Former Madison City Councilman David Ahrens and Milwaukee activist Angela Lang join TRNN’s discussion of the ongoing battle over Wisconsin’s 2020 election results.
The following is a rush transcription of this interview and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Real News Network, this is Marc Steiner, good to have you with us as always. As you know, as this election keeps unfolding, Wisconsin is one of those states that was a crucial swing statement in this election. It’s a very complex place that’s emblematic of the struggle that all of America faces. It home of Robert La Follette and the beginnings of the progressive movement. A state where segregationist George Wallace took almost a third of the vote in 1964, where the lieutenant governor is a progressive African-American named Mandela Barnes, and where the Republican-controlled state legislature engineered by Karl Rove gerrymanders Democrats out of power and circumvents the voting rights of people in that state, especially African-Americans.
It’s the home of political progressivism and a state deeply mired in racism. In that vein, let’s remember that the Biden Harris victory so far in Wisconsin was ultimately held over the top of Milwaukee’s Black population in coming out to vote. That was the case in so many of the states in this country right now. So today, we’re joined by Angela Lang, who is the founder and executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Community for Change in Milwaukee and David Ahrens who served six years on the Madison City Council and as a research director for labor unions and University of Wisconsin’s Medical School and Public Health School. So, welcome back both of you. It’s great to see you.
Angela Lang: You too.
David Ahrens: Good to see you, Marc.
Marc Steiner: So, it is, this has unfolded, one of the things I read this morning in the paper as I was preparing for this, was that … I think I have his name right, the assembly leader in Wisconsin, Vos, was already pushing to say there was all this vote fraud. Of course it was centered in where? Milwaukee. So tell me what’s happening with that?
Angela Lang: Yeah, I mean, it’s a trend that we saw, I think all across the country over the last several days and ever since the election. We saw that the Trump campaign wanted to stop the counts of the ballots, knowing that Milwaukee hadn’t been counted yet, Detroit hadn’t been counted yet, and Philly hasn’t been counted yet. So I think it was a very clear tactic, to try and yet again, undermine Black voters and Black voices, and ultimately that didn’t happen. What I’ve been telling other folks is that it is the right of the campaign to exhaust whatever legal options that are presented to them. If they want to do a recount, that is their decision to make. But even we know that former governor Scott Walker said that, that margin is going to be very difficult to overcome. So, it seems really desperate that folks yet again, are trying to find ways to silence and really acknowledged the power, that not only the Black community has, but communities of color all across the country and how they really showed up.
David Ahrens: The speaker, and that’s Vos, wants to establish a committee with subpoena power. I’ve worked in politics here for almost 40 years. I’ve never heard of a legislative committee that has subpoena power. The purpose of the committee as Angela mentioned, is to do this so-called investigation of fraud in the Milwaukee area. So it will be a real … the purpose of it is to put on a show and to again, intimidate both the population as a whole and potentially the leadership.
This is a leader who has gone to court to prevent the most common sense measures to stem the COVID virus, where we’re the third worst in the country. Every day we have another record amount. So he’s doing absolutely nothing on the skyrocketing death and hospitalization rate but wants to spend all the time on this nonsensical investigation. Hopefully he’ll come under enough flack to stop it, but he’s talking to his base.
Marc Steiner: So, let’s take a step back in history a moment here, because I think when I look at Wisconsin, as I said in the beginning of this program today, that it really is in many ways, emblematic of the battle in this country for who we are as Americans. I’ve been doing a lot of readings, as I said about Karl Rove and his red map strategy, that he started in 2010 with millions of millions of dollars of corporate money behind him actually, and other money as well. One of his target states was your state, Wisconsin. So in that, he was able to, in his strategic moves to create, a Republican-held legislature that has gerrymandered districts to ensure Republican power and right wing power, has engaged in voter suppression, especially in Black and Indigenous communities in Wisconsin. In that sense, it really says to me, this is the battleground for the future, of this country, of Wisconsin, for our children and grandchildren, for what’s going to happen. So talk a bit about that.
I mean, about how you have both fought to address that, where do you think it is now and what it says about our entire body politic in this country? Angela, you want to jump in first?
Angela Lang: Yeah. The issue of gerrymandering is actually something that we started working on very early in our inception. So BLOC has been around since November of 2017, so we’re just coming up on our three-year anniversary. A couple of months in, we actually got connected to the National Democratic Redistricting Committee that’s led by former Attorney General Eric Holder. We’ve become very close, we have deep partnerships with them and we know the impact of it. We know it’s also an issue that our community doesn’t know a lot about. We feel the effects every day.
