Tomorrow, Milwaukee Could Elect a New Generation of Sewer Socialists

Three democratic socialists are on the ballot tomorrow in Milwaukee, a city with a long history of socialist municipal government. We interviewed them about what their socialist vision for the city looks like.

Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) teachers, parents, students, and supporters protest outside the administration building in 2018 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Mike McCarthy

On April 6 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, socialists have a rare chance to elect a slate into local public office — the first step in potentially reviving and reforming the city’s rich history of socialist governance. If they are elected, it would be the first time in Milwaukee’s history that a black socialist has won office, let alone two.

The local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter has not only endorsed the three candidates but has also built an independent and increasingly powerful working-class campaign apparatus. All three campaigns share a field program run by members of DSA, who prioritize which areas get knocked, run phone-banking actions, organize fellow members to work with the campaigns, and much more. In Milwaukee, socialism is back on the agenda and in the public debate, and Milwaukee DSA is fueling it.

Sociologist Mike McCarthy talked with candidates Alex Brower, Dana Kelley, and Darrin Madison to get their impression of this fight and the potential for democratic socialism in the city.


MM

Can you tell me a bit about the positions you are running for, and why you think it is important that we fight to win these seats?

DK

I am a candidate for the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) Board of Directors for District 4, which governs and oversees the financial budget for Milwaukee County as well as legislation for providing an adequate education for the public citizens of Milwaukee County.

District 4 is the most impoverished and marginalized school district in Milwaukee’s public school system and includes the most impoverished zip code (53206) in the US. It is crucial that we fight to win the District 4 MPS board seat, because we desperately need funding for our public schools. I won’t allow privatization to continue to pilfer our public school funds to the detriment and despair of our students. And I will ensure quality education through smaller class sizes, higher teacher salaries, and more mental health and social workers.

I will continue to seek and create funding for music, arts, and PE teachers to be hired full-time in every school in District 4. I will fight for revenue for books, computers, and science labs that have been stripped from our public schools by charter and voucher schools programs. I will work to implement the Green New Deal in Milwaukee Public Schools, which will generate living-wage jobs in the community of color, provide healthy schools and food programs, introduce a climate equity curriculum, and generate revenue by producing power through solar panels, achieving MPS’ energy independence from We Energies and fossil fuels. This is why the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association and many other union organizations endorse me and why teachers, community members, and organizers are volunteering for my campaign.

AB

In District 5, I’m also running for school board to bring the transformative change that MPS students, educators, staff, and our community deserve. This position is crucial for the future of our city. Our public schools here in Milwaukee are under attack from privatization, systemic racism, and underfunding. We need systemic change at all levels — and our movement for socialism here in Milwaukee can start at the local level. As a part of that, we need strong leaders who will fight back against all the corporate threats to our schools. The corporate Democrats who run this city have failed us.

DM

I am running for county supervisor from the 10th District. The county government is all about quality of life services: through the board, we have control over our senior services, criminal justice system, parks, public transportation system, mental health services, disability services, some housing services and homelessness, highways, sheriffs’ departments, amenities like the zoo and the domes (a popular Milwaukee attraction), and parcels of land across Milwaukee County.

This race is important, because the county is in the best position right now to put things in place to move us in a bold direction which can fuel long-term development for all the municipalities in its jurisdiction. We are in a $80 million deficit. I’m trying to ensure that the decisions [made in response to that deficit] still support our seniors, youth, working-class families, and our parks. Right now, we don’t have strong leaders willing to fight for working-class people in this city who continue to suffer the most.

Milwaukee is about to receive a substantial amount of funds from the federal government [from COVID-19 relief funds]. What we choose to do with those dollars will either move us in a good direction or a bad one. If we have the right advocates and supervisors at the table, the chance of good things happening increases. We are facing a real turning point in county government right now.

MM

If elected, you would be the first socialist slate to win office in Milwaukee since 1956. Dana and Darrin would be the first socialists of color ever elected in Milwaukee’s history. Milwaukee is a city beset by deep racial divisions. Can you say a little about how you think your campaigns are building cross-racial coalitions to take on the entrenched political class here in the city?

DM

The people that have supported my campaign and shown up for this slate make up one of the most diverse coalitions advocating for systemic justice I’ve ever seen. Despite the clear lines of segregation in Milwaukee, which demark where communities of color reside, I’ve witnessed this coalition of people fighting for us to win all around this city in neighborhoods people would never suspect them to come from.

AB

While Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the country, we are all impacted by the poor decisions that the neoliberal class in this city continue to make, and people are fed up. They want real change — and what we are talking about crosses the boundaries of race to speak to all members of the working class. Specifically, Dana and I are talking about expanding the school board and democratizing education, and I have noticed that platform point has specifically spoken to people of color who I speak with.

We build those bridges and coalitions first and foremost with policy that speaks to the working class. And then when we are in office, we work to make those policies happen. When we mobilize the working class of this city around these issues, we can start to fight back and win a city for the many, not the few.

