When mulling Henry Sanders’ bid for Lieutenant Governor in a state like Wisconsin, it might seem slightly surreal at first glance. After all, he is a Black man in a Midwestern state where less than 7 percent of the population is African American. It might appear somewhat quixotic, but so did Candidate Deval Patrick’s run for Governor of Massachusetts in 2006. Sanders reminds you a little of Patrick. Despite running in a state less than 6 percent African American, Patrick managed to easily win 50 percent of the Democratic primary vote in a crowded field (including 50 percent in Boston), moving on to slam his Republican opponent in the general by nearly 20 points.
But, then again, Sanders is only running for Lt. Governor … right? Conventional wisdom might relegate that spot to nothing more than ceremonial, but Sanders is ready to take it next level. “A lot of people look at the Lieutenant Governor’s office as ribbon-cutting, a simple stepping stone to higher office. I’m running to change that. Helping people is real for me, and if we’re going to turn this economy around, we need all hands on deck.”
Winning a statewide race is no easy haul, particularly in a state of 6 million, holding major cities like Madison, Racine and Milwaukee. But, Sanders’ energy and youthful, under-40 optimism is winning fans. He recently bested two other opponents, State Assembly Majority Leader Tom Nelson and State Senator Spencer Coggs, by a 2-to-1 margin during the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s 2010 Convention WisPolitics.com Poll.
Ask Sanders about that, and he’ll disarm you with an unusual degree of humility for someone running. And that talk about being Wisconsin’s first African American elected to statewide office? The Madison native and owner of Capacity-360 – a government relations and business resources firm – is only focused on winning at the moment, and race is an issue that appears tangential at best.
“Honestly, with the economic challenges we face, most people are concerned about a lot of other things before they think about race,” observes Sanders in an exclusive interview with Politic365.com. “They’re more worried about finding a job and putting food on the table. So when I walk into a room, people see me as a small business guy who is talking to them about the issues they care about most – someone who has a real plan to help them find work, and has a track record of getting the job done.”
That “track record” is shown through heavy involvement in business development and non-profits. Sanders, a former aide to Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), also founded the Madison Area Growth Network (MAGNET) and Propel Wisconsin Innovation, each organization focused on job creation and opportunity incubators in the Badger State. “The tough economy is actually the reason why I decided to run for Lieutenant Governor,” says Sanders. “Like so many other states across the country, Wisconsin has been hit hard by the national economic downturn. I’m one of the few candidates for public office who has the kind of real world job creation experience we need to help turn things around – and with my economic and workforce development background, I felt I could make a meaningful contribution.”
Expanding on that, the Sanders’ campaign recently rolled out a detailed, 18-point Progressive Recovery plan that lays out a job creation blueprint as a way to recharge Wisconsin’s economy.
Still, Sanders is faced with the uphill battle of a nearly 9 percent unemployment rate in the state and political trouble for Democrats in 2010. The mood is not feeling politicians, particularly in Midwestern states where the unemployment and foreclosures are particularly pronounced.
“People are definitely frustrated with politicians and politics in general,” admits Sanders. “Which makes it a tough environment for any candidate to run in. But that frustration also presents a great opportunity for a campaign like ours. As a small business owner and father of a newborn baby girl, I’m dealing with the same real-world issues working families are facing every day. People seem to appreciate that. They know I understand what they’re going through, because I’m in the same boat.”