Election 2020: Milwaukee progressives weigh in

By: - August 25, 2019 10:52 pm
"Vote Here" sign (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Vote Here (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Can a progressive platform help the Democratic Party win in 2020? Voters in the battleground state of Wisconsin might offer some answers.

Recently filed campaign finance documents show strong interest in progressive candidates. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has attracted $117,000 from 467 Wisconsinites, more than any other candidate. Close behind is Senator Elizabeth Warren with $91,000 from 217 individual donors.

Rafael Smith, an organizer with Citizen Action of Wisconsin, says a progressive shift is long overdue. As part of the original Fight For $15 campaign to raise the minimum wage, he’s watched progessive ideas move into the mainstream.

“They [Democratic Party officials] don’t know the world has shifted around them,” says Smith. “We are in a crisis state of our economy,” he adds. “We need someone who will be unapologetic” about their policies. “Not just skirt around the topic, or find some middle ground.”

Bernie Sanders won Wisconsin’s Democratic primary in 2016, then lost the national race to Hillary Clinton. Some Sanders voters, disillusioned by Clinton’s nomination, didn’t vote at all in the general election.

The African American vote in particular declined in 2016. Milwaukee activists attribute this to the national Party’s failure to connect with the grassroots. “I think you can look at the 2016 election and see what happens when our issues aren’t being talked to,” says Milwaukee Bloc executive director Angela Lang.

The Democratic National Committee has a different perspective. An internal DNC poll leaked in May 2019 fretted that the young, boldly progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (known by her initials AOC), who calls herself a democratic socialist, is the new face of the Party.

Analyzing 1,003 people the DNC described as “white, non-college voters,” the memo suggested that  “socialism is toxic to these voters.” It argued that representatives like AOC alienate the very people Democrats need in order to win in 2020.

Dems will meet in a segregated city in a divided state

Lang says the party should spend less time worrying about people who voted for Trump. She points out that CNN exit polls show African American women are the “most reliable voting block” for Democrats. And she cites election results in Alabama, where Hillary Clinton won 93% of the black female vote as evidence that this demographic has real power. “It’s really important for the Democratic Party to realize the demographics of who really turn out,” she tells Wisconsin Examiner.

A report on voting trends for the upcoming election, conducted by the Voter Participation Center, found that millennials will make up 21% of the eligible voting block, with the younger Generation Z adding another 10%.

“Young people, communities of color and unmarried women will play a huge role in electing our next president,” the report states. Generation Z, those born after 1996, is  the most ethnically diverse and progessive generation to date, according to the report.

Milwaukee, which will host the national Democratic convention next summer, is at the epicenter of the nation’s shifting political dynamics. The city was chosen by Democrats, in part, because it is a Rust Belt city in the heart of a swing state. Trump carried Wisconsin in part by connecting with white, working-class voters. But in state politics, Democrats rely on black voters and young urbanites in Milwaukee to come out in large numbers to help put them over the top in statewide races.

“I think people understand the importance of Milwaukee,” says Lang. “There’s really no way to win a statewide election without black Milwaukee.” The Cream City is targeted both by Democratic outreach, and political retaliation from the GOP. Wisconsin Republicans have long targeted Milwaukee using coded language that appeals to decades-old, sometimes race-based resentments against urban areas by rural and small-town voters.

The national Party will anoint its presidential candidate and attempt to bring together a coalition of Democratic voters in the nation’s most segregated city and one of its most politically divided states. Despite civic boosterism around hosting the convention, many Milwaukee natives have doubts about the national Party’s willingness to connect with their interests.

“Obama was my first experience with neo-liberalism through a black person,” Smith told Wisconsin Examiner. “I don’t think they [the Democratic Party] realize that neo-liberalism is coming to an end.” He says this is evidenced by the decline of black turnout in Milwaukee, where one mostly African American voting district saw a 19.5% drop in turn out compared to the 2012 election, The New York Times reports.

Milwaukee voters embrace progressive message

Candidates including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders traveled to Milwaukee in July to attend a LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) town hall. While the focus was largely on immigration policies, progressive politics stole the show.

Warren shared her vision of a “Green Manufacturing Bill” to contribute to a $23 trillion worldwide green market. “A lot of these products haven’t been invented yet,” she told the LULAC convention’s ballroom audience. She proposed “canceling student debt for 95% of the kids who got it.” Warren also proposed a “wealth tax” of 2% for assets exceeding $50 million.

Senator Sanders touted his plans for tuition-free college, addressing homelessness, and guaranteeing “healthcare to every man, woman and child.” When Sanders asked the crowd, “Do you believe healthcare should be a human right?” the audience yelled its assent.

Milwaukee County supervisor Supreme Moore Omokunde, who attended the candidate forum, said, “candidates have to be bold, and be progressive.”

But Omokunde acknowledges that traditional, mainstream Democratic candidates still have a lot of power. “That kind of candidate is still very palatable to the masses,” he told Wisconsin Examiner. “I don’t think they’re on their way out. However, I think the goal is to make sure that they have a contrast that stands against them.”

‘Progressive’ policies are really about ‘survival’

Lang points out that even people who might not identify as progressive support progressive policies. “There are things that people are asking for that are deemed as progressive or radical,” says Lang, “but really they’re basic tools for survival.” She tells Wisconsin Examiner, “it’s a kind of shame that in this day and age it’s being seen as progressive when really it’s just something that people need to survive.”

Omokunde says that’s why Sanders found support in both 2016 and three years later in 2019. “He was speaking to people who already had these thoughts for a number of years. And once he verbalized them through a nationwide platform, people felt comfortable to speak on them and then it reverberated throughout our communities.”

Many movements from police accountability, to raising the minimum wage, to addressing climate change are being “reinvigorated” by young people, Omokunde says.. “Especially when you have young people who couldn’t vote in 2016, and in 2019-20 they’re old enough to vote.” Omkunde predicts, “they’re going to shift out there in the streets, and at the ballot box.”


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.