. But we always show that we still we rise and still we can fight and still we can win based on how we do our campaigns and people understanding and knowing who we are and that we're fighting not only for women or Black women or women of color or communities of color, but we're fighting for everyone to have the equality and the freedoms and the the daily kind of lives that they deserve in terms of making this economy work for everyone.
Natasha Alford [00:11:53] It sounds like you're saying this is both a racial justice issue, but also democracy, right? When you address racial inequality, it improves democracy for all.
Representative Barbara Lee [00:12:04] Absolutely. When you look at the lens, for example, at the perspective, and I'll use myself as an example, as a Black woman, our lens, our perspectives are unique because of our experiences and we have fought. We understand the intersection of power. We have fought not only for our freedoms and justice, but we fought for everyone. And so Black women, as an example, have a lens that is sorely missed in our democracy, especially in the Senate, where we don't have a seat at the table. And that gap needs to be filled.
Natasha Alford [00:12:41] As you talk, I hear how much is at stake, and I also feel a little bit optimistic. Former Congresswoman Karen Bass becoming the mayor of Los Angeles. We have another example. A Mayor Sheng Thao just elected the mayor of Oakland. She's the first Hmong American to become a mayor of a major U.S. city. So does this give us that that bit of optimism about the changing landscape of American democracy? What does it say that these two women achieved these accomplishments?
Representative Barbara Lee [00:13:15] I'm very optimistic because what it says is that we have to do it our way till there's some fairness in the system and saying that I did it her way, Mayor Bass did it her way, and both won and I got involved with Shirley Chisholm. That's how I got involved in politics. The first African-American woman elected to Congress and to run for the presidency in this country. And that's what she reminds of, is that we have to get in and change the rules of the game, because if we don't if we just tinker around the edges, we'll never see progress.
Natasha Alford [00:13:48] As you talk about inspiration and then I think about Shirley Chisholm, who you just mentioned, she was a great inspiration and mentor to you. How important is it to have that mentoring and support to break through? The status quo.
Representative Barbara Lee [00:14:02] Is very important. I've mentored thousands of young people. I mean, it's been remarkable to see how my interns just look at just Representative Jones. But others who have come through all of our offices, especially members of the Congressional Black Caucus office. Our bootcamps, our training programs, our internships, all of these really undergird what gives rise to this new generation of leaders. And so like Shirley Chisholm, like Ron Dellums, like so many like my mother who mentored me and told me that can't was not in the dictionary. And you can you know, you may have challenges or you will have challenges, but you can like Shirley Chisholm said, you've got to understand that. You've got to take those challenges and dismantle them, disrupt them, and revisit how we have passed laws. Because in our country, sexism and racism is in the DNA of America. So you can't go along to get along. You must get in there and make the changes so that the country can live up to its creative liberty and justice for all. And that's what we must do.
Natasha Alford [00:15:09] Well, as we close today, we have to look ahead to your candidacy to replace outgoing California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is not running for reelection in 2024. So tell us, Congresswoman, why the Senate and what are some of the issues that you're focusing on?
Representative Barbara Lee [00:15:27] Sure. The Senate is a very important body with a large megaphone and based on my experience in the California legislature now in the House, I think it's time to have that experience, not only being a voice of resistance. In many ways and having the courage to stand sometimes against my party, sometimes against both parties, as I did after the horrific attacks of 911 on the AUMF. It's important that we have somebody in the Senate who sees people and whose life experiences connect with people, but who have also delivered for people and who know how to get the job done. And for me, we have to address many issues that the Senate, I don't believe is addressing, and that is housing in terms of the unhoused population and how we have a continuum of policies from making sure people have shelter to homeownership. We have to address the issues around climate. I support our environmental justice bill because so many communities of color are most vulnerable to the climate conditions that are changing. And we have seen how the lack of clean water, clean air provide for unfortunately disproportionately health impacts. So climate is a big piece for me in terms of my campaign and also public safety. When you look at every community, every community wants public safety is how do we address public safety and the Senate that gives every community the safety that they need, but also hold law enforcement accountable in terms of police reform. And so these issues, you look at childcare, I was a single mom on welfare, public assistance, on food stamps, raising my children when I was attending college. And guess what? They had to go to class with me because I did not have enough money for childcare. Here we are at the same place with so many families needing child care and can't afford it. And so that's another issue that we have to bring to the Senate attention and fight hard to make sure that we get provisions in legislation like we almost did and build back better to provide for our child care workers, our child care owners, and provide resources for families who need child care. So there are so many issues poverty I'm talking about all over the state, because we are we have the Golden State of California. And, you know, I've led the efforts in the House on our Poverty and Opportunity Task force. For too long, Democrats have ignored people who live below the poverty line in working families. And part of my campaign, in terms of talking to people and listening is how we move forward in the Senate and make sure that everyone is seen and heard. Even people who live below the poverty line and what it takes to lift people out of poverty, such as child poverty, child tax credit, we've got to make that permanent. And so the issues around poverty, which not many elected officials in general talk about, I'm talking about on the campaign in terms of what I've done, but what I intend to do in the Senate.