So we’ve actually done a lot of popular education style type of trainings, to have those conversations. Because a lot of times people may not know the history of gerrymandering and how it’s impacting them, but yet we’re seeing the effects every day. I think we see that play out in the state of Wisconsin as well. So when people demand legalization of marijuana, for example, or decriminalization of marijuana, you’ll see overwhelming support for it, but the policies don’t line up and that’s because, our leaders, they don’t feel that they have to bend to the will of the people. They don’t need to bend to their constituents because the maps are so heavily gerrymandered. They really get to act and make policies without impunity, which I think is really, really dangerous for a healthy democracy.
David Ahrens: Yeah. In this last election cycle, once again, there was somewhere between a 10% and 15% vote margin between what the vote was for democratic candidates for the legislature, and then the percentage that are actually elected. So we had about a 48% vote for Democrats, and we have 33% representation in the legislature. As Angela mentioned, you could go down a list of all the most important legislative initiatives. I think the key one for us is Medicaid expansion. Wisconsin is one of the 10 states in the country that have not gone through a Medicaid expansion. 70% of the population supports it, it never has even gotten a vote in the legislature.
So, it’s a legislature that’s really out of whack with the population, because getting back again to COVID, the vast majority of people support people wearing masks, that’s … the legislature opposes. They support limiting public gatherings, legislature opposes it, and has gone to court to stop it. So it’s unfortunately because of the makeup, one gerrymander map perpetuates another gerrymander map. So now again, we have a legislature that is overwhelmingly Republican, that we’ll be creating the maps for the next decade.
Marc Steiner: Exactly and that leads me to the next question, which I’ve been thinking about a lot when it comes to Wisconsin, what it says to the rest of the country. I mean, both of you in different parts of Wisconsin are progressive leaders and thinkers in that state and in the work that you’ve done. So when you look at the vote, and I know in the last time I voted, I think 52%, if I have it right, of the statewide vote, went for Democrats and again, fewer seats in the legislature and other [inaudible 00:09:11] take place. I talked a bit about Karl Rove and his part in that. So what is a political strategy to fight for a more inclusive society? To deal with issues of racism, to deal with everything in voting rights and a more equitable economy? So what do you all talk about together when it comes to strategically how to address this, given the forces you’re up against?
Angela Lang: I think for me, what’s important is continue doing what we have been doing. Something that’s been a focal point for BLOC is making sure that we are a year-round organization. We’re already strategizing for next year. We’re talking about different programs that we want to launch. We’re already thinking about the midterms, already had a candidate just a few minutes ago who announced that they were running is calling. So there’s really not a lot of downtime. We also have elections in the spring. So what’s really important for us is to make sure that we’re doing that education in between election cycles.
We’re really excited for when the spring elections are over to continue to dig in. We’re having conversations with folks. We’re still educating our team and our folks, because I think that’s how you build power. You build power when people start to understand their place in it, and they understand the power that they have as well and the agency that they have, in breaking down some of these really tough, hard to follow policies. We got a lot of questions in April, after our disastrous election that we talked about earlier, about how was this allowed to happen?
So we actually took all of those things that we were seeing, how is this allowed to happen? How was that allowed to happen? We took a step back and we said, “Research gerrymandering, watch this movie. Watch the film All In that just came out with Stacey Abrams that’s talking about voter suppression.” Being able to have some of those conversations, training our team internally and then being able to spread that information as well, so people start to pay attention a little bit more and instead of saying, “Hey, how was that allowed to happen?” Hopefully we’re able to make some interventions and so that doesn’t happen again.
David Ahrens: Right, yeah. Just to second what Angela’s saying, when we talk about spring elections here, we’re talking about local elections. So that becomes a major strategy, is to make sure that in local communities where we can consolidate a base and win power, that we’re actually doing that. So I think in a lot of local communities, that’s taken place. Again, going back to the gerrymander piece, every community where that has been put up for a popular vote at a countywide referendum, it’s been approved, which is to have an impartial, nonpartisan commission. So we’re working at the local level and then where possible at the state level, as you know, in last spring, it was quite an upset where a liberal candidate took out an incumbent supreme court member.
So we hope to replicate that in another year or so, and to take out another Republican supreme court justice. So there are avenues to work. the other part is, is to make sure that we have a Democratic governor, because if we have another Scott Walker with this legislature, then we’re in deep trouble.
