Wisconsin Political Activists Hope A 'Silent Canvass' Will Win Back Black Voters

Aug 19, 2018
Originally published on August 19, 2018 1:25 pm

Like their counterparts across the country, Wisconsin Democrats eager to win back the House and make gains in the Senate have been watching primary election voter turnout with bated breath. This week, they found reason to be hopeful: turnout in the state's primary on Tuesday soared to its highest level since 2002, with a surge in Democratic votes.

Wisconsin is one of three states — Michigan and Pennsylvania included — that was critical in securing Donald Trump's 2016 victory, according to analysts. But experts and organizers say that if Democrats there want to oust Republican Gov. Scott Walker and re-elect Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in November, they'll have to repair their alliance with a critical demographic that sat out during the last November election.

"There is no way to win a statewide election without the city of Milwaukee, which is specifically black folks," say Angela Lang, a political activist. Lang is at the forefront of a movement to mobilize those African-American voters in Wisconsin's biggest city.

"Forgotten" neighborhoods

In 2016, African-American turnout nationally dropped for the first time in decades. In Wisconsin, it fell by almost 20 percent. Most African-American Wisconsinites live in Milwaukee, which means it is there that the frayed relationship between the party and black voters will have to be rebuilt. Milwaukee is one of America's most segregated cities, and African-Americans there face sky-high incarceration rates, strained relationships with police and inequalities in education. The city's west side is one of the areas with a majority-black population.

"I think this neighborhood is a place that's kind of forgotten," says Lang, a charismatic 29-year old African-American who grew up in this part of town. It is also where she founded her organization BLOC — Black Leaders Organizing for Communities. Lang says she knows the racist stereotypes politicians often ascribe to her city.

"A lot of people think that Milwaukee is just full of murder and mayhem, which is quite literally what the state representative said some years ago," Lang says.

It was a Republican lawmaker who made that claim, but Lang says Democrats made their own assumptions in 2016.

"People take for granted the black vote," Lang says. "People just assume black people turn out for Obama, they're Democrats, they're going to automatically turn out [in 2016], and it wasn't the case."

Election experts have noted that gerrymandering and strict voter ID laws suppressed African-American votes in Wisconsin in 2016. Lang, however, is quick to point out that is not the whole story.

"What I saw [in 2016] was people not being apathetic, but people choosing to not vote and using that as their power, as their political power, which was I think the first time I've ever really seen that," Lang says.

She admonishes Democrats for blaming their 2016 losses on African-Americans, while failing to run candidates better suited to win the trust of black communities. Lang tries to reframe the question of voter turnout by asking, "How about we had a candidate that actually earned our votes?"

She founded BLOC in 2016 to help answer to that question. Lang says civic engagement for Milwaukee's African-American residents must be a two-way street: the challenge being both to get black voters re-engaged in politics, and Democratic candidates to engage more meaningfully with the community.

"People go to certain black churches, they go to certain black restaurants, they go to black barbershops," Lang says, describing a common checklist of Milwaukee political photo-ops. "Like 'OK, I did my little black Milwaukee tour.' "

Superficial engagement won't help underserved neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Lang says, nor will it energize black voters. So rather than accept the status quo, Lang and BLOC have come up with a novel way to change time-worn campaign dynamics — they call it a "silent canvass."

The "silent canvass"

Lang says that if voters know anything about politicians, it's that they're constantly talking about themselves — their story, their campaign, their talking points. BLOC's "silent canvass" asks them to do the opposite and simply listen. As Wisconsin State Rep. David Crowley joked recently, "It forces me to shut up."

Crowley, a Democrat, is one of more than a dozen elected officials who've been taken through the exercise. The premise is simple: When a BLOC organizer and a politician head out into a neighborhood to go door-to-door, the organizer introduces the politician not by their title, but as their friend, first name only. The organizer talks to the resident about neighborhood problems and upcoming elections, while the politician — who pledges to stay silent — stands quietly to the side, hearing an unvarnished take on the ups and downs of daily life.

After a mock "silent canvass" in BLOC's basement office, Crowley and BLOC organizer Keisha Robinson drive to Milwaukee's north side to start knocking on doors in one of the most economically depressed parts of the city. It's a neighborhood of detached homes with wooden porches and lawns, some well-tended and others strewn with children's toys and debris.

