3 Democrats look to make history in Wisconsin governor race
MADISON — Mahlon Mitchell likes to remind voters while campaigning that they can make history by electing him Wisconsin’s first black governor. Meanwhile, Kathleen Vinehout and Kelda Roys — who breast-fed her daughter in a campaign video — are each hoping to become the first woman to lead the state.
The three are among 10 Democrats vying to run against Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Unlike the seven other candidates and every Wisconsin governor in history, though, they aren’t white men, which could help them distinguish themselves before the Aug. 14 primary.
Wisconsin is one of 28 states where at least one woman is expected to run for governor. Mitchell is one of at least eight black candidates running for governor nationwide.
“We may have all come over here on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now,” Mitchell says in his stump speech.
A firefighter and union leader, Mitchell sometimes invokes the style of former President Barack Obama, copping his rallying cry of “Fired Up! Ready to go!”
In the race for U.S. Senate, Republican Leah Vukmir already made history when her filing to run broke the U.S. record for the number of women seeking a Senate seat. If she wins the primary over her male opponent to take on Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, there would be another first in Wisconsin — two women running for U.S. Senate.
More than 700 women, mostly Democrats, have filed to run for the U.S. Senate, House, governor, lieutenant governor or other statewide office this year, according to an analysis by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Many causes have been cited for the uptick in female candidates, including momentum from the #MeToo movement and efforts to uncover sexual harassment and abuse, and anger over President Donald Trump’s treatment of women.
Women have run for Wisconsin governor before — just four years ago former Trek bike executive Mary Burke lost to Walker. But Wisconsin is one of 22 states that have never had a female governor. There are only six currently in power.
Roys, more than Vinehout, has tried to capitalize on her gender and the fact that she’s a new mother. Even before the breastfeeding video made headlines, Roys had established herself as a defender of a woman’s right to breastfeed in public when she served in the Legislature. She said being a new mother has motivated her and she thinks it will make her more relatable to Wisconsin parents.
Although Wisconsin has never had a female governor, women have come closer to holding the position than any black person. There have been only two black candidates elected governor in the U.S. — Doug Wilder in Virginia in 1989 and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts in 2006. Two other African-Americans have served as governor, but they moved up from being lieutenant governor and were not elected.
Wisconsin has only had one black person serve in statewide office — Vel Phillips as secretary of state between 1979 and 1983.
Mitchell ran for lieutenant governor during the 2012 Walker recall election, but lost. He said part of his campaign strategy this year is to engage with black voters in Milwaukee and increase African-American turnout by 50,000 voters. He’s opened an office on the north side of the city to woo those voters.
Dian Palmer, president of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, said that Wisconsin voting twice for Obama shows that the state is ready for a black governor.
“There’s a huge segment of the population in Wisconsin who have been disenfranchised with candidates, elected officials, for a long, long time,” Palmer said. Those voters can connect with Mitchell because he comes across as someone “who knows our pain, feels our need,” Palmer said.
Alex Hoekstra, a leader of the International Association of Machinists in Milwaukee, said the potential of Mitchell making history as the first black governor has an effect, but isn’t why his union and many others are behind him.
“My members support him because of who he is,” Hoekstra said, “not the color of his skin.”