DK

I think it is incredible to be in a position to create history and break generational barriers that have fueled racial and economic despair in Milwaukee. To be on the ground level of building cross-racial coalitions is the work I have done all my life.

As lead organizer of North Side Rising and assistant pastor of the Reviving Faith Movement Church, I have provided spaces where community members can hear from elected officials and in turn hold those elected officials accountable. Now I have put my hat in the race as a democratic socialist.

Choosing to run a nonpartisan race as a Democratic Socialist was important to me so voters can come out of the mindset of viewing government as simply a matter of Republicans or Democrats. Voting for a democratic socialist isn’t throwing your vote away. It speaks to the fact that community needs are not being met in our two-party system.

We are here to change the status quo and the state of our communities. It takes the collective to bring down the establishment.

MM

You are all running in different districts. How have your campaigns worked together to build a common movement? What can others hoping to link up campaigns learn from your experiences so far?

DK

Many hands make the work light.

DM

We show up for each other in meaningful ways while we are all navigating hard-fought races. We encourage each other, give each other advice, and make connections that can advance our campaigns. We also have had joint events where we talk about our platforms and how they feed into the bigger effort to rattle the foundation of traditional politics and leadership in a way accountable to the people, not special interests.

We also hold weekend canvasses where community members who are committed to supporting our shared values can get out there and help spread our platforms through grassroots efforts. But the biggest lesson in all of this for me is that transparency and authentic engagement are critical to real change, and that’s what all of our campaigns have brought to the table.

AB

We can’t just have one socialist elected official on a board and expect radical change. That’s why Dana and I are both running for the school board, and that’s why Darrin will be joining Ryan Clancy, a fellow socialist, on the county board. We have to have comrades in office with us and strong support in the community in order to have the strength we need to win actual change on the board.

It also helps to have centralized coordination through the Milwaukee DSA to help our needs. Socialist organization has been critical to preparing walk lists and volunteer coordination. It may sound mundane, but it’s the day-to-day organizing that leads to victories. For others seeking to do what we are doing, I would say: run as a team and work together on as much as possible.

MM

Dana and Alex, could you say a little bit about what you mean by “democratizing education”?

AB

By democratizing education, we mean opening up school- and district-wide decision-making to our community. This includes the parents, students, school staff, and residents — everyone with a stake in our schools. Our schools need to be community-controlled if they are meant to serve the community.

I will propose a democratic budgeting process where regular people decide how to spend the district’s money. This has been compared to “participatory budgeting,” which is practiced by some municipalities. But what I am proposing takes it a step further: I would like to eventually see the entire budget amendable by the public and the final vote resting with them.

I am also proposing a citizen policy initiative process to bring decision-making power to regular people by creating a mechanism where policies will be discussed by the board even if the elected board members don’t support it, thus forcing a discussion of issues the public cares about.

Lastly, Dana and I are advocating for the creation of new seats on the school board to represent all of the communities in this city. In particular, we want to add seats for students, parents from high-need schools, and staff.

DK

Currently, parents, teachers, and students get a nonvoting seat on the board to discuss matters that affect the quality of education and the support needed to provide an adequate education to MPS students, work environment for MPS teachers, and support system for MPS parents. We want to make the process significantly more democratic.

MM

Another proposal that you are running on is a Green New Deal for Milwaukee Public Schools. What does that entail?

DK

The Green New Deal in Milwaukee Public Schools will generate living wage jobs in HVAC, landscaping roofing, solar panel installation, and wind turbine manufacturing — none of which requires a four-year college degree — for our working-class communities of color that desperately need it.

It will also make schools healthy by upgrading air filtration, removing toxic poisons like lead-based pipes that supply drinking water to our youth, establishing food programs with projects like renewable energy-efficient farming using hydroponics. It will introduce a climate equity curriculum and generate revenue by producing power through putting solar panels on all of our buildings and looking to alternatives to natural gas for heating.

AB

To me, a Green New Deal for MPS means working to achieve MPS’ energy independence from [corporate energy provider] We Energies and significantly reducing its reliance on fossil fuels. It also means providing every student with an environment that supports their health, including providing high-quality, healthy foods, mental health support instead of an unqualified police presence, and removing toxic infrastructure.

To do this, I will be fighting for MPS to completely upgrade their physical buildings to move toward 100 percent carbon-free energy. Unfortunately, MPS has a lot of old infrastructure, so this will take some time. But the first step is to come up with a plan, which Dana and I will champion.

MM

How do you think either or both of these plans would address the incredible racial inequality in Milwaukee’s public schools?

DK

The Green New Deal for MPS will combat both climate and racial inequities by creating green industry jobs with a living wage that will decrease greenhouse gas emissions and promote the use of renewable energy like solar-, wind-, and water-generated energy. These efforts will generate wealth and healthy communities.