Natasha Alford [00:18:35] Thank you so much, Congresswoman Lee, for joining us today.
Representative Barbara Lee [00:18:38] Thank you. My pleasure. It was really nice talking with you Natasha.
Natasha Alford [00:18:46] That was Congresswoman Barbara Lee from California's 12th District in the United States House of Representatives. Congresswoman Lee was interviewed during a busy news week before both Tennessee lawmakers were restored to the Tennessee legislature and before Florida joined the growing number of states instituting restrictive six week abortion bans. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in to bring the mifepristone ban case to the Supreme Court.
Let's shift now from the national stage to the local one. Local elected officials bring so much more than just policy and initiatives to the office. They build community and connections in a way that our national leaders often can't. In Oakland, California, Mayor Sheng Thao took office in January after winning a tight race against former city council Loren Taylor. Mayor Thao brings almost a decade of experience in Oakland public service from being a council aide to a council member and as the city's first Hmong American mayor. Her personal story is just as powerful as her political journey. Welcome to the show, Mayor Thao.
Mayor Sheng Thao [00:19:55] Thank you so much for having me, Natasha.
Natasha Alford [00:19:57] First of all, I have to congratulate you on your win. Oakland is a beautiful city, and there's also this deep history of activism from the founding of the Black Panther Party to historical strikes in the civil rights movement. When you think about a city with diversity as rich as Oakland, how are you approaching coalition building with this history in mind?
Mayor Sheng Thao [00:20:20] Absolutely. Oakland continues to be one of the most activated cities in the nation, and that is something actually I pride the city on. Right. You always want an activated community, an engaged community, so that we can truly work together around democracy and what that looks like. I was born and raised in Stockton, California, just about an hour away from Oakland here. It's more of a suburb. I grew up on a farm. You know, there's a lot of diversity. Stockton, California. However, there's not a lot of co-mingling, if I can say that in here in the city of Oakland, it's all about community. The love here is rich. The love of humanity is rich, and the activism continues to be rich. And so how I coalition build is that there are the different ethnic groups and different races here in the city of Oakland. However, it's more about the socio economic gaps. For me, coming from not much. My parents are refugees and we grew up on social services. I, as a domestic violence survivor, a single mom who's been homeless before, who lived in my car, a community college graduate who then transferred, you know, a nontraditional mayor. I'm the first renter as mayor here in the city of Oakland. That's how I build coalition. It's all about working families for me, families who have been historically marginalized. And I think that everybody can understand that if we live from the bottom, we lift everyone up.
Natasha Alford [00:21:46] It's such an important point that you're making. Was there ever a transition you had to go through to see yourself as being able to be a mayor again? In an America where often leadership is equated with money and wealth?
