With her first year as a state representative coming to a close, Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee) has a lot to reflect on. The Milwaukee native has been a member of the state’s Democratic Party since she turned 18, gaining experience in student government before entering the political arena. As she became involved with various Democratic organizations between high school and college, Myers developed her perspective of how state government works, and her sense that state policy has “a deeper impact on everyday life more so than policies out of Washington do.”
Starting the journey
Myers’ path to Madison began with a gig in Sen. Lena Taylor’s office right out of college. Myers, 35, cherished the opportunity to learn firsthand what goes on into “an active legislator’s office.”
“She made sure that her office was responsive to everybody,” recalled Myers.
In Taylor’s office, Myers was exposed to and helped resolve a variety of community problems. From complaints of people who were dealing with unethical landlords and were facing homelessness, to helping people with high utility bills. “We were able to see the direct impact of getting people services that went beyond the scope of what somebody thinks [when they say], ‘Oh I’ll call my state legislator about that.’”
“To always try to help and serve the public is something that I always appreciated,” Myers told Wisconsin Examiner. “Especially when you look at the numbers we have now in the legislature. There’s only eight African Americans that serve in the entire legislature. We have two senators, Sen. Taylor and Sen. Johnson, and there’s six of us in the Assembly. And five of the six of us represent districts in Milwaukee.”
Milwaukee’s size, and its role as a major political engine for Wisconsin, makes its representatives’ role in the legislature particularly important, she believes. “We have more to deal with, quite frankly, than I think some of the other legislators that deal with smaller populations,” said Myers. Drawing on her experience in Taylor’s office, and as a younger woman, Myers sought to address the many “quality of life, bread and butter issues,” she felt weren’t being addressed in the Capitol.
Myers has helped introduce bills on lowering prescription pill costs and expanding opportunities for student teachers since joining the state Assembly. “My goal is to make Wisconsin the most equitable state that it can be,” she explained. She is a believer in bipartisanship, even in a highly partisan Capitol. “Sometimes it’s not about being right, it’s about getting the work done,” she says, “I think that’s what you have to focus on, versus some of the partisanship that happens.”
Prescription drug and healthcare costs, Myers says, are issues that people on both sides of the aisle agree need to be addressed. “When I have seniors that have to choose between taking medication today or paying bills … that’s a problem for me. Because that lets me know that you may be skipping medications that you need in order to live. Or when we see our seniors having to work jobs longer, and they’re past their working prime, but they’re still forced to work to pay for prescriptions. No one should have to live like that.” Nevertheless, the prescription drug bill has yet to get a hearing.
“I grew up in my district,” Myers recalls, “and I could see the decline. Whether it be lack of goods and services that were in the neighborhood, to responses to public safety, things like that.” Dealing with some of those issues started with getting connected in the community, learning who the police and fire captains were, identifying community leaders, and maintaining constant contact with them and the public through social media, and flexible community meetings.
“My community keeps me on my toes at all times,” says Myers. “You get a grasp of who’s in the area to make sure that you’re accessible to them.” Even if it means talking politics or answering questions from people who recognize her at the local grocery store.
A capital paralyzed by partisanship
The style and ethic that Myers has developed makes the political gridlock in the Capitol that much more frustrating for her. “I would have liked us to do more,” she says, especially on pressing matters like Wisconsin’s gun laws.
“Disagree or agree, these are things that we need to talk about,” says Myers. Recent school security incidents have made these standoffs weigh even heavier on the freshman representative’s mind. “These are statewide issues,” says Myers — despite the fact that her GOP colleagues sometimes associate gun violence and other bills solely with Milwaukee. “These things didn’t happen in the city,” she says. “These things happened in smaller suburban communities.” While it’s easy for some in the Assembly to point fingers at Milwaukee, Myers feels that when gun violence breaks out in the suburbs, “they don’t want to deal with that.”
Negative rhetoric about Milwaukee has been in Myers’ face since she arrived in the legislature. “It is reiterated to me on a lot of different occasions where people say, ‘Oh Milwaukee is so bad,’ or ‘They do this in Milwaukee.’ And I’m looking at the same people where opioid addiction is off the charts.”
Myers stresses that, “We have to get out of the us-versus-them mentality. I don’t know what it will take for my colleagues to get that, it’s not an us-versus-them. It’s just an ‘us.’ All of us in Wisconsin, together. And I think that has to be translated to people who live in rural communities.” From drug addiction to failing schools to human trafficking, the problems that afflict Wisconsin are not unique to Milwaukee, but are present in rural and suburban communities as well.
“We have to look at things as a collective,” says Myers, “and not look at things as, ‘those people over there, or down there.’” She finds it paradoxical that Republican leaders target Milwaukee with political revenge and negativity, while the communities they represent depend on the city and the capital, Madison, for revenue and other benefits. “You depend on those urban centers for your tax base, you can’t have it both ways.”
Each time Myers enters Milwaukee, she passes signs listing the city’s population of over half a million people. “I think about every last one of those people that I represent, even if they might not be part of my district.” While she accepts that not everyone is going to agree on all issues, Myers feels it’s always important to tell the truth. “It can hurt you,” she explains, “but it can also make you more palatable and make you a better leader.” She urges her colleagues, and all of her fellow Wisconsinites, to try harder to understand people from other areas, and to be more introspective. “And that’s what I feel I’m in the legislature to do.”