New leadership has black lawmakers eager to tackle Wisconsin’s nation-leading racial disparities
The inauguration of Gov. Tony Evers and the state’s first black lieutenant governor, Mandela Barnes, as well as greater diversity elsewhere in state leadership, has black lawmakers feeling hopeful about 2019.
They hope new leadership will usher in new policies to curb the state’s racial disparities, which consistently rank among the nation’s worst.
Evers, who was scheduled to attend Martin Luther King Jr. Day events in Milwaukee and Madison Monday, has been vocal about his desire to reduce those disparities, especially in education and incarceration. The state also has wide racial gaps, relative to other states, in areas including poverty, employment and health care.
In the November election, the ranks of black state lawmakers grew from six to eight with the addition of Reps. LaKeshia Myers and Kalan Haywood II, both from Milwaukee, and Shelia Stubbs of Madison. All are Democrats.
Evers has named African-Americans to top state posts, including state Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor, Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr, Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole, Safety and Professional Services Secretary Dawn Crim and State Patrol Superintendent Anthony Burrell.
Stubbs, who represents the 77th Assembly District covering much of Madison’s West and South sides, is the first African-American to represent Dane County in the Legislature.
Stubbs and Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, who leads the Legislature’s Black Caucus, said the changes in leadership in 2019 create opportunities to tackle issues that have been neglected.
“It’s a new era; it’s a new day,” Stubbs said. “It’s a feeling of change.”
But getting a Republican Legislature to embrace major policy changes sought by Evers — including those aimed at racial disparities — is “not going to be easy,” Barnes predicted in an interview Saturday with the Wisconsin State Journal.
“I wish I could make promises and say we’re going to be in a better position,” Barnes said. “But there’s going to be significant roadblocks.”
The offices of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, did not respond to requests for comment.
‘Where do we start?’
Duties of the office of lieutenant governor largely are determined by the governor. So far Evers has tapped Barnes to lead on at least one issue: Last week he said Barnes will be his “point person” on renewable energy development.
That fits with how Barnes, a former state lawmaker, has said he intends to use the state’s No. 2 post to address issues of equity and sustainability.
Equity, Barnes said, “is a larger conversation I want to play a significant role in. But that’s not just going to be me driving. That’s going to be members of the Legislature who have an interest, who represent under-served communities,” as well as chairpersons of key committees, he said.
Barnes said Evers’ leadership is crucial. During the campaign he said Evers addressed Wisconsin’s racial disparities in ways that many other leaders, including some Democrats, have been afraid to do.
And Barnes said it’s a huge shift from former Gov. Scott Walker, who he said was “dismissive” of issues of race as well as class.
“We’ve certainly got a lot to do. Where do we start? I’d say recognizing the problem and talking about the problem,” Barnes said.
Evers, Barnes said, “gets it. It’s not like it takes some coaching with the governor. He understands, and that’s a good feeling.”
Crowley struck a similar note, calling Evers “a governor we can work with.”
“Many people feel they have been left out of policies the last few years,” Crowley said.
Transit, test scores, health access
Crowley said he and other members of the Black Caucus hope to work with Evers, Barnes and other lawmakers to boost state funding for city governments and for transportation, including public transit systems.
Tackling the state’s racial disparities in education is a priority, Crowley said. Studies have shown wide racial gaps in test scores and graduation rates.
Expanding health care access, especially primary care, in black communities is another goal, he said.
Barnes said early discussions with GOP lawmakers about one of Evers’ health care priorities, expanding Medicaid under the federal Obamacare law, have not been promising. At a closed-door joint caucus meeting between GOP lawmakers and Evers last week, Barnes said Republican lawmakers quickly told Evers the expansion is “off the table.” Vos has made similar comments in public settings.
“That’s a slap in the face to people who deserve quality healthcare and aren’t able to get it,” Barnes said.
Criminal justice changes possible
Criminal justice reform could win bipartisan backing, thanks in part to a broader national shift that has some conservatives willing to revisit tough-on-crime policies that caused prison populations to soar.
Evers repeatedly said during the campaign that he wants to reduce by half the state’s prison population, which is larger, on a per-capita basis, than neighboring states. Crowley said he and other members of the Black Caucus want to join that effort.
Crowley said he and many other black lawmakers also seek changes to the state’s bail and expungement systems, the decriminalization of marijuana, and continuing changes to the juvenile justice system.
“Some people will say I’m recklessly optimistic, but we have an opportunity” on criminal-justice issues, Crowley said.
Evers also has said he wants to continue changes to the state’s juvenile justice system, end mandatory minimum sentences, end solitary confinement in state prisons and do more to help ex-convicts become productive citizens when they leave prison.
GOP lawmakers have shown mixed receptivity. One key lawmaker, Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, who heads the Assembly Corrections Committee, told the Associated Press that Evers and the Republican-controlled Legislature might find common ground on ending mandatory minimums. But Schraa said he doesn’t expect agreement on much else.
Stubbs said she wants to work on a range of issues, including education, economic development, gun laws, environmental protections and broadening access to healthy food options.
A former probation and parole agent, Stubbs added she plans to use that background to work on those issues in the Legislature.
On the Dane County Board, Stubbs helped create the county’s Community Restorative Court. It allows 17- to 25-year-olds who would be charged with a misdemeanor to go through a process focused on repairing community harm if they take accountability for their actions and complete a restoration, such as community service or writing letters of apology. In return, they avoid having a criminal record.
Stubbs said Friday that the court has been successful and she’d like to see it adopted in other communities.
“I don’t want to see our dollars spent,” Stubbs said, “on building new prisons and putting people in prison.”