Battlefield Wisconsin: DNC Member Khary Penebaker Talks Dems in 2020

by: Adam James

The state of play in Wisconsin could be a harbinger of how the 2020 election will go. The state has been inundated with voter suppression tactics and extreme gerrymandering, both designed to suppress Democratic votes and benefit the Republican Party. In 2016, the tactics successfully allowed Donald Trump to flip the state and gain its 10 electoral votes.

That year, Khary Penebaker ran for Congress in one of the most gerrymandered districts in the state. He did not get the same national attention that former Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan’s, district got, but Penebaker’s story is arguably much more compelling.

Today Penebaker represents the state of Wisconsin in the Democratic National Committee (DNC), is an executive board member of the Wisconsin state Democratic Party, and shares in the credit for bringing the 2020 DNC convention to Wisconsin—where later this year the winner of the Democratic primaries will be officially nominated to take on Donald Trump or Mike Pence in the general election. His earlier life looked much different.

When he was a young man, his mother took her own life with a gun which later drove her son to commit his life to activism and advocacy for passing gun regulations that are supported by the majority of Americans of all political persuasions. He has been active with Moms Demand Action and Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety. He speaks statewide and nationally about the effects of gun violence in the United States. (As an individual voter, Penebaker endorsed New Jersey Senator Cory Booker for president. My interview with him was conducted prior to Senator Booker’s withdraw from the race for president.)

“Cory assured me that he would not just focus on those high profile shootings like Sandy Hook and Aurora and Pulse, but he would also talk about gun suicides. He ha[d] a policy specific to gun suicides like my mom. He is the only one that [had] a policy like that.” Penebaker is used to receiving sympathy as a response to his story but wants more from our public officials. “Don’t just offer platitudes, offer a solution and if you are committed to addressing it, I’m going to stand with you.” 

Khary Penebaker with American Flag "Your political affiliation doesn't shield you from a bullet. There are Republicans who die from gun violence just like Democrats do."

Democrats will need people like Penebaker to be energized this election year, not just in his capacity as a member of the DNC but as a Wisconsinite and Midwesterner. There is a real danger for the eventual Democratic nominee of repeating what happened in 2000 and 2016—winning the popular vote (the rest of the democratic world just calls it “the vote”) and falling short in the Electoral College. I asked Penebaker to talk a little bit about winning the interior of the US.

“So the voters here are not a monolith, but we definitely don’t want to be ignored,” Penebaker said. Beyond being present, Penebaker wants the party as a whole to take on the Republican efforts in Wisconsin, and across the country, to disenfranchise Democratic voters head on. “Under (former WI governor) Scott Walker, we had racist policies that were designed to disenfranchise black and poor voters with racist voter I.D.,” he said. “There was a Republican, whose name was Dale Schultz, who said after Scott Walker implemented his racist voter I.D. policy that this is nothing short of voter disenfranchisement.  That’s all that they’re doing. [Republican policy makers] have no interest in making the vote more secure. What they want to do is limit the amount of people who can actually vote, which really means that Republicans don’t actually care about policy. They just care about power. If your policy was good, you’d want more and more people to vote on it because that’s a testament to how good your policy would be.”

Penebaker also recognized the threat of false claims that Democrats have somehow abandoned the Midwest. “It’s why, despite the fact that I live here in Wisconsin, that I was such a strong proponent for having the DNC convention come here. What’s the best way to address that concern? Bringing the party here. So let’s bring the party here, win these voters back and continue to show up for people, not just show up when you want a vote, but participate here. Show that the issues and concerns of Midwestern voters matter as much as that of California and New York voters.” Penebaker wants the Democratic candidates to show Wisconsin voters that they have their backs. “You have union concerns, teacher’s concerns, gun violence concerns. All these kinds of issues matter to the folks here in Wisconsin. And we want to make sure that our elected officials, especially at the federal level, are addressing those concerns.”

