MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes on Tuesday joined the crowded Democratic field for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, vying to become the first African American from Wisconsin to serve in the Senate.
Barnes, 34, is the first Black lieutenant governor in Wisconsin history. He is giving up a chance to run for a second term in 2022 as Gov. Tony Evers' running mate. Instead, Barnes becomes the eighth Democrat to enter the race, with an ninth expected to get in soon.
Barnes, in his announcement speech in Milwaukee where he grew up, called for “leveling the playing field” by fighting for family-supporting jobs, combatting gun violence, creating a more fair immigration system, improving health care, addressing climate change and protecting democracy and the right to vote.
“We can, today, build a movement for justice,” Barnes said to a crowd that included his former colleagues in the state Assembly and various local officials from Milwaukee and Madison. “I’m running for the Senate to provide opportunity, to fight for hard-working people.”
Barnes has for years said the Democratic Party must do a better job connecting with young people and people of color. He played up his middle-class upbringing in his announcement, noting that his father held a union job on an assembly line and his mother taught for more than 30 years in Milwaukee public schools.
Barnes also took a swipe at Johnson, saying he is part of a “broken” U.S. Senate that is dividing the people, rather than delivering for them.
Johnson has not said yet whether he will seek a third term, but through June he had raised more money than any of the Democratic candidates at that point. Johnson declined to comment.
Republican National Committee spokeswoman Preya Samsundar called Barnes “just another empty suit” who is trying to climb the political ladder.
Barnes served four years in the state Assembly from 2013 to 2017, first elected at age 25. Rather than seek a third term in 2016, he ran for the state Senate against Democratic incumbent Sen. Lena Taylor and lost in the primary.
Barnes won the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in a blowout in 2018 and was then paired with Evers. They went on to defeat then-Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch. She is expected to run for governor against Evers next year.
Barnes’ decision to join the Senate race opens the field for lieutenant governor. Evers does not get to choose a running mate, which will be decided in the August 2022 primary. Evers was expected to name his preferred running mate soon.
Evers, in a statement, praised Barnes as a “good friend” and “great partner,” but stopped short of endorsing him. Evers said Democrats were lucky to have strong candidates to take on Johnson and “send him packing.”
Barnes was outspoken in the 2018 campaign, accusing Walker of ignoring “people who look like me” and saying then-President Donald Trump wanted to create “a superior race.”
Barnes also was outspoken following the Kenosha police shooting last summer of Jacob Blake, a Black man. Barnes criticized Trump for visiting the city amid protests after the shooting. And Barnes was critical of how police reacted to Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager who shot and killed two protesters during a violent night of protests.
The job of lieutenant governor has few official duties. Evers tapped Barnes to lead the governor's task force on climate change, releasing a report in December that included 55 policy recommendations. He has also advocated for tighter gun control laws and redistricting reform, issues that Evers has championed as governor.
Barnes quietly received his college diploma from Alabama A&M University in May 2020, 12 years after he attended classes there and two years after he said he had a degree even though he had not yet fulfilled all the requirements to get one.
He also drew criticism for having unpaid parking tickets, overdue property taxes and higher security costs as lieutenant governor.
Other Wisconsin Democrats in the Senate race are: state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski; Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson; state Sen. Chris Larson, of Milwaukee; Alex Lasry, who is on leave from his job as a Milwaukee Bucks executive; Dr. Gillian Battino, a Wausau radiologist; attorney and Democratic Party activist Peter Peckarsky; and Adam Murphy, an information technology business owner from Franklin.
Steven Olikara, founder of the Millennial Action Project, has formed an exploratory committee and is expected to join the race soon.