How a Wisconsin tribe helped launch a Trump-approved ‘Make America Great Again’ charter school

The Lake Country Classical Academy, an independent charter school authorized by the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College in northern Wisconsin, opened in September in the Milwaukee suburb of Oconomowoc, about a five-hour drive south on Interstate 94 from Hayward, where the college is located — about as far away from Ojibwe land and tribal members as you can get without leaving Wisconsin.

The academy advertises itself as a back-to-basics school that emphasizes Latin and phonics and takes a top-down, “teacher-led” approach to education, instilling “virtues of character” in its students. It is the first of its kind in Wisconsin, part of a nationwide network of charter schools that receive curriculum, teacher training, and mentoring from Hillsdale College, a small Christian college in Michigan with deep ties to the Trump administration. The “1776 curriculum” devised by Hillsdale and used by the Lake Country Classical Academy is “the latest push to continue former President Donald Trump’s mission to create a ‘patriotic education,’” according to a July 2021 article in Politico. Larry Arnn, Hillsdale’s president, led the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission, created to promote a positive vision of America, in what Politico calls “a direct challenge to The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which explored how racism and inequality shaped the founding of the country.”

Wisconsin public school advocates see the new charter school as a backdoor way to divert tax dollars from public schools and into quasi-private academies. Republican legislators have featured the school at hearings as they push for an expansion of tribal colleges’ ability to grant charters. Heather DuBois Bourenane, director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, particularly objects to what she sees as policymakers “politicking with some of the state’s most vulnerable kids in order to advance a political project or agenda.”

Others see something peculiar about the tribe’s sponsorship of a school curriculum that appears to whitewash history.

Hillsdale is “well known as a kind of fortress for conservative, and often racist views.”

– Gary Miron, Western Michigan University

“It’s really surprising that a Native American group would be sponsoring a Hillsdale charter school,” says Gary Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement and research at Western Michigan University and a fellow at the National Education Policy Center. In Michigan, where he lives, Miron says, Hillsdale is “well known as a kind of fortress for conservative, and often racist views.”

According to Matt Villeneuve, assistant professor of United States history and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who is of Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa descent, “The history of Lac Courte Oreilles is that of a self-determining nation asserting its educational sovereignty. The irony is whether a charter school authorized under this sovereign power with such curriculum can adequately teach its students about this very history.”

But Dr. Russell Swagger, the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College president, said in a statement when the school opened that the college “is committed to partnering with LCCA and supports its approach to education.” Swagger did not return multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment for this story. “There is great synergy between our missions,” he said in his statement. “Like LCCA, we believe in the importance of developing students in mind and character, as well as the value of educational sovereignty.”

“Educational sovereignty,” is the key concept bringing together the tribe and members of an influential rightwing Christian school choice movement. The partnership has profound implications for the future of public schools in Wisconsin.

Touring the academy

At a school open house on Dec. 2, an all-white crowd of about 80 parents, many juggling pajama-wearing toddlers, gathered in the gym at the Holy Trinity Church, which houses Lake Country Classical Academy grades K-4. The school’s interim principal, Margaret Diagneau, a pleasant, energetic young woman, gave a slide presentation on classical education and “what makes LCCA a Hillsdale College Member School.” Point No. 1: “The centrality of the Western tradition in the study of history, literature, philosophy and the fine arts.”

The parents toured Lake Country Classical Academy’s K-4 classrooms in the church, which is temporarily housing about 200 of the school’s 421 students. The board is “vigorously pursuing options” for a new location for next year, Diagneau said. Another 200-plus students attend grades 5-9 on the school’s second campus at St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, a short drive past the twinkling Christmas lights in postcard-pretty downtown Oconomowoc. Lake Country plans to add a grade next year and over the next few years expand to a 750-800 student K-12 school on a single campus.

“A lot of our virtues align with the seven sacred gifts that the Native Americans teach, and honesty and wisdom and truth and all these things were in alignment.”

