Kenosha will be a good bellwether in 2020

After the 2016 presidential election, MSNBC sent Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on a tour of “Trump Country.” The trip included a stop in Kenosha, Wisc. Donald Trump won Kenosha County by .3 percent. Democrats wondered, “why had the former union stronghold had flipped?” For a blip in political time, the national media came to Kenosha. They came back for the shooting of Jacob Blake and the civil unrest that followed. The spotlight is moving on but the far-flung Chicago exurb, with a poverty rate of nearly 18 percent, will be important again in November 2020.

When candidate Trump visited Kenosha in 2016, Michael Moore remarked that he was using “very desperate working class people as his props.” Even Bernie Sanders attributed President Trump’s win to Kenosha’s desperation. Republicans would likely find these statements full of condescension — evidence of the Democrats’ disdain for “real America.” Still, the idea of Kenosha as a town in decline helps explain some of the attention it received after 2016. Towns like it helped power Trump’s victory. 

Kenosha is a county of just over 150,000 in the southern part of Wisconsin. It’s the last stop on a slow train line from Chicago and it’s not all misery. Kenosha lies along the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan. Chicagoans keep their boats there and kids attend sailing school in the summer. The downtown is populated by the mom-and-pop shops of a by-gone era. The ice cream store employs teenagers. The consignment shop is full of baby clothes and toys. Wisconsin is notoriously cold and Kenosha’s one downtown street is decorated with ice sculptures in the winter.

There used to be a Chrysler engine plant in Kenosha. It closed in 2010 and took its union jobs and quality of life with it. The blue-collar (white) men of Kenosha lost their place in the social order. Much has been written about this phenomenon: globalization, the anguish that comes with waning privilege, and possible policy fixes. As the pandemic puts a strain on Trump’s rust belt revival and his efforts to bring back factory jobs falter, the fortunes of white working-class Kenosha residents could determine the president’s fortunes as well.

Like in America as a whole, Kenosha’s residents of color are poorer on average than the town’s white residents. While the going was good at Chrysler, discrimination kept Black men (and women) out of the best union jobs. The 2016 post-mortem barely mentioned that a non-white person lives in Kenosha. In fairness, most of Kenosha County is white – about 84 percent. Still, Black people are the most reliably Democratic demographic and black turnout was down in Wisconsin in 2016. Only in the wake of a national reckoning on racial injustice did black people gain a prominent place in Kenosha’s public narrative.

For residents, the push for policing reform has been long-term and sometimes crosses racial lines. In 2014, NPR ran a story on Michael Bell Sr. whose son was shot by Kenosha police in 2004. Bell Jr. was shot in the head, at point-blank range, while his mother and sister watched. An officer wrongly thought that Bell Jr. was grabbing for his gun. The Kenosha Police Department cleared the officers of wrongdoing within 48 hours. Bell Jr. was white as is his father. After 10 years of advocacy, Bell Sr. helped mandate outside investigations of officer-involved shootings in Wisconsin. Commenting on the everybody-knows-everybody nature of small towns, a local reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked of Kenosha Police Department’s investigation, “so, if you know this officer, if you’ve worked with him before, can you really be objective in terms of evaluating that shooting? And is it proper for the police to be policing themselves?” 

The shooting of Jacob Blake brought these questions back to the fore. This time, with a needed focus on racial justice. When Ahmaud Arbery was shot on a quiet Georgia street lined with the state’s beautiful Spanish moss, the shooters had worked in law enforcement. They knew so many people in the district attorney’s office that two prosecutors eventually recused themselves for possible conflicts of interest. Just as factory jobs have gone abroad throughout the rust belt, small towns with a core group of law enforcement and prosecutorial officials are everywhere. Such arrangements rarely benefit the less privileged. The problems of Kenosha are all across America. Now, Black Lives Matter has come to these small places as well as larger cities. It’s a reckoning with political implications.

Kenosha will be a good bellwether in 2020. If the discussion around racial justice is enough to bring more Democrats to the polls, this could outweigh Trump’s popularity with the white working-class protagonists of the media’s globalization narrative. 

A Democratic mayor represents Kenosha City. In 2012, the county went to Obama by a margin of nearly 12 percent and former Rep. Paul Ryan’s Democratic challenger by 7 percent. The margin was even wider for Obama in 2008. But distrust of the system as an agent of change could hamper turnout efforts in the black community and voter ID requirements are still in effect. These rules are believed to have suppressed the black vote in 2016. Further, fires and unrest in Kenosha City may pull some moderates back toward Trump

Democrats face a battle to close the .3 percent gap in Kenosha. Polls show Biden ahead in Wisconsin. But 2016 polls widely bet on Clinton. If Democrats lose Kenosha, they’ll probably lose the state.

Heather James is an assistant professor of political science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY). She is a former resident of Kenosha, Wisc. 

Tags Bernie Sanders Chicago metropolitan area Donald Trump Kenosha County, Wisconsin Kenosha, Wisconsin Midwestern United States Paul Ryan Post–Civil Rights Era African-American history Shooting of Jacob Blake States of the United States

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