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The ugly trend of how Milwaukee media reports on Mandela Barnes as a politician of color

Wisconsin’s discourse about its first black Lieutenant Governor points to some pervasive problems.

Look, nine times out of 10 I’m on the side of the person asking pesky questions or trawling through the sorts of documents that politicians would rather not discuss. If public officials aren’t feeling harried and annoyed, the press isn’t doing its job. When prominent folks grouse about “harassment” or “sensationalism,” it’s almost always a feeble deflection. But the tenor of Wisconsin media’s recent coverage about Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes’ parking tickets and property tax bills has been absurd from the start.

Sure, Barnes holds a position of power, and when he does something wrong, he should be held accountable for it. Barnes’ finances are fair game for discussion, so I’m not even saying media shouldn’t have talked at all about the fact that he fell behind on property taxes and parking tickets. The issue is one of proportion and framing: With all the issues facing the state, and all the blatant political wrongdoing we witness here from day to day, are we really justified in making this a huge part of the news cycle or the greater Wisconsin political debate? And is being behind on your bills malfeasance of some kind? Do we really have to indulge the “well surely Barnes believes in paying his taxes, because DEMOCRATS amirite!?!” angle?

What we have here is a symptom of the pathology that compels Americans to portray politicians of color as corrupt, profligate, unhinged, and unworthy, and that compels American media to pretend there’s a perfect symmetry between the sins of Democrats (a flawed, strategically clumsy, and often venal bunch) and Republicans (an unholy alliance of the cynical, the gullible, the bigoted, the authoritarian, the corrupt, and oh I could go on).

If reporters had caught Barnes actively evading taxes or filing fraudulent paperwork or something of that nature, I could understand getting fired up about it. But as of now, it seems Barnes has mostly been caught out having a rather pedestrian amount of financial trouble. Instead of adding much real value to the state’s political discussion, it’s mostly just provided fodder to dopey right-wing propagandists, including Scott Walker, who discussed it on the first episode of his new podcast, his latest pitiful bid for post-gubernatorial attention. The Associated Press reported in November that Walker was “carrying more than $100,000 in student loan debt and credit card debt between $15,000 and $150,000.” Walker also blew through a lot of money on an ultimately humiliating presidential bid, and even in today’s high-priced campaign environment, his spending on that race raised eyebrows. His actual financial behavior has long been at odds with his demented ravings about ham sandwiches and Kohl’s coupons. People often suck at money! People who preach progressive economics can suck at money! People who like scolding the poor can suck at money! Sometimes way more!

It started with Milwaukee Journal Sentinel “watchdog” reporter Daniel Bice, who vacillates between actual accountability journalism and asinine political tit-for-tat, and doesn’t seem to care very much about the difference between the two. Bice reported in a June 3 post that Barnes was late on paying a $108 fine stemming from several unpaid parking tickets, and as a consequence can’t renew the registration on a car he used to own. In the story, Bice quotes a response from Barnes, insisting that he was unaware of the fine and is pledging to pay it off, but first Bice quotes a GOP spokesperson who, of course, adds nothing of substance to the story. One has to imagine that even Republican political hacks are a little tired of serving up wholly predictable comments for Bice to ladle onto his penny-ante scoops.

This story hit a bit close to home for Mike Johnson, an activist who used to live in Madison and worked on Governor Tony Evers’ campaign:

Bice then reported on June 14 that Barnes has an unpaid property tax bill of about $2,225 on a Milwaukee condo. In the story, Barnes pledged to pay it off. This time, Bice not only got an entirely predictable quote from a GOP spokesperson, but also from Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, the man trying to establish an unaccountable parallel executive branch within the legislature. The story also dings Barnes for buying a condo in Madison, the city where Wisconsin’s Lieutenant Governor would presumably work, despite still owning the Milwaukee condo and owing taxes on it.

Lest the word “condo” bedazzle you with visions of high-rise luxury, please note that the Madison condo appears to be in the modest Sherman Terrace complex. Seems like a pretty reasonable place for a single 32-year-old to buy a home, and he wouldn’t be the first politician to have homes in both his home city and closer to the seat of government. Taken together, Barnes is getting two homes for well under the average home value in a rapidly gentrifying city. We’re talking about someone who comes from a working-class family and has generally worked political and policy jobs. Plus, in this day and age, I know a lot of people in their 30s (including myself, age 34) who don’t have it together financially. Give it a rest. If people with some stains on their financial records can’t hold public office, we’ll never fix the fundamental power imbalances in our society, which of course is exactly the way the Republican Party wants it.

Things escalated on June 19, when a reporter for Milwaukee’s Fox affiliate station followed up with Barnes about both the parking tickets and property taxes in an interview at a Juneteenth celebration. Both the station and Bice, who I guess can’t get enough of this, reported that he walked out of the interview. But the Fox 6 segment shows Barnes at least answering the questions at hand before getting cranky and walking away to continue participating in a public event. It seems lost on the Fox 6 team that it might be a bad look to hector the state’s first black Lieutenant Governor about his financial problems at a Juneteenth event. Telling readers or viewers that Barnes “walked out of an interview” leads people to expect something rather more explosive than what the segment actually shows.

By this point, Barnes had already answered Bice’s questions about the parking tickets and tax bill and addressed it on his Twitter account, and Governor Tony Evers had publicly stated that Barnes should pay up. Accountability from the media, accountability from within his own party. Barnes said the check was in the mail, and sure, you can be skeptical of that, but said check might take a few days to work its way through a) the mail and b) the Milwaukee County bureaucracy. Barnes at least acknowledged that he owed the money and needed to do something about it, and while he was critical of the media coverage, he didn’t come close to engaging the kind of programmatic, flat-out dangerous attacks the right routinely makes on a free press.

Speaking of people Republicans really really want to incite lethal violence against, Bice’s stories played into a right-wing narrative about Barnes’ supposedly out-of-control security and transportation costs. The parking story even leads with the fact that the state’s second-ranked executive official gets transportation from the state, as if that’s news: “It’s a good thing that Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes has had state security officials to chauffeur him around the state.” Note the use of chauffeur rather than a simpler verb that would have done the trick, like drive or transport. Bice writes later in the piece that “the State Patrol racked up nearly 898 hours acting as Barnes’ Uber service by shuttling him to official, personal and political events at a cost to taxpayers of $36,622.” Seriously? His Uber service? Is this out of line with how other similarly situated state officials have gotten around? Is Barnes’ car use crazier than Scott Walker’s use of a state plane for short trips?

It would be nice to have some context on that one way or the other, like reports, some from Bice himself, about Walker and Rebecca Kleefisch’s own security costs. You’ve already got the context, dude! Put it there! Unfortunately, just singling out Barnes as an expensive person to transport and secure played into Republican efforts to limit his security budget, at a time when politicians of color face disproportionate threats of violence, as they pretty much always have. The Channel 3000 story linked in the previous sentence states that Barnes “had nine more hours of security protection during his first two months in office than his Republican predecessor had all of 2018,” which perhaps is a lot, but our political and racial climate is also a lot. Banging on about a black elected official’s relatively small debts makes it worse.

Scott Gordon

Lee Matz

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About The Author

Scott Gordon

Scott Gordon is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Tone Madison, which he founded in 2014, and has also written about subjects including environmental issues and public health for WisContext.

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