Dems call for removal of Wisconsin Elections Commissioner for 'bragging about suppressing voters'

Wisconsin Senate Democrats and voting rights groups have called for Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Robert Spindell to resign or be removed from his post after comments he made celebrating the suppression of Black and Hispanic votes in last year’s midterm elections.

The comments, which Spindell made in a memo to members of the 4th Congressional District Republican Party, were first reported by Urban Milwaukee. In the memo, Spindell, who is also the chair of the district party, cites the party’s work getting Black voters not to turn out as a key reason for U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s re-election.

“In the City of Milwaukee, with the 4th Congressional District Republican Party working very closely with the RPW, RNC, Republican Assembly & Senate Campaign Committees, Statewide Campaigns and RPMC in the Black and Hispanic areas, we can be especially proud of the City of Milwaukee (80.2% Dem Vote) casting 37,000 less votes than cast in the 2018 election with the major reduction happening in the overwhelming Black and Hispanic areas,” he wrote.

On Wednesday, 10 of the 11 Senate Democrats denounced the comments and called for Spindell to resign or for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) — who appointed Spindell — to remove him.

“In Wisconsin, our election officials should be working to ensure that every single eligible voter should be able to cast their ballot freely and fairly,” Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) said. “We don’t need election officials bragging about suppressing voters and especially voter turnout in historically disenfranchised communities. Celebrating voter suppression is antithetical to the mission of the elections commission and it undermines confidence in the ability of Mr. Spindell to do his job. In fact, Spindell’s remarks are disqualifying.”

Spindell, the most right-wing of the three Republicans on the six-person commission, has a long history of statements and actions aimed at undermining Democratic voters in Milwaukee.

In the runup to the 2020 election, after the commission chose not to allow Kanye West onto the presidential ballot for turning in his nominating papers late, Spindell often complained about how that decision would prevent Black voters from being able to choose the rapper, whose candidacy was seen as a spoiler for Democrats, potentially pulling votes away from Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

“How about Kenyon (sic.) West?” Spindell complained at a rally in December of 2020 as he listed a number of actions he perceived as nefarious plots by the Democratic party.

Spindell also worked to get the Green Party’s presidential candidate on the 2020 ballot after the party failed to properly file its nominating papers. Emails showed that Spindell assisted Green Party officials in finding a Wisconsin-based attorney to file a lawsuit attempting to force their candidate onto the ballot in the hopes that the presence of the Green Party would pull votes away from Democrats.

Spindell was also one of 10 Republicans who cast false Electoral College votes on behalf of former President Donald Trump in 2020, attempting to install Trump as president even though he’d lost the election in Wisconsin.

Despite Spindell’s previous actions, Democrats said that his comments in the memo were a bridge too far and grounds for his ouster.

“I think there have certainly been many folks, myself included, who have called for Spindell to resign for his many infractions that undermine confidence in his ability to be a commissioner,” Roys said. “I think what’s different about this is how blatant it is.”

Roys said that LeMahieu and the Republicans who control the Senate have made a number of comments at the beginning of this legislative session stating their desire for working together and bipartisanship. She said removing Spindell would be an opportunity for Republicans to prove they mean it and that they believe they can win elections with their ideas and not by working to suppress votes in Milwaukee.

“The fact that the Republican party and particularly Senate Majority Leader LeMahieu has stated that he wants to turn over a new leaf, he wants to work together with Gov. Evers … this is an opportunity for him to be true to his words,” Roys said. “These comments are of public import to every citizen of WIsconsin, whether you’re a member of a disenfranchised community or not. We all want our vote to be cast and counted fairly. Spindell’s continued presence on WEC is an affront to that.”

Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), one of the few Black members of the Senate, said that as someone who “works tirelessly” for her Milwaukee community, she finds it personally insulting that Spindell would celebrate keeping her constituents from the polls.

“As an African-American, a person of color and an elected official who works tirelessly in this building trying to improve the lives of the residents of Milwaukee and communities of color, I am angry, I am irritated and I am frustrated that Bob Spindell, a Republican member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, whose job is to help control how elections are administered, has praised the public attack on the voting rights of communities of color and the principles of democracy,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that the Republican party has ignored communities of color in Wisconsin and its agenda has left out the poor communities in and around her district but added that comments such as Spindell’s don’t go unnoticed.

“Black and Hispanic people, their lives, their quality of life and the racial disparities that plague our communities and continue to worsen year after year hold no importance to the Republican party or their agenda,” she said. “I just want the Republican party and Bob Spindell to know that communities of color are not stupid.”

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Wisconsin Supreme Court hears arguments in case over right to take ivermectin

The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in a case over a COVID-19 patient’s legal right to force a hospital to ignore its own protocols and provide a widely discredited and ineffective treatment.

On Sept 19, 2021, Waukesha County resident John Zingsheim was admitted to Aurora Medical Center-Summit after being diagnosed with COVID-19 three days before. Two weeks later, on Oct. 3, he was intubated and put on a ventilator. At the hospital, Zingsheim was treated with a steroid and three other drugs, while he declined the antiviral drug remdesivir, according to the appellate court opinion.

Zingsheim’s nephew, Allen Gahl, holds a power of attorney for health care for his uncle. According to the appellate court ruling, Gahl read about the use of ivermectin for COVID-19 through an internet search. Gahl spoke with a Wisconsin physician who recommended ivermectin. The doctor wrote a prescription for Zingsheim without having met him, based on information from Gahl.

Aurora doctors refused the request for ivermectin, saying it would be “below the standard of care” for COVID-19 patients, the appeals court opinion states.

Gahl filed a petition in Waukesha County Circuit Court on Oct. 7, asking a judge to order the hospital to honor the ivermectin prescription. After a hearing on Oct. 12, Judge Lloyd Carter issued an order directing the hospital to administer the prescription. In a follow-up hearing the next day, the judge modified the order, stating that it would be up to Gahl to supply the ivermectin and to supply a doctor “that meets the approval of the hospital” to administer the prescription.

The hospital appealed the circuit court decision, which in a 2-1 opinion reversed Carter’s order.

On Tuesday, the court was considering whether Carter’s initial order was correct, not whether ivermectin is an appropriate treatment for COVID-19.

