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Monday, April 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Fair
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Gov. Mahlon Mitchell?
The charismatic firefighter and union leader considers taking on Scott Walker

The first African American to lead Wisconsin's firefighters union was politicized by Walker's attacks on public workers.
The first African American to lead Wisconsin's firefighters union was politicized by Walker's attacks on public workers.
Credit:Phil Ejercito
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Mahlon Mitchell, the firefighter and union leader, usually brings a bit of Wisconsin with him when he speaks at events around the country.

He likes to begin each speech with a chant, one that's familiar to anyone who spent some time around the Capitol in the spring. He coaches crowds in places like Los Angeles or Portland, Ore., to answer "tell me what democracy looks like" with "this is what democracy looks like."

It's understandable. Mitchell, who is president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, was a daily presence at the protests against Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill. The battle that emerged then pushed him into the national spotlight and politicized him.

The impeccably dressed, well-spoken union leader was a favorite source for the national media. On Aug. 9, the night of six Senate recall elections, MSNBC host Ed Schultz kidded him by calling him "Senator Mitchell."

But it's no joke. Many people are looking to Mitchell, 34, as a new hope for the left. He told Mother Jones last month that he was considering running in a recall election against Walker. The anti-Walker forces will begin gathering signatures next week, hoping to trigger an election in 2012.

Although Mitchell says he was surprised by the calls to run, he is not shying away from them. In him, people see a contrast to opportunistic politicians: "My name comes up because people are feeling we need a change and something totally different."

Mahlon Mitchell was born in Milwaukee, but he spent part of his childhood in Delavan, Wis. He went to the same high school as Walker, though Walker is 10 years older and Mitchell didn't know him. Mitchell jokes, "We obviously took different classes."

From an early age, Mitchell says he wanted to be a fireman. "Every little boy or girl wants to be a firefighter at some point, it seems," he says. "Once I looked into the job, I knew it was for me."

Just out of high school, Mitchell was working for an insurance company in Chicago. The business had phone books from around the country, and he would find contact information for municipal fire departments, call them and find out about their application process. But a lot of them had a minimum age of 21, so his options were limited.

One Sunday, Mitchell saw an ad for the Madison Fire Department in the newspaper. He applied, and in 1997, at the age of 19, he was accepted to the academy. The academy was a grueling three months, he says - five of the 17 recruits failed. After graduating, Mitchell was assigned to Fire House 7 on the city's west side, where he served under Hubert McKenzie, the city's first African American firefighter.

The early days on the force were also hard, he says. "You clean toilets, you clean the station, you help make the beds, you clean the trucks."

But the job was also thrilling, and Mitchell felt a sense of duty.

"You realize every call is different, but our job stays the same - saving lives and protecting property," he says. "When someone dials 911, it's usually the worst day of their life. You're there to help them."

Mitchell also loves being part of a team. "We call each other brothers and sisters," he says. That mindset guided him through the crisis earlier this year.

In January, Mitchell became the first African American to lead Wisconsin's firefighters union. The job would have presented an unprecedented challenge to whoever held it this year. Shortly thereafter, Gov. Walker kicked off a firestorm of protest for threatening to take away most of the bargaining rights for almost all public employees. All of the unfolding historic events happened across the street from Mitchell's office.

As Mitchell says, "There is no book written to tell you how to deal with a situation like this."

When Walker first announced his bill, which excluded public safety workers, Mitchell says there was a lot of uncertainty and indecision among firefighters.

"I knew a decision had to be made quickly. There was talk about how far are we going to go?" he says. "Either you're in or you're out. At the end of the day, it was important for us to stand with labor."

Mitchell never looked back. "After the very first rally, there was no doubt at all that we made the right decision," he says, adding, "We not only said 'no,' we said 'hell, no.'"

Although he's the state union leader, representing almost 3,000 firefighters, Mitchell still works his shifts - 24 hours long - at Fire House 7, where he is a lieutenant. When he wasn't working last winter, he was at the protests, and even spent a night sleeping in the Capitol. A picture of him dozing on the floor is featured in This Is What Democracy Looks Like, a book of photographs from the protest by Barbara Miner.

Though he was a visible presence during the protests, Mitchell downplays his role. "Everything I get credit for, it was a total team effort."

What upsets Mitchell the most is that Walker has succeeded by dividing people. "The governor has done a good job of pitting the private sector against the public-sector employees," he says.

State politics, he fears, are becoming a lot more like Washington's. "In Wisconsin, we've always had the value that we can disagree, but at the end of the day, we'd always come together," he says. "Washington is now in Wisconsin. We have all these outside influences coming in telling us how to run our state."

His outrage with state government has only grown. During the recent special jobs session, he watched incredulously from the gallery as the Legislature debated concealed carry, deer hunting and the definition of a bicycle. "What the hell does any of that have to do with jobs?"

Mitchell's rhetoric is rich with the talking points from his speeches throughout the past year. He talks about the resentment the governor fostered against public employees, saying, "Instead of saying let's bring everyone down to the level where I am, we should be bringing everyone up to the same level. Why are we arguing about scraps under the table while they're eating lobsters and steak at the table?"

In other ways, Mitchell seems very un-politician-like. He doesn't pretend to have all the answers. He's leery of using some things - like his family - to score political points. He is opting to protect his family's privacy for now, though he says he'll talk about them if he runs for office.

Mitchell also hasn't quite mastered the art of the political non-answer. When asked if he's considering a run for governor, he laughs and says, "Yes, I'll consider it." It doesn't mean he's running.

There are other worthy candidates, including former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, he says.

"I don't think we need to have a primary. We need to unite behind one candidate," he says. "I don't see myself running in a primary."

Then he adds, "The most important thing right now is getting signatures."

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