Candidate Q&A: Mandela Barnes on His Run for U.S. Senate

Light blue background with blue-toned image of U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes, a blue wooden sign that reads "WISCONSIN WELCOMES VOTERS," a dark blue ballot drop box and a construction worker and a sign that reads "SUPPORT WISCONSIN UNIONS"

As the first Black lieutenant governor in Wisconsin’s history, Mandela Barnes has served in this position since 2019. Before his statewide election, he previously served in the Wisconsin state Assembly from 2013 to 2017. Now setting his sights on the U.S. Senate, Barnes is challenging Republican incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). 

Johnson has not only denied the results of the 2020 presidential election, but also actively worked to overturn the results. As revealed by the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack, Johnson tried to hand off fake electors from Michigan and Wisconsin to former Vice President Mike Pence right before Pence began counting electoral votes. 

In Democracy Docket’s latest candidate Q&A for the 2022 cycle, U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes gives his take on the recent ballot drop box ban in Wisconsin, explains why Republicans have taken issue with the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) and highlights the state’s labor roots. 

Responses have been edited for style and clarity.

If elected to the U.S. Senate, how would you use your position to protect the right to vote nationwide and what are three “must-have” provisions you’d include in a federal voting rights bill and why? 

For far too many politicians, the voters are no longer their number one priority. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, corporate special interests dump millions into Super PACs to influence our elections. Meanwhile, multi-millionaires, like Johnson, pour money into their own campaign accounts, making them unaccountable. In the U.S. Senate, I will vote to end the filibuster so that we can move forward and deliver for working families in Wisconsin, strengthen ethics rules for elected officials and fight for a constitutional amendment that overturns Citizens United and puts political power back in the hands of the people of Wisconsin. 

In July, the Wisconsin Supreme Court banned drop boxes across the state, highlighting an increasing trend in Republicans’ war on mail-in voting nationwide. Why do you think the GOP has taken issue with this form of voting? 

In a democracy, we should be able to make our voices heard at the ballot box and hold our leaders accountable for both their actions and inactions. Sadly, today, that accountability is under attack by politicians like Johnson. He is afraid of Wisconsin voters holding him accountable for his extreme views on reproductive freedom, wanting to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block and selling out Wisconsinites to corporate interests. 

From suing to end the use of a mobile voting van in Racine to successfully eradicating the use of drop boxes in the state, the Wisconsin Institute For Law and Liberty (WILL) — a conservative legal group — has used the power of litigation to suppress voting and meddle in voter registration efforts throughout Wisconsin. What do you make of this growing legal campaign? 

Attacks like these have a common thread: to remove measures of accountability to the voters and rig the game so dangerous, out-of-touch politicians, like Johnson can stay in power. We’ve seen that Johnson is more than willing to change the law to deliver tax deductions for his wealthy donors, but is unwilling to deliver for working people. So it comes as no surprise that the GOP will take no action to stop corruption, big money and corporate special interests from buying our political process.

This is all the more reason we need to shore up our democracy and protect voting rights for everyone in our country. In Wisconsin, we’ve been on the front lines of this fight. But we need federal action and that’s what I’ll support in the Senate. 

Since the WEC issued common-sense guidelines related to pandemic-era voting in 2020, the commission has become a target of the GOP. Given your opponent continues to call for the state Legislature to take over WEC’s duties, why do you think Wisconsin Republicans have taken issue with the state’s top election agency? 

Johnson is unwilling to accept the will of the voters. He wants to bypass the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission and is proposing a full partisan takeover of our elections because he has failed to address the critical priorities of working Americans and instead complained about only doubling his own personal wealth in the Senate. Johnson is afraid of being held accountable by all of Wisconsin and only looks to divide us. 

Johnson proved he doesn’t care about our democracy when he tried to thwart the will of Wisconsin voters in the 2020 election. He still hasn’t committed to accepting the results of the upcoming election in November. Make no mistake, our democracy is on the ballot in 2022 and we need a senator who has a plan to make elected officials accountable to the voters, to stand up to the corrupting influence of dark money and to ensure the rights of all voters — regardless of party affiliation — are protected across our state. 

Speaking of your opponent, Johnson has not only denied the results of the 2020 presidential election, but actively sought to overturn the results in Wisconsin. What do you make of his actions and why do you think the “Big Lie” is so resonant with Republicans in your state and nationwide? 

Johnson only likes democracy when he can use it to get rich and line the pockets of his wealthy donors. He might as well have looked every Wisconsin voter in the eye and told them their vote didn’t matter. Johnson has shown all of Wisconsin who he is; from defending a violent insurrection that left more than 140 law enforcement officers injured and believing the five second rule applies to democracy to now hiding his extreme views on abortion. Johnson is doing all that he can to ensure he isn’t held accountable for his actions. 

But this year, Wisconsin will hold him accountable. Because what Johnson doesn’t understand is that across this state, we have so much more in common with each other than any of us do with him.

In 2016, Wisconsin went to former President Donald Trump and just four years later, it reversed course and handed the presidency to President Joe Biden. What do you think changed in those four years and what does this reversal mean for Democrats in Wisconsin going forward? 

Wisconsin’s elections are infamously close — and that’s because Wisconsinites can’t always be put in boxes or assigned labels. But at our core, Wisconsin is a working class state. We have deep roots in labor and fighting for workers’ rights. As I travel around the state, whether I’m at a labor hall in Milwaukee or at a farm in Eau Claire, people want the same things: good jobs, good schools to send their children to and health care they can afford. 

They know that while I’ve spent the last decade fighting for working people, Johnson has let his donors outsource our jobs, threatened to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block and sided with Big Pharma against letting Medicare negotiate drug prices. This race isn’t about red or blue, it’s about the people Johnson has kept at the top and who he has left at the bottom. That’s why we’re going to win in November. 

What was the first election you voted in? 

My first federal election vote was in 2008 for Barack Obama! 

Go-to walk up song? 

The Show Goes On by Lupe Fiasco. 

Most underrated fact about Wisconsin? 

Wisconsin’s first labor unions were organizing before Wisconsin was even a state. The bricklayers organized in 1847. It’s a good reminder that Wisconsin has rich labor roots that have allowed so many, myself included, to realize their American dream.