Gahl’s attorney, Karen Mueller, argued that state law provides patients and anyone acting as a patient’s power of attorney to request and be given any treatment they desire.

“You have the right to make decisions about your health care,” said Mueller, who finished third in last year’s Republican primary for attorney general after running on an anti-vaccine platform. “No health care may be given to you over your objection, and necessary health care may not be stopped or withheld if you object. Withheld, of course, being the key word here.”

But a number of the justices questioned where the line would be drawn if that was the law in Wisconsin, asking if under this interpretation, a patient would be able to demand and be given treatment such as a leeching.

“Where does this line get drawn?” Justice Rebecca Dallet said. “What if someone comes into the hospital and says, ‘I want bloodletting’ … And what if someone comes in and says ‘they are withholding treatment from me.’ Because that’s how you’re reading this, because they won’t give me the treatment that I wanted. Where does this line get drawn? And how would we ever, as a court, be able to draw these kinds of distinctions that you’re asking us to be able to draw?”

Justice Brian Hagedorn, a conservative who frequently acts as the court’s deciding swing vote, pointed out that the trial judge didn’t cite any laws in his original decision and that should be the deciding factor for the Supreme Court.

“If [the trial court] didn’t cite any actual law, then they erroneously exercised their discretion, and that’s the end of the case,” Hagedorn said.

Mueller argued that Wisconsin statute 155, which governs medical power of attorney, gives people the right to make health care decisions — which she said includes demanding a certain treatment.

Liberal leaning Justice Ann Walsh Bradley pointed out that in that statute, the phrase “health care decision” is specifically defined as “an informed decision in the exercise of the right to accept, maintain, discontinue or refuse health care,” and therefore doesn’t include the ability to request or demand anything.

Jason Franckowiak, the attorney for Aurora, argued that the trial court’s initial decision wasn’t based upon any Wisconsin state laws, that the court’s order took away the hospital’s power to decide which doctors are able to work there and that no other appellate court in the country has interpreted the law as allowing patients to demand treatment with ivermectin.

Franckowiak said that Carter’s second order stated that Gahl had to find a physician who would administer the ivermectin to Zingsheim and was approved by the hospital. This, Franckowiak said, violated the hospital’s legal responsibility to credential all the doctors treating patients at Aurora.

“The trial court attempted to to set up a system whereby the hospital wouldn’t need to take responsibility for any bad outcome that might occur as a result of ivermectin,” Franckowiak said. “They were still required to emergently credential a physician who was going to be chosen for no reason other, no criteria other than that that physician was willing to issue a treatment to a non-patient sight unseen.”

“They were required to credential that individual, which of course, you’re taking away the decision-making power of the hospital on a very important issue,” he continued. “One of the reasons you might choose not to credential a physician is because that physician is willing to prescribe a medication that is not to [his own] patient and is prescribed sight unseen. That’s improper conduct. That could be medical malpractice. A doctor who’s willing to do that is perhaps a doctor that you might not want to credential for the safety of your patients.”

When trial courts in Wisconsin issue an injunction such as the one issued by Carter in this case, one of the required criteria is that it maintains the status quo. Franckowiak said that the status quo in this case was the treatment plan already put in place by the team of doctors working with Zingsheim. Conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley asked if the status quo was actually Zingsheim being alive.

“That’s disrupting the status quo for Aurora,” Bradley said. “But it’s not disrupting the status quo for Mr. Zingsheim, who was trying to live, right? The status quo for him was he was alive, and they’re trying to keep him alive.”

By the time the appeal in the case was heard, Zingsheim had recovered from COVID-19, but Franckowiak said the outcome of the case was important because it would determine if state law puts the court system between patients and their doctors.

“The trial court did abuse its discretion, it did not indicate the factors it was considering, it did not identify any law upon which he was basing his decision and the trial judge was put in a very difficult position, which illustrates the problem and the concern of putting the judiciary in the way between the doctor and the patient,” Franckowiak said. “He’s being asked to parse evidence and make medical decisions that are going to actively affect the treatment, and is going to overrule the treatment decisions by an independent, educated professional.”



Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

GOP congressman displays Christian nationalist flag outside his congressional office

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman has a Christian nationalist flag connected to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol displayed outside his congressional office.

On Friday morning, Grothman posted a picture of the flag — which shows an image of a pine tree and the phrase “An Appeal to Heaven” on a white background — to his Twitter account with a message inviting people to visit him in the Longworth House Office Building.

“With the 118th Congress underway, the People’s House has finally reopened to visitors,” Grothman wrote. “If you’re in Washington DC, I encourage you to stop by my office and say hello!” A white flag with a pine tree and the phrase “Appeal to Heaven” is visible in the photo, placed closer to the door than the U.S. and Wisconsin state flags.

With the 118th Congress underway, the People’s House has finally reopened to visitors.
If you’re in Washington #DC, I encourage you to stop by my office and say hello! #WI06
— Rep. Glenn Grothman (@RepGrothman) January 13, 2023

Grothman’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the decision to display the flag, but experts say it has ties to a sect of Christian nationalism that was deeply connected to the planning of the Jan. 6 riot. Christian nationalism is a belief that Christians must fight to take back America from non-Christians.

Matt Taylor, Protestant scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies, tells the Wisconsin Examiner there were possibly hundreds of Appeal to Heaven flags flying on the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6 and at least two documented instances in which the flags were flown by rioters who breached the building that day.

The Appeal to Heaven flag, which was designed during the American Revolution and used by the Massachusetts Navy, is associated with George Washington because he commissioned a number of ships that flew the flag. The phrase is taken from the philosopher John Locke and is meant to symbolize citizens’ right to armed revolution against tyranny.

“It’s a reference to John Locke, saying human beings can appeal to government but at some point you have to appeal to heaven, you have to have a revolution and fight it out,” Taylor says. “There’s a revolutionary, anti-democratic dimension to it. They’re saying ‘democracy isn’t working so we have to appeal to heaven for God’s will to be done.’”

Taylor’s research has found that a group of Christian leaders heavily involved in the planning of Jan. 6 have adopted the flag as a symbol of their beliefs.

The flag has also been displayed in a number of state capitol buildings, including Arizona, Missouri and Illinois. Former Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano appears to have a particular fondness for the flag, having made a number of television and public appearances with the flag nearby.