– Kristina Vourax, Lake Country Classical Academy founder and board president

At the upper school, two boys in school uniform khakis and blue vests guided parents through the Latin, science, and math classrooms. Neat rows of desks all faced the front of the room. There was a Christmas tree in every class.

One parent on the tour was conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn, who introduced himself, smiling broadly and shaking hands with other parents. (Hagedorn helped found the K-8 Augustine Academy in Waukesha County in 2016. The school’s policy banning LGBTQ teachers, students and parents stirred controversy and became a campaign issue during his Supreme Court race.) Almost no one on the tour wore a mask. The school’s COVID-19 policy, Diagneau explained, is “we put the responsibility on parents to make sure kids are healthy.” Masks are optional.

As for the school’s relationship with the Ojibwe tribe, Diagneau said, “It’s an amazing story that the tribe saw the value of the Hillsdale curriculum and the emphasis on freedom and virtue.”

Relationship with the tribe

The Frequently Asked Questions page on the Lake Country Classical Academy website poses the question “I understand that LCCA is authorized by the LCO Ojibwe College. Will there be a Native American influence in LCCA’s curriculum?”

Answer: “We will stay true to our Hillsdale K-12 classical curriculum, which is already rich in American History which began with the first Americans — the Native Americans.”

“The other authorizers all declined.”

– Margaret Daigneau, Lake Country Classical interim principal

In addition, the FAQ page states, “We plan on offering a supplemental curriculum that will allow students to take a deeper dive into learning about the history, language, customs, and values of Native American people, with a focus on the Ojibwe and other Wisconsin tribes.”

Kindergarteners at the school had a unit on Native Americans, Diagneau said, and “they are working on having someone come visit from that tribe — the Ojibwe.”

The biggest point of connection between the tribe and Lake Country Classical Academy, she says, is a belief in “excellence in education.” Also, the tribe is “deeply committed to the idea of parental choice.” Plus, Diagneau adds, the school was rejected by the UW’s Office of Educational Opportunity, school district authorizers and technical college boards: “The other authorizers all declined.”

Under state law, the entities that can authorize independent charter schools are: Milwaukee’s common council, the chancellors of University of Wisconsin System schools, technical college district boards, the Waukesha county executive, the UW-System Office of Educational Opportunity and the state’s two Native American tribal colleges — the College of Menominee Nation and the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College.

Independent charter schools are paid for by taxpayers, but operate outside the oversight of local school boards and with freedom from some rules regarding academic programs and operations that regular public schools must follow.

Expanding tribal college charters

Two Republican-sponsored bills now moving through the Wisconsin Legislature seek to expand the ability of tribal colleges to establish charter schools and increase the amount of money those schools can collect.

The bills’ authors present them as efforts to rectify historical discrimination against Native American people. “By removing this cap on First Nations, we are able to have parity of educational opportunity,” Rep. David Steffen (R-Green Bay) said at a Dec. 14 Assembly education committee hearing on his bill to allow tribal colleges to authorize an unlimited number of charter schools, AB 721. The committee had already unanimously approved companion legislation, AB 420, that increases the reimbursement rate for charter schools authorized by tribal colleges from $8,719 per student to $9,165 — the same amount independent charters authorized by non-tribal entities collect.

(Historically, tribally authorized charter schools were reimbursed by the state at the same rate paid by the federal government to tribal schools established through the Bureau of Indian Affairs — a rate somewhat lower than the state’s charter reimbursement.)

Lake Country Classical Academy founder and board president Kristina Vourax appeared at the Dec. 14 hearing with James Schlender, a lawyer for the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College and the tribe’s attorney general, to give testimony on the school — only the second to be authorized by a tribal college in Wisconsin — and to speak in support of doing away with the cap of six schools tribal colleges are currently allowed to authorize.