Marc Steiner: So let’s talk a bit about another state that Wisconsin finds itself in that really speaks to the nation. I mean, there were issues raised amendment, I remember at the beginning of this election, about the safety of the Black vote in Milwaukee. Now there are all kinds of fraud things that Vos and others are pushing that happened in Milwaukee.
David Ahrens: Yeah, photo ID. We were one of the first.
Marc Steiner: Exactly. This is an interesting a piece I read that for the third year in a row, Milwaukee and Racine, where it said they were the worst cities for African Americans in the country. Number one, and number two, by this 24/7 Wall Street [inaudible 00:13:19] in Delaware. So let’s talk about this, the question of race and racism inside of Wisconsin and why it’s so virulent and what that history is and what also that says about how that fits into this larger political mix. Angela, you can jump off and lead this again, then David jump in.
Angela Lang: Yeah, I think what’s really led to it is just all of these years, and we outlined it earlier, in the fact that the Republicans are able to have a decade long plan and act on it. It starts with gerrymandering and then they’re able to chip away at these policies. It starts by making sure that they are in power and then it continues by weaponizing a global pandemic as a means of voter suppression for the April election. We see these things constantly happen and I think what we noticed a lot of times, that I think a lot of us feel, is that it feels like Milwaukee against the rest of the state. So every time people say, “Oh, well, Milwaukee,” it’s usually dog whistle all of the time. If people say, “Oh, well, Milwaukeeans should just do this.” They’re really talking about Black and Brown voters and that’s very clear.
That’s why we see people try to chip away at the power that Milwaukee has. We’re the largest economic engine in the state, but yet people don’t treat us as if we are. I think that’s where a lot of the racism comes in. We see racist police departments. We see some of our checks and balances in Milwaukee. We have a fire and police commission that has been embroiled in controversy and drama and in corruption the last couple of years now at this point. So, I think people try to prey on that and we see that Wisconsin is the worst place to raise a Black child. We are the worst place for segregation. You mentioned the history of Milwaukee and Racine. We know what happened with the attempted murder of Jacob Blake.
So we constantly see all of these things, and it really does feel like the tale of two states, you have Milwaukee and you have the rest of the state. When people are providing those narratives that really come out of the legislature, that perpetuates those stereotypes that Milwaukee has nothing but murder, mayhem, and chaos, which is what a legislator referred to it as a few years ago. So we see that often, and I think that doesn’t help when it comes to policies and it really perpetuates this urban and rural divide. But yet, there’s a lot of ways that people are trying to overcome that. We’re trying to get dairy farmers to understand and dairy farmers stand with Black Lives Matter and folks in Milwaukee care about the wellbeing of dairy farmers, but that’s not something that I think is widespread. I think there’s a lot of healing from an urban and rural standpoint and from a race class narrative standpoint, I think there’s a lot of work to be done. I’m looking forward to some of the new infrastructure that has popped up to heal and bring those two communities together too.
Marc Steiner: So David, as somebody who I have known for a while, and know you’re also a student of political history. I mean, talk to me about what Angela was just saying, in terms of where you think the story goes from here and what those roots are, I mean, this is, you know-
David Ahrens: Yeah, I think one of the significant roots in Milwaukee is, and this is the rust belt theme, is the de-industrialization of Milwaukee. 30, 40 years ago, there were significant large industrial unionized factories in Milwaukee that paid a good wage for Black workers and white workers as well, but a large part of the workforce was Black and they’re gone. So really the opportunity to earn a living wage was really, really degraded. After that happened, I mean that took a second hit, which was under Scott Walker when he basically destroyed public employee unionism.
That also, especially in Milwaukee, was a place where Black workers, from people who are parks laborers to skilled teachers and whatever, their wages and benefits and rights as workers were degraded. We also then outlawed union shops. So there’ve been a whole series of really economic catastrophes that then cause political catastrophes.
One of the things that Angela said about the attack of the legislature on Milwaukee, one of the audacious things that the legislature did was to change the term and the pay of Milwaukee County board members. So they decided that county board members should only work half time and should be paid less than half of what they were. They changed the structure of the Milwaukee County board. This was the only county board that they did this to. So it’s really this plantation mentality that we’re going to decide really how this local government operates.
Angela Lang: Yeah and to add on to that, they’ll be tricky too. They’ll say, “Oh, any counties or any cities over this amount of population … ” knowing that the only city or county that fits that description will be Milwaukee. So, to see our county board get their, their pay cut in half, I believe their benefits were slashed, instead of running every four years, they have to run every two years now and it seemed to be of a part-time job, while we handle so many different elements in the county. So we also see that also as a way of deterrence. Who is going to step up and be a county supervisor if you know that the pay is only $25,000 now? So that could also lead to some class issues as well, in that you may have more wealthy people that may not need it for the pay, that may want to fill those seats, versus people that want to be humble public servants and that $50,000 could be a decent pay for them and this could be a full-time job.