“The prevalence of the Pine Tree flag could be viewed as a dog-whistle signaling kinship between these far-right and white supremacist movements and the Christian Nationalist and Christian Dominionist movements,” Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism reported in 2021.

Displaying the flag, as with other right-wing memes, comes with a certain amount of plausible deniability, according to Taylor. Because of its connection to the American Revolution, he says people can say they’re just supporting its history.

“It’s a coy symbol in some ways,” Taylor says. “It’s become a potent Christian nationalism symbol, but when people get called on it they say ‘it’s just a reference to George Washington or American history.”

It’s unclear why Grothman chose to display the flag outside of his office and Taylor says he doesn’t want to guess at the intent, but that it definitely sends a signal.

“He’s obviously sending a statement with it,” Taylor says. “It’s definitely attached to this right-wing Christian mobilization. I don’t know whether Rep. Grothman knows about the flag. I wouldn’t want to attribute consciousness but it’s definitely sending a signal.”

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Documents show Sen. Ron Johnson asking about 2020 electors

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson spoke to the then-chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party about having the Republican-controlled Legislature, rather than the voters, choose Wisconsin’s presidential electors in the weeks after the 2020 election, according to documents released by the House Jan. 6 committee.

Andrew Hitt, who served as the state party’s chairman until February of 2021, testified to the committee that Johnson was making a “general complaint” about the election, but he also provided the committee with text messages he sent the party’s executive director Mark Jefferson in which the two of them discussed Johnson’s request.

The texts were sent on Dec. 7, 2020. Just a week later, on the same day that the state’s official electors cast Wisconsin’s Electoral College votes for Joe Biden, Hitt and a number of other state Republican officials met in secret and cast purported electoral votes for former President Donald Trump — even though he had lost the election and had no remaining legal options for changing the outcome.

The texts Hitt provided the committee show Hitt and Jefferson discussing Johnson’s comments.

“Ron called me right after and now is arguing for us to have the legislature choose the electors. OMG,” Hitt’s message said.

“What is he doing?” Jefferson replied.

“There is a huge amount of pressure building on them to find a way around the Electoral College,” Hitt told Jefferson.

“How can he feel good about promoting that though?” Jefferson said. “Does he believe we won here?”

In a statement to the AP, Johnson said the release of the texts amounted to a “smear” by the committee.

“I have no recollection of the phone call referenced in the texts, and therefore do not know the context of any comment I might have made,” Johnson said. “My goal since the November 2020 elections has consistently been to restore confidence in our election system.”

The committee’s investigation had previously revealed that members of Johnson’s staff had attempted to get the false slates of electors from both Wisconsin and Michigan hand-delivered to then-Vice President Mike Pence. Pence’s staff rejected the attempt.

The senator also met with Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin shortly after the election that November to discuss the possibility of them removing the responsibility of election administration from the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission and giving it to themselves.

Last month, the Jan. 6 committee released an 814-page report in which it laid out the case that Trump and other Republicans had attempted to overturn the results of the election by any means necessary and that those actions had resulted in the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The report includes a number of references to Wisconsin, one of the swing states that decided the election in 2020 and has since become a hotbed of election conspiracy theories. The report revealed that Trump called Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos a number of times throughout 2021 in an effort to force a more aggressive investigation into the election and push lawmakers into taking the illegal action of decertifying the election results.



Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Republican Derrick Van Orden victorious in Wisconsin despite ties to Jan. 6

Retired Navy SEAL Derrick Van Orden has defeated state Sen. Brad Pfaff in the race for the open seat in Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District.

Van Orden is headed to the U.S. House of Representatives two years after he lost a race for the same seat to incumbent Democratic Rep. Ron Kind, who had represented the seat for more than 20 years before retiring this year.

Van Orden frequently drew criticism from Pfaff for his participation in the protest that led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

In 2020, Kind was one of the few Democrats in the country to hold a congressional district won by former President Donald Trump — making the seat one of the top targets for Republicans this year.

Van Orden’s win was forecasted ahead of Election Day, but the four point win was made easier by a lack of national Democratic support in the district. Just weeks ahead of the election, House Majority PAC, the fundraising organization connected to House Democrats, pulled $1.8 million in ad spending that had been planned for the race.

On Wednesday morning, Pfaff said in a statement about his defeat that Democratic voters in the district still turned out in an “unprecedented way.”

“From day one, Washington prognosticators and political insiders told us we couldn’t win and that this rural, western Wisconsin seat was trending away from Democrats,” Pfaff said. “Despite being outspent 4-1, western Wisconsin showed up in an unprecedented way. This campaign has been about one thing: bringing western and central Wisconsin values to Congress and bringing real results home to this district. It’s a simple message, and we all knew early on that it wouldn’t be easy to make this vision a reality. But that didn’t stop us: we crisscrossed this district countless times, speaking with supporters, voters, local media, and community leaders about what was at stake in this election. We left it all on the field, and I am so proud of the race that we ran.”

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Milwaukee elections official fired after false requests of military absentee ballots

A Milwaukee Elections Commission employee fraudulently requested absentee ballots dedicated to members of the military and had them sent to a Republican lawmaker known for spreading conspiracy theories about election fraud in the 2020 election.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson announced at a press conference Thursday that the employee, commission deputy director Kimberly Zapata, had been fired immediately after the city learned of her actions. Johnson said she requested the ballots to prove that election fraud is possible.

“I will not accept, I will not tolerate, and I certainly will not defend any misrepresentation by a city official involved in elections,” he said in a statement. “It does not matter that this might have been an effort to expose a vulnerability that state law created. It does not matter that this alleged crime did not take place at work. It does not matter that City of Milwaukee ballots were not part of this. Nor does it matter that there was no attempt to vote illegally or tamper with election results. This has every appearance of being an egregious, blatant violation of trust, and this matter is now in the hands of law enforcement.”

The news just days before the midterm election that the ballots were requested by a Milwaukee election official comes as Republicans gear up to put their “election integrity” apparatus, established in the two years since the 2020 election, into action. At a campaign event earlier this week, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels said that if he’s elected, the party will “never lose another election in Wisconsin.”

