There’s a lot going on in Wisconsin politics. From the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out to funding for the businesses and workers who have been hurt by the pandemic. Not to mention the political divisiveness among state lawmakers.

To unpack some of these issues, Lake Effect’s Joy Powers invited listeners to submit questions to ask Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes to learn more about his and the governor’s work. Here are his answers:

What are you and the governor doing to alleviate some of the confusion around the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out process?

“In the same way that states were left to figure out how to manage the pandemic, how to manage the crisis itself was emblematic of the way we had to manage the vaccine distribution, we needed a nationalized plan because unfortunately the guidelines that states had made it a little bit more difficult,” he says. “With that being said, we are working with not just the Department of Health Services, but we are also working with community health providers and other groups to make sure that we are able to answer any questions.”

How is the state government involved in coordinating who can get a vaccine and finding where they can get it?

Barnes says while local health departments are on the front lines of signing patients up, maintaining lists of who is eligible to get the vaccine and who has been placed on the waitlist, the state has been working on adding additional resources to that effort.

“The governor signed Assembly Bill 4 which will expand our vaccine efforts by allowing pharmacy techs and students to be able to administer vaccines under certain conditions as well and the COVID vaccine registry is rolling out March 1 so that anybody can go check their eligibility and schedule,” he says. “This will be piloted in a number of communities first and rolled out to other local health departments who’ve expressed their interest.”

What are you doing to make sure that the state is responding to issues and helping Wisconsinites despite partisan fighting?  

“The way we close that divide is for people to get involved in this process, we have made it very clear as an administration where we stand in terms of the need for us to combat this virus with everything that we have and while we are waiting for the Legislature to match that commitment, we need people to reach out to their legislators,” he says.

Barnes emphasized that COVID-19 does not discriminate based on political ideology.

“This thing has been ravaging through communities with no respect for political beliefs and it is a shame that it has been addressed with such, such partisanship,” he says.

Can you explain how CARES and PPP funding have been allocated in Wisconsin?

“Our Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) has been in charge in making sure that not only our struggling businesses get the support that they need but to make sure its done in an equitable way,” he says.

While those funds were allocated by the federal government, Barnes says the WEDC has been working as a connector between businesses and the available funds.

“It can be confusing. For those business owners, those small business owners especially who may not have all the resources, who can’t afford to hire a lobbyist or a government affairs consultant, we are asking you to be sure to be in close communication with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation,” he says.

What are you and the governor doing to counter renewed efforts to further gerrymander the state?

“The governor created the People’s Maps Commission, and they are continuing to do great work,” he says. “In the State of the State, that our budget will require the state legislature to take up the People’s Maps and prohibit them from destroying public records related to this process because we saw that is what happened last time. The people deserve so much more than having to repeat these tired trends,” Barnes says.

Should Wisconsinites be worried about recent efforts to put more restrictions on voting in the state?

“It’s absolutely something they should be concerned about and I can say that the governor’s already indicated that anything to prohibit voting he is going to veto but I will mention that the fact that these things are even being introduced should scare people,” he says.

Barnes says the state should instead be focused on expanding voting rights and making it easier to vote in Wisconsin.

“There are so many more things we need to be doing to expand voting rights and gerrymandering is a big piece of that, again [Republicans] saw that their strategy of very regressive thinking was not getting them anywhere and they didn’t want to change to follow the will of the people, instead they tried to keep more people from voting,” he says.

What do you see as your personal mission as a politician and how does that square with the work you are doing right now?

“I want to be effective and the work that I do now in this office is informed by the work I did before ever running for even a seat in the Assembly, my work as an organizer. Making sure that communities that had not gotten what they deserve could have a fighting chance,” he says.

Barnes says his work is about giving people opportunity.

“I think about the need for us to continue to work to fully fund our schools, to make sure that we are on the forefront of criminal justice reform, reducing our spending on the Department of Corrections so that we can put more money into community, so that we can provide good paying jobs and health care to people all over Wisconsin regardless of their zip code, regardless of their income,” he says.

(Adapted from “COVID-19, Partisanship, Voting Rights: Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes Answers Your Questions,” Feb. 24, 2021, WUWM 89.7)