Five Milwaukee Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, are refusing to appear at an NAACP debate to square off against Black Republicans and an Independent, according to a letter they wrote the NAACP that was obtained by Wisconsin Right Now.
Some candidates believe the Democrats’ refusal to hear from black Republicans and an Independent at an NAACP debate would rob Milwaukee’s black community of a chance to hear a robust discussion on the issues through such a prominent platform.
Orlando Owens is a Milwaukee pastor who is seeking the seat to replace outgoing state Rep. Jason Fields in Assembly District 11.
“It is a shame that Democracy is being hijacked this way,” Owens said in response to the Democrats’ letter. “African-Americans in Milwaukee deserve to hear from candidates seeking office, and those who are seeking to be reelected need to bring their platforms to the black community in Milwaukee. It is a shame that these candidates refuse to take an invitation from the oldest civil rights organization – the NAACP. If black lives matter, then black voices do also.” (WRN previously did a feature story on a jobs program that Owens helped found. You can read about it here.)
The letter from the five Democrats is on the letterhead of the Milwaukee County Democratic Party and is addressed to the NAACP Milwaukee branch president. Read the Democrats’ letter in full here.
It starts, “Unfortunately, we must respectfully decline the NAACP’s invitation to attend the planned NAACP-Milwaukee Northside Debate 2020.” It is signed by Congresswoman Gwen Moore, State Sen. LaTonya Johnson (Senate District 6), State Rep. Kalan Haywood (Assembly District 16), Dora Drake (Democratic nominee Assembly District 11), and Milwaukee County Supervisor Supreme Moore-Omokunde (Moore’s son and Democratic nominee, Assembly District 17).
Two Democratic candidates said they would go, according to an NAACP flyer: LaKeshia Myers and write-in Michelle Bryant.
The five who wrote that they will refuse to attend the NAACP debate outlined a list of reasons, including COVID-19 and the NAACP’s Milwaukee Branch Political Action Committee Chair doing political consulting work for a black Republican (Owens) who would be at the debate. However, the debate would have been moderated by two prominent and respected black Milwaukeeans, who each represent different sides of the political equation (talk show host Earl Ingram, who most people consider leaning toward the Democratic side, and Republican Gerard Randall.) Fred Royal, the president of the NAACP, told Wisconsin Right Now’s Jim Piwowarczyk that the NAACP was moving the debate to a Zoom/virtual format to alleviate any COVID-19 concerns. Royal added, “I try not to debate on people’s opinions on social media.”
“The debate is not off; it is virtual,” Royal wrote. “I think it is important to hear all candidates. As you know there are many political parties register(ed) in this country.” He attached a letter of apology the NAACP sent to the Democratic candidates, referring to a “terrible breakdown in communication.” However, he did not respond when asked who is attending the virtual debate and whether the five candidates who wrote the letter have changed their minds. That apology letter does state: “I understood that the debate was designed to be fair and balanced, with the moderators having party affiliation with Democrats and Republicans.” You can read the letter in full here: Letter of Apology.
The candidates seeking to debate the Democrats at the NAACP event are Tim Rogers, who is running against Gwen Moore; Abie Eisenbach, who is is running against Moore-Omokunde; Dennis Walton, who is running as an independent against Kalan Haywood; and Alciro Deacon, who is running as a Republican against Johnson. Walton, Rogers, Deacon, and Owens are black.
“I think there’s something about having to present their record to the people,” Owens said of the Democrats. Some of the candidates, including Drake, have debated their Republican opponents in smaller forums. For example, Owens and Drake debated previously in Glendale, but he says that is only a sliver of his district (and a more white area). He believes the NAACP debate would better reach the vast majority of the district that is largely black.
The letter from the five Democrats fixates on Chris Johnson, a political consultant who is the NAACP’s Milwaukee Branch Political Action Committee Chair. He also runs Kingfish, an investigative website that does hard-hitting investigative reporting on the city and black community and on some who are criticizing the debate now. Owens says Johnson is an independent who has worked on Republican and Democratic campaigns and who created a voter list for his campaign. But he disputed any contention that the debate wouldn’t be neutral with Johnson organizing it, saying, “He’s not the moderator at all. Questions will be created by many different people. The candidates have their own platforms.”
Owens said the NAACP forum “matters because this is the oldest civil rights organization that has been fighting for the freedom of oppressed, black, and brown people. It is the most prestigious.” As a result, the group has a large platform to bring issues to voters, he said, adding that he is a member.
We reached out to several other candidates affected by the controversy but didn’t hear back.
The Democrats’ letter called the plan to “appear in person” even with streaming to the audience “incredibly dangerous and irresponsible” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as noted, the NAACP was then willing to hold the debate virtually via Zoom.
The letter then lists a series of attacks against Johnson, objecting to the “partisan affiliation of the organizer of this event.” It calls him a “compensated consultant for the campaign of one of the participating candidates” and expresses concern that the initial invitation was sent from Johnson’s Kingfish email instead of the NAACP email to some candidates’ state accounts. A comment by Johnson in a flyer for the debate generated controversy; it quoted Johnson as saying, “Candidate debates are the centerpiece of Democracy, those that do not participate are nothing more than political chumps” (that’s a line from Malcolm X). They claimed, “We are not confident that the public can benefit from an event that we believe lacks a good faith effort to be unbiased and transparent.”
Johnson responded in a statement to Wisconsin Right Now:
There is no conflict of interest or bias as it pertains to my involvement as Political Action Committee Chair and organizer of the NAACP-Milwaukee Branch’s NAACP-Milwaukee Northside Debate 2020.
While it is true that I have a private business venture that has provided consulting services for a variety of clients with different political party affiliations including Democrats, Republicans, Independents and others in the past; this does not compromise this venerable civil rights organization from conducting a non-partisan debate nor would it prohibit the debate from being fair and balanced.
All Milwaukee north side candidates running for office during this election cycle that had an opponent were invited to participate in the debate. There are two politically respectable and knowledgeable moderators, one well known Democrat and one well known Republican. I am a volunteer to the NAACP-Milwaukee Branch and have received no compensation from anyone to organize or coordinate this candidate’s debate.
This debate and election is so much bigger and important than any one person or persons.
The debate about the debate has spilled over to Facebook. Political consultant Sherwin Hughes wrote on Facebook, “the event was created to ambush Dem candidates by their Republican opponents. Kingfish, the event organizer, has been spotted on a Republican candidate’s campaign finance report.” Another person criticized “the purely inflammatory rhetoric I’ve seen in their newsletters” on that thread.
A well-known name joined in the thread. Former County Executive Chris Abele then wrote on the thread, “This is really disappointing. The NAACP in Milwaukee has done a lot of good work in the past and I have regularly donated to help it. This stunt – and that’s what it is – is beneath the organization I have proudly supported in the past. I’ll hold off on writing another check until I’m confident that we won’t see more crap like this and go back to a laser focus on advancing Black America, which has never been more important right now.”
The post on The Forum 2 Facebook page was originally by Hughes and read, “I have never seen an organization work harder at diminishing its own credibility like the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP.”
The NAACP apology letter says that a virtual option should have been considered and apologized for “verbiage” in the flyer. It says that “an individual’s private business ventures do not automatically disqualify them from service.”