So we can actually see the composition start to change as well. I think groups like the Working Families Party and others have been doing the best they could to keep that line and to hold that line ever since Act 14.
Marc Steiner: So let me conclude with this, this is how I began in a way, which is I spent all this time reading about what’s going on in Wisconsin, of course, around the country as well. What does Wisconsin, activists like the both of you, have to say to America about what we face and the struggle we face for the future? Because I mean, what’s happened Wisconsin over the last 50 years has turned on its head what maybe people think places like Wisconsin and Minnesota were supposed to be all about, at least for white folks. So talk a bit about what would you have to say to America about what happened in Wisconsin and what it says about the fight for the future of this country? Oh, I’m sorry, let me just … Angela, go ahead.
Angela Lang: I think for us, is that what I would say is that the work continues. We’ve said this long before the election, that white supremacy and transphobia and misogyny and all of that doesn’t mysteriously go away because there is a new president elect at this point, and that our work needs to continue. I think more broadly, I think Wisconsin is incredibly fascinating. I think it can be a microcosm of how we can get the work right, how we can come together as working folks, despite a racial background and to overcome that. I think there’s a long history of trying to divide old by race when we can actually build a multi-racial, working class party in group of folks, in a voting block.
We know that our brothers and sisters that are dairy farmers are also struggling the same way that we are in the city of Milwaukee and how are we able to come together over a common message about being able to look out for each other, to support each other, and really go against some of the status quo. So, I think we know that working class voters and specifically Black and Brown and Indigenous voters really were the ones to either hold the line, or to bring the state over the edge in so many different places. We see the amazing work from the New Georgia Project in Georgia. We’re talking about Georgia new ways, in Texas in new ways and I think a big takeaway, I think from this election, is that Black, Brown and Indigenous voters are the future of this country and there’s a lot of organizing opportunities as well with working class folks.
Marc Steiner: And so David, as we conclude as well, I mean, I was thinking about what Angela was saying and all this in the terms of, as I mentioned several times in the course of our conversation, Karl Rove and highly organized the right wing is and what they’ve been able to do, and how that plays into the struggle of the future.
David Ahrens: Yeah, yeah. I think we being progressives are about a decade behind, at least Republicans, in terms of certain levels of organization, and the divide in Wisconsin, as you say, is just another replica of the divide in the country. I mean, you look at our two US senators, Tammy Baldwin, very liberal, and Ron Johnson among the most right wing who, upon the election said half of the United States does not see that Biden is legitimate leader of the country. So he’s coming up in two years and as Angela said, the campaign never ends. So the question is who is going to run against Johnson and then build a coalition against him where we have either a rural, or a urban, or whatever, candidate that is capable of reaching particularly white, non-college educated folks to vote Democratic.
Wisconsin has one of the highest levels of white non-college educated population and I think that’s part of the residual base and reaching out for dairy farmers or any kind of farmers that are completely dependent on Latino labor. I mean, there’s probably not a dairy farm in the state that doesn’t run without Latino people who are actually working on that farm. So, for them to support other parts of the progressive agenda, including immigrant rights, there have been some inroads on that and hope to continue with that. I think some of the lesson to be learned, as Angela said, where Milwaukee is seen as the other. Very early on in the COVID epidemic, Milwaukee was the hardest hit place, much harder than anywhere else. Ron Johnson and others said, “Well, this COVID thing is just a urban problem. It can’t touch us.” Now it’s flipped completely and is in the most rural parts of the state with as least medical service.
So I think people are learning that, hey, we’re all in the same bucket, and there really aren’t any divisions here. We’re all part of the human race and got to work together.
Marc Steiner: Well, I want to thank both of you for the time you’ve taken with Real News today and also for the years of work you both put in to make a difference in our society. Angela, also what you have done to build in these few years in Milwaukee, to build a real power presence, has been very important for the rest of the country to see. So Angela Lang and David Ahrens, thank you both so much for taking your time today and we look forward to having you back again.
David Ahrens: Thanks Marc.
Angela Lang: [inaudible 00:26:06] having me.
Marc Steiner: It’s our pleasure.
David Ahrens: Okay, bye-bye. Bye Angela.
Marc Steiner: Bye-bye. And so for producer, Erica Blount, I’m Marc Steiner of the Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think and take care.