In many ways, the "silent canvass" goes the way an old-fashioned canvass would: wary residents look out from behind barred doors; some people don't answer the door, others aren't interested in talking.

But Robinson does connect with a few people, like Avis Landrum. Robinson catches the middle-aged woman between her car and her front door, but Landrum is willing to share some of her concerns about the neighborhood: abandoned buildings, potholes, the careless renters next door. Since Robinson and the other organizers BLOC hires come from the parts of the city they're working in, they often have a personal understanding of the problems. Robinson asks Landrum about a spate of recent shootings, and they also talk about a bar that's notorious for its rowdy clientele.

Down the street, Johnny Ewell answers Robinson's knock. He tells her he was the second African-American in the area when he moved into his home more than 50 years ago. While Crowley listens in, Ewell describes a neighborhood that has seen cycles of violence come and go and come back again.

"We're losing too many of our young folks," Ewell says, as Robinson nods. "That's bad, that's really bad."

Robinson follows BLOC's script, asking Ewell and others about what changes they would like to see in their neighborhood, and at every door, she asks people if they are going to vote — Ewell and Landrum said they would — and hands out a flyers about a candidate her organization has endorsed.

In the weeks leading up to this past week's primary, BLOC organizers knocked on more than 18,000 Milwaukee doors. While they have yet to determine what impact they had on voter turnout this time, Lang says that their "silent canvass" outreach has been working: in a recent local race, they say black turnout in the parts of the city they targeted went up by 3 percent. And this week, Milwaukee County's unofficial tally shows that voter turnout in Ewell and Landrum's ward was 14 percentage points higher than in the 2016 primary.

But Robinson says it continues to be an uphill battle to mobilize people who have felt neglected for so long.

"You see the defeat on some people," she says. "I get this a lot from the older people, they'll congratulate us and tell us they admire the fight, but they're done. And to see that is kind of heartbreaking because it's like, where is the hope?"

Reviving that hope may make the difference for Wisconsin Democrats in November.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

On Tuesday, Wisconsin goes to the polls. And the primary election will be an early test of voter enthusiasm ahead of the November midterms. Democrats in the state are trying to hang onto their Senate seat, take back the governorship. To do that, they'll have to rebuild their relationship with black voters, many of whom sat out the 2016 election. We headed to Milwaukee and met Angela Lang, a local organizer who's come up with a novel way to make people in the community feel heard. She grew up here on the west side of Milwaukee.

ANGELA LANG: So, like, all of this is, like, the area that I know, that, like, feels very home and familiar.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lang is a charismatic 29-year-old who's showing us around the neighborhood.

LANG: This is, like, Merrill Park area.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is one of America's most segregated cities. African-Americans face sky-high incarceration rates, strained relationships with police and inequalities in education.

LANG: I think this neighborhood, I think, is a place that's, like, kind of forgotten.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lang is the founder of BLOC, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities. And she knows what politicians often think about neighborhoods like this one.

LANG: There's a lot of racial stereotypes that come out of our capital in Madison. And a lot of people think that Milwaukee is just full of murder and mayhem, which is quite literally what a state representative said some years ago.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was a Republican lawmaker who said that, but Lang says Democrats made their own assumptions in 2016.

LANG: People take for granted the black vote. People just assume, black people turn out for Obama. They're Democrats. They're going to automatically turn out this time. And that wasn't the case.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Election experts have pointed to gerrymandering and strict voter ID laws that suppressed African-American votes. Lang says some people also chose to stay home.

LANG: What I saw this time was people not being apathetic but people choosing to not vote and using that as their power, as their political power, which was, I think, the first time I'd ever really seen that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says there was too much blame placed on African-Americans for Hillary Clinton's loss.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Black turnout falls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Black voter turnout rate declined for the first time in 20 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Had those people gone to the polls, who knows what could have happened in Wisconsin?

LANG: Implying that if black people would have just come out to vote, then this wouldn't have happened, instead of the conversation being, well, how about we had a candidate that actually earned our votes? And if we're going to blame anybody for electing Donald Trump, we should blame the people that actually voted for him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lang told me the challenge is not just to get black voters re-engaged in politics but to get politicians off the stump and their checklist of Milwaukee photo ops.

