The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Milwaukee, city and suburban voters are at partisan odds over crime

A sign outside the Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC) outreach group headquarters. Members of the group have been hitting the streets in Milwaukee to get out the Black vote ahead of the midterm elections. (Alex Wroblewski for The Washington Post)
13 min

MILWAUKEE — The nightly news in Milwaukee paints a bleak picture of a city ravaged by crime: shootings, carjackings and death by reckless driving are all too common. For voters, the issue is top of mind, but they’re divided on which party will make the city safer.

Jim Hagan, a suburban resident, and Deontae Robinson, who lives in the city, have both been closely affected by crime and have become concerned. But Hagan, 57, is voting for Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who he believes will be strong on crime by investing in the police and making sure perpetrators stay in jail. Robinson, 27, will be voting for Democrat Mandela Barnes, who is from the same majority-Black area of Milwaukee as Robinson and who he believes understands what the city needs to become safer.

Robinson and Hagan represent two sides of a tense political debate in a city where homicides have climbed nearly 17 percent over this time last year to 188. In the final stretch of the midterm campaign, the Republicans began a blitz of advertising focused on crime. In interviews, suburban voters, most of whom were White, echoed Johnson’s argument that Barnes, the current lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, would be weak on crime and support releasing violent felons and defunding police departments. Black voters have accused the Republicans of playing on racial fears by darkening Barnes’s skin and calling him “dangerously liberal” in campaign ads.

The pattern is being repeated in other battleground Senate contests, with the Republicans pushing ads that paint Democratic candidates as weak on crime. In North Carolina, Cheri Beasley has been pummeled by ads accusing her of being too lenient on criminals during her tenure as a public defender and judge, and in Florida, Rep. Val Demings, a former police chief in Orlando, has had to fend off attack ads claiming she does not support law enforcement officers. Republican Mehmet Oz has also tightened the Senate race in Pennsylvania by hammering Democrat John Fetterman on the issue of crime. A Post-ABC poll in September found that Republicans led Democrats by 14 points as the party adults most trusted to tackle crime.

In Wisconsin, Johnson’s ads accuse Barnes of wanting to defund the police, abolish ICE and scrap cash bail. Johnson seemed to get a boost from the ad campaign. In mid-September, FiveThirtyEight’s polling average showed Barnes and Johnson roughly tied. As of Thursday, Johnson had a roughly four-point lead. The final Marquette Law School poll found Johnson at 50 percent and Barnes at 48 percent, within the poll’s margin of error.

“Republicans are pushing fear of crime,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll. “More of the public has an opinion of Johnson now than they did a year ago. And at the margins that’s a less negative opinion of him than they had a year ago. Some of that may be the crime issue.”

In April of this year, Hagan was driving on the interstate toward Milwaukee one morning to visit his mother when, he said, he and his wife were shot at by a man in an SUV.

“By the grace of God, we were not hit,” said Hagan. “But my wife has gotten very paranoid. She will try to avoid the freeway if she can.”

Since the shooting, Hagan is suspicious of strangers, believing anyone could be carrying a gun. “I’m much more aware,” he said.

Hagan moved to the suburbs years ago, in part because of crime and blight in Milwaukee. “It’s less stress, less traffic, less worrying about what potentially could happen if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.

He believes Johnson will address the city’s crime problem. “You can’t have a good economy with a lot of crime and being lenient,” said Hagan.

Robinson raced his younger brother to the hospital last year after they were caught in crossfire in Milwaukee on their way to visit a family member. “There was a lot of blood,” said Robinson, an ambassador for Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC). “I was thinking, there’s a chance he could lose his leg.”

Since the shooting, Robinson has become concerned about his safety. “It was traumatizing,” he said.

Like Barnes, Robinson hails from the majority-Black area to the north of downtown Milwaukee, which is one of the most segregated cities in the country. On the rare occasion when Robinson goes to the city center, White people have crossed the street to avoid him. “Being racist is heavy in this city,” he said.

But Robinson said people from the suburbs wrongly paint his area as a “wild jungle.” “It’s not as bad as they make it seem,” he said. “It’s not the best, but that’s why we need to get more resources.”

If elected, Barnes would become Wisconsin’s first Black senator, which Robinson believes would “help tremendously.” “He’s been through the struggle like we have, so he can make laws that actually help change,” said Robinson, adding that having a role model like Barnes would be invaluable for young Black Milwaukeeans.

After watching Republican campaign ads, Hagan said he came to believe Barnes would be soft on people accused of crime. “Not holding them accountable; not letting the police department do their job,” said Hagan. “Playing the race card would be a common thing for him, and I don’t think that would be helpful to Milwaukee or the state of Wisconsin.”

Angela Lang, executive director of BLOC, had a different reaction to the GOP’s rhetoric on crime. “We’re seeing a lot of racist dog whistles in how [Johnson] talks about crime, how he alludes to Mandela inciting violence,” she said. “It’s very frustrating.”

Among registered Black voters nationally, violent crime is a major issue, with some 81 percent saying it’s very important to their midterm vote, compared with 56 percent of White voters, according to a Pew Research Center analysis released this week. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll of Black Americans released in May found that 85 percent of Black Americans said gun violence was a major threat to Black people in the country. A majority of Black Americans, 84 percent, also said police brutality was a major threat. Still, 72 percent of Black adults said increasing the number of police officers in their communities would reduce crime, and an even larger share, 86 percent, cited more funding for economic opportunities in poor neighborhoods with higher crime rates.

At a campaign event at Coffee Makes You Black near where Barnes grew up, Barnes said gun violence was a “deeply personal issue” because he had lost loved ones to it. His message: Cut off crime at the root by investing in the city.

“When communities lose opportunity, crime and violence is what fills the void,” he said. “This campaign is about rebuilding the middle class to make sure we do everything we can to combat poverty, give people a fair shot at success.”