And so far, the candidates and the party have been trying to demonstrate that commitment, “Cory has been here twice [in 2019]. Kamala has been here. Bernie’s been here. Beto was here in the beginning. So, I mean, it matters that the people show up.” Penebaker explained that the statewide party is already firing on all cylinders. “Our state party is engaging in ways that we hadn’t before. In fact, in November, our state party organized the entire state and knocked on 50,000 doors in two days. That’s pretty amazing because we realize the importance of getting people to turn out Democrats to vote. And I believe that there’s going to be some disaffected Republican voters who are more moderate and reasonable who realize this government isn’t working for them. They were sold a bill of goods that never came to fruition. And it’s our job as Democrats and advocates to show them that there is a better way. And I’m glad that our candidates are doing a pretty good job of doing it. And I’m glad that our state party and the DNC recognizes that as well.”     

Where once upon a time the Republican Party and their donors used gun laws as a wedge issue to great effect against Democrats, fueled by funding and activism from the gun manufacturers’ lobbying arm, Penebaker has seen a near complete turnaround in how the country views proposals on guns. Americans are coming together to protect their communities, “I remind people that gun violence is an apolitical thing. Your political affiliation doesn’t shield you from a bullet. There are Republicans who die from gun violence just like Democrats do. In October of 2016, state Senator Rick Gudex shot and killed himself. He was a Republican. So just because you might be a gun rights supporter, and a Republican, it does not mean that you are immune from the deadly scourge of gun violence.”

It’s hard to believe that prior to the founding of Moms Demand Action—following the massacre of elementary school children and their teachers in New England by a deranged young man fully armed by his own parent, and the mobilization of young people following the deadly school shooting at a high school in Florida—gun laws were only a major voting issue for the GOP. It was one of the big two manipulation tools Republican Party operatives deployed to inflame their voters when their candidates would otherwise fail to excite the base.

Penebaker believes that an informed public, tired of hearing about the next massacre and afraid they or someone they love will be the next casualty, are ready to vote on the issue in Wisconsin and around the country. “Well, you have to look at it at the macro level,” Penebaker explains. “If you look back in 2008, in the presidential campaign there, there was a very little, if any, talk about gun policy. Same thing in 2012. It was very little.” Fast forward to 2016, and Hillary talked about it more. Secretary Clinton rolled out endorsements from—and campaigned with—the Mothers of the Movement, a group of primarily women who have lost loved ones to a gunman’s bullet. “And so there’s progress, and this is because of the effort from Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety. There are also some Republican legislators (and former legislators) who will advocate for common sense gun reform. In fact, oddly enough, Joe Walsh–who is a former Trump supporter now running against him in what remains of the GOP primary system, the former congressman from Illinois, who is a Tea Party Republican and who, while in Congress, advocated against gun policy, now, if you talk to him, you’ll be hard pressed to find something that I advocate for that he’s against.”

Penebaker is full of optimism when it comes to the direction of this issue. “It’s unfortunate that Republican legislators only look at this in terms of re-election rather than saving lives,” he said, but it’s also clear that he’s more than ready for Republican officials to catch up to the public. “Because at the end of the day, I literally don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat. I want you to advocate for common sense gun policy, the kind of policy that we know is going to save people’s lives. It’s our job is to advocate to whoever is in power. And if those people who were in power aren’t going to do the right thing in terms of common sense gun policy, we will vote them out.”

The New York Times editorial board, over the weekend, gave an effective illustration of the inner debate that has been brewing within the political left-of-center since the 2016 Democratic Primary. Does the party want to nominate a candidate who is proposing large scale structural change? Or a candidate advocating incremental change under a banner of doing what’s “realistic?” The editorial board effectively punted, explaining to voters that they recommend that Democrats choose between Senator Elizabeth Warren, representing the former, and Senator Amy Klobuchar for the latter (remarkably over former VP Joe Biden who has largely dominated the polls.)

