Wisconsin Democratic Senate nominee Mandela Barnes has previously signaled his support for removing police funding and abolishing ICE, according to a review by CNN’s KFile, despite claiming otherwise in a recent ad in which he speaks directly to the camera to defend his record on those issues.
“Look, we knew the other side would make up lies about me to scare you. Now they’re claiming I want to defund the police and abolish ICE. That’s a lie,” says Barnes to the camera in a recent 30-second television ad called “Truth.”
But a CNN KFile review of Barnes’ social media activity and public comments he made in interview appearances reveal a different and more nuanced picture in which Barnes often signaled his support for such positions.
In multiple posts from 2018 uncovered by CNN, Barnes liked tweets that criticized the immigration agency and called to abolish them. He told a group that supported abolishing the institution in 2019 that the “wrong ICE” was melting and attended one of their “Abolish ICE” local rallies.
This week, Barnes pushed back on attacks on his record on criminal justice and crime, saying he wouldn’t be “lectured on crime” by Republicans, citing the January 6, 2021, riot at the US Capitol in which more than 100 police officers reported injuries.
Barnes, the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, fielded another attack Friday night from incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, with whom he is locked in a tight race. The outcome could determine control of the US Senate next year.
“He has a record of wanting to defund the police,” Johnson said of Barnes during a debate. “And I know he doesn’t necessarily say that word, but he has a long history of being supported by people that are leading the effort to defund, who uses code words like (Missouri Democratic Rep.) Cori Bush said, talking about reallocate over bloated police budgets.”
Barnes shot back that Johnson didn’t have any concern for the “140 officers that were injured in the January 6 insurrection.” Johnson in turn said that he “immediately and forcefully and have repeatedly condemned (the Capitol riot) and condemned it strongly.”
Though Barnes has never outright embraced the “defund the police” slogan, he has on numerous occasions said he supports redirecting or decreasing police funding – even before the slogan gained popularity in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by police.
In one 2020 interview reviewed by CNN, Barnes told a local Wisconsin public radio show that funding should go to social workers and a “crisis intervener or a violence interrupter,” instead of police.
Maddy McDaniel, spokesperson for the Barnes campaign, said he does not support defunding the police or abolishing ICE.
“As independent fact-checkers have verified, Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes does not support abolishing ICE or defunding the police.”
“The wrong ICE is melting”
In previously unreported activity on social media reviewed by CNN’s KFile, Barnes repeatedly liked tweets about abolishing ICE.
He liked one September 2018 tweet that used the “#AbolishICE” hashtag and compared the agency to “modern day slave catchers.” His Twitter account also liked other tweets calling for abolishing ICE twice in July 2018 and twice in June.
“Imagine a world without ICE,” read one of the tweets liked by Barnes.
More on key Senate races
Barnes also once solicited an “Abolish ICE” T-shirt on Twitter in 2018 writing, “I need that,” when offered the Democratic Socialists of America-branded shirt. A photo of Barnes holding a similar shirt later circulated on social media. Barnes told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which first reported on the shirt, he was not part of the abolish ICE movement saying “no one slogan can capture all the work we have to do.”
While speaking to the Wisconsin-based immigration group Voces de la Frontera Action in 2019, Barnes alluded to calls to get rid of the immigration enforcement agency.
“We’re bringing science back. We’re bringing science back for the next generation. We’re bringing science back because the wrong ICE is melting,” Barnes said.
In June of 2018 at a different event from the group, Barnes attended what was labeled a protest to “top the Indefinite Imprisonment of Families & Abolish ICE,” according to photos on his Facebook page.
“Great turnout at Voces de la Frontera’s event to #protest President Trump’s #immigration policies at the Milwaukee Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office! However, there is more to do to ensure that immigrants’ rights – human rights – are protected. Let your voices be heard!” Barnes wrote on Facebook about the event, which featured the executive director of the organization calling for the abolishment of the agency.
Calls to redirecting and decreasing police funding
While he has never outright embraced the “defund the police” slogan, Barnes has long called for reforming or changing policing, especially in communities of color and reducing their budgets.
Speaking in 2015 on a panel entitled “Civil Rights in the Age of Extremism,” Barnes called police officers who don’t live in communities in which they police an “occupying force.” He also advocated reducing police budgets even before the “defund the police” slogan became popular on the far-left in the summer of 2020.
Which policies the “defund the police” slogan stands for are actively debated, with some arguing it means abolishing police departments all together, while others have embraced shifting police funding to other social services in the community. Barnes reiterated support for the latter in a 2012 survey for the organization Vote Smart where he indicated he supported slightly decreasing budgets for law enforcement and corrections.
In early June 2020, Barnes said “defunding” police wasn’t as “aggressive” as it was portrayed, citing budget cuts to other social services.
“Defunding isn’t necessarily as aggressive as a lot of folks paint it,” Barnes said. “You know, school budgets get cut almost every year.”
When asked directly if he supported defunding the police, Barnes told Wisconsin public radio in late June 2020 that he thought funding for police was a “mismatch” compared to other services in the city.
“You can look at the City of Milwaukee, for example, where 45% of the departmental allocations that goes to police while libraries are like two or three percent, neighborhood services, two or three percent,” Barnes said. “I think that you can look at that a, a priorities mismatch.”
Barnes, comparing police budgets to money spent on prisons and the military, said the money could be better spent on social workers or violence interrupters.
“We’re working to reduce our prison population, we’re very intentional about making that happen and it takes that intentionality,” he said. “It’s easy to look at the police department and say, ‘Well, yeah, we are spending a lot of money. How do we get smarter about this?’”
“It becomes the conversation about needs,” he continued. “This isn’t about attacking the police. If anything, it’s about making their jobs easier by implementing programs … where we have services where they wouldn’t have to respond to things that aren’t crime, where they don’t have to respond to, you know, instances that would be better suited for a social worker or some sort of crisis intervener or a violence interrupter that would help, you know, uh, promote peace and communities in the first place.”
“I think that’s where our funding should go,” Barnes reiterated. “What’s going on right now isn’t necessarily working, you know, police brutality is one thing – but in general, uh, the idea of promoting safer communities, I don’t, I don’t think that we’re doing a good job at that.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.
CNN’s Eric Bradner contributed to this report.