On the street nearby canvassing for BLOC, Robinson said he had been upset by Johnson’s campaign against Barnes. “It’s like a slap in the face,” he said. “He’s not blunt like Trump. But he shows how he don’t like us. We’re not looked at like human beings. And that does not feel good.”

Robinson wants to see investment in community programs, local schools and inner-city parks. He hopes further training for police could help build bridges, adding that officers are “always harassing us.”

While canvassing for BLOC in 2019, Robinson said he was pulled over by the police. “If we’re knocking on doors with fliers and clipboards, we’re not doing anything suspicious,” he said. Another time, he said, police searched his car for drugs, damaging his back seat in the process. “I never did a drug a day in my life,” said Robinson. “I don’t smoke or drink because I was always into sports and I love learning.”

In the wealthy suburb of Elm Grove, chocolate shop owner Mark Karrels is worried that inner-city crime is seeping outward. “This is the first year where we’ve actually had items stolen or taken” from his outside displays, said Karrels, 66. “Ron Johnson is going to be tougher on crime; Mandela Barnes has never been tough on crime.”

Karrels echoed the portrayal of Barnes in the Republican ad. The Democratic candidate “talks about cutting the budgets for the police,” he said. “I don’t know how you can think that would be a good thing.”

He also said Democratic Gov. Tony Evers “has been releasing a lot of people from prison, a lot of bad criminals.” As governor, Evers doesn’t have direct control over who is released on parole.

Up the road in Waukesha, the issue of prison release and bail is especially emotive. Darrell Brooks was convicted last month of first-degree intentional homicide of six people who died after he drove his car into a crowd at the Waukesha Christmas Parade last November.

“To be standing here right now, it still hits you in the heart,” said Kelly Gromowski, 42, on Waukesha’s Main Street, a block away from where Brooks started his lethal rampage, driving his car through the path of a high school band. Gromowski knows attendees who were left with broken bones and serious mental scars.

At the time of the attack, Brooks was out on $1,000 cash bail, having been charged with assault and running over the mother of his child. The Republican Party has claimed Barnes’s support for ending cash bail could lead to similar disasters. Barnes has said he wants to change the system so wealthy people accused of crime can’t post for bail as easily.

“Stop letting criminals out on the streets,” said Gromowski. “Every day you hear on the police scanner there’s just so many police chases and robberies. It’s a disaster right now. There’s no control over anything.” She added that Johnson “wants to put a stop to that.”

When Johnson and Barnes faced one another in their only debate in October, crime was central. The moderator quoted the mother of a 12-year-old girl who had been shot and killed in the week of the debate, saying she felt like she was “living in a war zone.” What would the candidates say to her?

“Senator Johnson has received $1.2 million in campaign support from the NRA, from the gun lobby,” said Barnes, adding that his first step would be to introduce background checks for gun purchasers. “He’s going to put their interests before the lives of our children.”

For Johnson, the solution was to “keep violent criminals in jail” and “support law enforcement.” “Unfortunately we have an administration in Wisconsin right now that their goal is to reduce the prison population by 50 percent,” he said, referring to Evers.

Evers and Barnes have both said they want to halve the state prison population and reduce recidivism rates. But neither has direct control over parole decisions, and their comments about reducing the prison population have focused on nonviolent offenders. During former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s two terms, nearly 1,400 people were paroled ahead of their mandatory dates.

Johnson admitted that Barnes had never actually used the words “defund the police,” which has been a focus of his campaign ads, but said Barnes “has a long history of being supported by people that are leading the effort to defund.” He explained Barnes has used “code words” like “reallocate over-bloated police budgets.”

In response, Barnes said: “No police officers in this country were more dispirited than the ones who were present at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6. He called those folks patriots, he called them tourists — the people who were beating up police officers in the United States Capitol.”

Independent voter Mitchell Olszewski said he believes Barnes doesn’t plan to defund the police. “I think that’s an extremist description of the Democrats’ values,” said Olszewski, 36. “If anything, Mandela would have more affinity to support programs that help police training, police cameras. People want to see developments with the police force.”

Olszewski lives in Oconomowoc, a lake town in the Milwaukee suburbs where residents have become scared of the city. “People at church are like, ‘Oh, I don’t even want to go [into the city] any more, it’s so dangerous,’” he said.

He has voted Republican in the past but will be voting Democratic in the midterms. “I’m just not a fan of Ron Johnson,” said Olszewski.

At Studz Pub in blue-collar neighborhood West Allis, the full array of political opinions was on display.

“I think [Johnson] would keep the criminals locked up rather than letting them out,” said Shirley Zinda, 79.

Next to her, Bill Sanders, 68, said, “That is a lie from Johnson saying Mandela Barnes is against crime and letting people go.”

Behind them, Tom Shanahan chimed in: “My thing is, are people going to respect the election?”

In recent weeks, the Democrats have released a new campaign ad in Wisconsin, which attacks Johnson for calling the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection by Trump supporters a “peaceful protest.” Funded by the Senate Majority PAC, the ad features a retired police captain from Madison paying tribute to the five officers who died after clashing with rioters at the Capitol.

“Ron Johnson is making excuses for rioters who tried to overthrow our government, even calling them ‘peaceful protests,’ ” George Silverwood says in the voice-over.

Johnson has said it is “inaccurate” to call the riots at the beginning of last year an “armed insurrection.” He defended his position, saying he also described the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests as peaceful.

Shanahan, who has been an election official at Neeskara polling station for the past 16 years, said he will be voting for Barnes. Referring to Johnson, he said, “For heaven’s sake, I don’t respect the people who don’t respect elections.”

Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Shirley Zinda's age, which is 79, and misspelled her name. This version has been updated.