Julian Bradley is young, black, a one-time professional wrestler, and the new face of the Republican Party in western Wisconsin.
A former Democrat, Bradley, 32, has made a couple of forays into politics but in the past two years has quickly risen through the party ranks, first as vice chairman and now chairman of the La Crosse County GOP. He is also the party’s incoming vice chairman of the 3rd District.
Party leaders in western Wisconsin praise Bradley — a large man with a halogen smile and even larger hair — as an energetic and charismatic leader.
“I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like him,” said Maripat Krueger, the outgoing 3rd District chairwoman “He’s got a real skill of being able to listen. In politics a lot of people like to talk. He expresses himself quite well, but he knows when to listen.”
Brian Westrate, an Eau Claire party leader, cites Bradley’s “larger than life personality.”
“That’s charisma,” Westrate said. “You either have it or you don’t. He has it.”
For the past month, Bradley has been touring college campuses in western Wisconsin, telling his story and working to counter the stereotype that the Grand Old Party is just a bunch of old, rich, white men.
The message dovetails nicely with national party chairman Reince Priebus’ strategy for reaching out to minorities, but it’s a personal one that Bradley has taken on himself to deliver, taking time off from his day job as a customer service supervisor at CenturyLink and squeezing grueling drives through often crummy weather into his class schedule at the UW-La Crosse, where he’s closing in on his degree in political science.
“I’m proud of what he’s doing – he’s taking his own initiative and own money and story to try and make a difference,” Westrate said. “He’s doing this all on his own.”
His own story begins in Maryland – he was born in Baltimore and lived in Lexington Park until age 11, when he moved to La Crosse.
The youngest of three siblings, Bradley was raised by his mother, a civil rights activist, community organizer and lifelong Democrat. He remembers when he was 7 going door-to-door with his mom as they campaigned for Michael Dukakis.
He was infatuated with Jesse Jackson, and from an early age his ambitions matched his outsized personality.
When he was about 9, Bradley wrote an acceptance speech for when he was elected president, said his older sister, Krista Stark.
The Bradleys were big fans of Bill Clinton, too, and when the president spoke in La Crosse, Julian got his picture on the cover of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, 50 miniature American flags stuck in his giant afro.
Bradley also grew up watching professional wrestling, and as a teenager would stage matches in his sister’s back yard. By the time he graduated from Central High School in 1999, Bradley’s mother was in poor health, and he didn’t have the money for plan A, go to college, become a lawyer and eventually enter politics.
He moved instead to Philadelphia and enrolled in wrestling school.
“I decided I would go into wrestling and make a million dollars and buy my mom a house,” he said. “That was my 15-year-old plan.”
He made his debut in Aug. 28, 1999, as Kris Krude.
“I was the ladies’ man,” he said with a wry grin. “Hot Chocolate.”
Bradley never made the million dollars. He worked day jobs to make ends meet and helped out with a friend’s bid for the Pennsylvania statehouse before hanging up his tights in 2006.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said.
Besides making him comfortable in front of crowds, wrestling prepared him for other aspects of politics.
“Playing a heel prepared me for being a Republican in La Crosse County,” he said. “It taught me not to take things personally.”
A change of party
Bradley’s political transformation began in 2002, during an argument with his mother over abortion.
Bradley said he’d always been pro-life; his mother said she was personally against abortion but believed women should have the right to choose. When he made a flippant comment about her being willing to commit murder, she snapped back that he sounded like a Republican.
The insult backfired.
Bradley took a notebook to the library and began researching party platforms, hoping to prove that he was a better Democrat than she. He came out wondering if he was actually a Republican.
“She smartened me up that that was part of the Republican platform,” he said.
He found himself drawn to the free-market philosophy and the party’s historic ties to African Americans.
“I was shocked that the GOP was the abolitionist party,” he said.
He joined the party, but his involvement stopped there as he worked through some of his own stereotypes — of the GOP as a party of rich, white people.
“You look around — there’s not a lot of Republicans that look like me,” he said. “You start questioning.”
It’s a stereotype that continues to follow him, and part of what motivated his “Shattering Stereotypes” speaking tour.
John Medinger, a former Democratic state representative and current aide to Sen. Tammy Baldwin, had Bradley in his local government class at UW-L.
“He was one of those students that stood out from the rest, not just because he was an African American with a huge afro,” said Medinger, who invited Bradley out for coffee.
Like so many, Medinger assumed Bradley was a Democrat.
“He reminded me once again that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,” he said.
Even today, Bradley doesn’t shrink from his past — either as a wrestler or a Democrat.
“I’ll never run away,” he said. “Nothing changed in me — just the label.”
He’s still a fan of Clinton for working with Republicans to achieve a balanced budget.
And despite their political differences, Bradley said his mother, who died in 2009, remained proud of him for being active in his community.
“She instilled service in me,” he said. “As long as I’m involved — for the right reasons. That was always so big to her.”
And he’s managed to earn respect even from some who don’t share his ideology.
“With Julian, you can’t dislike him,” Medinger said. “He’s a good messenger for the Republican Party .… Maybe if there were more Julian Bradleys in the party, they’d win more elections in western Wisconsin.”
Democrat Cheryl Hancock worked with Bradley on a fundraiser when she headed the local chapter of the American Red Cross and said she also found him to be open minded and willing to work across party lines.
“He gives me hope that someday the two parties can work together with a common goal,” she said, “even though we disagree on the best route to get there.”
Delivering the message
In 2010, Bradley ran for state Assembly. He lost in the primary but remained active in the party, where he’d met Bill Feehan, who said he was impressed by Bradley’s intelligence and sense of humor.
When Feehan decided to run for chairman of the party the next year, he asked Bradley to run as his vice chairman, citing their shared vision of a more active and engaged party with a younger, more diverse leadership.
Bradley became chairman when Feehan stepped down last year to run for the state Senate, and has carried on his goal of making the party more involved with community events — such as raising money for the Salvation Army or running a bipartisan Toys for Tots drive.
“Traditionally you see us during even numbered years,” he said. “Otherwise you don’t hear from us.”
As chairman, Bradley has yet to deliver the votes — Democrats carried the county in the last presidential election as well as the recall of Gov. Scott Walker, and they hold all three of its seats in the Legislature — but he has helped turn out an active volunteer base.
And Bradley’s speaking tour is bringing more attention to the area and the party and helping accomplish some of the goals laid out by Priebus, said Sue Lynch, past president of the National Federation of Republican Women.
“Julian is a great person to get that message out,” she said. “That only helps in recruitment.”