We think that health care costs will decrease due to less air, water, and soil pollution and toxicity which causes all sorts of illness for the city’s poorest such as respiratory illness, skin and blood disorders, as well as cognition problems. The introduction of a green climate equity curriculum will also encourage students to work on climate change in their community and to learn how our lifestyle affects the entire earth.

AB

Both of these plans will begin to address the inequality in Milwaukee Public Schools as well. First, they give students and parents of color specific seats on the board, as well as a say in our budget and policy decision-making. The people directly impacted by systemic racism can be directly involved in crafting solutions.

Second, environmental racism has a big impact on student health and well-being. If students aren’t well, they can’t be expected to learn and have the same opportunities as wealthier white students. This is why Dana and I are pushing this Green New Deal for MPS so hard in our campaigns.

MM

Darrin, your campaign for county supervisor of District 10 has significant overlap in its aims. Could you tell us a bit about your plans for youth justice and racial equality?

DM

For youth justice, first I want to eliminate debtor prisons. Currently, fines and fees that increase racial and economic disparities can be imposed on people. And it is well understood that creating more poverty does not increase public safety. I want to move away from punitive criminal justice toward community-based restorative practice. Our youth need to be supported and have the opportunity to repair harm in an age-appropriate way within the community. We need a lot to address the horrible criminal justice inequality in this city, such as more intensive advocacy and mentoring, better investment into extremely poor communities, and more robust reentry supports.

I support the closing of youth prisons by leveraging national, state, and local partners to build a realistic continuum of care that supports youth needs and gives them the ability to repair harm in an age-appropriate and community-supported way. The first step would be establishing a collaborative task force to elevate current work groups. As savings from reduced incarceration are recouped, they will be reinvested to scale up and expand into community spheres of life. Success would be measured in the reduction of the number of youth in custody, positive outcomes, and increase in programs and resources that affirm this continuum of care.

I am working with Youth Justice Milwaukee on a participatory budgeting model that provides the community the opportunity to shape the budget of the Department of Youth and Family Services. It gives the community the ability to decide how the community implements resources related to children, families, and youth who have been incarcerated. I also support the “all out, zero in” initiative that brings youth who have been incarcerated at Lincoln Hills back to Milwaukee and gives young people who have been incarcerated the resources they need to ensure that they don’t recidivate.

The county has some oversight over the Department of Youth and Family Services and the Department of Corrections, so I can support policy changes and challenge departmental practices. The county should make a long-term commitment to ending youth incarceration and eventually the adult justice system.

MM

If you win these positions, what kind of challenges do you anticipate to also realizing your platforms once you are in office? Do you have ideas for how you might overcome them?

AB

We anticipate the establishment school board members and political actors to be strongly opposed to any effort to achieve substantive change in MPS. To overcome them, I will stay close to the social movements that helped get me elected, especially to the movement for socialism here in Milwaukee, and we will lean on those movements to help us win our agenda.  That said, currently the MPS board has the most progressive makeup of any elected body in Milwaukee, so Dana and I will be joining a body that is ready in many ways to make change.

DK

I don’t expect the board to unanimously support the efforts that I’m proposing. But when I serve on the board alongside supervisor [Ryan] Clancy, and we leverage national practitioners, research/data, and grassroots organizers, I believe we will move the board to our side. In 2022, everyone on the county board is up for reelection, and if leaders aren’t willing to fight for the people, individuals who are committed to doing such will run against them.

DK

The biggest challenge I will face going in is getting those that oppose my views on the board to collaborate with me on systemic change. I’m usually very good at collaborative work but will also go rogue if necessary and do what I know is right. I will do my best to educate, relate, and activate other board members to move toward progressive, tangible, and immediate change while planning and building a new structure for the future of MPS.

MM

How do you envision your campaigns putting democratic socialism on the table here in Milwaukee?

DK

The DSA has already made its mark in Milwaukee during this election. We believe in operating with the popular power that ordinary people possess. We believe in empowering others around us. We believe in solidarity and working together as a collective. When you have all those elements and key positions in city government, you will begin to see the change come.

DM

My campaign is purely about being able to show up for residents in meaningful ways even when I don’t have direct control over the results. People don’t care about party affiliation; they care about who shows up for them when they need it. When we talk about democratic socialism, we must, even on the campaign trail, show up for people in meaningful ways. That’s how our movement can begin to grow and how we become true stakeholders with a say in our economic, political, and social worlds.

When we win these seats, we have to do the work in a way that challenges traditional models of engagement. We need year-round engagement, shared decision-making power, and organizing on the ground. I’m committed to being a leader that not only the residents of the 10th District can depend on but one every resident in this city can lean on for support.

AB

Our campaign is already working to bring democratic socialism to the table here in Milwaukee. We are pushing socialist ideas and criticizing capitalism every opportunity we get. We’re spreading the message at every opportunity so that voters and the establishment will know a socialist victory when it happens. I believe that when the three of us win, a lot of corporate Democrats will have a profound sense of unease.