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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Black political representation in Wisconsin is at its highest, but major gaps persist

A recent resolution was introduced to recognize February as Black History Month. But Black lawmakers said there are still discrepancies in political representation.

A resolution to recognize February as Black History Month and honor Black changemakers across Wisconsin was introduced this month by Democratic senators after facing rejection in previous years. 

The lack of Black representation in the Wisconsin Capitol has left lawmakers struggling to amplify their voices and pass resolutions like those honoring Black History Month. 

The first Black representative elected to serve in the state Legislature was Lucian H. Palmer in November 1907. But some of Palmer’s white neighbors attempted to convince his landlord to evict him from his home in hopes he would be unable to represent the wealthiest district in the state. 

Palmer's district included areas such as Milwaukee’s Third Ward and the majority-Black Bronzeville neighborhood where Palmer lived. And while Palmer survived the attempt to force him out, he lost his election the next year. 

After Palmer lost reelection, there wasn’t another Black person in the Legislature for 33 years.

Black political representation is still left standing 

As of February 2024, there are nine Black legislators in Wisconsin. While this is the second-highest year, many Black communities still feel left out of political representation.  

All current Black legislators represent districts that encompass all or some of Milwaukee or Dane counties, home to the largest Black populations in the state.

Eight out of the nine are Democrats except for Julian Bradley, whose district is part of Milwaukee, Waukesha, Racine and Walworth Counties. For Black women, the wait to receive a state political voice would not be until 1977, when Maria Coggs was elected to the Legislature. 

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Several Black women, including Rep. LaKeisha Myers, D-Milwaukee, currently serve in the Assembly. Only one serves in the Senate: Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee. 

“In the Senate, it has been more challenging,” Johnson said when asked about her experience as a Black Legislator. “I don’t think people are purposely biased, but they have tendencies.” 

The importance of the Black voice for voters

Political representation for Black communities allows more focus on the issues that affect them such as poverty, health care, housing and voting, Johnson told The Daily Cardinal.

Johnson said her district grapples with gun violence, particularly against children. After the funeral of one such child, Johnson said she went to one of her colleagues and asked for their help in creating preventative measures against future violence.

“They said, ‘My heart is with you, but that is not happening in my district,’” Johnson said. 

Cities such as Beloit and Racine have high Black populations, yet there have not been Black legislators from those areas at all in the state's history. 

Johnson said candidates of color are often overlooked or picked last during elections and are expected to have a certain “look” compared to their white counterparts. 

Johnson recalled a time she spoke to a recruiter for candidates, “We were talking about this one particular candidate that was African-American, and she said 'Well, she doesn't show well.'” 

A 2022 analysis done by FiveThirtyEight found only 28% of general election candidates that year were people of color. 

“If you're a minority, you're all there is,” Johnson said. 

Changing the narrative 

Black political representation can also change the perspective of other legislators serving more urban areas, Meyers said.

“I invite people to come to the district to experience Milwaukee and understand some of the issues and concerns that residents have,” she said. 

The Legislative Black Caucus, headed by Rep. Dora Drake, D-Milwaukee, has advocated for issues they view as important to the Black Community. 

In wake of the University of Wisconsin System’s deal with the Republican-controlled Legislature to restructure diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) positions in exchange for pay raises and building projects, the caucus pushed to keep DEI funding in higher education

They also work to circulate a Black History Month resolution each year, despite backlash in 2020 over choosing which Black changemakers to honor. 

Work to increase presentation in the Legislature continues in communities across the state, including Milwaukee, where a primary will take place on April 2 to decide the candidate for Sen. Lena Taylor’s empty senate seat. Both candidates, Drake and Myers, are Black. 

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Gabriella Hartlaub

Gabriella Hartlaub is an arts editor for the Daily Cardinal. She also reports state politics and life & style stories. Follow her on Twitter at @gabihartlaub.

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