Firefighter Mahlon Mitchell is aiming to restore the historic reputation of Wisconsin’s working class with his gubernatorial bid.

Mitchell, who is president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, is one of 11 candidates in Wisconsin’s crowded democratic primary for the 2018 gubernatorial election. However, he stands out from the pack in his open embrace of economic populism and in his union labor background.

“Organized labor built the best middle class in the world. Without unions, that wouldn’t have happened,” Mitchell told Grit Post in a phone interview. “Wisconsin has a proud labor history. AFSCME was founded here. This was a place organized labor looked to for leadership. And now all of that is gone.”

Shortly after his inauguration in 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker effectively dismantled Wisconsin unions by proposing a piece of legislation known as Act 10. That bill was eventually passed, and significantly weakened organized labor’s collective bargaining agreements, compensation, retirement benefits, healthcare, and paid sick leave.

Union leaders even tried to compromise with the Walker administration by agreeing to parts of Act 10 while keeping their collective bargaining rights, but Walker refused to budge. However, Walker exempted firefighter and police unions from Act 10’s provisions.

Gov. Walker, who launched a short-lived presidential campaign last year, is running for a third term in 2018, saying there’s “more work to be done.” However, the firefighter believes the controversial Republican has had plenty of time to fix Wisconsin’s economy, which US News ranked 35 out of 50 (Wisconsin’s neighbor, Minnesota, is ranked #12).

Mitchell is advocating for accepting Medicaid expansion funds available under the Affordable Care Act, directing more funding to public schools, and rebuilding Wisconsin’s roads and bridges (Wisconsin roads were ranked the 4th worst in the country last year by 24/7 Wall Street). He’s also calling for raising workers’ wages and providing “family-sustaining jobs.”

“When people have more money in their pocket, they pump that money into the economy,” Mitchell said. “I go around the state and I represent members as far north as Superior, and as far south as Beloit and Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the South. People are struggling right now. They’re working 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet. It’s tough out here.”

In September, Gov. Walker signed a budget bill that would provide $600 million in new funding for Wisconsin’s K-12 schools. He celebrated the new funding in a photo-op with children tweeted from his official account.

However, Mitchell countered that Walker is simply counting on voters to forget about the steep $1.2 billion cut he made to public education when he first took office.

“That’s like taking a knife, sticking it 8 inches in my back, and taking it out 4 inches, and expecting me to say thank you,” Mitchell said. “I have a daughter who is a freshman at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and a son who is in 8th grade. Education is near and dear to my heart. We have to take care of the future, which is our kids.”

Mitchell argued that Walker’s divisive administration has affected his ability to govern, having been unable to even come to an agreement with Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos about how to address a $600 million transportation budget shortfall. If elected, Mitchell said even though he’s a progressive Democrat, he would be willing to reach across the aisle to more moderate Republicans in order to enact policies beneficial to Wisconsinites.

“[Republicans] have a majority in the senate and the assembly, but Governor Walker couldn’t even agree with his own party to make sure our roads are fixed,” Mitchell said. “I’m ready to compromise and put people first, ahead of politics.”

In particular, Mitchell wants to end the Walker administration’s practice of granting billions of dollars in corporate tax breaks as means of attracting jobs. According to Mitchell, Gov. Walker’s recent decision to give tech manufacturer Foxconn a $3 billion tax break to build a new factory amounts to the governor “picking winners and losers,” citing longtime Wisconsin businesses like Oscar-Mayer and Tyson Foods that weren’t as lucky in securing generous tax breaks.

“Let’s be clear what Foxconn is. It’s a massive tax giveaway of billions of hard-earned taxpayer dollars to a foreign company. I’m not against a factory that would provide 13,000 jobs in the state, if what they promise is true and correct,” Mitchell told Grit Post. “But if you look at small businesses, agriculture, farming, the paper mills, those places are struggling too… We should be lifting everyone up.”

“We won’t see any benefit from Foxconn for 25 years,” Mitchell continued, citing an analysis of the deal by the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau. “There’s no bank that would give you a loan with no return on investment in 25 years. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Data by Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Chart by Mother Jones.

“If we fully fund education, invest in our infrastructure, make sure we have the best healthcare system in the country, make sure our infrastructure is up to date, then companies like Foxconn will want to come to Wisconsin, because we’ll have the best workers in the country, not because we give them $3 billion.”

The firefighter and gubernatorial hopeful stressed that despite his goals of restoring the power of Wisconsin’s unions, raising workers’ wages, and standing up to powerful corporate lobbyists like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, his philosophy isn’t anti-business, but pro-working class.

“They asked Lincoln what the role of government was, and he said it was to do for those who can’t do for themselves,” Mitchell said. “Businesses will still thrive. We need businesses, and I’m not anti-business. But we have to let them know our side is willing, able, and ready to fight for what they believe in.”

While he himself has never held elected office, some of Mitchell’s primary opponents include seasoned legislators like state senator Kathleen Vinehout, assembly member Dana Wachs, and former assembly member Brett Hulsey. On the Republican side, Scott Walker has held office for 8 years and survived a recall attempt in 2012. Mitchell insists his lack of political experience isn’t a weakness, but rather that his career as a firefighter is a qualifying attribute.

“I’m not a career politician. I’m not a political insider. I’m not a pundit, but I think we have enough political insiders and pundits. I’m a firefighter,” Mitchell told Grit Post. “The last 20 years, Governor Walker has been running for office. I’ve been fighting fires for the last 20 years.”


Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.

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