Editor’s Note: The forum and this summary predate the June 24 repeal of Roe v. Wade.
The statewide partisan primary is on August 9. To help voters make an informed decision, the Human Rights Campaign of Wisconsin hosted a Democratic candidates’ forum that included Adam Murphy, Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Alex Lasry, and County Executive Tom Nelson. Each are all hoping for a chance to run against incumbent Republican senator Ron Johnson. Candidates were given the opportunity to choose their first question, and were then pressed on other LGBTQ+ issues in a virtual format with the hope of helping voters determine who will best represent them in this upcoming critical midterm election. We’ve included highlights below from each of their responses.
Adam Murphy, a self-described “50-year-old, cis white man” began his time laying out how he prepared for this candidacy, namely by returning to school to study economics, political science, psychology, ethics, morals, etc. He also talked about how he has been running his campaign thus far, namely by focusing on grassroots campaigns and training volunteers to go door-to-door. He emphasized that he wants to engage all of his constituents, regardless of political affiliation, so he can represent all. When he did that, he said, he was able to increase democratic voting and reduced apathy. He wants to rebuild trust in the political system from those who have checked out.
When asked directly about abortion, he began by expressing his disappointment in the Democratic party as a whole for allowing the GOP to so completely control the conversation. He said they won, and progressives and Democrats let them. “We didn’t take the opportunity,” he states. “We were the nice guys and that has put everybody at risk.” He then continued to express fear for the right to privacy, which if overturned would turn back protections for not only women, but the LGBTQ community as a whole, and even interracial couples. The filibuster is “key to all of the changes we want to make,” Murphy continued. Not only the aforementioned right to privacy, but also voting rights.
Murphy wants to be the senator who gets out of his own “silo” and talks to people all around the country to try to move us forward, one voter and vote at a time. He wants to create content to share for all of us who want to engage without having to “fight the fight” and reveal personal information. He wants to, as a senator from Wisconsin, make life better not just for his immediate community, but for the country as a whole. That’s his tactic for dealing with conversion therapy, too. Because it is still legal in many states, Murphy wants to change the conversation completely. “It’s not a culture war, it’s a privilege war,” he lamented. “It is a war of terror and we need to address that.”
Next was Wisconsin’s current Lieutenant Governor, Mandela Barnes, who introduced himself by retracing his blue collar, downtown Milwaukee upbringing. His dad’s assembly line job and his mother’s public teaching job were “their tickets to the middle class.” He continues that his main goal is to “rebuild the middle class and give everyone a fair shot at the American Dream.” His political career began by organizing against Scott Walker’s administration, eventually leading to a successful campaign for the state legislature and later as Lieutenant Governor. He hopes to keep the momentum going with a spot in the U.S. Senate using his skills as an organizer to get voters to turn out to expand the Democratic majority in the Senate so they can roll back the filibuster. He continued that he “will never let some archaic Senate procedure stand in the way of our basic human rights.”
He expressed the same concerns as the other candidates that if Roe is overturned, the degradation of the right to privacy can lead to erosion of LGBTQ+ rights, and that the only way to protect those rights is to roll back the filibuster and codify those rights into law, namely with the Equality Act. The Equality Act aims to protect the rights of everyone, regardless of sex, gender, orientation, or race. Barnes affirmed that he would cosponsor the act, citing Wisconsin’s history of being on the forefront of protecting LGBTQ rights, both as the first state to ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and with electing the first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin. Even with that history however, Barnes laments that all of our rights are still compromised by fear mongering on the side of the right.
Barnes cited that he is frequently the “only black elected official in the room,” and that often when issues that impact the black community come up, white politicians leave it to the black politicians to fix. He will use this experience to advocate for the LGBTQ community, and continue to be a strong ally, not forcing members of that community to be the sole advocates for it. He continued by stating that he will fight for communities within the LGBTQ community that are more frequently the target of violence and brutality by the government, namely black trans women.