Mayor Sheng Thao [00:22:02] Oh, absolutely. You know, the imposter syndrome is real and it carries on with you even to this day. Mind you, I knew nothing about what local government even did until I got to UC Berkeley was about to wrap up my undergrad. I couldn't afford to pay for my son's clothes because he was like outgrowing all his clothes. So I took on this internship where they were getting API students into local government. You know, Natasha, I did that for the money. They were paying $1,000 and I did it for $1,000. And that is where my whole world changed. I saw what local government really meant. It meant people were making decisions that directly, I mean, directly impacted communities and people that were living in the cities and they had no life experience. And that shocked me. It angered me and it changed my trajectory in regards to want to be a staffer. So I was actually an intern then turned staffer in 2018. When I ran, I figured I would be this politician and I changed the way I dressed, looked and talked to be more politician like because I saw politicians to be whiter, to actually have intergenerational wealth. Here I am running, and if I won, I would have been the poorest councilmember. And so it worked for me. It didn't work, actually. It didn't work for a week. And then I had a coming to Jesus moment. If I can see that anyone's like, you know what? I've gone through way too much for me to pretend to get people to vote for me. And I don't like myself right now. And so I'm going to do this my way and I'm going to show up as myself, talk to people about how I'm a domestic violence survivor. I'm a single mom and just be me and speak the way that I speak. I don't speak like other politicians do. And that's okay. I work hard and I'm an advocate and I would advocate my butt off for these folks. And so once I shifted that train of thought of me being nothing, it landed. People saw me. People felt the genuineness. And quite honestly, I truly believe that me being myself was was why I won. Because people heard what I was saying. They understood that I would be the best fighter and advocate for them.
Natasha Alford [00:24:12] Well, there's so much power and authenticity. As you said, sometimes we feel we have to put on the mask. Another truth that you held being a domestic violence survivor, part of your survival was the help of social programs that help you navigate that whole process of getting out of the relationship with your infant son. And in the first few months of office, you've emphasized shifting communities from a survival mode to a thriving mode. So can you tell us what does that look like, especially as somebody who's who has this lived experience?
Mayor Sheng Thao [00:24:43] Absolutely. You know, government thinks of things on the very broader spectrum in hopes that it will trickle down. We all know trickle down effect don't work. We know that. Right. And so for me, how do we create thriving communities? That is direct investments, direct investments into programing for programing afterschool. We got to make sure our kids are in all types of different programing. Right now in California, what we're seeing is that there is a huge defunding of anything outside of the bare minimum, basically, and it is working. Families, Black and brown families are most marginalized. Families that suffer. Our kids, you only know what you know. And if we as government do not offer programs and show that there are so many different pathways to what somebody would consider success, then we have failed. And so in order to create these thriving communities, everything that I do is circled around schools, around children, youth and families. And so that is why my legacy project that I'm working hard on, it's called a hub, the transitional age youth hub. And that hub is basically a pre college campus because like myself, I didn't go straight to college. I was exhausted from life. You don't know what kids go through when they go home. Do they even have parents that are at home? Are they taking care of their siblings? A majority, especially here in the city of Oakland, half of our students after high school do nothing, not a job, not go to community college, not go to any college. And so what about those kids? So the hub is like a campus with housing. Wraparound services will bring vocational training on campus. If you want to get back to academia, we can get you back on track. It's truly just a longer runway and really changing the narrative around what transitional age youth. What does that look like? People think it's 18 to 24 year old. I believe it's 15 and a half to 25 year olds, if not 30, 50 and a half, because that's when you can start working legally. A lot of times when our young people are actually the providers for their siblings or for their parents, they will drop out of school thinking that there's no other way. And so truly investing directly into families and into the community to ensure it is clean, it is safe, and investing in our young people is public safety for the future. And so that's how we create thriving community is really putting them at the forefront.
Natasha Alford [00:27:08] As you talk about the bigger scope, I have this question about where do we go as a country? I know you ran for mayor of Oakland, but now Mayor Thao, we got to talk about the country. Where do you think that local, state and national government has room to grow and improve?
