Wisconsin Dem Takes Far-Left Group's Money But Claims He Doesn't Support Their Policies

Wisconsin Senate candidate Mandela Barnes (D.) / Getty Images
February 15, 2022

Wisconsin Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes raked in $28,000 from a far-left joint-fundraising committee steered by leaders in the "defund the police" and "abolish ICE" movements, even as he works to distance himself from the controversial policies.

Lead the Way 2022 is a progressive joint-fundraising PAC that Barnes, who serves as Wisconsin's lieutenant governor, joined alongside some of the most radically left congressional candidates of the election cycle. The group gave Barnes $28,000, according to campaign finance records. It was the single largest source of contributions to Barnes's campaign in the past year.

Barnes, who previously played it coy about whether he supports the defund the police movement, told the Washington Free Beacon that he opposes those policies.

"The lieutenant governor does not support defunding the police," said his spokeswoman Maddy McDaniel. "He does support investing just as heavily in preventing crime from occurring in the first place by investing in schools, good-paying jobs, and opportunities for all, in addition to ensuring law enforcement agencies have the resources they need to keep us safe."

McDaniel added that Barnes "is not a part of the Abolish ICE movement. He does support comprehensive immigration reform, including reform for the immigration agencies."

The funding from a progressive group could fuel questions about Barnes's stance on anti-law enforcement policies. Barnes has praised activists who seek to defund the police and has been critical of "overpoliced communities," while he maintains that he himself does not support those movements.

Lead the Way 2022 was created by Way to Lead, a progressive umbrella group. The PAC supports 12 campaigns, including "defund the police" advocate Rep. Cori Bush (D., Mo.). As a joint-fundraising committee, Lead the Way 2022 collects and distributes donations to its affiliated candidates. The $28,000 came from individuals who donated to Barnes through Lead the Way.

Way to Lead's 10-person advisory board includes high-profile activists in the movements to gut police funding and abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to the group's website.

One of the group's advisers is Greisa Martinez, executive director at United We Dream, who has denounced the police and immigration enforcement agencies as rapists and white supremacists.

"We call it the three headed monster of police, ICE, and [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] that are coming into our communities," said Martinez in a June 2020 interview. "And they are even more empowered to conduct raids, to rape our women and people in detention."

In a press release last January, Martinez said her group was "clear-eyed and committed to the long term efforts needed to dismantle the systems of white supremacy and to defund ICE, CBP, and police."

Another adviser, Jessica Byrd, who leads the Electoral Justice Project, has described defunding the police as "tak[ing] money in a place that is violent, that is not working, is proven to kill black people, move it into a place that means we want black people to live and to thrive."

"I get so pissed when people say 'Blue Lives Matter.' Because it's not a life. It's a job," she added.

Three other advisers, Working Families Party national director Maurice Mitchell, Black Votes Matter cofounder LaTosha Brown, and Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas, have also expressed support for defunding the police. Another adviser, activist pollster Sean McElwee, has been credited with launching the "Abolish ICE" movement.

Barnes hinted in the past that he is sympathetic to the defund the police cause and criticized "overpoliced communities" when asked about the issue in an interview last summer.

In November, Barnes also headlined an event for the Center for Popular Democracy, a group leading the efforts to defund the police and abolish ICE. He praised the group's "amazing work" and said he was "very honored" to receive its endorsement, the Free Beacon reported at the time.

At least one Democratic Senate candidate, Cheri Beasley (N.C.), cut ties with Lead the Way 2022 after receiving establishment support and pivoting to a more moderate campaign message, the Free Beacon reported last month.

Barnes is considered a frontrunner in the Wisconsin Democratic primary, although his fundraising showing has been underwhelming so far. One of his challengers, billionaire heir Alex Lasry, has outraised Barnes while also pouring over $2 million into his own campaign. The winner of the primary will face Republican incumbent senator Ron Johnson in what is expected to be one of the most competitive Senate races of the election cycle.