Jesse Mandela Barnes was born on December 1, 1986 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The son of an auto-worker father and a school-teacher mother, he received his middle name in honor of former South African President Nelson Mandela. Barnes attended high school in the Milwaukee area prior to pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Alabama A&M University. When running for lieutenant governor of Wisconsin years later (in 2018), Barnes and his campaign provided misleading information suggesting that he had graduated from Alabama A&M in 2008. But in fact, he would not officially receive a college diploma until May 2020.
As an undergraduate student, Barnes joined the NAACP. In a 2021 interview, he would identify a 2004 speech by then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention as an “inspirational moment” for his (Barnes’) own political ambitions. “His [Obama’s] speech made me think about the world a little bit differently and think about politics much differently,” Barnes recalled. “In Barack, I saw someone who had a unique experience, and it wasn’t like any other politician. Seeing that happen, seeing him on the stage, I knew it was something that I’d be interested in, being involved in politics in general.”
After leaving college in 2008, Barnes spent six months as a field organizer for the Obama presidential campaign in Louisiana. Returning thereafter to Wisconsin, Barnes held several minor positions within the office of Tom Barrett, the then-Mayor of Milwaukee and a future U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg under President Joe Biden.
Following his tenure with Barrett, Barnes worked for an organization called Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH). A self-described “multi-racial, interfaith organization,” MICAH actively works to “advance racial equity,” promote “increased treatment alternatives to incarceration,” and reverse Milwaukee’s “historic and unacceptable opportunity gaps in the education of our Black students.” As a member of MICAH, Barnes focused his attention on issues like “economic development, education, immigration reform, and treatment inside of prisons.”
In April 2012, Barnes announced his plan to run for the 11th District seat in Wisconsin’s State Assembly. After defeating the incumbent, Jason Fields, in the Democratic primary, Barnes went on to garner 98.8% of the vote in an uncontested general election.
Barnes was sworn in as an Assemblyman in January 2013. Notable legislation which he authored during his first two-year term in office included: a resolution to have the Wisconsin state legislature formally recognize Black History Month; a bill to “ban assault weapons and large-capacity magazines”; a resolution to have the Wisconsin legislature recognize “Juneteenth” as an official holiday; and a resolution to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the start of the “War on Poverty.”
During his second term in the Wisconsin State Assembly, Barnes authored an even greater number of left-wing legislative initiatives, including:
In August 2016, Barnes challenged incumbent Democrat State Senator Lena Taylor for her 4th District Senate seat, but he was soundly defeated by a margin of 60.64% to 39.36%. Moreover, Barnes did not seek reelection to the Wisconsin State Assembly that year.
In December 2016, Barnes served as a deputy director of strategic engagement for a public policy organization called the State Innovative Exchange (SIX) based in Madison, Wisconsin. Promoting leftist legislation at the state level, SIX seeks to “strengthen our democracy, fight for working families, advance reproductive freedom, defend civil rights and liberties, and protect the environment.” Barnes retained his position with SIX until December 2017.
In September 2018, Barnes tweeted a photo of himself wearing a jersey that bore the name and number of former NFL quarterback-turned-radical-activist Colin Kaepernick, who had gained enormous fame by initiating the practice of kneeling during the playing of the pre-game national anthem as a gesture of protest against what Kaepernick viewed as the scourge of racism and police brutality plaguing African Americans.
In 2018 as well, Barnes, as a candidate for Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor, teamed up with gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers and ousted the incumbent Republican Governor, Scott Walker, and his Lieutenant Governor, Rebecca Kleefisch by the narrow margin of 1,324,307 votes to 1,295,080. Barnes assumed the office of Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor in January 2019.
Later in 2019, Governor Evers assigned Barnes to chair a newly established Task Force on Climate Change. “We want to make sure that our work — our good work that’s going to come out of this task force — touches all communities equally,” Barnes stated. He was also among 70 elected officials from the U.S. Climate Alliance to travel to Madrid, Spain, for the COP25 United Nations Climate Change Conference in December 2019. “We need to do everything we can as a global community to address this,” Barnes emphasized.
On December 20, 2019, Barnes penned an op-ed piece emphasizing the need for immediate “global climate action” in the Midwest, lamenting the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, and exhorting Wisconsin to “commi[t] to power itself with 100% renewable energy by the year 2050.” Wrote Barnes:
“In October, Gov. Evers appointed me to lead the task force to create a climate and energy blueprint for Wisconsin’s future. Wisconsin can lead the Midwest and provide a new model of climate leadership in America. We want to harness the power of clean energy not just to create jobs, but to create justice and equity. We must invest directly in the communities who have been affected the most by pollution and climate change — communities of color, Native Peoples and low-income communities — so everyone has access to clean energy jobs and everyone can benefit from a healthy environment. The task force will chart an ambitious course to transition away from polluting energy sources and to modernize our infrastructure so we don’t get knocked out by floods and storms. That’s the Wisconsin [that] Gov. Evers and I are working to create.”
After the infamous death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, Barnes stated that the ensuing tsunami of protests and violent riots – led by Black Lives Matter in many U.S. states including Wisconsin — were the acts of righteous people “stepping up for good reason” – i.e., to condemn what Barnes viewed as the twin epidemics of police brutality and white racism pervading American society. Indeed, he went so far as to declare that the uprisings which followed Floyd’s death were a “sight to behold and something that makes me very proud.” Barnes also attributed the widespread unrest to the fact that there was a lack of racial “equity” amongst American citizens: “Making sure that communities are properly resourced, making sure that children have the same opportunities in all parts of our state — and that’s not the reality right now. It’s certainly not the reality across the United States of America, otherwise, we wouldn’t see the response that we’re seeing.” Moreover, Barnes blamed the “inaction of [the Wisconsin] state Legislature” – whose Senate and Assembly were both comprised of large Republican majorities — for having failed to adequately help such “communities.”
