Wisconsin Political Activists Hope A 'Silent Canvass' Will Win Back Black Voters Wisconsin Democrats are trying to re-elect Sen. Tammy Baldwin and unseat Gov. Scott Walker. African-Americans are a key part of the coalition necessary to do so.

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

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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.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Black turnout falls.


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


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.



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.


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...


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

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some people have moved.


ROBINSON: Yeah, about four minutes.

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


GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are dogs.


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.


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


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.


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