Mandela Barnes wants the Senate to look more like America, so he’s running
Mandela Barnes, the 34-year-old Democratic lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, spent years traveling around his home state honing his kitchen table approach to politics. Then he spent 15 months stuck at his own kitchen table.
“I don’t brag a lot, but I will say it, I got really good at cooking last year,” says Barnes of his time in COVID lockdown. “I became a breakfast champion. I whipped up omelets, and got so varied in my waffles and French toast.” It was during that quiet time in front of the stove, in between omelet flips, that he began to consider his political future.
He’d already had a storied political past to call on.
Inspired by President Barack Obama (“I’ve probably got way too many Barack Obama pictures hanging up,” he says. “I’ve got a picture of me and Barack Obama shaking hands, and another one of the two of us at a rally where he’s holding up my arm”), Barnes began his career working on campaigns for Democratic state and local candidates and organizing in the field in Alabama and Louisiana. After working on an election where his candidate lost by just 350 votes, he returned to his hometown of Milwaukee to take a job in the office of Mayor Tom Barrett. At the age of 25, he was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly, where he served two two-year terms representing north-central Milwaukee County, and by 30 he was running for lieutenant governor, a seat he won in 2018.
By the 2020 election, his inner circle was pushing him to join a crowded midterm race for one of Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate seats. The opportunity was there—the controversy-embroiled Republican incumbent Ron Johnson was vulnerable. But Barnes felt too busy to seriously consider the proposition. With quarantines pinning him at home, however, he had time to think. He thought about Wisconsin’s muddled response to the pandemic, and about how the state had handled the shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man and father of six who was left partly paralyzed after a white police officer shot him seven times in the back in Kenosha, in response to a domestic complaint in the summer of 2020. No one was responding the way he wanted them to.
As lieutenant governor, Barnes has a public post, but not a lot of say over public policy. “It’s been an incredible opportunity, but at the same time, there’s a ceiling,” he says. “There’s only so much you can do, and I thought I could be more helpful as a U.S. senator,” he says.
“I would want someone who’s going to be out there front and center on these sorts of issues. I looked around, and there weren’t a whole bunch of people who were…The people who are making decisions aren’t coming from the communities that experienced this sort of trauma,” Barnes tells Fortune. “There weren’t a whole bunch of people that I knew were interested in running for this sort of seat that has traditionally been so exclusive, so reserved for incredibly wealthy people, incredibly connected people.”
This summer, he decided to officially run. He’s hoping to be the Democratic nominee for the election that will take place in November 2022, but first he has to win his primary next August.
Barnes is the first Black lieutenant governor in Wisconsin history, and if elected, he would be the first Black senator from the state. His mother, originally from Louisiana, was a public school teacher for 30 years, and his father worked in a factory, like his grandfather who was a union steelworker in Milwaukee. He has spent time relying on food and energy assistance from the government. Barnes is fully aware that his background is far different from the majority of those serving in the Senate, where the median net worth is well over $1 million.
He’s also a full 30 years younger than the average senator, and he says he deeply understands the lack of economic stability for millennials, having lived it himself.
“I look at the opportunities that my dad and my granddad had to have stable employment for 30 years without interruption, stable income, retirement benefits, vacation, and health care. So many people in our generation don’t have those same opportunities,” says Barnes. “The stability isn’t there. And that’s why I decided to run for office, because of what I saw happening to my generation and the feeling that it wouldn’t get better for the next one, unless people were willing to step up and demand more and fight for that change.”
Despite being entrenched in politics since college, Barnes considers himself an outsider. He’s never worked in D.C., only on campaigns far from the political establishment, in Alabama, Louisiana, and Wisconsin. Those campaigns, he says, taught him a lot about dangerous divides in the country. In Alabama, he experienced his first Confederate Memorial Day. Then he watched his home state of Wisconsin vote for Donald Trump for President in 2016, and saw Joe Biden beat Trump by just half a percentage point in the state in 2020.
“I began to draw parallels…There’s this idea of freedom that exists in Alabama and Louisiana that also exists in a lot of parts of Wisconsin,” says Barnes. “But people feel like both parties have failed them. As a Democrat, it’s important for me to make sure to deliver.” Barnes believes there are too many politicians in Wisconsin who are sitting on their laurels, and are too comfortable in their positions. “People are going to suffer as a result,” he says.
The current political disconnect, according to Barnes, isn’t necessarily rooted in ideology; it comes from people who are starved of opportunity. When he travels across the state as lieutenant governor, he finds that people in rural communities, which traditionally vote red, want to talk about climate change because flooding and droughts impact the areas they live and work in. “We can’t fall for these traps that continue to pit us against one another,” says Barnes. “We can’t continue to fall for these urban-rural divide conversations, because it’s just not the case. What unites us is the quest for improvement of quality of life.”
Barnes’s campaign messaging of unity around economic opportunity and quality of life is certainly appealing in one of the most notorious swing states in the country, but his slog through the Democratic primary will be tough. A number of high-profile Democrats—at least 12—are already clamoring to run against Senator Johnson, or whoever the would-be Republican candidate is (Johnson has not yet said whether he’ll run for reelection).
Recent internal polling put Barnes at a 29-point lead in the primary field, but it’s still a crowded one. He’s up against State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry. As of the last filing deadline (when Barnes had not yet announced his run) Lasry had already raised $1 million and had another $1 million in the bank.
Barnes stands out from the field of mostly white, older candidates. And he thinks that will work to his advantage. “There are not enough perspectives that are represented in [the Senate] that are going to be there to deliver for the majority of people in this country. I can’t just sit and expect someone else to do it, so I decided to,” he says. “The Senate time and time again hasn’t delivered for regular people in this country, has not delivered for working-class people, and does not deliver for marginalized communities in the way that it should. That’s simply because of the lack of representation. If you have a whole bunch of people who are benefiting from a broken system, we can’t expect those same people to show up and push change.”
Whoever wins the election will also play a pivotal role in the 2024 presidential race, with the attention focused on the swing state likely propelling them to the national stage. Barnes, like all good politicians, insists that his focus is solely on Wisconsin. Still, he consulted with Jaime Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, before announcing his run, and has friends and supporters throughout the party.
Regardless of the outcome of this election, Barnes will remain seated around kitchen tables, more figurative now than literal, pushing his clear, relatable Democratic messaging across to larger and larger constituencies: Let me help make life better for you.
Mandela Barnes is among the rising entrepreneurs, influencers, creators, and executives we highlighted on Fortune’s 2021 40 Under 40 list.