When asked about the anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ legislation that’s been exploding around the country, Barnes went back to the need to roll back the filibuster, and pass the Equality Act. Those two things, he lamented, have allowed “bigoted individuals [to] roll back the clock when it comes to equality.” He continued that we need to hold elected officials accountable and take actionable steps to undo the harm that’s been done, especially to kids. “LGBTQIA+ kids belong,” he declared, noting that he wants to speak plainly and definitively, and while he is proud of the work he has done in Wisconsin, he now wants to take those protections nationwide in the Senate by banning conversion therapy.
The third candidate in this forum was Sarah Godlewski, a 5th generation Wisconsinite from Eau Claire. Like Mandala Barnes, she referenced her blue collar roots in her introduction, and said she is “the proud product of a union family.” Also like Barnes, she currently holds a statewide office (as state treasurer). She said she overcame odds to overturn a gag order on climate change and investing in renewable energy. During the pandemic, she helped provide hotspots and digital tools to kids learning remotely, funded community wide infrastructure projects, and set up a program to help homeowners prevent foreclosure. She is also the first in this forum to directly mention Ron Johnson, the current Senator and her likely Republican opponent, should she get the nomination.
Even though both of her previous opponents mentioned disappointment with the Democratic response to restrictions to abortion, Godlewski went further, decrying that there have been 50 years and several Democratic administrations who haven’t felt the urgency to codify abortion rights into law, saying that they “chose not to priotitize it and made it more of an afterthought.” She continued that if the 50 years of precedent set by Roe is overturned, they can “criminilize LGBTQ people.” She cited Texas and Florida as examples of states already ramping that up. She said we must make sure LGBTQ people have full access to health care, such as abortion and gender affirming care. Again here she directly named Ron Johnson, as well as Mitch McConnell as people who want to take our country backwards. “It’s about our freedom, not theirs,” she adds.
When asked about the Equality Act, Godlewskl expressed frustration that while the act was first introduced in 1974, it “died in committee.” Even with a resurgence in 2015, and the passing of the act this year in the House, the Senate has allowed it to fall away again, effectively killing it again in procedure. Like the two candidates before her, she cited the filibuster as the major hurdle to passing not only the Equality Act, but also laws codifying Roe and marriage equality. “We’ve got to codify everything because if the Republicans can overturn 50 years of precedent with Roe,” she continued, “…they can once again, criminalize LGBTQ people.”
When asked about intersectionality in her support for LGBTQ+ rights, Godlewski, a white cis woman, noted the importance of recognizing what she doesn’t know, doing her research, and listening to the voices of those most impacted. She cited her work with HRC to help address credit discrimination in Wisconsin, and acknowledged that these communities are not “one-size-fits-all” in terms of needs and access. As treasurer, one of her main projects was starting to address the barriers to home ownership with Take Root Wisconsin. She also acknowledged that she needs to do her own work and research and needs to balance listening to communities of color and the LGBTQ communites while not “rely on marginalized groups to be experts.”
Godlewski concluded by acknowledging how terrible 2022 has been for the trans community, and how the rights of LGBTQ people are being stripped by state legislatures, courtrooms, and even the federal government. She stated that for her, this is an emergency, and that she wants to codify freedom, dignity, and privacy on a federal level.
Next in the forum was Alex Lasry, who, unlike his predecessors, did not cite any blue collar roots as his background and call to action, but instead his efforts as a “great corporate citizen.” Lasry was the Senior Vice President of the Milwaukee Bucks, and cites how the team created good paying union jobs, was on the forefront in Milwaukee of social justice and voting rights, were one of the first teams in the NBA to have a Pride night, and has one of the first arenas to offer gender-neutral bathrooms. This track record, he stated, shows how he will advocate for the LGBTQ+ community in Washington and that he will “give Tammy a real partner in DC.” Like Godlewski, Lasry goes after Ron Johnson, stating that he is “not up to the task of being our U.S. Senator.”