The incident’s connection to Milwaukee may also play a role in how it’s perceived across the state. The state’s largest, and only majority-minority, city has regularly been attacked by Republicans as a source of voter fraud. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, running for reelection against Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a Milwaukee native, recently made a comment — which his campaign staff characterized as a joke — that Republicans shouldn’t trust the early voting system in Milwaukee.

Johnson’s campaign has also set up a website to solicit reports of “election fraud” from voters across the state.

On Monday, the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Office announced it was working to investigate three military absentee ballots that had been sent to the home of state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls). All three of the ballots were sent from different municipalities but all of them used the first name “Holly.”

Brandtjen, the chair of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, has regularly given a platform to conspiracy theorists and signed on to legally impossible efforts to decertify the state’s 2020 election results. After receiving the ballots, she characterized the incident as an attempt to expose a hole in the state’s election system and compared it to similar actions taken by Harry Wait, a Racine County conservative activist earlier this year.

Wait, the leader of an organization focused on finding evidence of election fraud, requested primary election absentee ballots on behalf of Racine Mayor Cory Mason and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Wait said he did so to show how easy it is to fraudulently request an absentee ballot. He is now facing two felony and two misdemeanor charges for his actions.

On Monday a Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesperson told the Wisconsin Examiner that voters must check a box certifying they’re providing accurate and truthful information when requesting a military absentee ballot and that lying on that request comes with a possibility of civil or criminal penalties. Election officials have said that getting caught fraudulently requesting absentee ballots, as Wait and Zapata have been, isn’t evidence of a loophole in the election system but instead evidence of a crime.

In a statement, Cavalier Johnson said the city doesn’t believe there have been any other illegal ballot requests, but is investigating further.

“We have no indication of any other violations of trust. Even so, we are looking into the possibility of other misdeeds,” he said. “Let there be no doubt about this, election integrity is absolutely essential. Both our Election Commission Executive Director and I will make certain Milwaukee’s election administration is conducted with the very highest level of accuracy and honesty — without any hints of impropriety.”

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Sheriff investigating military absentee ballots sent to GOP lawmaker in Wisconsin

The Waukesha County Sheriff’s Office is investigating who requested three absentee ballots on behalf of members of the military and had them sent to the home of a Republican lawmaker.

The three ballots arrived at the home of state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) last Friday and she brought them, unopened, to the sheriff’s office to investigate, her office said in a news release.

In a statement, the sheriff’s office said it is working with the Waukesha County District Attorney to investigate the ballots.

“On Friday October 28th, the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department was made aware that State Assembly Representative Janel Brandtjen received three military ballots at her home address,” a sheriff’s office news release states. “None of the individuals reside or have resided at her address. This matter is currently under investigation with no additional information available at this time. The Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department is working with the Waukesha County District Attorney’s Office in this investigation.”

Brandtjen, the chair of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, has been one of the most outspoken members of the Legislature supporting allegations of fraud in the 2020 election. She has led several committee hearings in which she gave prominent election conspiracists an open platform to spread false accusations about elections without pushback from election officials and experts.

In a news release, her office said that aside from delivering the ballots to the sheriff’s office, she reached out to former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman and the Thomas More Society to find if there were other legal options. Gableman previously ran the Assembly’s ill-fated review of the 2020 election and found no significant evidence of fraud before being fired by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos this summer. After his firing he was hired by the right-wing Thomas More Society to continue his work on elections.

The ballots, which Brandtjen’s office said were classified as military absentee ballots, were mailed by municipal clerks in Menomonee Falls, Shorewood and South Milwaukee. All three ballots, according to pictures shared in the news release, were meant for people with the first name “Holly.” The identical name caused Brandtjen to believe the voters don’t actually exist.

“After Rep. Brandtjen made inquiries, she realized these three ‘Hollys’ probably don’t exist,” her office wrote in the release. “If they did, why would they send ballots to her house?”

Brandtjen’s office did not respond to a phone call or email seeking more information about how she came to the conclusion that the voters don’t exist.

The requesting of absentee ballots on behalf of other people echoes a previous incident this summer in which a right-wing election conspiracy theorist requested the absentee ballots of two Racine County elected officials in an attempt to expose a perceived flaw in the state’s absentee ballot system.

That man, Harry Wait, runs an organization dedicated to searching for election fraud and has since been charged with multiple felonies for impersonating the officials.

After he requested absentee ballots on behalf of Racine Mayor Cory Mason and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Wait alerted the Racine County Sheriff’s Office of his actions. Racine Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, who has frequently engaged in election conspiracies, announced that Wait had uncovered a flaw in the voting system.

Prior to his first court appearance, Wait spoke at a press conference in which he compared himself to the country’s founders.

“My actions are in the spirit of organic law of this nation, upon which was founded taking action in civil disobedience,” he said. “I have acted in a similar manner as the founder of this nation acted. For that reason, I am certain my actions are indeed both lawful and under organic law of the nation.”

Election officials countered that Wait had merely uncovered the fact that he’d committed a crime and that it is practically impossible to conduct large scale election fraud by requesting other people’s absentee ballots. The state Department of Justice later brought charges against Wait.

Since Wait publicized his ballot requests, the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) has been monitoring absentee ballot requests and sending postcards to any voters who request a ballot be sent to an address other than the one where they’re registered.

Brandtjen, like Wait, is characterizing the actions of whoever requested the ballots as an attempt to expose flaws in the absentee ballot system, this time in the specific procedures for military members attempting to vote.

“I believe someone was trying to point out how easy it is to get military ballots in Wisconsin. Registration for military ballots is not required, so a fictitious name and birthdate is all that is required to obtain a military ballot online,” Brandtjen said in a statement. “Feeling shocked about this situation is an understatement because it demonstrates stolen valor from those who protect this nation. I think it’s sad that people feel they have to break the law to get the attention of the Legislature. This is now the second time citizens have tried to point out loopholes in our elections.”

Under state statute, military voters — which includes members of the uniformed branches of the military, civilian government employees working overseas, Peace Corps members, U.S. merchant marines and their spouses living abroad, are subject to different rules than regular voters.

The state statute regarding military voters was last updated in 2018 to, among other changes, allow any adult, rather than a U.S. citizen, to serve as the witness for military voters while they fill out their absentee ballots. The changes to the statute passed the Assembly in a 57-26 vote. Brandtjen voted for the update.