I asked Penebaker to share his views on this debate and how it will play out in Wisconsin. “That’s a tough one,” he said. “Because while I am a progressive at heart, I also want to get legislation passed. So one of the things that Cory [Booker] said in the Houston debate is that it is good to have lofty and high aspirational goals in terms of policy. But we have issues that need our immediate attention today. There are a hundred people every single day that die from gun violence. Every single day. We don’t have time to wait on that. We need policy today to save as many lives as possible. So if we’re only focusing on high aspirational goals only, and ignore the kind of policy that would impact people’s daily lives today, for example there are people who need insulin today and the price is too expensive for them. So we should be able to look at something to work towards without ignoring what we need to do right now.”

This debate is also a result of poor media coverage and Republican mischief. Most of the Democrats who are advocating for a single-payer health insurance program to replace the profit driven private insurance system currently in place now are already on the record, in part, thanks to MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell asking candidates like Senator Warren if she would sign or veto a bill that falls short of single-payer who didn’t hesitate to say yes adding, “I will sign anything that helps.

Penebaker reminds us that the power of the presidency is limited, and that the priorities for elections need to be spread up and down the ballots. Something Penebaker reports that Cory Booker focused on during his campaign. “I think some people ignore that part of the process, it’s not just electing a president. We need to also elect people down ballot who are going to work with that president to ensure that we have the kind of legislation that we know will impact the people today and in the future.”

Of course, that effort doesn’t stop at the city limits of Washington, DC. “We need state level elected officials who are going to be doing the right thing instead of what we see here in Wisconsin with our Republican controlled legislature who will do absolutely nothing. In December, they put forward a resolution to address the name of the tree that sits in the Capitol. They wanted it to be called a ‘Christmas tree.’ That’s the kind of nonsense these people are working on. We have 600 plus gun deaths a year here in Wisconsin, yet, they spent 45 seconds in both chambers total, to gavel in and gavel out so they don’t have to address the issue. We can’t just focus on electing a president. We need a holistic approach on how we address all of these issues that matter to every single one of us. I think by and large, our large body of candidates who are running, for the most part, have the same objective. It’s just a different path on how to get there.”

So, what does Penebaker think about the best approach for policy making when it comes to the most important policy subject to Democratic voters in 2020: Healthcare? “One thing, that when I ran for Congress in ‘16 that I would talk to people about, is that there’s a difference between advocacy and policy. So, you know, as an advocate, I mean, you might want the world, right? You have this goal and you want to get there. It’s aspirational and all that kind of stuff. But when you look at how policy is formed, we don’t have a dictatorship here. Whether it’s Cory or Bernie, they can’t just wave a magic wand and all of sudden give you Medicare for all. It doesn’t work like that.”

Penebaker reminds us that, “We need a Congress that is going to work with the president to see that those initiatives are put in place. And also, though, we need to be able to understand how that process is going to work within the health care system. You have more than a million people who have jobs in that industry. What happens to them? Are their jobs going to be secure? What about the people who do work for the insurance industry? I’m not, obviously, advocating for the insurance companies. But what about those jobs? What happens to that? That’s not to say, you know, we forego the brilliant policy of Medicare for all in lieu of saving these jobs. But we need to have a whole policy that addresses those kinds of concerns.That’s why we also know it’s not going to happen overnight.” The first steps, no matter who wins in November, will be shoring up the Affordable Care Act and making sure that people actually are getting the care that they need.

It can be scary for voters to hear about big structural change to the health care system that they know, even when it hasn’t served them well. Change is scary. But it’s incumbent on every advocate to remind voters that the changes being proposed are designed to change how health care is paid for, not changes to the care received. It’s about removing a profit motive from the system to empower doctors to order the care they have determined is needed. It’s also about creating a huge pool of patients that gives consumers a bargaining power they don’t have in the current system to drive down costs. Even Democrats buy into calling single-payer “government healthcare.” It’s not. It’s a government accounting department. We trade the crazy billing, the dependence on employers and private insurance company that can deny almost any procedure they want, for paying premiums in the forms of taxes and then going to the doctor and letting them do their jobs.