Unlike the three previous candidates, Lasry did not start his time with abortion rights, and instead focused on conversion therapy. He began by saying that this is one of the most important things to attack on a federal level, and the federal government needs to make sure that states aren’t infringing on people’s rights. He continued by saying that it is important to him that LGBTQ youth know that they are welcome and loved, and he wants them to learn their history and have role models to look up to. Above all, he said he wants to be welcoming, and for Wisconsin specifically but the United States as a whole to be a welcoming place. He said when states pass discriminatory laws, it only makes them look less welcoming, and makes it harder to create jobs, bring investment and stop the “brain drain.” A federal law codifying a conversion therapy ban would go a long way towards making this county a welcoming place again, he said.
When asked whether he would co-sponsor the Equality Act, he, like his predecessors, cited the filibuster as the barrier, but stated that not only would he co-sign, he would do whatever it takes to get it passed. He lamented that people just co-sign bills to say that they tried to be able to put their name on something. Lasry thinks that lack of action is unacceptable. Like Godlewski, he criticized the lack of federal protections for Roe and marriage equality, and shared her concern that if Roe falls, many of the things we’ve all taken for granted over the past 10 or 20 years will fall too. He believes in protection through legislation, rather than counting on the courts to make decisions for the country.
Lasry, when asked about the intersectionality of race and LGBTQ+ issues, he first noted the importance of centering black, trans women and other people of color in the fore of LGBTQ activism history. We all know Harvey Milk, and while he didn’t want to downplay Milk’s importance, he wanted to acknowledge the culture’s disregard for other narratives in the past. His fix is to bring more people to the proverbial table and ask direct questions about whether a policy negatively impacts or marginalizes someone. He acknowledged that he might not know because he isn’t part of these marginalized groups. Lasry also talked about bringing more of these groups in as staff in the government, working on writing the laws, and making sure representatives are hearing from everyone. “It’s also about making sure that our Senate staff, our White House staff all are having fair representation,” he said.
Rounding out this group of candidates was Tom Nelson, who currently serves as the Outagamie County Executive, where he runs 23 departments and oversees 1300 employees. He has previously served in the state legislature for three terms and served one term as majority leader for the Democrats.
For Nelson, co-sponsoring the Equality Act is especially poignant because of his work 16 years ago in the state assembly, where he felt pressure from both sides of the aisle to vote for the marriage ban amendment. Because he was elected in a conservative district and was a freshman up for reelection, he felt particular pressure from the Democrats to vote for it to keep his seat. He voted against it and has never regretted it. He was even reelected easily. He is living proof that people can stand up for what they believe in and still be electable, even in red districts. Or, at least, that used to be the case. He feels hope in the fact that this act is coming back with renewed fervor, and stated, “It would be an honor and a privilege to be in the United States Senate to be in a position to cosponsor that legislation.”
When asked about how his advocacy for LGBTQ rights will be intersectional, Nelson stated that it’s all in the approach, and that, “It’s important to know how all of these pieces connect to each other.” He then went on to share a figure he saw in a courthouse recently, that stated that 44% of LGBTQ people suffer from mental health issues. He sees this as a failure to see these issues in depth, and allocate proper resources and policy changes to address them. “It would be malpractice,” he continued, “if we went forward, not understanding just how comprehensive an issue this is and how our approaches in the past that were not intersectional have failed.” He said his admission of systemic failure and a clear vision on how to move forward comes from his 17 years in public service.
To the question of protecting transgender and other rights in response to the rash of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, Nelson echoed his predecessors with a call to codify legislation that would protect these groups federally. He lamented that these bills are so ugly that they are not only damaging the LGBTQ+ community, but everyone. He asked the question of how the United States can remain a leader and beacon of hope to so many while demonizing children.
He then went into some practical realities, that 52 Democratic senators are needed to get rid of the filibuster, and therefore stem this tide of hatred. He posited that because he has been elected many times in conservative areas, that he would be the ideal candidate to take on Ron Johnson. He said he can then take on these challenges on a federal level. “We’re all Americans, we all respect each other. Everyone should be guaranteeing these basic rights,” he said.