All in favor, say Aye. Aye! All opposed….
Congratulations! With that vote in November 2017, I became Chairman-Elect of the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County. I realized then that my life’s trajectory had finally begun what I hoped would be a continuous incline toward my dreams.
I gave my partner a look—the “Oh God it happened” look—with a burst of excitement and nervousness in my heart. He returned it with a “you got this, and I got you” look of his own, and with that, I felt ready to walk the room. It was the beginning of one of my main roles as County Party Chair, which is talking to and meeting with people.
I was thrilled. I was officially a politician.
I am the first African-American man to hold the County Chair position since Ronald Reagan was in the White House. I am the youngest person ever (#Millennial) and the first openly gay man. Not only that, but according to the Chair of the Democratic National Committee’s LGBT Caucus, I am the only openly gay, male, African-American county party chair in the nation. That’s a lot, right?
The Black American Dream
I was born and raised on the northside of Milwaukee, the greatest city along one of the world’s greatest lakes. My story begins like a lot of African Americans in the city, or the Upper Midwest in general: My grandmothers and grandfathers migrated north during the late 1950s, attempting to escape the segregation and strife of the Jim Crow-era South.
My maternal grandparents came from Baldwyn, Mississippi and Halls, Tennessee. My paternal grandparents were from Kosciusko, Mississippi and Monroe, Louisiana. They came to Milwaukee hoping to find greater opportunities for themselves and their families, in a place where they’d have a fighting chance to better themselves beyond their current circumstances. They lived what was the fairly standard working-middle-class African-American life of the time. That meant working in factories for the men, and for the women, work as a seamstress and a homemaker.
It’s hard for me to imagine, but they were the age I am now when they were able to make major life decisions about marriage, children, home purchases, and such a big move. After my parents were born, both of their families moved north of Capitol Drive. At that point in time the neighborhood was mostly a mix of German and Jewish families. Of course, as more of the African-American community moved in, “white flight” rapidly caused the hyper-segregated dynamics that now exist in places like Northern Milwaukee County and Waukesha County.
My parents were neighborhood sweethearts, the athlete and the pretty girl. I always laugh and say that it took two Mississippis, one Tennessee, and one Louisiana—then freeze it in Wisconsin for about 20 years—and you get the combination an outgoing, vocal, ambitious, extrovert that is me. My parents gave me everything they had to give. They were both outgoing and feisty, as well as kind-hearted and good. I like to thank I got a lot of my personality and charisma from the two of them. They certainly gave it to my little sister, Charisma, who made our family the perfect little nuclear quartet of modern American families.
My childhood was simple. Everyone had a job on Monday morning. After my father returned from service with the Army, both of my parents went to work; dad in a factory and mom as an employee of Milwaukee County Transit. I went to school. That was a deal. We went on vacations all over the country. The bills were paid, food was on the table, everyone was seemingly happy, and I was a straight-A student. I thought we were rich. Little did I know we were the Walton’s that shopped at Walmart, not the Walton’s that owned Walmart.
The deal was sweetened because I was lucky to be surrounded but a supportive, loving neighborhood community. Annual block parties were held where I had family surrounding me in every direction. In my eyes, my family was larger than life. I had 15 cousins to play with just around the corner at any given time. I also had the full range of adult supervision and encouragement as my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors provided that village to raise a kid and make sure that he stays on the right track.
I was also given a great start through attendance at fantastic public schools like Garden Homes Elementary and Samuel Morse for the Gifted and Talented Middle School. From my earliest educational years, I had opportunities to explore my imagination and to meet amazing public servants who all fed my curious mind.
Picture it: Milwaukee, autumn of 1997. A young boy picks up a book at his local school library and gets completely sucked into the idea that one day he could become President of the United States of America. Sounds like a scene from the West Wing, right? That’s actually how it happened for me. There I was, at the ripe age of nine, when I decided to make the change in career from being the Red Power Ranger and an astronaut to becoming President. As you can see, I was a very unambitious kid.
