nine months ago, Mandela Barnes received an unexpected phone call from Ron Klain, President Joe BidenThe U.S. chief of staff asked him if he was interested in potentially becoming the president’s national climate adviser.
Barnes elected first black lieutenant governor of Wisconsin Democrats‘ Blue-wave 2018 election cycle, obviously didn’t get the job done. Exactly two weeks later, on December 15, Biden appointed former Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy to the position.
But for a brief moment, the call turned a whirlwind of ideas for the young politician. Barnes, 34, has spent the past year gaming the different paths his life could have taken. Biden administration job scramble? Run for another term as lieutenant governor, with an eye on governance one day?
In July, he struck a deal: He announced that he would run for the US Senate, a move that was anticipated by many political observers in the state. He is coming in as the favorite in the primary; His internal survey shows him 29 percentage points ahead of anyone else in the race. Republican Ron Johnson currently holds the seat, but has not yet said whether he will run for re-election.
People in the Democratic Party’s power center are keeping a close eye on him – even if he is not ready to become the president’s chief adviser. Eric Holder, the US Attorney General under President Barack Obama, described Barnes as a “rising star for the Democratic Party” and compared Obama’s authenticity. On Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) supported him, strengthen the national progressive mobilizing the support of the world. In the classroom of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), he is working for Barnes.
If Barnes wins, he will make history as the first black senator from a state that helped lead Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016, Barnes and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers elected two years later, and for Biden in 2020. flipped. He will replace a senator. who spread Conspiracies about COVID-19 vaccines, questioned the seriousness of the disease and undermined the January 6 uprising at the US Capitol by Trump supporters.
“Of course, the dude has to go,” Barnes said of Johnson, a phrase parroted in by Vice President Kamala Harris once used about Trump. “But more than anything, we have to fix the Senate. It is not representative of the American public. It is a less than Democratic institution at times — and by times I mean most of the times.”
Barnes is the epitome of a rising liberal name; He is a young Black Midwesterner with progressive ideals, born in the poorest neighborhood in the state, who has risen to the ranks of state politics. He is good at building relationships. He is not an establishment, but he is not a leftist rioter either.
People around him talk about his “authenticity” before talking about his record. Even his detractors would talk about that “energy,” but even before saying, exaggeratingly, that he’s actually on the ballot more than any one thing. That he is a man looking for the next promotion.
Barnes’ profile covers most of the New Democratic Project. But no one is billing 2022 as a Democratic wave election year. He is running in one of the hottest Senate races in history as some shots of Democrats’ majority expansion. And he’s certainly not the first person to be billed as a rising star.
It was early May, and Barnes was sitting weary under a picnic shelter in a park near his Madison home. His last 24 hours had taken him further down the north of the state. He was selling #BadgerBounceBack – the Wisconsin Democrats’ branded economic recovery plan.
After a year of doing massive Zoom calls and virtual events, Barnes was back on the road. It was tourism week. Encouraging vaccinations, talking to small businesses about relief money coming to the state, throwing baseballs, visiting schools, and eating ice cream.
His schedule for campaigning was as close as a state official could have been in the clock.
He knew he was going to run for senator. He told the governor. He had some campaign workers lined up. But he was on official duty talking about the state budget and reopening the economy.
“I’m so tired of my living room,” Barnes said. He likes campaigning. “The target is not where we were in February 2020. The goal is to be higher than that. The goal is to address the inequalities that not only businesses face but individuals struggle as well. The pandemic has exacerbated inequality. It basically highlights our problems, and we need to address those problems.”
For the past two years, this has been more or less the work of Barnes; He’s the younger, more charismatic, Twitter- and Instagram-addicted, TV-ready sidekick to Evers. His role is less about power (the lieutenant governor in Wisconsin really has none) and more about visibility.
“In many ways he was one of the most important faces of the Democrats’ campaign,” said Representative Mark Pokan (D-Wis.). “More than in 2018, in 2020 he appeared as the state spokesman for the Democrats. That was an important role. Clearly the state was at play. “
The Senate race is still in its very early days. The Democratic primary is August 2022. Barnes’ contenders are State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, the nominee for Emily’s List, who worked in defense contracts in Washington, D.C., and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign in Wisconsin; Alex Larry, son of Milwaukee Bucks basketball team owner Mark Larry, who was behind the Bucks’ new stadium and brought the Democratic National Convention to Milwaukee, even though it went virtual; and Tom Nelson, a progressive county executive from a fairly conservative part of the state.
His rivals see an opening. But for now, Barnes’ internal polling shows he is leading the field with nearly 40% of the vote, with no other candidate breaking 10%. More important, most people in the state already know who he is, and he is popular.
When people around Barnes talk about his talent, this is the first thing that comes to mind. At just 25 years old, he was elected to the General Assembly of Wisconsin, defeating a four-term Democrat in the primary. He served two terms, completely in a minority. He presided over the Black and Hispanic Caucus and wrote a list of progressive bills that would go nowhere in the home of a conservative state, but that have defined his politics.
Barnes remembers the names of people he met only once a year. He’s good behind a microphone, whether on stage, on the radio, or on television. It’s that raw talent that draws people in—that “it” factor that has gotten the nominees on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine with the headline “I’m Just Born to Be in It.” Beto O’Rourke scholars, for better or worse.
Holder said, “The fact that they have the ability to use the bully pulpit for important issues — the fact that they have that…” Some people have it and some don’t, And he does. That ‘this’ thing. He’s got that. ”
It’s easy to see Barnes getting the same kind of attention as people like Beto O’Rourke or Obama. They have a similar confidence—the type that can really only come from being called a “rising star” from the age of 25.
“He’s a man who, to some degree, believes in his mythology,” said the Wisconsin Democratic operative.
‘He didn’t allow himself to be typecast’
In Milwaukee in 2018, Eric Holder saw Barnes take to the stage in front of a predominantly black audience and talked about how climate change was ravaging rural Wisconsin. This caught Holder off-guard.
“He didn’t allow himself to be typecast as a black politician,” Holder said. Such stereotypes — of black lawmakers who focused only on matters of race — did not fully capture the breadth of Barnes, he said.
“Not only is he interested in criminal justice or police reform, but he also talks about economic issues, climate change, for the larger community,” he said.
This is intentional on the part of Barnes.
To be clear, Barnes is interested in those issues. He announced his candidacy for the US Senate at a black entrepreneurial hub in Milwaukee that replaced a building burned down during violent protests following a deadly police shooting in 2016. He has been vocal about police violence and Lack of accountability for law enforcement. And his last work before politics was a faith-based event in Milwaukee that touched on these issues – from public housing to prison populations.