The Serious Politics of the ‘People’s Candidate’ for State Senate

by Madison Area DSA’s Electoral Politics Working Group

In just her first candidacy for public office, Nada Elmikashfi exposed all the ways in which politics as usual in Madison was never good enough. In her run for State Senate, she shook up a status quo that has held for far too long. Even if you put Fred Risser’s unbearably long tenure aside, it’s rare for any incumbent in Madison to face a challenge. That such a challenge came from a young Muslim immigrant working class woman of color with extremely good politics brought much needed new perspective, and a glimmer of hope into a city whose politics are often very myopic. She did this in lots of ways that are worth exploring, one of which is how she stood outside the business as usual of Madison progressive politics.

Most Madison campaigns fit inside extremely narrow ideological and temperamental bounds. Vague, polite, non-confrontational progressivism is the name of the game. Candidates do their best to exude the energy of that box-checking, post-2016 yard sign: “In this campaign we believe science is real, love is love, black lives matter, etc. etc.” The Madison Candidate wants you to know they’re on the right side of the issues, but they would prefer not to quarrel over them. No doubt some Madisonians would like to think that this is because there is broad political agreement within the city. Or perhaps, if there is disagreement it’s better for everyone to “take the high road,” because we’re all in this together aren’t we? But there are winners and losers in all politics. If no one is fighting it’s because someone has already won.

But there are winners and losers in all politics. If no one is fighting it’s because someone has already won.

When we can only conceive of politics as a polite affair where candidates not only can, but must elide their differences due to some notion that everyone wants what’s best, we lose sight of the fact that lives and livelihoods hang in the balance. In politics, there are real, material conflicts of interest that are going to be sorted out one way or another. Housing cannot become more affordable without hurting landlords’ bottom line. Lake levels can’t be lowered to stave off flooding without affecting the value of lakefront property. Racial justice cannot be achieved without hurting the profits of the prison industrial complex. If a candidate is a meaningful threat to those interests, powerful forces are going to fight back with everything they’ve got. If that fight does not manifest in the campaign, if everyone campaigning is on the same side, then it is pretty clear whose side that is.

Nada brought these conflicts to light by speaking honestly about what is happening politically in Wisconsin. She called out Kelda Roys for owning a real estate company and (through a combination of personal loans to her campaign and big dollar donations) essentially buying her way into the State Senate. She swiftly denounced a bill co-authored by a Democratic State Senator that would have been used to criminalize Black people. There are some who might dismiss this as unnecessarily antagonistic, but the antagonisms are present whether they are acknowledged or not. The ways in which established politicians reacted to Nada make this clear. Roys, despite declaring her candidacy months after Nada and others, claimed to be the only person running for Risser’s seat. Former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz wrote an entire blog post dedicated to calling Nada unserious. Tim Carpenter responded to Nada’s criticism by harassing her online to the point that he was reprimanded by the State Senate Minority leader. These antagonisms came out not just because of the policies that Nada stood for, but because of who she is.

Much of these reactions were based on racism, sexism, age-ism, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment. A Madison born white male candidate with the exact same policies, levying the exact same criticisms would not have faced the same blowback. In this way, Nada’s identity cannot be extricated from her politics. There are meaningful political differences between a white man calling for racial justice and a Black woman doing the same and the differing reaction speaks to that. 

Through being serious about the issues, honest about how our system works and just plain being herself, Nada put the Madison political establishment extremely off balance.

In addition to how politicians and pundits react to each other, identity shapes the ,way candidates react to events outside of their control as well. Kelda Roys, during the height of the George Floyd protests, was put in the absurd position of trying to make the case that she (as opposed to any of the numerous candidates of color running for the seat) would be the one to deliver on racial justice. Politics is above all about trust and credibility. Particularly in the absence of an established, cohesive political movement, identity plays a huge role in who has it and who doesn’t.

Through being serious about the issues, honest about how our system works and just plain being herself, Nada put the Madison political establishment extremely off balance. Even though she didn’t win her campaign, she’s already left an indelible mark on the city. Nada brought the politics back into Madison politics. Hopefully it is here to stay.

Members of Madison Area DSA formed the Electoral Politics Working Group to advance democratic socialism through local political bodies, including elected offices. To learn more about the efforts of the working group and to find out when they meet and how to get involved, visit our chapter website.

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