Mrs. Seibel gave me the book, a children’s biography of John F. Kennedy, which honestly touched something in my soul. Maybe I connected with the story of another young boy. I like to think it was the storyline of helping people and working for them that struck a chord with me. Whatever the reason, that book was the spark that set my life on fire.
As the ball dropped into a new millennium and my early childhood came to a close, I had built up a good head of steam. It was the beginning of some interesting years. The teenage uncertainty and budding self-awareness, and the independence and almost loneliness of knowing that one chapter was coming to a close and a new one was about to begin, made for a heavy mix.
For me, 2001 was quite the year. Coming off the Bush/Gore presidential election (one for which I’d pushed my father to get out and vote), and then the September 11 terrorist attacks, I noticed that I was beginning to, in the words of Luther Vandross, “look at love in a different way.” Puberty hits differently when it lets you know that you’re gay. I had questions that I wanted to ask but, for me, it felt like bad timing. My parents were in the early stages of a divorce and I didn’t want to insert myself into the already dramatic storyline. I made a very conscious decision to hide myself and “protect” my parents from what was happening with me.
Once my parents started the process of divorcing, I began to withdraw. I’ve come to realize that it is my default security system. As I look back now, I see it as the weight of my secret falling onto me as well.
Fortunately, I had my grandmother. I feel like she saw the real me. She had a keen eye for helping develop one’s inner core. When she found out I liked politics she gave me a Wisconsin Blue Book and somehow put me on a field trip to Washington D.C. with a school I didn’t even attend. It was my first time in the District. It most certainly would not be the last.
She saw that I was becoming withdrawn and alerted my mom to my increasing sleep patterns and less-than-sunny demeanor. We started talking more and my mood began to change, but she helped me focus on more productive things like school. Throughout it all, I noticed that she’d begun to slow a bit. Still, I never could have imagined that she might not always be around—until it happened. I’d never felt so alone in my life. I often imagine what she’d think of me now. I believe she would be proud of me, and that I’m still as persistent as she taught me to be.
Teachers make the difference
High school came and went by so fast. Messmer was not my first choice, but after picking my middle school and struggling academically, my mother made the call, and she and my aunt Kellie made it happen. Good thing, too, because I met friends and teachers that honestly became like family. I wasn’t the most popular kid by any stretch of the imagination. I had glasses like Mr. Peanut. Even so, I was Class President all four years and even Prom King. High School goals met and exceeded.
By senior year, I felt like I had mostly come into my own. My grades picked up and I had a little sureness in myself. I’d be headed off to Mississippi State University, after solid advice from my great aunt Virginia that, if I was demanding to go out-of-state for college that I might as well skip going East to pay twice the price for the same degree, and instead come get the same distance for half the cost. She was right. She’d later get elected as the first African-American City Councilwoman in my family’s hometown.
I had the opportunity while in high school to take part in the Student Congressional Debate. My teacher, Ms. Burkel, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: you do all the work and she’d drive. I took the deal not knowing that, later on, I’d be chosen to serve as her assistant coach. It brought me to something that I’d always envisioned myself being involved in: arguing issues of the day among a group of smart people. From the first day I walked in until the last Congressional session meet I was pushed, pulled, and intrigued, arguing about legislation and making friends who, like me, were political nerds. It was nice to be accepted for who I was—even though I was still working on that for myself.
Leaving home, finding myself
During my senior year of high school, I told one of my best friends that I thought I was gay. He gave me an answer that stuck with me forever: “Ok, well, honestly, who cares? You’re still my friend, and I don’t care.” That brilliant response made me so much more comfortable. It also launched a process of coming out to friends and family that started in 2007 and eventually worked its way up the ladder. Responses ranged from “Oh OK cool, what we doing tonight?” to “We were just waiting on you to tell us,” to “WAIT, YOU’RE GAY?”
