MILWAUKEE — An educator who pulled off a major upset when she defeated a longtime incumbent lawmaker in the Democratic primaries will become one of only two black women in Wisconsin's state Assembly — a feat she attributes to long days knocking on voters' doors.
LaKeshia Myers, 34, beat state Rep. Fred Kessler by 23 percentage points in the 12th Assembly District, and since she'll be unopposed in November the seat is hers. Kessler, 78, had held the seat for 14 years after prior stints in the Legislature in the 1960s.
Before Myers, no one had posed a serious challenge to Kessler, a white lawmaker who had been representing a majority black district on Milwaukee's northwest side. But the district's demographics — and the way the seat was drawn nearly a decade ago — presented a perfect opportunity for a minority candidate to beat Kessler. African-Americans are 55 percent of the district's population
"I think the district made their voices clear with, it's time for us to cash in on that seat by having someone, a person of color, represent us in this district," Myers said in an interview with The Associated Press.
But Myers said it wasn't all about race and she worked tirelessly to get people's votes by walking and knocking on their doors — something she good-humoredly calls "putting sweat equity in."
"I know that there were quite a few white folks who voted for me yesterday," she said. "So I think they looked at my candidacy based on what I brought to the table."
In Madison, Sheila Stubbs also won her Democratic primary and faces no opposition in November, which will make her and Myers the only black women in Wisconsin's Assembly.
Myers' victory is particularly noteworthy in a city with a reputation for racial strife that has at times boiled over. Two years ago riots erupted in the city after a black police officer fatally shot an African-American man suspected of drug dealing. It followed allegations of police misconduct and excessive force against black residents, including a lawsuit from 74 African-Americans who said officers illegally strip-searched them between 2008 and 2012.
Myers said her soon-to-be constituents were upset that their district — which includes large parts that look more like the suburbs than the city — was becoming rundown with empty storefronts and big box stores leaving. She said they wanted someone who would listen and act on their concerns. But the voters she spoke to sometimes told her they didn't know who their current representative was, or the last time they saw him.
"And to me that was alarming," she said.
Kessler did not respond to a call Wednesday. But speaking to the AP Tuesday, he speculated that many voters who came out to support black candidates for governor and sheriff also voted for Myers. Kessler said in an interview that his defeat was "a little bit of a surprise" but he knew it could happen.
"I think my constituents probably liked me," Kessler said, "but there was a situation where a wave took place that was not aimed at me."
Myers, who works in Milwaukee Public Schools training teachers and helping develop the curriculum at a high school, said on her campaign website that she ran because "neglect and starvation" have hurt Wisconsin's educational system. She also lamented what she calls the district's economic decline and called for the state to send fewer people back to prison for probation and parole violations.
Prior to MPS, she worked as the education director at Wisconsin's Department of Corrections.