Mayor Sheng Thao [00:27:26] There's so much room to grow in California, right? We have the County Conference of Mayors. We have the big 13 here, the biggest 13 cities where we do a really great job at lobbying for changes and reforms within cities and counties at the statewide level and then at the national level. I do feel like there could be a little bit more strength and how we are more strategic about working with different mayors from across different states. Right, including different party lines. Because no matter what your party line is, we all want the same thing essentially, right? We want good quality of life. We want good schools for our kids. We want safety. We want clean streets. We have to look at what we do agree with and then figure out the narratives in which and how we can get there. That's something that I feel is really needed, especially with mayors communicating more with other mayors from across the nation. I'm here in the West Coast. I need to be working more with folks in the Midwest and the South that would only support leadership at the national level. It's always the rubber meets the road locally with everything, right? If the mayors can figure it out, it will ripple up. And I believe it would help with the leaders at the you know, at the federal level to make those more courageous decisions if their constituents and the mayor can get it together and work with each other.
Natasha Alford [00:28:51] A powerful reminder of the power of local government. And as a follow up to that, how do you encourage people to forge a path when they're looking around and maybe they don't see someone who looks like them? How do you encourage them to move forward anyway?
Mayor Sheng Thao [00:29:07] You know, I always tell our young people, what's the worst can happen? Someone's going to say no to you. And what next? That's that's exactly what I tell him. But. But I understand it's easier said than done. Even if you don't see someone that looks like you or may talk like you that's serving and you want to. Let's just say be. Be a politician yourself. Think of it also as like, what are their values? Are their values aligned with your values? Find that connection. And for me, I'm really big on making sure that elected officials and people who have quote unquote, made it that you must lift while you climb. Do not ever forget where you come from, where you come from, and who you represent and who has gotten you there. I even tell the people who work for me that they must live while they climb, right? And so I encourage all of them to bring on interns. We do intakes of like, what do you want to get out of this? And a lot of people say, Oh, I don't really know. And it's like, okay, if you don't know, then how about you just shadow me? We'll go to a couple of events to go to a couple of meetings with me, and hopefully at some point you'll get inspired to figure out what you like and what you don't like. Let's get you out there, get you exposed to what being a politician is and see if you really want to be a politician. Right. I take all of that very seriously. And I'm a huge champion for paid internships. I do believe that if young people are going to work for you, you need to put money in their pockets.
Natasha Alford [00:30:30] Well, that is an investment in the future for sure. Thank you so much for joining us. Mayor Thao, it was such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Mayor Sheng Thao [00:30:38] Thank you so much, Natasha, for having me. It was so fun.
Natasha Alford [00:30:53] Welcome back to Our Body Politic. I'm guest host Natasha Alford, senior correspondent at the Grio, sitting in for Farai Chideya. We travel next to the swing state of Wisconsin. In 2018, Mandela Barnes became Wisconsin's first Black lieutenant governor and the only second Black Wisconsinite to be elected to a statewide office. And in 2022, he was the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate after his loss to Republican Senator Ron Johnson. Barnes shifted his focus to building support for diverse leaders and the communities they serve. Hi, Mandela. Welcome back to the show.
Mandela Barnes [00:31:31] Hey, thank you so much for having me. Really excited to be here.
Natasha Alford [00:31:34] Oh, it's great to have you. Lots of questions to get into. While you were on this show last fall, you were gearing up for a pretty major election as Wisconsin's first Black Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate. Lots of people were cheering you on and now you're leading your own pack. And we know that political action committees are extremely important to the political landscape, just as important as running for office. Some would say so. So tell us, how is your PAC trying to change things?
Mandela Barnes [00:32:04] Absolutely. I'm really excited that we were able to launch the PAC is because of the groundswell of support that we had during the campaign that we were able to do this, actually. Now, the PAC is called The Long Run is a double entendre, because as many people know, I do like to run, but it's also investing in the long run, making sure that those candidates who come from not so typical backgrounds, whose paths are different than most, we want to be able to help them, those as people of color, as women, LGBTQ candidates, working class candidates, you name it. It's pretty broad ambarella. But the reality is there are so many people who are closest to the issues that are going on in communities that don't always get a chance to have a say so in the direction or aren't always taken as seriously as they should be when it comes to problem solving. And these are the folks who've experienced it actually. And we want to be able to shift the paradigm to give people the support that they need to get a leg up to help them in their long run.
Natasha Alford [00:32:59] I love the double entendre there. You know, we were looking at the press release and it says right here, winning a race isn't just about what you put in on race day. It's about the support, the training and the resources that you put in on day one. You know, it's a powerful and an important message considering what it takes to go into this work.
