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A look at Milwaukee Black voter mobilization ahead of the Wisconsin Supreme Court election

Maayan Silver
Supporters of Black voters in Milwaukee in 2020.

Wisconsin is gearing up for a highly anticipated spring election for state Supreme Court. The election will determine whether the court leans conservative or liberal, and how it will tip on important cases, including whether to overturn the state’s 1849 abortion ban; where it falls on redistricting, which currently favors Republicans; and likely how it will rule on election law challenges leading up to the 2024 election.

In a state with a history of razor thin margins, voter turnout is key to both parties, especially in a non-presidential election, non-midterm year. Black voters in Milwaukee have been a key voting block for Democrats. But starting in 2020, state Republicans set up a satellite outreach office in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

Black voters share perspectives on April Election.

What does Black voter outreach look like in Milwaukee today? One person to ask is Angela Lang, executive director of BLOC, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities.

Lang has a constant question she asks when she and her staff knock on someone’s door, regardless of the election cycle. “‘What does it look like for the Black community to thrive?'” she says. “And with that, and whatever way that resident answers, sometimes we're able to kind of use that as a segue into the election.”

Lang says they hear a lot about housing, but also safety. She reports that people want safe communities by having more things for the youth to do in the summer. “Rarely do we hear safety means more police,” she says.

Right now, BLOC is trying to turn people out for the Wisconsin Supreme Court race. There are also court of appeals, school board and common council races for some residents, as well as referendums.

Lang says BLOC canvassers create their own personalized scripts about the issues and ask if people know the election’s happening on April 4. “So sometimes it's even easy to kind of pull up that myvote.wi.gov website to say, ‘Hey, let's check your ballot right now — everything that's on it. Or do you know your polling place, we can double check that right here, we can double check your voter registration status.’”

Black voter turnout is critical, says Sachin Chheda. He’s a strategist for the more liberal state Supreme Court candidate Judge Janet Protasiewicz.

“I mean when you talk about a state where we have presidential election after presidential election, senate election, decided by 20,000 or 30,000 votes statewide. Obviously, there are 10 times as many Black voters just in Milwaukee County alone," he says.

There are many fervent, longtime voters in the Black community, including Serita Valmon. She's a chronic pain coach and wellness Consultant in Milwaukee who works with people of color and women who are living with chronic pain.

Valmon says she's been voting since she was 18 and hasn't missed an election. She says voting is using your voice. " I've heard so many different things, people being like, 'well, it doesn't really count and all these different things like that," says Valmon. "And honestly, a lot of times, that's when people that aren't really trying to learn or know more about the system."

She says when people say, "'oh, the system is broken,' and all these kinds of things like that, it's like, 'well, no, the system actually is not broken. It's actually working as designed. However, you have to go ahead and insert yourself to make the changes that need to be done to the system.' Because when it was initially started, it was not made for everyone."

Some, like Chris Ilion, though, feel that voting is pointless. "I don't trust none of the politicians," says Ilion. "They always say one thing and do another no matter who you vote for so it don't really matter."

Ilion hasn't voted since the Bush Administration. "The politicians don't do anything to help black people for one. I've seen them do things for other groups of people, but yet they won't do anything for our community," he says.

The county — and city, which is made up of a majority of voters of color — tends to be a deep well of support for Democratic candidates. BLOC endorsed liberal-leaning Judge Jill Karofsky in 2020, but it has not endorsed Protasiewicz this year.

Lang says it was a tough decision, but, ultimately, the group has not heard from the candidate. “We've had some challenges, and some personal interactions with her being a current judge on the bench here in Milwaukee County. And we've had little to no interaction outside of that," she says.

Lang says Protasiewicz has bragged about having “incarcerated more people than [her] opponents.” She also laments what she sees as problematic tough-on-crime advertising on both sides of the aisle.

A lot of Black voters are disappointed that they won’t be able to elect a Black justice, Judge Everett Mitchell of Madison, to the state Supreme Court for the first time, she says. He was ousted in the primary election.

Wisconsin’s only Black Supreme Court justice, Louis Butler, was appointed in 2004 and lost an election to Michael Gableman in 2008.

But Lang says BLOC continues to do political and civic education and mobilize voters, if not for one specific candidate. “So it's gonna be up to the voters if they choose to put [negative interactions] aside for the sake of some of these bigger statewide issues," she says.

Chheda, the strategist for Protasiewicz, emphasizes that Protasiewicz was immediately endorsed by Mitchell after the primary. He describes Mitchell as “someone who's turned into a surrogate for this campaign, and is out there talking about what's at stake.”

Protasiewicz has also been endorsed by a range of Black leaders, from Democratic U.S. Representative Gwen Moore to Milwaukee County Board Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson. Chheda says Protasiewicz’s campaign is prioritizing outreach to the Black community. He says that includes television ads and radio ads, some of which were targeted to those media outlets that are most listened to and watched by Black voters.

“Janet is visiting churches and coffee shops and barber shops to engage with voters directly one on one,” says Chheda.

There was lower turnout in Milwaukee during the 2022 midterms than in the 2018 midterms. Bob Spindell, a Republican state elections commissioner, said in a controversial email newsletterin December that Republicans “can be especially proud” of lower turnout in Milwaukee. He described it as “with the major reduction happening in the overwhelming Black and Hispanic areas.”

More on Black voter mobilization efforts.

The campaign for conservative-backed state Supreme Court candidate Daniel Kelly did not respond to WUWM’s request for an interview. But Khenzer Senat, of the Wisconsin Republican Party, tells WUWM that its Milwaukee field office on North Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive is fueling GOP outreach to Black voters.

“Pastimes, we've obviously, we've never really been around, but now we're looking towards the future. And we're moving forward. And we're making sure that we don't leave any stone unturned,” says Senat.

Senat says ahead of the state Supreme Court race, the GOP is giving information to people that walk into the field office from off the street. He also says they’re building relationships with church leaders, business owners and community activists.

“You know, you have to go to people to reach the voters rather than just, you know, staying put,” he says.

Senat says crime and economic blight are leading issues for Black voters ahead of the April election. While Lang of BLOC says it’s access to abortion and affordable housing.

Abortion was a big issue for several of the voters that WUWM talked to ahead of the election. Michael Edgeston of Milwaukee says he tends to vote Republican. He said if he knew a state supreme court candidate supported abortion rights, "I'll be all against that, because it's not right just to take a life," he says. "How are you gonna choose who will stay here who lives or die you know? I'm against all abortions."

Eve Comer is the program director for a community based doula program. They supply doulas to Black and Brown women to help improve birthing outcomes.

Comer feels "people without uteruses" shouldn't be weighing in on the abortion debate. "Without having to experience what comes along with having a uterus whether you choose to keep her pregnancy, whether you choose to terminate a pregnancy, the physical aspects, the social emotional aspects, the financial aspects of all of that, those decisions are being made by people who one don't have a uterus and don't literally have a first hand front seat row of what, how that impacts their daily lives," she says.

She says a lot of her family and friends are also engaged with this particular election on this topic.

"And it's such a big thing right now with, recent Supreme Court decisions being overturned, so it's hard to focus on other things when women don't have basic rights," she says. "I feel like we have gone back, like 50 plus years, you know, so that's my focal point right now, especially as a mom, as a person who has three daughters and will probably encounter some of these things, and as a Black woman who already faces challenges in like the perinatal world. That's just where my head goes automatically."

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected to take up major cases on abortion, redistricting and likely voting rights ahead of the 2024 presidential election after a new justice is elected.

Election day is April 4. Check out WUWM's voter guide to learn about the races on the ballot and how to vote.


Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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