Any change to how military voters request and cast an absentee ballot would require legislative action.

While they can go through the regular process by registering to vote and requesting an absentee ballot, military voters aren’t required to register to vote and don’t need to provide a photo ID when requesting an absentee ballot. All that’s required is for the voters to provide the clerk with their name, date of birth and an address to send the ballot to.

However, even without the registration and ID requirements, voters requesting a military ballot are required to check a box certifying that the information is true and accurate and acknowledging that lying in the process is a crime subject to fines or imprisonment.

A spokesperson for the Wisconsin Elections Commission said in a statement the agency is participating in the law enforcement investigation into the ballot incident and noted that attempting to vote under someone else’s name or using false information to request a ballot is a crime with “severe criminal and civil penalties.”

“We are still gathering the WEC data regarding Rep. Brandtjen’s concerns that she outlined in her recent press release. We plan to work with our law enforcement partners as appropriate to address the allegations,” Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Riley Vetterkind said in a statement.

Vetterkind added that clerks “practically must still obtain sufficient information to enter a military elector into the statewide registration system.”

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

GOP candidate facing backlash over claim that ‘leftists can’t be Christian’

At a prayer breakfast in Sparta last week, Derrick Van Orden, the Republican running to represent Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, said that “leftists” can’t be Christian.

In audio of the remarks, which were first reported by the La Crosse Tribune, Van Orden said that believing in God and being a leftist are incompatible.

“There are many God-fearing Christians who are Democrats, there’s not a single God fearing Christian that is a leftist, because those two things are incompatible,” he said, adding that leftists are false prophets and then going on to make a call for a return to the Judeo-Christian values “this country was based on.”

On Thursday, Van Orden’s opponent, state Sen. Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska), held a press conference with local religious leaders to denounce the comments and say that Van Orden doesn’t get to define other people’s religious beliefs.

“I stood with La Crosse area pastors today to respond to Derrick Van Orden’s shocking and outrageous claim that only voters who agree with him politically can be Christians,” Pfaff said in a statement to the Wisconsin Examiner. “This wasn’t just an attack on my faith, my upbringing, and my way of life but on everybody who doesn’t hold the same political beliefs as Derrick. I’m a God-fearing, practicing Lutheran, and like voters in this district — Democrat or Republican — I don’t need Derrick or anyone else to tell me what I can and cannot believe in.”

In a statement to the La Crosse Tribune, Van Orden quoted the Communist Manifesto and said that Wisconsin values are being attacked by the radical left. Van Orden has frequently referred to Pfaff as a “radical leftist” online. Pfaff, a moderate, is a member of the Democratic Party and the Mindoro Lutheran Church in La Crosse County.

“‘Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality” Van Orden said, citing the Communist Manifesto.

“It is undeniable that our Wisconsin values, culture and heritage are under assault by the Radical Left who are trying to destroy the American way of life,” Van Orden added. “I will not pander to anyone for telling the truth simply because they don’t want to hear it; that is the antithesis of leadership.”

Van Orden’s comments echo controversial statements by James Altman, a Catholic priest who used to be the pastor at St. James the Less Church in La Crosse. Altman appeared on a podcast in the days after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 to argue it was a “false flag” event staged by Antifa and calling Democrats “godless.”

“No Catholic can vote with [Kamala Harris’] name on the ticket,” Altman, who was later removed from his job by the Diocese of La Crosse, said.

At the prayer breakfast, Van Orden said he’s a member of the Prairie du Chien-based Bible Baptist Church. The church’s statement of faith includes a number of beliefs that attack LGBTQ people and question science. In a section on human sexuality, the statement includes homosexuality on a list of sins including bestiality and incest and states that marriage can only be between a man and woman.

“We believe that God has commanded that no intimate sexual activity be engaged in outside of a marriage between one man and one woman,” the church states. “We believe that any form of homosexuality, lesbianism, bise!uality, bestiality, incest, fornication, adultery, and pornography are sinful perversions of God’s gift of sex. We believe that God disapproves of and forbids any attempt to alter one’s gender by surgery or appearance.”

The church also states that it “rejects evolution,” that men should be the leaders of the home and that a wife should “submit herself to the Scriptural leadership of her husband.”

In an election in which the criminalization of abortion in Wisconsin has become a major issue, the church’s beliefs about the procedure go even further than Wisconsin’s abortion ban, which was instituted in 1849.

“We reject any teaching that abortions of pregnancies due to rape, incest, birth defects, gender selection, birth or population control, or the physical or mental well being of the mother are acceptable,” it states.

Van Orden regularly makes forceful attacks against Democrats, whom he describes as a dangerous threat to the country. He joined protesters of the outcome of the 2020 presidential election on the U.S. Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, 2021. But the church states that its members love their enemies.

“We believe that we should demonstrate love for others, not only toward fellow believers, but also toward both those who are not believers, those who oppose us, and those who engage in sinful actions,” the church states. “We are to deal with those who oppose us graciously, gently, patiently, and humbly. God forbids the stirring up of strife, the taking of revenge, or the threat or the use of violence as a means of resolving personal conflict or obtaining personal justice. Although God commands us to abhor sinful actions, we are to love and pray for any person who engages in such sinful actions.”

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Republican voters looking for a fight are turning to Ron Johnson again

Sen. Ron Johnson is commonly referred to as one of the country’s most unpopular U.S. senators. His approval rating, according to a recent Marquette Law School poll, is at 41% — up four points since June — and yet, Wisconsin is on the verge of sending him back to Washington for a third term.

The same Marquette poll showed that among likely voters, Johnson is leading his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes by about six points. Among all registered voters, the poll found a dead heat with both candidates at 47%, but forecasters are predicting a Johnson win, with FiveThirtyEight giving him a 75% shot.

Johnson has gained national attention in recent years for his crusade against vaccines (he regularly touts his fight for the “vaccine-injured” and COVID patients’ right to demand unproven drugs such as ivermectin), his role in the Republican effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election and his investigations into alleged misdeeds by members of President Joe Biden’s family. Johnson, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this article, frequently attacks the news media as being beholden to the Democratic party, another plus for his voters.

That pugnacity, along with a severe dislike for Barnes, is the appeal for some voters who plan to vote for him again this year — even though he’s breaking a promise to only serve two terms.