Mandela Barnes [00:33:20] It is absolutely all about that. And, you know, it's so obnoxious about this. I ran a marathon weekend. You should.
Natasha Alford [00:33:27] Be proud. People who run marathons are very proud of it.
Mandela Barnes [00:33:29] I'm pretty proud of I try not to be the first person that brings it up. But here we are. This is like number six. And I think about how every race is just that much different. I think about my very first one. I didn't train like I wasn't as prepared as I should have been. And I showed up and it was it was painful, right? Like, I didn't get the results. I want it dealt with, you know, the ailments long after the race. But when I was able to get the support that I needed, things became better, Things became easier. And it was never a process that I felt like I embarked on my own. There were always other people who helped me out along the way, and anybody who tells you they got somewhere, you know, by themselves, they're just lying to you, right? Like, the reality is, it takes so much to run a successful campaign, takes so much to be successful in anything. And we want to be able to help people and their success.
Natasha Alford [00:34:18] I think that's such a great point because sometimes we look at outcomes and we see them as a reflection of people's capabilities. We think that this is a matter of merit when we see certain disparities, but really sometimes it's about preparation. And I think about the fact that there have only been 11 Black people to serve in the U.S. Senate and only two of them were Black women. And the Senate is probably one of the least representative legislative bodies in the country. Why is that? And is there anything to do with that idea of preparation and investment?
Mandela Barnes [00:34:51] As least representative race lines along class lines. You name it. Right. Even if you think about regionally, the fact that California has two U.S. senators and Montana also has to write, Idaho also has to you know, we're talking about significant states with significantly lower populations. So the lack of representation that is the U.S. Senate causes a big problem. And it's one of the reasons people's issues continue to get left behind or not get addressed. The real things that people are dealing with. The last session of Congress, you will see the House pass, you know, sweeping legislation, whether it is voting rights, whether it was marijuana reform, you name it. And we saw so much get stalled in the Senate because there is this real disconnect from the people. But you got to consider to what it takes to run a statewide campaign, which is another one of the reasons why the Senate looks that way. The resources that it takes, so many people are independently wealthy before they get there, and it gives them an unfair advantage. You have more connections to more people. If you're wealthy, chances are you got a lot wealthy friends as well. And what comes to financing the campaign is a lot easier for, you know, millionaires and other millionaires for $2,000 or 20 $900 run a campaign than somebody who's coming off an assembly line like my dad. And that's all we want to be able to help out. These working class candidates, people who are average wage earners, to be able to ask money for, you know, a couple thousand dollars when a campaign is just not realistic. Right. And one thing we were able to do, too, is build a broad base of grassroots support. But it takes a lot to get to that point. And some people who show up to run for the first time may not know what all goes into a race. And I want to be able to share my own experience. I also want to be able to help make connections with potential candidates to people who can help support them in their races.
Natasha Alford [00:36:48] Yeah, I'm thinking about your own race for Senate. You previously won statewide for Wisconsin's lieutenant governorship in 2018. In 2022, there was this claim that turnout was low and in some communities. Right. And you close that margin with Johnson as compared to 2016, where you were coming within less than one percentage point. What do you think political candidates and the parties that support them can do to increase voter turnout? Because often the voters get blamed as well and many times they aren't invested in the ways that they need to be. So what do you think candidates and parties can do?
Mandela Barnes [00:37:24] Yeah, and I'll tell you right now, one thing I never do is blame a person who didn't show up to the polls. I refuse to do it. When I first started organizing our organizing director, he got us all together going through our training. He said there's no such thing as an apathetic voter, just a bad organizer. And so I think about running as a candidate the same exact way. What could I have done better to reach out to people? And we did a fantastic job at showing up everywhere possible, meeting people exactly where they were, and then talking about the issues that matter. Right. Like I talked about the same things in Milwaukee as I talked about in person. Now, what we also need to do is engage and invest in long term off cycle organizing as well. Talking to people when we're not asking them for a vote. Talking to people after the elections have been decided or even after legislative sessions have started to check in and say, All right, how do you feel about this bill? Do you know what's going on with this? This is an issue that is important to you right now. It has a chance to get a public hearing. Do you even know about this? Because there is this lack of civics education right now and it is leading to the spread of disinformation. This also leading to what we would call apathy. Because if people don't know how the systems are working, they will reveal that, you know, government and politics are just this abstract phenomenon that they have no part in, then it is going to lead to more people deciding that they don't want to participate or they want to be a part of it. And it shouldn't be that way. Our democracy should be participatory, but that means that we have to show up and get people to participate, to help compel them to participate the same way we compel them to show up to vote for us.
