The race to represent Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate is increasingly focused on the issue of public safety. Republicans and allied groups have spent millions of dollars on ads tying the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, to groups that promoted the unpopular slogan “defund the police” and pushed to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The race between Barnes and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson has seen $48 million in outside spending to tilt the scales in the race, according to the Federal Elections Commission. A report from the Wesleyan Media Project found that in the last two weeks, more than 14,000 ads about the two candidates have aired across Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s campaign, which did not respond to a request for comment, touts his desire to protect the lives of police officers, noting that 73 cops were killed on duty in 2021. Johnson criticizes Democrats for not backing the police.
“As is true of so many disasters we are witnessing under the Biden Administration, and Democrat governance, these murders didn’t just happen,” Johnson’s campaign website states. “They are related to the hostility toward law enforcement promoted by leaders of the Democrat Party and the radical left. They are one result of Democrat policies like catch and release at the border, low bail or no bail soft-on-crime treatment of criminals, and the failure of Democrat jurisdictions to fully prosecute violent offenders and put them in jail.”
But despite strong campaign language about supporting the police, Johnson’s voting record shows a pattern of opposition to funding for public safety.
Since 2016, Johnson has voted against passing the federal budget four times — casting a nay vote against the budget for the fiscal years of 2018, 2020, 2021 and 2022. He approved the budget in the fiscal years of 2017 and 2019.
Johnson, who is generally opposed to government spending, did not vote no because of the public safety provisions contained within the massive budget bills, but the effect of his votes was to try to block billions in funding for local and state police programs.
Johnson voted against a combined $3.6 billion in funding for federal programs that support local law enforcement and public safety measures. Those votes included $20 million in funding targeted at Wisconsin that would have put 58 more police officers on the streets in the state.
Most of the funding Johnson voted against, $2.1 billion, would have gone to the Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program. The JAG program is the No. 1 source of federal money for local and state justice systems. The program funds “law enforcement, prosecution, indigent defense, courts, crime prevention and education, corrections and community corrections, drug treatment and enforcement, planning, evaluation, technology improvement, and crime victim and witness initiatives and mental health programs and related law enforcement and corrections programs, including behavioral programs and crisis intervention teams,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice; $6 million of the funding Johnson voted against was earmarked for Wisconsin.
Johnson voted against an additional $1.5 billion in funding for the Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) program. The COPS program sends money to local law enforcement to promote “community oriented” police practices that aim to improve relationships between law enforcement and the residents of their communities. Johnson’s no votes included $13 million meant for Wisconsin.
In the two years Johnson voted for the federal budget, he approved $826.5 million for the JAG program and $525 million for the COPS program, for a total of $1.3 billion. Included in those votes was $4 million in JAG funding and $500,000 in COPS funding meant for Wisconsin.
In addition to the budget votes, in 2013 the Senate passed the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act, which would have required background checks for all firearm sales, prohibited so-called straw purchases of firearms and provided grant funding to schools to increase safety. Johnson voted for an amendment to the bill that would have withheld 5% of law enforcement grants to state and localities that released gun-ownership data.
The amendment was passed, but the bill did not get taken up in the U.S. House.
Barnes’ record on public safety
Johnson also voted against the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021. The federal COVID-19 relief package included $10 billion in federal funding for public safety. In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers and Barnes directed $19 million of the state’s portion of that funding to local police departments.
The Evers-Barnes administration additionally sent $20 million of the ARPA funds to Milwaukee County for criminal justice and public safety programs and another $16 million to reduce a backlog of criminal cases in the state’s court system caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A spokesperson for Barnes said in a statement that public safety is a personal issue to him, that he’s dedicated to both investing in law enforcement and preventing crime before it occurs.
“As someone who has lost countless friends to gun violence and crime, Mandela Barnes remains deeply committed to fighting for public safety by giving law enforcement the tools they need to keep us safe while also investing in the things that help prevent crime in the first place,” Barnes campaign spokesperson Lauren Chou said. “Meanwhile, Ron Johnson will play politics with our safety by voting against funding for law enforcement and supporting an insurrection that injured 140 police officers.”
When he was in the Legislature, Barnes co-authored a bill that would have increased the penalty for harassing, intimidating, threatening or harming a public employee, including law enforcement officers. Another bill he co-wrote would have created a grant program for counties to create a “community prosecutor” position that would pay for an assistant district attorney to work with community leaders and groups to prevent crime.
In 2016, he introduced a bill that would have required the state attorney general to inform law enforcement if a person convicted of a felony and therefore ineligible to own a firearm attempted to purchase one.
Barnes, as Johnson and the outside groups supporting him have pointed out, also introduced a bill that would have ended the use of cash bail in Wisconsin. That bill would have required criminal defendants to be released prior to trial unless a court found that there was “substantial risk” the defendant would have not appeared for trial or cause serious bodily harm to a member of the community.
On the same day that the cash bail bill was introduced, Barnes introduced a separate bill that would have established a grant program for counties that use a risk assessment tool to determine if defendants are a flight risk or threat to public safety.
Barnes has pushed back on Republican efforts to tie him to the controversial slogans about defunding the police and abolishing ICE.
“I don’t support defunding the police, and I don’t support abolishing ICE,” he says, “but there is no question that our immigration system is broken. So I do support comprehensive immigration reform from the bottom up,”Barnes told the Examiner In March. “We don’t have to choose between ensuring that our law enforcement officers have the resources they need to keep us safe and investing in communities. We can do both. We can get ahead of the issue and also prevent crime in our community by investing in schools, good paying jobs for every individual to work hard and seek success regardless of their ZIP code,” he added.
A lot of the outside money in the race, and many of the ads, have come from the Wisconsin Truth PAC, an organization largely supported by right-wing billionaires including Diane Hendricks and Dick and Liz Uihlein. The PAC has raised $10.2 million so far this year, with $6.5 million of that coming from Hendricks and another $3.5 million coming from the Uihleins.
The PAC has spent $10.5 million opposing Barnes, the second most from any group aiming to influence the race. The Senate Leadership Fund, tied to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has spent $11 million opposing Barnes.
Outside spending opposing Barnes has far outpaced spending opposing Johnson, with the two groups’ combined $21 million in spending making up nearly all of the $25 million spent to prevent Barnes from being elected.
The Wisconsin Truth PAC’s $10 million has largely gone to fund ads painting Barnes as soft on crime. Some of the ads, which some groups have labeled racist, show video of crimes being committed while warning that Barnes is “dangerous” and wants to release criminals into Wisconsin streets. One of the ads shows a video clip of a man in a ski mask grabbing a child and throwing her into the back of a van.
Polls have shown Johnson slightly ahead in the race against Barnes. Election Day is Nov. 8.
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