August 14, 2019
Special Guest Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
Character, one would presume, still counts in politics. That’s at least the delusion under which society prefers to function; pretending against all available evidence that honor and integrity will be rewarded while deceit and duplicity will be punished accordingly.
The harsh reality is that character seems to matter very little.
How else to explain the reaction to Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes’ nonchalant admission that he has been lying to voters for most of his political career?
In an interview with The Isthmus, Barnes confessed that he had never actually graduated from Alabama A&M University despite years of claims to the contrary.
“I had a class. I got an incomplete. I completed the coursework to get that incomplete resolved. It never got turned in,” he said. “It’s a small technical thing…The only difference, in terms of graduating, is the literal sheet of paper.”
The choice of language reveals perhaps even more about Barnes’ character than even his choice to lie about graduating. The commonly accepted definition of “finished college” is rather obviously “graduated,” but Barnes sought to obfuscate by using “finished college” to mean “left college without graduating.”
In so doing, he reasoned, he didn’t technically tell a lie. This isn’t merely being too cute by half; it’s dishonesty about being dishonest. And it is most definitely dishonest.
Rather than admit his mistake, however, Barnes did what he does every time he has been caught doing something wrong—he deflected, made excuses, and blamed someone else.
Through a spokesman, Barnes claimed that a candidate questionnaire in The Wisconsin State Journal last year which listed him as a “graduate of Alabama A&M University” was actually answered by a staffer. See? Barnes didn’t technically tell a lie. Someone else did.
Where that staffer might have gotten the idea that Barnes graduated if not from Barnes himself is anyone’s guess.
Similarly, Barnes has not explained what he meant on May 28th when he tweeted a picture of himself in a graduation cap and gown with the caption “As of today, I’ve been out of college for 10 years.” Nor has he explained a November 10th tweet from his “Mandela for Wisconsin” campaign account tweeting an article in The Atlantic that claims “Barnes graduated from college in 2008 and got his start as a field organizer for Obama that year in Louisiana.”
Barnes himself was quoted throughout the article, meaning that the author pretty clearly learned his graduation status from Barnes himself.
So too did the author of a piece on Barnes in Essence in January, which says that “following graduation from Alabama A&M University in 2008, he worked for a congressional campaign before returning to Milwaukee in January 2009.”
Barnes was the only person quoted in that story.
Naturally, Barnes has not been asked about these discrepancies, and there has been little to no follow-up reporting on his graduation lie after the initial response to The Isthmus story on Friday. Wisconsin’s media, it seems, isn’t nearly as concerned about the character of Wisconsin’s leaders as it would have its audience believe.
If it did, it would have immediately noticed an obvious pattern in Barnes’ behavior.
In May, WisPolitics.com reported that Barnes was so badly overusing State Patrol dignitary protection services that he had already racked up a bill nine times higher than his predecessor had in her entire final year in office.
“Security presence would obviously increase if more work is being done,” Barnes tweeted, apparently expecting a compliant media to simply accept this claim on its face. Even a cursory look at the facts, though, reveals Barnes’ lie: He used State Patrol protection for seven days on which he had no official events on his calendar.
A month later, when The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel learned that Barnes did not pay his 2018 property taxes, Barnes again tried to lie his way out of trouble.
Instead of admitting that he had either forgotten or couldn’t afford to pay, Barnes said that the City of Milwaukee’s Office of the Treasurer was mistaken and that he was in fact paying his bill in installments.
“There is no installment plan, and the taxes are delinquent,” Treasurer’s Office spokeswoman Jesicca Zwaga told the Journal Sentinel.
Confronted with this lie, Barnes told another.
Records indicated that he also owed a small amount in unpaid 2017 property taxes on his condominium, but Barnes said that he had no idea about this since the bill was actually sent to the condo’s previous owners, who now live in Arizona.
Not true, said Zwaga: “Taxes follow the property, not the owner.”
Similarly, lies seem to follow Barnes, as does a steadfast refusal to claim responsibility for them. Instead, he relies on the most noxious of canards—the reckless and mendacious accusation of racism against his critics.
“They don’t challenge me on my policy positions, ever,” he told The Isthmus. “This is a tried and true strategy: racism. It’s not any different than what Reagan did with that supposed welfare queen. It’s not a dog whistle if everybody can hear it.”
The suggestion that Barnes is never challenged on policy after a bruising, eight-month battle over the state budget is of course ludicrous, but again he clearly believes that his unfounded allegations will go unchecked by an unskeptical media.
Were said media to care more about and focus more on character, perhaps, then Wisconsin would be more incensed that its lieutenant governor seems to lack it. He lies about his background, lies about his debts, lies about his lies about his background and his debts, and then when it seems as though he has run out of lies, he lies about the racist motives of anyone who dares to call him on his lies.
And for this he faces no real consequences other than a day or two of unfavorable news coverage followed by a tacit understanding that his various misdeeds will never be reported on again.
Society may like to pretend that character still counts in politics, but when it comes down to it, Mandela Barnes is living proof that it doesn’t.