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Incumbent Democrat Lena Taylor Fights To Hold Milwaukee County Senate Seat

Challenge From Mandela Barnes Shows Progressive, Moderate Split Within Democratic Party

Scott Bauer/ AP Photo

Incumbent state Sen. Lena Taylor’s fight against state Rep. Mandela Barnes for Wisconsin’s 4th Senate District is highlighting a divide between moderate and progressive Democrats.

Taylor campaigned for Aug. 9’s partisan primary election at a National Night Out event in Milwaukee’s Lincoln Park this week with a small group of volunteers. After 13 years in the state Senate, she remains very connected to the district, she said.

“This isn’t something I do sometimes,” Taylor said. “We’ve been doing this event for years. But this is the kind of work we do every day. We have like 75,000 contacts in our office since I’ve been a legislator.”

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Taylor said she’s fought hard for her constituents on issues like criminal justice and curtailing Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining legislation.

But critics of the senator said she’s too close to the center on some topics, like payday lending.

About 100 members of Citizen Action of Wisconsin met outside a check-cashing outlet in Milwaukee this week to support stronger federal regulation of the payday loan industry.

Taylor’s Democratic primary opponent, state Rep. Mandela Barnes spoke to that crowd, saying a cap on the interest rates the short-term lenders charge is needed. Barnes, elected to the state Assembly in 2012, said Taylor blocked a cap during the state’s attempt to regulate payday lenders.

“She talks about the fact that she introduced payday loan reform, but she voted against capping the interest rate,” Barnes said. “That’s something that she can’t run from. She’s trying to, as she should. But it’s fact.”

Taylor said the charge is only partly true and doesn’t reflect her wish to get a bill passed.

“It’s disingenuous to say to people, ‘Oh, she didn’t vote for a cap.’ I actually authored a lower cap before, but did vote for the cap not to exist, so we could at least get something done.”

Taylor and Barnes also differ on a few other topics, notably education and guns. Barnes said the senator was wrong to vote for the concealed carry of firearms and the so-called Castle Doctrine, allowing more people to use deadly force in self-defense.

“This race is about public safety, about making our community safer,” Barnes said. “It’s about combating the scourge of gun violence and realizing that more guns aren’t the answer to combating gun crimes in Milwaukee and across this state.”

Barnes also said Taylor has done too much to help private voucher schools. He’s claiming the progressive label in the 4th District Senate race.

“If you look at the specifics, the reason why I’m in this race – if you consider standing strong for public education, working to get guns off the street and providing economic opportunity to people – then that would make me the more progressive candidate,” Barnes said.

But Taylor isn’t ready to give up the left end of the spectrum, saying she’s been a champion of corrections reform to help current and former inmates.

“Justice reinvestment has led to work we’re doing in two communities right now,” Taylor said. “One where we received a technical assistance grant and the other where we literally are doing the work to remove the barriers for people to re-enter.”

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, a Democrat who said he works with Republicans to get things done, endorsed Taylor this week.

Barnes highlighted support from the Milwaukee County bus drivers union, the American Federation of Teachers and the immigration rights group, Voces de la Frontera.

No Republicans are running in the race, so Tuesday’s Democratic primary between the longtime lawmaker and her younger challenger will likely settle the contest.