At a rally for Republican state Senate candidates in Reedsburg on Tuesday, in the strip mall office of the Sauk County Republican Party, voters said they saw Johnson as someone who’s fighting against “Chinese communists” and “globalists,” an honest man who is trying to steer a country they believe is at a crossroads in the direction they want because he stands for “the little guys.”

These voters say they wouldn’t vote for a Democrat. They see the Democratic voters in Wisconsin’s cities as “hollow” people with “no substance.” Why else, says one voter who would only give his first name Steve, would they have chosen someone with the “milquetoast, dish rag personality” of Gov. Tony Evers?

In the Reedsburg storefront, as a gaggle of Republican state senators mingled with voters over coffee and donuts, 74-year-old David Olson was wearing an American flag jacket capped with a cheesehead adorned with stickers for Johnson and Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels and a toy John Deere tractor attached to the top. A military veteran, Olson says Americans need “to wake up to the threat that’s before us.”

David Olson says he’s supporting Johnson because he’s an “honest man.” (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

There are five issues Olson says he considers most important. Number one, he says, is that a candidate must be anti-abortion because “babies are a miracle.” He says securing the country’s border is important because “nobody can show up and expect us to take care of them” before people in the country have been fully taken care of. He wants lower taxes, a strong military and the Second Amendment defended.

Despite Johnson’s promise that he only serve two terms, Olson believes he’d only break that promise for a good reason.

“He’s an honest man,” he says as Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” plays over the room’s loudspeakers. “He assured us he’s a two-term senator, but I believe he’s seen situations in government that concern him and he wants to continue on course with his thoughts and is hoping he could make a difference. The situation demands another term.”

Johnson was criticized last month by Democrats for touting a history of bipartisan legislation that was largely made up of bills renaming post offices. But Olson says he is a “mover and shaker.”

A Ron Johnson sign hangs from the window of the Sauk County Republican Party office. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

“His biggest accomplishment is he’s making us aware of what’s happening in government,” Olson says.

Sitting around a table ahead of the rally, a group of three voters refuse to share their names but are willing to share that they haven’t watched sports since the leagues “became woke.”

“I like voting for people who are for the people and not for Chinese communism and not for globalism,” says one of them, who adds that Johnson “appears to be honest.” Though he still has some issues with Johnson, over the Patriot Act, for example.

“I didn’t say he’s the perfect senator,” the man says. “Not all Republicans are saints, some of them are pieces of [expletive].”

Several voters at the rally say they appreciate that Johnson is a “bootstraps guy” who earned his money working in the private sector and still “stands up for little guys.” Johnson earned a multi-million dollar fortune running a plastics company started by his wife’s family that relied largely on millions of dollars in from his father-in-law’s business across the street.

“Nobody gave him anything,” says Steve, the voter who wouldn’t give his last name. “That’s the difference between Republican candidates and Democrat candidates. Democrats have very few achievements … Republicans earned something before deciding to run for office.”

Randy Fry, who owns a gym in Reedsburg, believes Republicans are going to have a massive win in November because Democrats “do not understand the middle class person, they don’t feel their pain.” Pointing to the economy, inflation and crime as his most important issues, he says people are “sick” of promises from Democrats and that his likely vote for Johnson is more a vote against Barnes.

“At this point, I don’t care what he has done, I don’t want Mandela Barnes in there,” Fry says.

Steve, who said he’s lived in Sauk County for six years, says the 2018 election — which elected a wave of Democrats to statewide office in Wisconsin and gave them control of the U.S. House of Representatives — was rigged as a practice run for 2020 and that he thinks it’s President Joe Biden’s fault that people believe it’s OK to make fun of old people.

Republican merchandise at the Sauk County Republican Party. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Numerous audits, lawsuits, recounts and reviews have affirmed that the 2020 election was not rigged and that Biden won Wisconsin by about 21,000 votes.

Despite thinking that there’s “a whole lot of people in Madison who will cheat,” Steve says he thinks Johnson will easily defeat Barnes next month and that he’s supporting Johnson because he’s a fighter.

“He’s not afraid to take on the press, I love him for that,” Steve says. “He’s fearless in a lot of ways.”



Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Ron Johnson campaign creates portal for 'election integrity' complaints

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson is asking voters to report instances which “they feel might be inconsistent with state laws” during next month’s election, the Johnson campaign announced in a news release Wednesday.

The campaign unveiled a website dedicated to “election integrity incident reporting,” and the release states that the campaign, the Republican Party of Wisconsin and the Republican National Committee are working to make sure the 2022 elections are “free and fair.”

Johnson, a two-term incumbent running for re-election against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, has been heavily involved in Republican efforts over the last two years to overturn the results of the 2020 election and cast doubt on its validity.

Numerous recounts, audits, lawsuits, reviews and investigations have affirmed that the 2020 election was won by President Joe Biden and that there was not widespread fraud in its administration.

Johnson has frequently spread conspiracy theories about the election and participated in an effort by Wisconsin Republicans to cast false electoral college votes for former President Donald Trump. Johnson was revealed to have attempted to pass those false votes to former Vice President Mike Pence by the U.S. House Committee investigating the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

“Everyone in Wisconsin should have the assurance that their vote counts and it will not be canceled by a fraudulent vote,” Johnson said in a statement. “We are doing everything in our power in 2022 to restore confidence in our election by ensuring Wisconsin elections laws are fully complied with. We will continue to coordinate with the committees to make sure this election is free and fair, and that everyone can have full confidence in the final results.”

Republicans across the country have attempted to establish a stable of voters on the lookout for perceived instances of fraud through online portals such as Johnson’s and attempts to recruit election inspectors and poll watchers who are on board with Republican theories that elections are rigged. The release states that the RPW has recruited 5,000 election inspectors and nearly 2,000 poll watchers — although it’s unclear how many of those will actually show up to the polls on Election Day.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission has reported that since 2020 it’s received an unprecedented number of complaints and open records requests about how the state’s elections are run.

Johnson is locked in a race with Barnes that polls show is essentially neck-and-neck with three weeks remaining. To prepare for the close race, the Johnson campaign hired Jim Troupis, a Wisconsin election attorney who was at the forefront of the Trump campaign’s legal efforts to overturn the results of Wisconsin’s 2020 election, to prepare for the possibility of a recount.