Natasha Alford [00:39:09] It's interesting, Mandela, look at photos from your campaign, from your time in office. They're diverse. It seems that you have invested a lot of time in building across differences to create these coalitions. So how do you actually do that while also staying true to your core values?
Mandela Barnes [00:39:29] So that's one of the big things, too, right? Like building that coalition that is Well, that was one of the most important things for me, whether it was during my time as lieutenant governor, whether it was during the campaign or now that I'm not in office building that urban rural coalition. You ask, how do I stay true to myself? I show up as I am and I talk about life as I experience it. And turns out there are so many other people who have had similar life experiences who feel that people are not looking out for them. And when you show up as your authentic self, people can see through the nonsense. People have pretty good gauges. And when you can show up and talk about the fact that, you know, we have lost good paying middle class jobs, we can show up and make that connection to the decline of the family farm. We can talk about how we have maternal health care crisis in the city of Milwaukee, and we also have maternal health care crisis in rural Wisconsin, because, one, we have not expanded our Medicaid program. You have these rural health care centers that are closing expecting mothers are having to travel an hour plus just to get an appointment if they're lucky. And you speak about the more systemic issues people understand, right? They get it. We all do better when we all do better. And that's what it comes down to. And there are so many politicians who benefit from what is perceived as the urban rural divide, and they continue to drive those wedges while the rich keep getting richer. And people have had hard time find it more difficult to get by day by day.
Natasha Alford [00:41:02] I wonder, too, about this larger question of democracy. We heard again and again in 2020 and even last year during elections, that democracy was at stake. What do you think about the state of democracy right now? Has anything improved? How are you feeling about it?
Mandela Barnes [00:41:19] I'll say it is tough. And I can tell you that we saw firsthand how we cannot take democracy for granted. We need, again, civics education to help educate people earlier on. We need it for our students. But also we do need more civics education for adults as well. And this helps not only us in terms of saving democracy, it helps bring communities together. It helps to bridge those divides when people are more familiar with the process, when people know why things happen the way they happen or why they don't happen the way they happened. But this experiment with democracy has shown some of the flaws in the last couple of years, and that is why every election cycle rolls with importance. And that's why it is important for us to continue to organize, continue to show up, even when it's hard and do the work to educate people.
Natasha Alford [00:42:14] Yes, part of that education is understanding how things work. Right. And you were talking about civics and people learning just how the systems work. But I think sometimes, particularly if you come from a marginalized community, you think, okay, I know how this system works and it doesn't work for people like me. Right. If I ran for office, what would my chances be? Or I would have certain types of hurdles that just I wouldn't be able to overcome. Even in your own race for Senate. There were people who doubted whether you could win, even though all this polling showed that you were a clear leader long before you became the nominee. So what do you think it means to redefine who is considered electable and then transfer that message over to prospective candidates who could make a difference?
Mandela Barnes [00:43:03] Yeah, I mean, for so long there's just been this idea of who is electable, and that's because of the same thing you said earlier. The US Senate in particular, being a place is not very representative, so people have this idea of what a senator should be. Too often as wealthy and overwhelmingly male as well. Other than that, I didn't necessarily fit the bill, which was all the more reason why I wanted to run for us. And I'll tell you, since I was elected to the state legislature, I spent so much time in schools and middle schools and elementary schools, a lot of high schools, too, but people who are nowhere near voting age because I wanted them to know that this is something that they can also be a part of. Right. I wanted them to know that if you don't see yourself represented, if you don't see people who look like you or share your experience, that's all the more reason for you to get involved, not run away from it.
