WAUWATOSA, Wis.—Dale Kooyenga is emblematic of how the new populist, working-class shifts in the Republican Party can cut both ways. Trim and handsome at 41 years old and the father of four children, he’s the sort any local political party would want to run: a former college basketball player, an Iraq War veteran, and a major in the Army Reserves. Yet in the once button-downed, middle class, solidly Republican stretch of suburbs and farm country bordering Milwaukee, two things have shifted — and with them, the political fortunes of the local GOP.
First, a growing influx of liberals from the solidly blue city have changed the electorate; second, President Donald Trump of Queens, New York, has changed the party. While Trump’s brash, impulsive and no-bull style reverberates with disaffected union Democrats and other working-class types, those mannerisms aren’t such a hit among the married, Christian, college-educated suburban women that Wisconsin Republicans like former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan could once reliably count on.
“Absolutely, [the top of the ticket] is hurting us here in this part of the WOW counties,” Kooyenga tells us, using a common state acronym for Milwaukee’s three suburban counties. “I think it’s hurting us, but it’s helping us in [rest of the] state so everything that we’ve lost in the WOW counties we’ve picked up with the other people who liked the new brand and the outcomes.”
In a county he won comfortably for years as a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly, Kooyenga’s 2018 state Senate race was a close call, besting his Democratic opponent by just 2.4 points. In all likelihood, his 2022 political fortunes come down two things: if Trump is still in the White House, and if 2020’s redistricting moves him further east into the city, or in any other direction — where his style of Republican politician still resonates.
The question is, does that trade-off with the suburbs keep Wisconsin in play nationally? While he’s focused on his district, Kooyenga thinks so: “Yeah—it’s a margin of error.”
Nothing is quite normal in Wisconsin right now, though. Thursday morning had been an unusual one for Kooyenga, too: Downtown, he’d been meeting with business owners who’d just been the victims of a riot.
We’d taken the express ferry from Michigan to Milwaukee Wednesday afternoon—a quick two-and-a-half hours hurling across open water at about 35 knots — disembarking south of downtown just as a Black Lives Matter mob was pouring onto I-94 a short ways up the highway.
“You might not want to park on the street,” the young valet at the door warned us. “I’m not sure which way they’ll go after police disperse them.” The young concierge upstairs echoed the sentiment.
The protest was in response to news that the Milwaukee County District Attorney Office would not be criminally indicting a police officer in Wauwatosa, a suburb just west of Milwaukee, for fatally shooting a black teenager back in early February.
This shooting wasn’t a case of police killing an unarmed black youth. The victim, 17-year-old Alan Cole, had been armed when police tried to arrest him on Feb. 2. The officer, Joseph Mensah, is also black, and fired only after Cole discharged his weapon, inadvertently hitting himself in the arm.
Further complicating matters is Mensah’s record: This is the third time the officer has killed someone in the line of duty in the last five years — and the third time Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has cleared Mensah of wrongdoing in a fatal shooting.
After the decision, hundreds of protesters first took to the freeway downtown and then made their way towards the scene of the shooting in Wauwatosa. When police in riot gear blocked their path, they turned onto North Avenue and began indiscriminately smashing windows. The police eventually deployed tear gas and pepper balls, the crowd lobbed bricks at the police, and at one point a group of rioters looted a gas station until the police arrived and the guilty scattered.
The next day dawned on a community in shock. Wauwatosa belongs to the relatively buttoned-up and prosperous Milwaukee suburbs. This isn’t Minneapolis or Chicago or Philadelphia: Riots and looting don’t happen here.
One corner of town with a stretch of locally owned shops and businesses was particularly hard hit. At just this one intersection, a half-dozen businesses sustained tens of thousands of dollars in damages as the mob passed by Wednesday night.
Colectivo Coffee only had four windows busted out, but an employee told us it represented at least $1,500 in replacement costs for the owners. He adds that neighbors and volunteers had generously showed up Thursday morning to help with cleanup, although not everyone’s motives are pure. One woman in a Black Lives Matter mask, he says, made a big show of sweeping up broken glass so long as the local news cameras were filming her, but dropped the broom and walked off as soon as the cameras panned away. “She didn’t even pick up the pile of glass she was sweeping.”
Across the street, a group of middle-aged guys are cutting plywood sheets and boarding up the shattered storefronts of a local pharmacy, a wallpaper and paint store, and a nail salon. None of them work at these places — they’re just here to lend a hand.
Andrew Geisler, a 42-year-old marketer from East Wauwatosa, tells us he’d been out for a run that morning and saw his buddy putting up plywood and decided he had to come over and help. He doesn’t resent peaceful protesters, but like a lot of his neighbors, he’s angry at those responsible for smashing windows.
“This just diminishes what the protests are about,” he says, adding that he’s afraid another mob will form tonight and over the weekend. Geisler and the others all reference the unrest in Kenosha. “Some of these people are just looking for trouble,” he says. “But this has been happening all over.”
A few doors down, the Swan U-Serve Pharmacy, an independently owned pharmacy that’s been open since 1972, is also getting boarded up. The owner, Randy Dawes, 65, tells us the single broken window out front will cost him about $1,400 — and that’s out of pocket because it’s a little less than his insurance deductible.
Dawes mentions it’s not just businesses — a 70-year-old woman who lives not far from the pharmacy was at home Wednesday night when someone in the mob tossed a brick through her window.
He employs about 20 people here, and they all know the neighborhood well. One employee, an older woman who didn’t want to give us her name, said Wauwatosa used to be very conservative and Republican but in recent years has been getting more liberal and diverse. “We welcome it,” she says. “Change is good.”
At the end of the row is a Kumon Math and Reading Center for local youth—a business whose purpose is to educate children. Every one of its street-facing windows was smashed on Wednesday night. Some of the window-smashing was caught on video and posted to Twitter, which is how Geisler and a bunch of other volunteers found out about it.
That business they're attacking? It's called @Kumon_NA. It's a math tutoring program… it teaches kids math. I learned a lot there. https://t.co/NB0eo8mON8
— Christopher Bedford (@CBedfordDC) October 8, 2020
The manager and head instructor there is Wissam Kaddoura, 47, who emigrated to the United States from Lebanon and settled in the Milwaukee area 20 years ago. He isn’t going to let a mob stop his work: When we walk in he’s sweeping up broken glass outside his office, determined to open his classrooms that afternoon.
“These people just have hate inside them,” he laments. “Is this the way you solve problems? We’re barely making it with the lockdowns, and now this.”
Kaddoura’s Kumon center had been out of business thanks to the governor’s lockdowns for three months over the spring and summer. He lost half his students, and only now is beginning to rebuild. He employs a dozen people at the center, and his students are a diverse group from all over the metro area.
He doesn’t understand the mindset of the rioters: “I’d love to ask the people who did this what they hope to accomplish,” he says, then jokes, “I’m living the American dream—working and working, and now cleaning up glass!”
As we made our way toward the door to leave he stops us and lowers his voice. “I lived for 28 years in a refugee camp. I saw people die in the streets. So this broken glass is nothing to me. But the people who do this, I want to know what they’re thinking.”
“I love this country. America gave me everything — education, wealth, safety for my children. I don’t have to worry about anything. Broken glass is no problem. People are asking me if we’re going to close today — no, we have kids to teach.”