On June 3, 2022, Barnes appeared in an NBC News segment called “Can You Hear Us Now?,” to discuss the theme of “Being Black In America” with actor Don Cheadle, 1619 Project author Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Campaign Zero co-founder Brittany Packnett Cunningham. When asked whether the ongoing violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death should be considered a “riot” or a “rebellion,” Barnes refused to condemn it:
“It’s frustration. It’s frustration. You can’t tell people how to be frustrated. And I go back to the same point over and over again. This didn’t come out of nowhere. Folks didn’t just wake up and decide that ‘we’re gonna break some glass, we’re gonna set some things on fire.’ So on one hand you have the protests that are sending the message directly to leadership, making demands, very specific demands. And you have people who are doing damage. However, the question always comes up, ‘Well, when are the protesters, when are the activists and organizers, gonna hold the people that are doing damage accountable?’ Well, the fact is, organizers are just pushing for accountability as well because that goes to the good cop/bad cop argument. When are good cops gonna hold bad cops accountable? We’re all looking for the same thing. So more than damage, destruction and rebellion, it is frustration. And it didn’t get this way out of nowhere. The onus falls on all elected leadership, all decision-makers who failed to address the crisis before it got to this point.”
In the same NBC News discussion, Barnes said it was vital for the United States to embrace “change” and to “snap out of the white supremacist ideology.”
In a series of tweets which he posted on July 4, 2020, Barnes wrote that “our country’s history and the ways in which we fail to live up to our highest ideals, can make this day difficult to celebrate.” He went on to state: “This nation has a long tradition of injustice—from enslaving Africans and selling them as property to genocidal actions against Indigenous peoples, to the forms of systemic racism and violence Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color experience to this day.” Celebrating also the ongoing George Floyd-related riots and unrest by which left-wing activists were wreaking havoc in scores of American cities from coast to coast, stating that “the reckoning we have witnessed over the last few months has reaffirmed my belief that we can change the course of our nation.” More specifically, Barnes hailed the rioters and arsonists as a “diverse, multi-generational coalition of people marching for justice [who] are demanding that we finally live up to the promises of unalienable rights inscribed in our Declaration of Independence—and that we extend these rights to all people.”
On June 2, 2020, Barnes tweeted: “This country was built by stolen labor on stolen land.” He also claimed that although Americans “have always been” land thieves and exploiters, they had an obligation to “all work to change that.”
On June 10, 2020, Barnes tweeted his support for the defunding of police departments across the United States: “We need to invest more in neighborhoods and community services. The more money we invest in opportunity for people, the less money we have to spend on police and prisons.”
In late August 2020, more civil unrest occurred in Wisconsin following the police shooting of a 29-year-old black man named Jacob Blake in the city of Kenosha. Barnes rejected the notion that President Trump ought to make an appearance in Kenosha as a way of showing that not only Blake’s death , but also the incidence of police brutality targeting young black men, were of great concern to him. Asserting that Trump was not “a real leader,” Barnes accused the President of using “every opportunity that he can to divide the people of this state.” Barnes also blamed the Republican National Committee for attempting to “politicize people who [by means of protests and riots] are crying out, who are stepping up, marching and demanding racial justice.” His vocal, high-profile responses to the Floyd and Blake incidents helped propel his political career into the national spotlight.
After President Trump called for recounts in Wisconsin and other swing states following the November 2020 presidential election, Barnes told CNN host Don Lemon that such efforts were nothing more than a “ploy” and a “waste of time” aimed at “delegitimizing the votes of people of color.” Barnes would later serve as one of ten electors from Wisconsin to cast that state’s electoral votes for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in December 2020.
In July 2021, Barnes officially launched his campaign to unseat incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson in Wisconsin. Barnes received the endorsements of such notable Democrats as Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Jim Clyburn, Rep. Mondaire Jones, Rep. Gwen Moore, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, and Rep. Eric Swalwell.
Barnes’ candidacy for the U.S. Senate also drew the support of numerous prominent leftwing activist groups such as: Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Color of Change PAC, Democracy For America, Everytown for Gun Safety, Human Rights Campaign, J Street PAC, League of Conservation Voters, MoveOn PAC, NARAL Pro-Choice America, National Education Association, Peace Action, National People’s Action/People’s Action and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
During his Senate campaign, Barnes focused heavily on the importance of defending the right to taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand up until the very moment of birth. “I’ll vote to codify Roe vs. Wade into law once and for all,” he vowed. Meanwhile, Barnes characterized Ron Johnson’s views on abortion as “extreme” and “alarming.”
Other top policy priorities of Barnes’ bid for the Senate included the following:
In August 2021, Barnes referred to the founding of the United States as an “awful” historical event. His comment came amid a speech in which he defended the promotion of the tenets of Critical Race Theory (CRT) — which is centered around the theme of America’s timeless and irredeemable track record of evil — in school classrooms. Regarding what he saw as the motives of those who opposed such instruction, Barnes said: “Imagine being so ashamed of how we got to this place in America that you outlaw teaching.”
In October 2022, a 2013 Instagram post that Barnes had written in praise of the notoriously anti-Semitic, America-hating socialist minister Jeremiah Wright resurfaced and was publicized by Barnes’ political opponents. In that post, Barnes described Wright as a “brilliant” man. Barnes also included a picture of himself proudly shaking hands with Wright.