Perhaps the biggest change in Wisconsin since 2016 is the one we have been dealing with nonstop since March: the COVID-19 pandemic. This coronavirus has taken the lives of more than 900 Wisconsinites and threatened the livelihoods of tens of thousands more.
No one can blame Wisconsin alone for the Trump presidency, but it is equally impossible to deny our state’s role in securing his victory. Wisconsin was undeniably the tipping-point state—had Hillary Clinton won fellow swing states Pennsylvania and Michigan, she still would have lost the election without Wisconsin’s ten electoral votes.
Ever since these consequential events shattered the assumptions of some and confirmed the fears of others, Wisconsin has been ground zero for winning back the presidency for Democrats, progressives, and anyone who seeks a President actually capable of leading our diverse and complex nation.
But Wisconsin is not the same state it was in 2016. Since that wake-up-call election, progressives have been organizing around more issues in more places than ever before. We elected a new governor—one who actually cares what the people of this state want and who, as a former state schools superintendent, has the best interests of our kids at heart.
We have elected two fair and progressive justices in the last three Wisconsin Supreme Court elections, chipping away at the hyper-partisan conservative majority that has sided with those in power over the people at every turn.
All of us have lived through the trauma and recklessness of the Trump presidency, from communities of color and immigrants who have been directly targeted by the President’s racist policies to the farmers who have paid the price for his trade wars.
But perhaps the biggest change in Wisconsin since 2016 is the one we have been dealing with nonstop since March: the COVID-19 pandemic. This coronavirus has taken the lives of more than 900 Wisconsinites and threatened the livelihoods of tens of thousands more.
While it is often seen as a new crisis—requiring new research, medicines, and vaccines—in reality, the problems that COVID-19 is exposing are not new at all. Inadequate access to health care, income inequality, few options for child care, and digital divides are all issues that Wisconsin residents have faced for years.
Even when they controlled the legislature and governor’s office, Republicans in Wisconsin failed to act on these issues and, in some cases, went out of their way to exacerbate them by creating barriers to safety net programs including BadgerCare, FoodShare, and our unemployment insurance program.
But even as Republicans refuse to acknowledge and address the centuries-old racial inequities that plague our state, the coronavirus is making those disparities more evident—and deadlier.
Like so many other health issues, Black and brown communities have endured the harshest impacts of COVID-19. Although Black and Latinx people make up just 14 percent of our state, together they account for more than 40 percent of our confirmed positive cases and more than one-third of our COVID-19-related deaths.
In early May, we began to see disastrous outbreaks at meatpacking plants in Brown County that heavily impacted the Latinx community. These workers—whom Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack pointedly declared were not “regular folks”—lack the safeguards and protections they need to stay safe. Later that month, we saw a surge of cases spreading in the Latinx community in Milwaukee. These numbers have remained high.
Instead of coming together to protect the communities most severely impacted by COVID-19, Republicans in the legislature got their conservative friends on the state supreme court to strip Governor Tony Evers of his power to set a statewide “Safer at Home” policy.
This harmful mix of apathy and inaction from the state’s Republican leaders falls into a well-documented pattern of behavior that negatively impacts Black and Indigenous people, and other communities of color.
The decision to locate interstate highways in Black and brown neighborhoods contributes to higher rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory issues—some of the very factors that exacerbate the effects of COVID-19. Lead in drinking water has compromised the immune systems of some of our poorest Black and brown communities. And factories in low-income areas and communities of color have contaminated Wisconsin’s waterways and public lands.
These systemic environmental injustices make it easier for poor people of color to get sick from COVID-19, and harder for them to survive its impacts.
That’s why, as chair of the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change, I have made environmental justice a priority. If we want to address the inequities of COVID-19, we must address the inequities created by the places where people live. Environmental injustice continues to be a topic of concern, as hundred-year floods ravage farmlands and people get sick from unclean air and water.
But, as Wisconsin tries to address environmental injustice, the Trump Administration is making it worse by reversing 100 environmental rules regarding our air, our water, and our sources of energy.
Gina McCarthy, president and chief executive officer of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, called it “an open license to pollute.”
Understanding and solving the systemic racism built into the fabric of our state cannot start and end with environmental justice. Our systemic inequities run far deeper.
Wisconsin is repeatedly ranked as one of the worst places to raise a Black child. We have some of the widest gaps between our Black and white populations when it comes to incarceration, income, unemployment, child poverty, and more. The quality of a child’s education is highly correlated with his or her zip code.
Over the past decade, the Republican-led state legislature has worked diligently to disenfranchise Black voters and other voters of color, from gerrymandering our districts to making the simple task of voting unnecessarily arduous. We have one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country, and we saw a new kind of racist disenfranchisement play out during our catastrophic April 7 election, when there were only five polling places in Milwaukee, instead of the usual 180.
We need leaders at every level, from local officials to state legislators to the President, who will actually listen to people’s anger and pain, recognize the violence of our country’s past and present, and propose a path forward out of all of these crises.
This path forward cannot be some piecemeal, poll-tested approach. To match the gravity of our problems, we need bold, comprehensive solutions rooted in racial equity that will pave the way for a better, more just, and more inclusive future.
We must ensure that everyone, especially those this pandemic is affecting the most, has access to compassionate health care and needed prescription medications. We should invest in infrastructure for clean water, clean energy, clean transportation, and family-supporting green jobs. We need to provide communities of color with the resources and services they need to thrive.
And we must also make voting as easy as possible—during a pandemic and otherwise.
If we want people to join us in this fight, our commitment to addressing environmental harms, breaking down barriers for communities of color, and expanding our democracy must be built into everything we do. People of color can no longer be an afterthought or addressed only as an attempt to pander to strategic voting blocs, and we Democrats can no longer expect Black and brown voters to vote for us merely because we’re better than the other side.
If we learned anything from 2016, it’s that we cannot rely solely on an anti-Trump vote in order to win the Electoral College and the presidency. To bring back decency and common sense to the White House, we must inspire people to invest in our vision of a more equitable and just future.
This bold and inclusive vision is how we can engage people who have been left out of the conversation. It’s how we can begin to rebuild trust with those who have experienced the consequences of our country’s systemically violent policies.
And it’s how we can ensure that Wisconsin’s ten electoral votes contribute to our communities’ success, rather than their continued struggle.