The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Milwaukee, an inner-city group tackles a key Democratic need: Turning out black voters

A grassroots campaign in Milwaukee is working to get African-Americans more involved in the political process. It could help turn Wisconsin blue again. (Video: Ray Whitehouse/The Washington Post)

MILWAUKEE — Within hours of Donald Trump’s election, Democrats started pointing fingers — quite often at black voters. Had they turned out in key states as they did for Barack Obama, the argument went, Trump would have been denied the White House.

“They would always say, ‘Milwaukee didn’t turn out,’ which is always code for, ‘Black people didn’t turn out.’ Some people were actually bold enough and said it: ‘If black people turned out, we wouldn’t be here, where we are right now, in terms of the man in the White House,’ ” said Angela Lang, 30, a Milwaukee native and political organizer.

“It’s not fair to put the burden on us, when we weren’t engaged, instead of the people who voted for Donald Trump. People didn’t talk to us or about our issues, and yet we were being blamed for not voting.”

Thirteen months before the next presidential election, national Democratic leaders are once again talking about black voter turnout. But in battleground states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — which all flipped to vote for Trump after decades of backing the Democratic presidential nominee — the task of doing something about it has often fallen on local activists such as Lang.

With the help of local lawmakers and union organizers, Lang launched Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) in November 2017 to focus on voters in Milwaukee’s most impoverished neighborhoods, places where paid canvassers for campaigns often don’t go because they deem it too dangerous or because many residents, with criminal records, are not eligible to vote. Persuading those who are eligible to participate in elections often requires addressing decades of neglect.

Many have lost faith in the government and elected leaders after watching their communities be torn apart by mass incarceration, police brutality, lopsided city budgets, struggling public schools, pothole-filled streets, untreated addiction and gun violence — problems that have long existed and that continue to fester as elected leaders come and go, Lang said.

The reasons for the decline in voting in 2016 may have been many, including the state’s voter ID law, which went into effect that year. But the impact was undeniable: The turnout rate for black voters in Wisconsin fell nearly 19 percentage points between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, while white turnout dropped only two points, according to a study by the Center for American Progress. Seven in 10 black Wisconsin residents live in Milwaukee County.

Increasing voter turnout requires convincing people that their votes will make a difference and that it does matter who gets elected. Lang’s group is making a bet that, contrary to the view that voters are drawn in or repelled by the top of the ticket, organizers can spark excitement about the stakes involved in races that are closer to the bottom of the ballot.

Using money from a liberal advocacy group and a political action committee funded by labor unions, Lang nearly two years ago hired her first team of “ambassadors” who walked from door to door in Milwaukee’s 53206 Zip code, where about 95 percent of residents are African American, the highest percentage in the state . They asked a simple question: What needs to happen for your neighborhood to thrive?

Daris Randolph, 52, walked through the Martin Drive neighborhood on Milwaukee’s west side, where he rents a house. Unlike in neighborhoods to its east, many who live here are homeowners who are more likely to vote, but might still feel forgotten by elected leaders and fed up with the lack of change.

Twenty years ago, when Randolph was in his early 30s, he was caught with drugs, convicted of a felony and locked up for nearly a year. “I became the example,” he said.

In the years since, he has helped to raise his 11 children, coached basketball, volunteered for the Salvation Army and worked as a youth director for inner-city programs.

As Randolph walked, he explained recently introduced state legislation that, if passed and signed by the new Democratic governor, Tony Evers, would allow those on probation or parole to vote. Wisconsin is one of 19 states that don’t allow those on probation or parole — the euphemism is “on paper” — to vote, in addition to revoking the voting rights of those who are imprisoned.

Wisconsin has one of the highest incarceration rates for African American men in the nation. As of June, roughly 64,000 people in the state were on extended supervision or probation and not allowed to vote — nearly three times the narrow margin by which Trump won the state.

“This is a very important law that we’re trying to get passed, because I used to be on paper, and I couldn’t vote,” Randolph said as he chatted with his next-door neighbor, who nodded in agreement and said, “You and me both.”

Across the street, Randolph gave the same pitch to James Barlow, 67, as he sat on his front stoop, enjoying the sunny evening.

“If you lock people up, they can’t vote,” Barlow replied.

“You already know how it goes,” Randolph said.

As Randolph walked to the next house, Barlow turned to tell one of his relatives about the legislation. Randolph could hear his message spreading behind him.

The next morning, BLOC ambassadors met with activists from Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing, who opened by asking how many had been directly affected by incarceration. Every hand went up.

“Everybody here,” one young man in the audience said. Another echoed: “Everybody.”

One woman’s son was recently charged with shooting at a police officer at a community event, a crime she’s convinced he did not commit. An ambassador who was imprisoned years ago tried to keep his son out of the system, but the 20-year-old now has a felony record. One young woman grew up without her father, who was incarcerated — and soon after he was finally released, he was locked up again for something else. Two ambassadors are now in jail.

BLOC ambassador Dawonyae Robinson, 20, is unable to vote because he’s on probation. As he knocked on people’s doors before the 2018 midterm elections, he told those who were eligible to vote that it was even more important for them to do so because so many of their neighbors were denied the privilege.

“I couldn’t vote, so I needed them to vote. I was trying to get them to realize how much the percentage of people that don’t vote makes a difference compared to the percentage of people who do vote,” said Robinson, whose mother and several of his siblings are also involved with BLOC. “Every little vote counts.”