In Wisconsin, if a race is decided by less than 1% of the vote, a candidate may request a recount. Troupis has represented Wisconsin Republicans in a number of recounts.

Troupis was involved in a lawsuit that sought to hand the election to Trump by throwing out more than 220,000 absentee ballots in Dane and Milwaukee counties. He has also been implicated in the false elector strategy. A Nov. 18, 2020, memo sent by Trump attorney Kenneth Chesebro outlined the “alternate elector” strategy that Republicans undertook the next month.

Campaign finance filings show that the Johnson campaign paid Troupis $20,287.50 for “legal consulting” in July and consultation on a potential recount in August.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Wisconsin Democrats say GOP candidate Derrick Van Orden poses a threat to democracy

Shortly after the end of what is potentially the last public hearing of the U.S. House committee investigating the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Democratic congressional candidate Brad Pfaff warned that if Republicans gain control of the House, they’ll put an end to the committee’s work.

Pfaff, a state senator from Onalaska, is running against former Navy SEAL Derrick Van Orden — who was present at the Capitol on that day — to represent Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District, one of the few districts in the whole country that in 2016 and 2020 sent a Democrat to Congress and voted for former President Donald Trump.

“If the Republicans take control or take a majority of the U.S. House of Representatives, it’s expected they will not continue the important work that the January 6th committee has been doing,” Pfaff said. “They’ve been doing a real service to the American public over the last few months. Will that continue?”

Voters in the 3rd District, one of the swing districts that will decide control of the House and the fate of the committee, are choosing between Pfaff and Van Orden, a man Pfaff said the country can’t allow to “slip through the cracks” for his involvement with the attack on the Capitol and the conspiracy theories about the 2020 election that caused it.

Pfaff laid out the stakes of the election, saying the voters of Western and Central Wisconsin that make up the 3rd District have a “clear choice to make on November 8th. They have a choice to make — if we are going to save democracy, or are we going to elect an insurrectionist? Now, I think all of us recognize that if our house was on fire, we would not ask an arsonist to put the fire out. But this is the choice we have.”

Yet despite the gravity of that choice and the forceful case the Jan. 6 committee is attempting to make about the dangers of election conspiracism and the Republican party’s attempt to subvert the results of the 2020 election, national Democrats appear to be abandoning Pfaff’s campaign. Earlier this week, Axios reported that House Majority PAC, the outside spending group dedicated to electing Democrats to the House, has canceled ads it intended to run in the district against Van Orden.

Van Orden has also seen way more outside money come his way than Pfaff. Data from the Federal Elections Commission shows that as of late last month, outside groups and political action committees have spent nearly $750,000 supporting Van Orden and another $25,000 opposing Pfaff. Meanwhile, outside groups have spent $656,000 opposing Van Orden, but only $6,100 supporting Pfaff.

Polls and election forecasts have consistently shown Van Orden leading in the race.

Baldwin, who at the press conference recounted her own experience of being at the Capitol on Jan. 6, told the Wisconsin Examiner that she believes 3rd District voters will know what Van Orden stands for by the time they head to the ballot box on Nov. 8. She pointed to a $500,000 ad campaign from Center Forward, a PAC aimed at electing moderates, that shows Van Orden’s actions at the Capitol that day.

The ad alleges Van Orden was closer to the Capitol building, and the violence, than he’s previously let on. Included in the ad is a clip of Van Orden wearing an earpiece and gesturing toward the Capitol, saying “The Capitol. That’s where we’re headed to right now.”

“There is a very active independent organization that is absolutely exposing Derrick Van Orden’s role in January 6th and making sure that by his refusal to debate and do public appearances and be interviewed by the media that that doesn’t mean that the citizens of this area aren’t gonna learn exactly who he is,” Baldwin says.

Pfaff, despite the flagging support from national Democrats, said he’s still fighting for what he believes is a competitive seat.

“Well, all I can say is that I am actively traveling this district and speaking to people and in communities left and right,” he said. “I recognize the fact that this is a very competitive seat, as do the people of this district. And so I am continuing to travel this district and speak with people, standing in dairy barns as well as doing various town hall meetings, whatever I possibly can in order to continue to reach the voters of this district. I am very confident that come Nov. 8th the voters will have a clear choice in this election. And we’re getting our message out.”

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Judge dismisses conservative group's lawsuit against student debt forgiveness

A federal judge tossed out a lawsuit from the right-wing law outfit Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) that challenged the Biden Administration’s student debt forgiveness plan.

WILL had filed the lawsuit earlier this week on behalf of the Brown County Taxpayers Association, arguing the plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt for people who make less than $125,000 a year is illegal executive overreach.

Eastern District of Wisconsin Judge William C. Griesbach dismissed the lawsuit, writing in his decision that the BCTA did not have the grounds to bring the lawsuit. WILL had argued that because the BCTA’s members pay federal taxes, they’re able to bring a suit against the executive branch’s use of that money.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly held, however, that the payment of taxes is generally not enough to establish standing to challenge an action taken by the Federal Government,” wrote Griesbach, an appointee of President George W. Bush.

WILL said after the dismissal that it planned to appeal the decision.

“This is an extraordinary case based on an extraordinary claim of executive power by the President,” WILL deputy counsel Dan Lennington said in a statement. “This case was always destined to be decided by higher courts, and we will continue the fight to the Court of Appeals and then the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.”

The lawsuit is one of several across the country challenging the loan forgiveness plan, but WILL gained attention for using a racial argument in its suit. The White House has said the plan will narrow the racial wealth gap, a reason WILL argued amounts to an “improper racial motive” and a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection laws.

Previously, WILL has filed lawsuits against other Biden Administration programs that attempted to benefit people of color. In 2021, the group successfully killed a program that provided aid to Black farmers.

The application for student debt forgiveness is expected to be released sometime this month. WILL had asked Griesbach to order a temporary injunction that the applications not be released, a step that he said was unclear he could take, even if the BCTA had standing because “a substantial question remains as to whether Plaintiff can demonstrate that it will suffer irreparable harm.”

