While the reelection of right wing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker attracted most of the local and national media attention in the November 4 elections, there was also a bright spot for the left in Wisconsin. Angela Walker, an African-American bus driver and unionist running as an independent socialist candidate for Sheriff of Milwaukee County, received over 67,000 votes, representing 20.3% of the votes cast. This was a truly remarkable result given a hostile pro-business media which largely ignored her campaign, a limited budget, the lack of an organized political party behind her campaign, and the difficulty of third party and independent candidates to break the stranglehold of the corporation-backed Democratic and Republican parties.
Although data is not yet available to permit a detailed analysis of the geographic and demographic breakdown of her electoral support, anecdotal evidence gathered by her small, loosely organized but highly committed group of supporters suggests that Walker’s message of social justice resonated especially well with working class African-Americans on the city’s north side as well as white liberal voters from the east side. When asked by a journalist from radio station WNOV about “the reaction of people when you tell them you are an independent socialist?” Walker replied “you would be very surprised how supportive people have been.”
Her score represents not only a challenge to the reactionary, racist, anti-working class policies of incumbent Sheriff David Clarke but also a refutation of the policies of the two parties of the 1%. Clarke, who is fond of wearing cowboy hats and riding a horse in public events, is a Tea-party backed “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” figure and darling of conservatives and Republicans. He has publicly called on citizens who feel physically threatened to arm themselves and use their weapons rather than call 911. Clarke, who is African-American, cynically runs as a Democrat--largely to take advantage of Black support for Democratic Party politicians. Angela Walker has denounced this as a form of “plantation politics.”
Challenging Racism and Inequality in Milwaukee
Throughout her campaign, she denounced mass incarceration and police brutality in favor of a program of social justice that attacks the root of the social problems facing minority and working class people. Milwaukee is a city where racial segregation, police brutality, unemployment, and deep social inequality are particularly glaring. A full 87% of students in the Milwaukee city school system receive free school lunches. These children qualify for these meals because they come from households with incomes less than 185% of the poverty line (which speaks volumes about the artificiality of the federal poverty line). It is a city where black unemployment runs at 50% and over half of black males are in or have been in prison.
According to a 2005 Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council report, less than 1% of recent job growth took place in black neighborhoods. That same report showed that as little 20-30% of households in the impoverished nearly exclusively black North Side own cars. Given the poor transportation system in the county this constitutes a huge contributor to African American unemployment and poverty. While the cold-blooded murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has dominated the national conversation about police brutality, but Milwaukee has also had numerous such incidents, mostly recently the police murder of Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed young black man shot numerous times by police officer Christopher Manning in a downtown park. Manning has yet to be charged.
This is the backdrop against which Walker called for a livable minimum wage, the end to police brutality and attacks against the city’s large immigrant community, for fully funded public education, a transportation system geared to the needs of working people, the legalization of marijuana, and alternatives to mass incarceration such as restorative justice. Local electoral rules permit candidates to place five word ballot phrases next to their name. Walker’s was “Draft Bernie Sanders for President” in reference to the Vermont Senator who has described himself as a socialist (although he usually votes with the Democrats). This aspect of the campaign was not mentioned in campaign literature. It was only once voters were in the voting booth that they saw the Sanders reference. Interestingly, a comment on the campaign Facebook page on the day following the election stated “I had no idea who you were until I voted today. I voted for you because” of the Bernie Sanders reference.
Red Green Electoral Alliance, Black Brown Political Alliance
The Angela Walker campaign forged a solid alliance with the Ron Hardy Green Party campaign for state treasurer. In addition to general political agreement, both supported a $15 minimum wage and the legalization of marijuana. The two campaigns produced a joint campaign statement and planned a joint rally, although limited resources forced the cancellation of that event. Walker supporters distributed Hardy leaflets in all literature distribution efforts. On Election Day, Hardy received a more-than-respectable score of 3%.
Angela Walker addresses crowd at September 26 rally following talk by Michelle Alexander.
The campaign also reached out to what it regarded as a natural ally: Milwaukee’s Latin@ and immigrant community. On September 26, Angela spoke at a “Black and Brown” rally following a talk at a local community college by attorney and activist Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, an analysis and indictment of the school-to-prison pipeline and the mass incarceration of African-American men. All of Walker’s campaign literature cited her platform plank promising to invoke the local ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) Detainer Ordinance that allows the Sheriff’s office to refuse to participate in sweeps against immigrant and undocumented workers. When asked during her only radio interview (which took place at 5 pm on Election Day) with Black station WNOV what her first act as Sheriff would be if elected, she immediately cited this position.
An Inspired and Inspiring Candidate
Angela Walker exudes social justice. She gives the figurative expression “wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve” a fresh twist: she sports a tattoo on her arm with the word “union” and the number of her ATU local-998 emblazoned in large letters. Although some criticized her running for the office of Sheriff because of her lack of experience in the criminal justice system, her track record of social justice, feminist, and union activism (she was formerly the legislative director for her union), her participation in the local Occupy Wall Street movement, coupled with her remarkable ability to articulate the links between social and racial inequality and capitalism in plain language, made her a superb candidate.
