MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN — Twenty-two thousand seven hundred and forty-eight people. That was Donald Trump’s margin of victory in Wisconsin in 2016 – barely enough to sell out a Milwaukee Bucks home game.
When professional Democratic operatives’ shock turned to curiosity in the weeks after Trump’s win, the Wisconsin number quickly became a lightning rod. Where critics saw the obvious outcome of Hillary Clinton’s bizarre decision not to campaign in the state at all after losing the primary there to Bernie Sanders, a lot of people who bought “Nasty Woman” tee-shirts or custom ally safety pins on Etsy chose to blame black voters in Milwaukee for not turning out for her like they had for Barack Obama.
Since then, people whose primary engagement with politics is through a computer screen have seen plenty of heated exchanges on the subject, with a few genuine attempts to learn from it mixed in.
But on the ground here, Angela Lang and a handful of black men and women in the nation’s most-segregated city haven’t been waiting for major donors or the national Democratic party to wise up. They’ve been out knocking doors ever since the end of November, asking a different kind of question from those favored by modern microtargeting electoral canvassers.
“We asked folks, hey what does it look like for the black community to thrive?” Lang said Tuesday at the canvassing office for Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), in a neighborhood called Merrill Park where 83 percent of people aren’t white. The answers to that broad brainstorm have guided the group’s work ever since – not just on this or that election contest, but on a drive to build block-by-block community power and engagement far from the ballot box.
BLOC chose to knock those first 10,000 doors in the single most incarcerated zip code in the nation — and therefore the world – as a sort of proof-of-concept for their simple notion of how to answer all those blaming fingers from the long winter of 2016. Instead of using algorithms and assumptions from a desk to slice whole neighborhoods out of the priority list for campaign contact and civic engagement, as young politicos have learned to do using the sophisticated Voter Activation Network (VAN) tools that are modern campaigning’s lifeblood, Lang thought it was time to widen the map.
“If we’re doing community engagement in 53206, that means not everyone will have the ability to vote unfortunately. But that doesn’t mean we just neglect people,” Lang said. “Traditional field operations and campaigns, you talk to people who voted three of the last four elections, certain criteria to turn them out. And we leave out a lot of people. You can literally paint a picture of who we’re leaving behind, people who are black and brown and formerly incarcerated.”
BLOC is not yet a year old, but its already drawn wide interest from state and local candidates for its long-view approach to building civic engagement rather than treating black Milwaukee as a group of voters to be called upon when needed. On this primary day, 10 weeks before the first nationwide Election Day since Trump’s win, BLOC has 16 canvassers out knocking doors in neighborhoods that political pros gave up on long ago, in the 53206 zip code and beyond.
“People often leave that behind because they’re like, ‘oh that’s not a winning strategy,’” she said. “Let’s keep doing the same thing and we keep getting the same thing and then we wonder why we keep losing!”
State and local Democrats took such a keen interest in BLOC’s work that Lang had to remind her team that the people asking them about what people were saying in those places weren’t necessarily safe to share with.
“They want to know how to message the same people without doing the work that you’re doing,” she says she told them. Soon enough, one of her volunteers told a state senator that if he wanted to know what she was hearing on the doors, he’d have to come with her himself. Since then, 19 or 20 different politicians and local organizers from national groups including Planned Parenthood have come along for a “silent canvass” in the neighborhoods that pundits and transplanted Brooklynites were so keen to blame for Trump’s presidency.
“How many times have we seen organizations that do all of this work and then pack up and go home, then come back around in an election year? Guess what, that door is that much harder to knock on.”
The simple tactic has also been able to flex muscles in the more tangible way this results-obsessed business demands. This spring, BLOC agreed to help a candidate for state Supreme Court. Lang’s team knocked 35,000 doors in four weeks, and delivered a win for Rebecca Dallet that sparked some nervousness among the Republicans who carefully gerrymandered this state to stay deep-red for a generation. The experience gives BLOC a tangible track record that the pros are more likely to recognize – though there’s nothing Lang can do to make those people accept that her team’s methods can’t simply be grafted on to this or that outfit that wants “The Black Vote” to spring into action.
“We’re trying to reimagine how current elected officials and candidates are interacting with the black community, and not just showing up when it’s election season in October, and doing the circuit in black Milwaukee to the standard coffeehouses and barbershops. You want our votes? Come spend some time,” she said. “
“People saw that we’re hardworking, and that if you just talk to people [and] treat people as full people and not just as votes or commodities, people will vote,” Lang said. Not just once or twice a year, or every time an election rolls around, either. “How many times have we seen organizations that do all of this work and then pack up and go home, then come back around in an election year? Guess what, that door is that much harder to knock on. Because people will say, ‘I remember you knocked on my door two years ago, and I remember you-all were full of shit.’”
On Tuesday, the group’s focus is more on getting neighborhoods like Merrill Park to cast ballots than it is on targeting people they think will choose this or that candidate if they do get to the polls. But their board did vote to endorse someone in a couple of races. State Rep. Evan Goyke (D) earned their backing for lengthy attention to the sorts of issues black Milwaukee residents raised in response to the thrive question, and his success in closing a locally-notorious juvenile prison.
And for Milwaukee County Sheriff, where today’s three-way Democratic primary is a de facto final vote with no Republican on the fall ballot, Lang’s team decided to endorse Earnell Lucas. A former Milwaukee Police Department captain who decided to become a cop after being racially profiled while on a grocery run for his grandmother at age 12, Lucas has been the head of security for Major League Baseball since he retired from the force in 2001. Lucas was born and raised in the exact kind of neighborhood BLOC is salvaging from years of transactional politics.
“It was clear that Earnell is from our community, supports our community, and understands what it means to be a black man in this era,” Lang said.
His main opponent in the three-way race is acting Sheriff Richard Schmidt, the longtime number two to right-wing nutter David Clarke, before the latter took a job with one of the president’s political organizations last spring as county investigators dug into his various abuse-of-power and brutality scandals. Lang’s team decided black Milwaukee can’t get the fresh start it needs with law enforcement with Clarke’s right-hand man.
Clarke was more famous for his cowboy hats and poison tongue than for the deadly brutality of his jails, though the latter certainly drew plenty of headlines too. But as Lang explains the importance of the sheriff’s race to neighborhoods like 53206, her team’s civics-not-elections approach intends to connect the dots between law enforcement conduct and the city’s budgetary decision-making. (“Budgets are moral documents,” she said.) If Lucas wins Tuesday, then, the same people he’ll owe some electoral gratitude will be back to press his department for tangible change up to and including a shift in tax revenue from guns to butter.
Even though they only started including primary voting asks in their canvassing at the end of July, BLOC’s door-knockers have once again flexed the kind of numbers that white Democratic candidates and consultants haven’t been able to get without the word “Obama” on the ticket.
BLOC has knocked some 16,488 doors in just 15 days, Lang said, not counting the in-progress voting day teams.
That’s almost the entire margin Trump secured over Clinton across the entire state, just from a few neighborhoods – ones that the smartest people in the campaign war-room have made a calculate choice to ignore, because the model says they haven’t voted much, and the expense of TV time has convinced campaign mavens that there are only limited resources for knocking doors.
If it sounds obvious, Lang wants you to know a whole lot of smart people seem not to get it on their own.
“There’s been a lot of blame on black Milwaukee. ‘Black people, if you’da came out,’ ‘It’s your fault that we have Trump,’” Lang said, with a patient sigh. “In 2016 I heard people in a meeting talk about, ‘Well we did a lot of African-American radio, we don’t know what happened.”
“Well did you talk to a black person? Did you actually talk to a black person? Because that might be where you failed.”