About 685,000 borrowers in Wisconsin will be eligible for relief under the Biden plan, which will forgive $10,000 in debt for borrowers who earn less than $125,000 a year, or couples who earn less than $250,000 a year. Pell grant recipients will be eligible for up to $20,000 in debt forgiveness.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, at the end of 2021, Wisconsin had 785,600 borrowers with a collective $24.7 billion in student loan debt. The average balance is $31,482, while the median balance is $17,037. The delinquency rate on those loans is 6%.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Republican Ron Johnson makes Senate race about crime but votes against $3 billion for public safety

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.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Wisconsin state Sen. Jacque also received email from Ginni Thomas pushing for overturn of election results

Wisconsin Sen. Andre Jacque received an email from Ginni Thomas, the wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, urging him to ignore the results of the state’s elections and have the Legislature choose Wisconsin’s electors.

The email, obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner from the watchdog group Documented, is identical to those previously reported to have been sent to Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) and Rep. Gary Tauchen (R-Bonduel). The email to Jacque was also received on the same day as the Bernier and Tauchen messages.

“Article II of the United States Constitution gives you an awesome responsibility: to choose our state’s Electors,” the identical emails stated. “This means you have the power to fight back against fraud and ensure our elections are free, fair, and honest. This responsibility is yours and yours alone — it doesn’t rest with any Board of Elections, Secretary of State, Governor, or even court. And it certainly doesn’t rest with the media. That’s why I am writing today to urge you to do your Constitutional duty. Please stand strong in the face of political and media pressure. Please reflect on the awesome authority granted to you by our Constitution. And then please take action to ensure that a clean slate of Electors is chosen for our state.”

Jacque’s office did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails seeking comment Thursday afternoon.

Brendan Fischer, Documented’s deputy executive director, says the email is more proof that Thomas was seeking to stop the peaceful transition of power in 2020.

“This latest email shows that Ginni Thomas’s efforts to overturn Biden’s win stretched across multiple states, and involved pressure campaigns aimed at numerous state lawmakers,” he says. “There is no longer any doubt that the wife of a sitting Supreme Court justice sought to block the democratic transition of power, but we still don’t know the full extent of those efforts. Perhaps the Jan. 6 committee can find out.”

After the emergence of the emails to Bernier and Tauchen, Bernier said she believes the messages, which were sent using an automated service that allows people to send multiple emails to public officials at the same time, were sent to every member of the Legislature.

Jacque did not take any action to interfere in the results of the 2020 election and hasn’t been an especially vocal advocate in the Legislature for election conspiracy theories, but he did author several bills in the most recent legislative session that would have slightly changed Wisconsin’s election rules. One bill, co-authored with Bernier, would have required the Wisconsin Elections Commission to provide grant money to municipalities to help administer elections and another would have changed who is eligible to make formal complaints against election officials.

Weeks after the Thomas emails, a group of Wisconsin Republicans met in the state Capitol to cast Electoral College votes for Donald Trump even though he had lost the state to Joe Biden.

Since the 2020 election, Thomas has come under increased scrutiny for her role in working with and aiding attempts to overturn or discredit the results. Her cooperation with key players in the effort to spread conspiracies about the election led to calls for her husband to recuse himself from cases related to the election — a step he hasn’t taken.

This week, Thomas reached an agreement to be interviewed by the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

GOP candidate's donations went to sidewalk counseling, location tracking of abortion patients

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels has sought to defend himself against criticism of his charitable giving by saying his support of anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion causes is merely a reflection of his religious values. But his donations supported two groups that use controversial methods, including “sidewalk counseling” and cell phone location tracking, to discourage people from getting an abortion.

Michels’ charitable donations, first reported last week by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, came from the foundation he runs with his wife, the Timothy & Barbara Michels Family Foundation, as well as a foundation in his parents’ names, the Dale R & Ruth L Michels Family Foundation, which he served as a trustee of until 2019.

In 2020, Michels and his wife donated nearly $200,000 to anti-abortion groups in Wisconsin and New York.

The construction magnate has responded to the reporting on his charitable giving by lashing out at Democrats and the news media for calling attention to the causes he supports, which among the right-wing groups also includes donations to churches, religious organizations and cancer research.

“I believe people should just, just be ready to get out on the streets with pitchforks and torches with how low the liberal media has become,” Michels said on a conservative talk radio show. “People need to decide, ‘Am I going to put up with this? Am I going to tolerate this, taking somebody that gives money to churches or cancer research and use that as a hit piece in the media?’ I’m appalled. It’s disgusting.”

In 2020, according to his foundation’s tax records, Michels donated $25,000 to the Pro-Life Wisconsin Education Task Force. Pro-Life Wisconsin is a right-wing anti-abortion group with a platform aimed at outlawing all abortions, without exceptions for protecting the life of the mother. The group also works to ban all forms of contraception and prohibit in vitro fertilization.

The group’s education task force that Michels directed his donation to includes programs that encourage teenagers to refrain from having sex and establishing anti-abortion clubs on college campuses. The task force also runs the “Save Lives: sidewalk counselor training program” which trains people to stand outside of abortion clinics and pressure patients to change their minds about their decision.

Michels, as a trustee of the foundation in his parents’ names, also helped direct thousands of dollars to the Veritas Society. In total, the foundation donated $20,000 to the society, which uses cell phone location data to track women who visit Planned Parenthood locations in order to send them targeted anti-abortion ads.

“Utilizing our advanced Veritas Society digital technology, otherwise known as ‘Polygonning’ we identify and capture the cell phone ID’s of women that are coming and going from Planned Parenthood and similar locations,” the group’s website states. “We then reach these women on apps, social feeds and websites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat with pro-life content and messaging.”

Michels spokesperson Anna Kelly would not respond to questions about the programs Michels’ donations had funded, instead she asked for “balance” in reporting on charitable contributions made by Gov. Tony Evers.

“Looking forward to the story that I’m sure will be balanced with Evers’ charitable contributions,” she said. “Of course, that requires you asking about his contributions and him donating to charity at all, so looking forward to reading the results of that ask.”

Evers is not the trustee of a large family foundation required to publicly file its tax documents and a request to the Evers campaign for a list of his contributions went unanswered.

Kelly has previously defended his donations as merely “generosity” in support of Christian causes and said that his “pitchforks and torches” comment was just “a figure of speech.”

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