Walker, who studied history for several semesters at a university in Florida but has no formal degree, is an organic intellectual in the Gramscian tradition. She has never been a member of a socialist organization. She became a socialist on her own as a result of study, reflection, and contemplation on the conditions of her own life as a black, working class woman in white supremacist America. She cites her grandmother’s political radicalism and activism as a major influence on her life and speaks with pride about her great grandfather, a union worker at the vast Allis Chalmers factory in the Milwaukee industrial suburb of West Allis. When asked what she was currently reading during an with interview with the newspaper of Socialist Party she cited When And Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America by Paula Giddings, and We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America, edited by Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez, Matt Meyer, and Mandy Carter. When I first met her at Coffee Makes You Black, an inner city coffee shop and restaurant whose walls are adorned with African American political and cultural figures, she spoke of her literary as well as political interests citing southern black novelist Zora Neale Hurston as one of her heroes.
Angela’s activity during the campaign reflected the unenviable lot of working class candidates lacking the resources of corporate backed candidates and well-heeled donors enjoyed by Democrat and Republican candidates. Working at one point two shifts as a bus driver, she often drove herself to exhaustion going from one event to another, and occasionally felt compelled to cancel some events as a result. When she attended events like the rallies organized by the Hamilton family demanding justice for Dontre, participating in demonstrations in favor of low wage workers, against rate increases by the local energy company, and others she did so out of genuine personal and political conviction, rather than the cynical opportunism of the politicians of the parties of the 1%.
A bare-bones working class campaign
The campaign was run on a shoe string budget with a small band of committed activists. We frequently ran out of campaign literature and plans for yard signs never materialized. One of its greatest assets however was veteran socialist Rick Kisséll, a former national secretary of the Socialist Party 1978-1983, and today an independent socialist who has run scores of independent electoral campaigns essentially off of his dining room table over the years. Familiar with Angela’s record as an activist, he approached her last summer with the proposal she run for office. Few people have Kisséll’s vast knowledge of the workings of the local electoral system. He used that knowledge as campaign treasurer and co-chair of the campaign.
Apart from her union, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) local 998, endorsement from the University of Milwaukee graduate students union, a local school board member, and well-known local social justice activist and attorney Art Heitzer, Walker had little formal political and organizational endorsements or support. The Milwaukee Socialist Party endorsed her campaign, offered her a platform at their annual picnic last summer, and published a favorable article in their local newsletter. Early on, Solidarity grasped the potential of this campaign to advance the cause of social justice and independent working class political action.
In July, Milwaukee Solidarity jumped into the campaign helping to collect enough signatures to put her on the ballot and participating in numerous campaign events, as well as helping with financial contributions and fundraising. I became a co-chair of her campaign alongside Kisséll. In August, Solidarity organized a panel on independent political action at our Summer School in Chicago. Walker spoke alongside Tim Meegan, progressive independent candidate for alderman of Chicago’s 25th ward, Jorge Mûjica, socialist candidate for the 33rd ward, and Howie Hawkins, Green Party candidate for governor who went on to garner over 5% of the vote in the gubernatorial election in New York. We also helped bring the Walker campaign into contact with the Ron Hardy Green Party campaign for Wisconsin State treasurer, arranging a meeting between the two candidates. A strong synergy developed between the two campaigns.
Looking Past and Forward
Walker’s strong showing can be seen as a reconnection with the Milwaukee socialist tradition: Victor Berger, a leader of the pre-World War I Socialist Party was elected to the 62nd Congress in 1910, serving from 1911-1913. Later, the Milwaukee socialists elected three mayors, the last of whom, Frank Zeidler, left office in 1960. Had she been elected, Angela would have been the county’s fifth socialist Sheriff and the first woman to hold the post. These were certainly on the right wing of socialism (Zeidler tellingly entitled his autobiography, A Liberal in City Government). Nonetheless, elected socialists of any tendency have been a rarity in US political history and some reforms from that era like kindergarten programs beginning at age four, rather than five which is usually the case in US education, remain part of their legacy.
The question now is the classic one of politics: “what do we do now? Where do we go from here?” For Angela and her supports this campaign is more of a beginning than an end. As she wrote in an October 26 Facebook post, “If we lose this election, we still organize and fight. If we win, we'll have extra power for our organizing and fighting. But the work will continue forward regardless." The campaign and Angela’s impressive results can be seen as part of a trend toward left independent political action and openings for socialists begun earlier this year with the election of Socialist Alternative member Kshama Savant to the Seattle city council and the strong showing by Howie Hawkins in New York in these elections.
At the same time, the Wisconsin legislative and gubernatorial results of the November 4 elections pose grave dangers for the labor movement. Not only did Tea party-backed Governor Scott Walker, architect of the 2011 Act 10 which eliminated collective bargaining for public employees, get reelected, but the labor-hating Republican dominated Senate increased its narrow majority. Although Scott Walker has publicly stated that he will not pursue right-to-work legislation, nothing would stop him or his minions in the house or Senate from introducing such legislation. But if this were to happen, Scott Walker and his supporters could expect the same type of resistance seen in the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising. And they’d also have Angela Walker to contend with.
Keith Mann is a member of Milwaukee Solidarity and served as co-chair of the Angela Walker for Sheriff Campaign.