BLOC’s first meeting with a Democratic presidential candidate came in March, when Beto O’Rourke stopped by during the initial week of his campaign. Although the former congressman from El Paso spoke passionately about wanting to wipe out systemic racism and “repair the in­cred­ibly broken system of justice and opportunity in this country,” the ambassadors repeatedly cut him off and asked for evidence that he has spent time in neighborhoods like theirs and truly understands their problems.

“He’s a nice guy, but he’s just now doing his research on us,” said Tamer Malone, 21, who didn’t vote in the 2016 election and grilled O’Rourke, asking why she should trust him when so many white politicians tell black voters all the right things while running for office, then “turn their back” once elected.

In April, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) arrived for what was supposed to be a “silent canvas” — an opportunity for the candidate to listen as the activists knocked on doors and talked with people. But he loudly talked throughout, often running ahead of the BLOC staffer and shouting, “This is Rick, I’m Cory, we’re here with BLOC.”

“He was like running to the next door, trying to get to as many as possible, and he was always talking . . . I was like, ‘Dude, stop,’ ” said Rick Banks, 28, BLOC’s political director, who canvassed with Booker. “He keeps saying that he’s the only presidential candidate who’s from the inner city, but it’s usually only in terms of crime and guns and things like that. In terms of other issues, like investment in underinvested communities, and really being vocal about the issues that are affecting black communities, other than shootings, I don’t think he has led — and I can honestly say the same about Kamala Harris,” the Democratic senator from California.

Banks voted for Green Party nominee Jill Stein in 2016 because he assumed that Hillary Clinton would easily win the election. He considered Clinton a “war hawk” and didn’t like that she had described inner-city kids as “super predators” in a 1996 speech as first lady. Although Banks was working as a neighborhood organizer at the time, he said no one from her campaign ever reached out to him. Looking back, he said, he should have voted for Clinton.

In July, Banks went canvassing with Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor who was housing secretary during the Obama administration. Unlike Booker, Castro quietly followed and listened as Banks worked — and in between houses, the two talked about their personal experiences and what it will take to make such neighborhoods thrive. Castro first reached out to BLOC not to arrange a visit but to get the group’s input as he composed his criminal justice platform — making him the only presidential candidate so far to ask BLOC for policy advice.

“He reminds me of myself,” Banks said. Malone, one of the ambassadors, added, “He’s not just saying it, he has experienced it.”

Castro is the favorite candidate of many of the ambassadors, although most say they doubt he has a real shot at winning the nomination. They also like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whom Lang met at a private gathering the senator had with organizers from across the country. Former vice president Joe Biden has not shown up, but his authorship of the 1994 crime bill, which led to sharp increases in incarcerations, has made him an unpopular figure with most of the activists.

Last month, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) stopped by for about 30 minutes to tout her ideas for increasing access to voting. She took a couple of questions from the group, whose members asked about her time as a prosecutor and pushed her for details on how she would help the poor, rather than the middle class, which they saw her as more focused on. Her brief appearance angered several of the ambassadors, and none of the 16 listed her as their favorite candidate.

“She kept talking about the middle class, the middle class, the middle class — what about the underclass?” asked Randolph, who likes Warren and Biden. “I hear about the middle class, what about the underclass? They exist, too. They’ve just been forgotten, and that’s sad.”

Lang has personally endorsed Castro, although the group as a whole is unsure if it will endorse in the Democratic presidential primary. Several ambassadors said they have yet to find any presidential candidate who appeals to them. Robinson said he hasn’t heard enough specifics from candidates and doesn’t believe that any of them are truly committed to making the changes they’ve promised.

“They speak from a different point of view,” Robinson said. “Say we’re standing on two different sides of the street — your side of the street is messy. I see that your side of the street is messy, but I don’t know why it’s messy, so I don’t want to be there, but I can act like I want to be there. I can see the problem, and I think I know what’s causing the problem, but if I’m not there, I don’t know. That’s what I see with all of the candidates — they’re across the street, looking in.”

Over the past two years, BLOC has expanded the Zip codes it targets and has trained more than 100 ambassadors, all recruited from local neighborhoods and paid $16 per hour. Most have never been politically involved, and some have never even voted. Of the 11 who were old enough to vote in the 2016 presidential election, only five say they cast ballots for Clinton.

“This isn’t this super-academic group of folks trying to talk to the community,” Lang said. “We’re from the community. We’re rough around the edges in the most beautiful way, but that’s how we’re able to be the most effective.”

In less than two years, BLOC has become a force in Milwaukee politics. Its constant presence at community events and ability to connect with apathetic voters to boost turnout has made its endorsement highly sought-after for local politicians.

BLOC’s annual budget is about $850,000, with a majority coming from For Our Future, an organizing group financed by unions, and the Center for Popular Democracy. In 2020, Lang expects that to swell to at least $2 million, and she’s hopeful that she can dramatically increase the number of ambassadors.

As new teams of ambassadors hit the streets, they continue to hear about the same needs: More after-school programs. More grants to help low-income residents fix their aging houses or clean up their yards. Fewer high-speed police chases. More speed bumps and fewer potholes. More compassion and employment opportunities for those with records.

Each election brings an opportunity for these neighborhoods to send a message — especially in a presidential year. But it can be difficult to come up with an answer when residents say it doesn’t matter if they vote.

Despite her group’s successes, Lang often feels defeated.

“I think of how we are in this work to make long-term, systemic change, and I get really frustrated that it’s not happening fast enough,” she told the ambassadors one recent morning. “And people are getting caught in the crossfire as we’re trying to make these changes.”