Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) and Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes sparred over crime issues during a debate on Friday night, with Johnson saying Barnes’s anti-police rhetoric "incited" the deadly riots against law enforcement in Kenosha in 2020.
Johnson slammed Barnes, the state’s lieutenant governor, for his response to the riots in Kenosha, which erupted after police officers shot and wounded Jacob Blake, a wanted domestic violence suspect who was armed with a knife in 2020. In the wake of Blake’s shooting, anti-police activists flooded into Kenosha, burning buildings and engaging in violent scuffles that led to multiple deaths.
Crime has become a leading issue in the competitive Wisconsin Senate race, as Milwaukee’s homicide rate has spiked by 20 percent since last year. Throughout the campaign, Barnes has been fighting to distance himself from perceptions he is anti-police and soft on crime.
"Instead of trying to settle things down," said Johnson during the debate on Friday, "the lieutenant governor gave a press conference and said it felt like a vendetta was carried out [by the police] against one of our community members. He incited the riot."
While Barnes accused police of misconduct at the time, subsequent investigations found no evidence that they acted inappropriately.
"This was not an accident," said Barnes during a news conference after the shooting. "This wasn’t bad police work. This felt like some sort of vendetta being taken out on a member of our community. The officer’s deadly actions attempted to take a person’s life in broad daylight."
Barnes did not comment on his response to the riots during the debate. He said he believes the best way to combat rising crime is by " fully funding our schools" and "making sure there are good paying jobs in our communities."
Johnson and Barnes also debated mandatory minimum wages, climate change, and federal student loan relief. Barnes argued that Wisconsin should increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour, while Johnson said government-mandated wage minimums would lead to fewer available jobs.
On climate change, Barnes said the United States needs to take stronger action to address climate issues while Johnson criticized him for supporting the Green New Deal, a massive government spending bill that could cost as much as $93 trillion, according to estimates.
Johnson and Barnes disagreed over President Joe Biden’s executive order to use federal funds to pay off student loans. Johnson called the policy "grotesquely unfair for people who never went to college or [who already] paid off their student loans."
Barnes argued that "absolutely it’s fair that people get some student loan relief," saying people who hold student loan debt "cannot fully participate in the economy."