Penebaker breaks it down this way, “I believe health care is a human right, and it shouldn’t be something that is only the benefit for those who can afford it. If you look at this from purely economic perspective, the less your health care costs means the less your premiums are going to have to be and the more money you’ll have to inject more currency into the overall economy, which helps everybody. Or more simply, the less you spend on X, the more you can spend on Y. And if people are healthier, they can work more. They can produce more. That’s a larger tax base. It is a good thing to have that kind of policy.” But Penebaker added, “We can’t just talk about the top line. We need to talk about the granular details of how this is going to affect people. But I’m not one of those people, though, who’s going to sit there and harp on what how do we pay for it? I mean, how do we pay for war? We don’t ever have that conversation. We figure it out. But there are still some ancillary things that need to get addressed.”

The 2016 election results in Wisconsin failed to demoralize Democratic activists and voters. The Republican efforts to disenfranchise voters that succeeded in winning the state for Donald Trump were inadequate to defeat the backlash—Democrats came out strong in 2018 to rebuke the Trump GOP. I asked Penebaker to talk a little bit about that and to relate that to the political battle ahead.

“So thankfully, we voted here in Wisconsin to elect all five statewide constitutional officers. From Tammy Baldwin at the Senate, all the way down to the state treasurer, are now all Democrats. So that shows you once you eliminate or take away at least the influence that gerrymandering has [had] on our voting process, Democrats win.” That said, he explained the remaining challenge, “[Democrats] won the majority of votes here, but yet we have fewer seats in the legislature because of gerrymandering. So there is a case that we took before the Supreme Court. It got kicked back down to the appeals court to address the political gerrymandering we have here. As a party, we need to make sure that people know our party and our candidates are advocating for the kinds of issues that are going to make their lives better. And I think we’ve done a very good job of doing that [in Wisconsin.]”

In 2018, Democrats in the state defeated GOP governor and former presidential candidate, Scott Walker, who had spent much of his time in office disenfranchising voters, attacking unions, and demagoguing against Democrats. “I think our governor, Tony Evers, has done a very good job of not really throwing bombs like Scott Walker was,” Penebaker explained. “He’s a very calm, collected individual who sees the greater good in things. He wants to make sure that our kids have the kind of resources that they need. He went from being a teacher—he was a science teacher—to being a governor, and because of that experience he understands the value of public education. He understands the value of unionized labor. He understands that we are, as a state, better when we work together instead of trying to be divisive. He doesn’t operate like that, but it’s just unfortunate that we don’t have more elected officials that are willing to work with him because they’re spending time talking about what they call a tree.”

Penebaker is optimistic about Democrat’s chances across the state. “We have a very good slate of candidates that are running in the congressional districts. We have candidates running at the state level. So I think voters are going to have a wide range of choices because a lot of times, what has happened in the past, candidates on the right are running unopposed because these districts are so gerrymandered and so set up for them to simply park in those seats that potential candidates were turned off from running. But if you look at what Tony Evers did in winning 70 out of 72 counties when he won his race a couple of years ago for state superintendent of public schools, he’s showing candidates, ‘hey, you don’t have to be afraid to run. It’s a daunting task. But at the same time, if you believe in what you stand for, you’ll show up and get your name on the ballot.’ But if you aren’t willing to do that, and not everybody can, you gotta show up to vote.”

Governor Evers, Attorney General Josh Kaul, and activists like Khary Penebaker know they have a tough election year ahead. Donald Trump was in Wisconsin again on January 15 to rally his faithful against his impeachment trial, brag about ordering a hit on an Iranian official, and the passage of NAFTA 2.0. Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden are popular in the state, but whoever accepts the Democratic nomination in Milwaukee in July will need to prioritize reclaiming the Badger State as well as Michigan and Pennsylvania. There will be little room for error.   

**Correction 1/27/2020: The title originally identified Penebaker as “DNC Chair” in error. He is a member of the DNC representing Wisconsin and an executive board member of the Wisconsin state Democratic Party. The Chair of the DNC is still Tom Perez.