Natasha Alford [00:43:55] Yeah. No, I think that's a really great point. I just I think about the negative forecasting and whether it just has this effect of really impacting a candidate's chances when it comes to Election Day. It does. It therefore kind of manifests the struggle when candidates are put up and they unfortunately don't succeed.
Mandela Barnes [00:44:16] The reality is you got to start somewhere. You got to do something right. Because we are we are losing down quickly. And the more time we lose. The closer we are to losing all of this. Everything that we fought so hard for.
Natasha Alford [00:44:29] Yeah. Yeah. Outside of belief and understanding of how the system works. There's this thing called money. It just seems to have an impact that is undeniable. And in some races, including your 2022 race for Senate, we saw that Black and other candidates of color, they performed well in terms of fundraising, but they also were outspent in many ways. And that could tip the scales in these really critical moments. Just one percentage point makes all of the difference. So how do you think candidates can overcome this extra hurdle on top of traditional fundraising?
Mandela Barnes [00:45:08] We've got to take money out of politics. That's what it comes down to, right? Like there is too much money being spent in elections. And as long as money is going to be one of the biggest contributing factors to outcomes in elections, the more we will see politics skew towards what is currently the prototype of a U.S. senator. And it's not fair. It limits the voice of working class people. And that's something we cannot do, limits the voices of people who have challenges, who have issues that continue to be ignored. Getting big money out of politics, reining in this spending, that is something that has to be a priority. If we ever expect our government to truly function and truly be representative of the people.
Natasha Alford [00:45:56] Do you think there's anything else that leads to Black candidates sometimes not getting the same level of support and consistent support as their white counterparts? Aside from this money issue, is there anything else?
Mandela Barnes [00:46:08] I'll tell you, it’s like other things in life. People who haven't been seen somewhere before are going to be immediately discounted. Same thing could be said for women. Same thing could be said for LGBTQ candidates if it's something that people aren't used to. People get a little leery. People start to question, Should this person be here? Does this person belong here? Why are you showing up? I'm pretty sure you showed up in a restaurant somewhere before. And not a lot of people look like you in a restaurant and you got a lot of gazes. When you are.
Natasha Alford [00:46:41] You feel those eyes on your back just a little bit sometimes.
Mandela Barnes [00:46:44] So in politics, it's not much different. It is that gays are essentially also a couple with a little bit of doubt. And so, look, what has to happen is you got to have your groundbreaking candidates. You got to have people who are ready to take a mallet to that glass ceiling and do what needs to be done to make sure that this isn't the case anymore.
Natasha Alford [00:47:05] All right. Final question for you. What sustains you, Mandela? Barnes? How do you stay hopeful?
Mandela Barnes [00:47:10] Yeah, I stay hopeful. Like I said, I show up at a lot of schools. I still do a lot of school visits, and it keeps me grounded. The kids make fun of you. So, like, it keeps me grounded, but it also keeps my eye on the prize and is a constant reminder what this is all actually about. I still have my friend group that's not really involved in politics. I might be the extension of their involvement and that also keeps me grounded as well. It's just always a reminder of what's actually going on. It gets me out of the bubble. And then lastly, I'm still running and still running. And, you know, that gives me a challenge. And having another challenge also helps. It takes away from the stress that's concentrated in one place and it gives me an outlet.
Natasha Alford [00:47:57] That's why you're a marathon runner Mandela Barnes, the long run. Thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate it.
Mandela Barnes [00:48:03] I thank you so much for having me.
Natasha Alford [00:48:05] That was Mandela Barnes, former Wisconsin lieutenant governor and 2022 candidate for the United States Senate. He's also the founder of the new Political Action Committee, The Long Run. Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts
Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora Farms and Rococo Punch. I'm today's host Natasha Alford. Farai Chideya and Nina Spensley are executive producers. Emily J. Daly is our senior producer. Bridget McAllister is our booking producer. Anoa Changa is our producer. Natyna Bean and Emily Ho are our associate producers. Monica Morales-Garcia is our fact checker.
This program is produced with support from the Luce Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Ford Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, The Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, Katie McGrath & JJ Abrams Family Foundation, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.