Black Candidate Wants to Know Who Called 911 as She Talked to Voters

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It was a week before the Wisconsin Democratic Party primary in August, and Shelia Stubbs was searching for potential voters in a part of the district she was running to represent.

Wearing a plainly visible royal blue name tag, Ms. Stubbs, 47, began walking up to houses and knocking on doors on the west side of Madison. She told those who answered the door that she was running to represent the 77th District in the State Assembly, and left those who didn’t with campaign literature.

About 20 minutes into her shoe-leather canvassing, Ms. Stubbs was speaking to a man and his parents when she saw a police car pull up behind her silver Lincoln MKZ, where her mother and 8-year-old daughter waited. She excused herself from the residents, she said, and went up to the officer, a woman.

The officer told her that an unidentified man had called 911 and said he suspected the sedan and its passengers of being part of a drug deal. Ms. Stubbs, who is African-American, said she was canvassing in a predominantly white neighborhood.

According to the police report, the call was summarized this way: “They are waiting for drugs at the local drug house — would like them moved along.”

“A drug dealer? Are you kidding me?” Ms. Stubbs recalled saying to the officer. A prominent community activist and longtime member of the Dane County Board of Supervisors, she could not believe what she was hearing. “I was embarrassed. I couldn’t demonstrate how I really felt on the inside. I just wanted to go.”

Although the encounter occurred last month, Ms. Stubbs said she needed time to process what had happened before speaking publicly. On Tuesday, she began telling reporters about the experience, which she says left her and her family scarred.

Ms. Stubbs went on to win the primary with nearly 50 percent of the vote. She is running unopposed in the Nov. 6 general election and is poised to become the first black woman to fill the seat.

The encounter was just the latest example of black people being reported to the police while doing lawful everyday activities.

It is also the second known instance of an incident involving a black woman running for public office. In July, an Oregon lawmaker was campaigning door to door when she was reported as a “suspicious person” who might be a burglar.

Ms. Stubbs, who has represented a part of the Madison community on the county’s Board of Supervisors since 2006, said she was a familiar face in the city. But in that moment, as a black woman being confronted by a police officer, she felt as if she was in a precarious position. She described it as life or death.

“Every move I made, in communication, or demeanor, or behavior, was critical in the outcome of this situation,” she said in an interview on Thursday.

The officer had questioned Ms. Stubbs’s 71-year-old mother, who was sitting in the driver’s seat, about why they were there. When Ms. Stubbs approached the car, the officer asked her the same question.

Ms. Stubbs said she showed the officer her name tag, her campaign literature and her walking list of potential voters, explaining that she was canvassing the area because she was running for office. Ms. Stubbs requested the caller’s information to explain to it to him as well.

But his information was not available, and now, more than a month later, Ms. Stubbs said she still did not know who reported her.

Ms. Stubbs said that she felt angry, belittled and hurt, but that she held her composure because her daughter was watching. “I held back my tears until I got back in my house,” she said.

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She said the officer told her she should stay and finish canvassing, but Ms. Stubbs said she couldn’t. She returned home, and even though it was a week before the election, she took a day off to process what had happened. She went on to canvass other parts of the district, but she did not return to the street where the encounter occurred.

Ms. Stubbs said she and her family had been widely supported online, and her story has led to more conversations about race and implicit bias, something she has advocated more training for.

“We must talk about racism,” she said. “When we are quick to say it doesn’t exist, it’s very dangerous.”

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