Even the girl down the street, who liked me from back when we were kids, tried to argue me down about it. I finally asked her, how many straight guys would tell you they’re gay? That finally got through to her. Family was the scariest. I was afraid that they’d reject me, as I’d seen happen to too many people before. In the end, thankfully, they more or less just listened carefully and said, “OK.”
College was wild. So wild that you’ll just have to wait for the book to drop on that one. I was blessed even more with the love of an ever-growing family reconnected to my Southern roots. I got elected President of the Mississippi State College Democrats. I also began to expand my social and political networks.
Working as a staff assistant during the summer for Governor Doyle’s administration, I did the much-needed soul searching to answer questions that no one else could answer for me. I honestly believe leaving home to find myself made me more self-confident. It showed me strengths and weaknesses I needed to know in order for my life to reach its next chapter. I graduated with more than just a degree in Political Science. I double majored in me, I got a much needed minor in life, and I concentrated on becoming the man I wanted to be. Going to college isn’t just about the grades. Being a college student is about learning who you are and what you want to do with your life—because it’s your life.
On the trail
Turn the page, and the next chapter began one of the roughest journeys yet: being a single man on the campaign trail. I became a national political operative. Over the course of four years, I traveled the nation meeting my fellow Americans at their homes, door-to-door, advocating for Democratic candidates running for everyone from President to City Council. Seven days a week, 10– 14–hour days.
I have stories that can go on for days and collected laughs and memories that I will cherish forever. It’s something distinctly inspiring hearing the President of the United States fight for his job in a park in New Hampshire. To sit in the living room of a state house candidate in Clarksdale, Mississippi helping to create ideas he hoped would make life a little better for his kids and the community’s kids.
Still, after four years and a 10–6 record on the trail, plus the fiasco of 2016, I was completely spent.
I decided I wanted a new start. As my living political hero was exiting the arena, I wanted to find my own normal. I wanted to have a “real job,” as my mom had argued. I wanted a love life that didn’t involve me being around for a few weeks and then shipping out across the continent.
I was lucky to find him. Perfect we weren’t, but we complemented each other. He taught me more about myself in two years than I learned in the previous 28. I also learned that it is hard to balance a relationship with things like work, family, friends, your own personal moment to just silently read a book and decompress. Add to that my politics, pride, and ego, and you have the makings of a beautiful relationship supernova. Although that awesome explosion might destroy a lot, it also makes way for the creation of something new.
The next chapter
So what’s next for me? I have had many rivers to cross in my life and I still have many left to travel. I look forward to remaining a leader within my community. I want to make sure that people that look like me, that love like me, that grew up in my circumstances or not, all get to be privileged with the opportunities that have been given to me. It has already been a great honor helping with the upcoming Democratic National Convention. Working with the Milwaukee 2020 convention team and being in the space to be a friendly face for the city I love along with people like Martha Love, Alex Lasry and Thad Nation to make one of my most political nerdy dreams come alive in my hometown is just amazing. This is going to be such an amazing event for the entire city as we bring over 50,000 people into our city and show them why Milwaukee is America’s rising Midwestern Phoenix.
If I can offer any particular words for readers other than thank you for reading, I offer these: Hope, Persistence, and Audacity. You have to have hope that things will get better and that, no matter how dark things might seem, this is not the end of history. Be persistent and play the game all the way out. Finish the book. If it’s something worth fighting for you never surrender, even if you have to retreat from the battle to regroup and come back stronger next time. That way, if things don’t work out, at least you can sleep peacefully at night knowing you gave it everything you had. Do not let someone divert you from your plotted course because they don’t believe you or in you. Have the audacity to be different in a world full of too many people who try not to be.
I know the question in your head now is, when will he run for office? I sincerely believe it is my duty as an American to offer my hands to help steer the ship of democracy. I am also a believer in when the moment comes, you will know. I still have some “adulting” to complete before I’m ready. Which is fine. I’m something like a young man, and this isn’t nearly the end of the story.