LANG: You know, people go to black churches. They go to certain black restaurants. They go to black barbershops. And that's kind of like, OK. I did my little black Milwaukee tour.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says that's just not enough. African-Americans make up less than 10 percent of Wisconsin's population, but Democrats need as many of them as possible to turn out.

LANG: There is no way to win a statewide election without the city of Milwaukee, which is specifically black folks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's why, Lang says, it's critical for Democrats to connect with neighborhoods like the one we're walking around in. If you know anything about politicians, you know this. They're constantly talking about themselves, right? Their story, their campaign, their talking points. But Angela Lang and her organization, BLOC, are asking them to do something different. It's called a silent canvass.

DAVID CROWLEY: Well, it forces me to shut up as an elected official. I think...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's state Representative David Crowley. He's the latest of more than a dozen elected officials who've been taken through this exercise. When we visit, he's doing a practice run in BLOC's basement office.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah?

KEISHA ROBINSON: Hi, is Latoya (ph) home?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In this silent canvass, Crowley pledges to stay quiet as an organizer engages with the voter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: This is she.

ROBINSON: Hi, Latoya. My name is Keisha. I'm from BLOC. And this is my friend David.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After the practice run, it's time for the real thing. Representative Crowley and BLOC organizer Keisha Robinson drive out to start knocking on doors in one of the most depressed neighborhoods in the city, the north side of Milwaukee.

ROBINSON: Hello. How y'all doing?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a neighborhood of detached homes with wooden porches and lawns, some well-tended, others strewn with children's toys and debris. And in many ways, this silent canvass goes the way an old-fashioned canvass would.

ROBINSON: My name is Keisha. I'm from BLOC, Black...

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

ROBINSON: Hi. My name is Keisha. I'm from BLOC.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some people have moved.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL CHIMING)

ROBINSON: Yeah, about four minutes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Others closed the door in her face.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are dogs.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

ROBINSON: Is there a better time I can reach her?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Keisha Robinson does connect with a few people, like Avis Landrum, who's quick to share the challenges of daily life here.

AVIS LANDRUM: The abandoned buildings, the streets are a mess, the loud noise...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Robinson and the other organizers of BLOC come from the neighborhoods they're working in. And they understand the problems.

ROBINSON: OK. I know last night it was a lot of shootings and...

LANDRUM: I was asleep (laughter).

ROBINSON: ...Everything's - yeah, so over the city, it was about four killings. So it's, like, yeah. As a community, we got to do better.

LANDRUM: Yeah. Our bedroom's right there, so I hear the music and the cussing and the fussing and the after-hours...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Around the corner, we meet Johnny Ewell, who's lived on the block for more than 50 years. He was the second African-American in the neighborhood when he moved in.

JOHNNY EWELL: And then the neighborhood sort of changed. It got pretty rough with these kids growing up, getting to be teenagers.

ROBINSON: Yeah. I hear you (laughter).

EWELL: Yeah.

ROBINSON: What do you think needs to be tackled?

EWELL: I know one thing. Something's got to change.

ROBINSON: That's right.

EWELL: You know, something's...

ROBINSON: And fast.

EWELL: ...Got to change quickly.

ROBINSON: Yes.

EWELL: We're losing too many young folk to violence, and that's bad. That's really bad.

ROBINSON: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All the while, Representative Crowley stands to the side, taking it all in. At every door, Robinson asks people if they're going to vote. And she hands out fliers about candidates their group has endorsed.

ROBINSON: This is our Vote for Lucas. These are the sheriff's literature.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: BLOC claims this outreach is working. In a recent race, they say black turnout in the parts of the city they targeted went up by 3 percent. Back in the car, though, Robinson says it can be hard to mobilize people who felt neglected for so long.

ROBINSON: You see the defeat on some people. And I get this a lot from the older people. They'll congratulate us and, you know, tell us they admire the fight, but they're done, you know? And to see that is kind of, like, heartbreaking because it's like, where's the hope?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Reviving that hope may make the difference for Wisconsin Democrats come November.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "EVERYTHING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.