A group of voters in Milwaukee joined community organizations and elected officials outside the Wisconsin Republican Party’s field office on Martin Luther King Drive. The office, located on Milwaukee’s predominately African American North Side, opened in the Bronzeville neighborhood in 2020.
On Wednesday, it became the site of a brief protest organized by community members, who voiced discontent over political advertisements they feel have racist overtones. Many of the ads have targeted U.S. Senate candidate Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is running against incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in the November election.
Jake Spence, state director of the Wisconsin Working Families Party, told Wisconsin Examiner it is important to “recognize these ads for what they are.”
“These are beyond the dog whistle anymore, this is just outright racism. And when you see it, you have to call it out,” said Spence. Over the last month or so, ads specifically targeting Barnes have ramped up online and on television.
Many of them follow a similar strategy, attacking the Democrat as soft on crime, whether it’s recycling images of Barnes holding an Abolish ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) T-shirt, or stating Barnes and others want to eliminate cash bail. The Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy has also been a prominent staple in the ads. In one case, images of Barnes are featured alongside video of people in the parade ducking out of the way of the SUV which killed six, and injured over 60. The narrator’s voice states: “Mandela Barnes, he wants to protect criminals, not us. He’s too dangerous for Wisconsin.”
Several ads following this same theme also show apparent surveillance camera video of shootings and gun violence, echoing the tag line that Barnes is “too dangerous” to be elected. In one case the narrator states “Mandela Barnes stands with them, not us.” Other examples feature Barnes alongside progressive Democratic Reps. Alexandra Ocosio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, painting the group of elected officials of color as the enemy. Many of these ads can be found on the YouTube channel of the Senate Leadership Fund, an independent political action committee focused on expanding Republican seats in the U.S. Senate.
Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) was at the gathering Wednesday outside the GOP field office. “I can’t stay silent,” he told Wisconsin Examiner. “I’ve seen the ads, my family has seen the ads, and I felt compelled to come out and call them out for what they are. I think it’s the worst kind of politics. I wish that Ron Johnson would run on his record, what he’s done or not done in 12 years in office and have a fair fight.” Goyke stressed that politics in general have become increasingly divisive. “It only makes things worse when race and fear are the predominant themes of the election, as we’ve seen.”
Goyke recalled one ad that upset his wife recently. “It’s got various comments and items, and at the end it’s got a picture of Mandela and three congresswoman from different parts of the country — all women of color — and the narrator says that Mandela is a ‘different kind of Democrat.’” For Goyke the message was clear. “They could have Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but they have three women of color because they’re women of color. And the word ‘different’ is being used to talk about race, and not about ideology.”
Calena Roberts, a member of SEIU Wisconsin, was also disgusted by the strategy expressed in the ads against Barnes. “I have people in my family, people who are in my community, who are saying, ‘What are the issues that they’re talking about? Why are they just slamming this man?” Roberts added, “This is not fair, this is not right, and we’re going to let it be known.” She feels that “most of it is lies, and most of it is trying to create fear amongst ourselves. We can’t have that.”
Still, Roberts had a sympathetic view of those who staff the GOP field office in Milwaukee. “People need work,” she said. “Some people aren’t thinking of the bigger picture.” Nevertheless, Roberts feels that the office was opened not because the Republican party cares about Milwaukee’s North Side, “but because they want to get everything they can.”
Wisconsin Examiner reached out to the communications liaison for the GOP field office and Ron Johnson’s office, but received no response.
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