There is particular synergy between the classical academy and the tribe, Vourax and Schlender said, because of their shared emphasis on values. “A lot of our virtues align with the seven sacred gifts that the Native Americans teach,” Vourax said, “and honesty and wisdom and truth and all these things were in alignment.”

Confusion about who the school serves

During the hearing, there was some confusion among members of the committee about the purpose of the Lake Country charter school and whom it serves.

The U.S. government has just shredded Ojibwe knowledge and indigenous knowledge. So for me, the big thing is educational sovereignty. Parents have the right to educate their kids the way they see fit.”

– Lac Courte Oreille Ojibwe tribal member

“Are students other than tribal members in your school or is it just tribal members?” Rep. Donna Rozar (R-Marshfield) asked Schlender and Vourax. “We have a mixture of all backgrounds,” Vourax replied. In fact, Lake Country Classical Academy does not serve the children of tribal members, instead, enrollment data from the Department of Public Instruction shows, it draws its students from Oconomowoc and surrounding school districts.

The Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College has authorized only one other charter school — a small, environmentally focused school-within-a-school serving 15 at-risk students inside the 284-student Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School, a public K-12 institution in Hayward accredited by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that serves students from the reservation and surrounding towns, with an emphasis on Ojibwe language and culture.

That school seems more like a few of the Native American charter schools in the Upper Peninsula that Miron visited when he was an evaluator for the Michigan state department of education. “They were really inspiring,” he says. “One was very ambitious and pursuing a Native American curriculum. They wanted tribal values communicated through all the subjects.”

But just because a tribal college is authorizing schools, that doesn’t mean the schools have to promote tribal values. As Schlender put it during the Assembly hearing, “We are an independent authorizer, that’s what we are. We just happen to be a college that is chartered and housed on a reservation. So there is no specific tribal requirement.”

“So am I right in saying or assuming that … this is just possibly an expansion of charter schools anywhere in the state, but authorized by the tribal entities?” Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mt. Horeb) asked. “So if it’s not on tribal land, and it doesn’t require tribal members for attendance, then we’re just talking more charter schools, right?”

“Our purpose isn’t to advance a tribal mission,” Schlender confirmed. “Our purpose is to advance the ideas of what education is about.”

Asked what the tribal college looks for in authorizing a school, Schlender said, “You’re not carrying our colors, you’re not carrying our language. You’re just carrying forward this idea of teaching your children to be successful and that’s what we want. That’s the mission.”

‘Not a money-making scheme’

There is also money involved. The tribal college received an implementation grant for the school from the state in June of $750,625. In addition, under the contract between the tribal college and the charter school, the tribal college receives 3% of all the per-pupil revenue the state directs to the school to cover the costs of providing oversight.

“It’s not — I don’t know how this translates in English — a money-making scheme. It’s not for that,” Schlender said in his testimony before the Assembly education committee. “This is about the future generations that we have as citizens … as responsible neighbors, we want to make sure that everyone has an opportunity for that education.”

Miron, who has studied the growth of charter schools across the nation, points to charter schools in his state, where authorizers receive 3% of per-pupil school aid to pay for administrative, chartering and monitoring responsibilities, but don’t necessarily spend a lot of time on oversight.

“It had nothing to do with their community or their values,” Miron says. “It was about the 3%.” Especially with cuts to higher education, authorizing charter schools has become an important source of revenue for both tribal and nontribal colleges and universities.

Bay Mills Community College, a tribally-controlled college on the southeastern shore of Lake Superior, became one of the top three charter school authorizers in Michigan after the state allowed tribal colleges to start authorizing charter schools in 2000. The college now has 46 charter schools; 48% of the students are African American, many living 5½ hours away in Detroit.

What makes a great education?

The focus of the Hillsdale 1776 American history curriculum, which is downloadable for free on the Hillsdale College website, appears to be impressing upon students the greatness of America. In a section titled “What Teachers Should Consider,” it states: “The teacher might best open the unit with lessons aimed at understanding why the colonists declared independence in the first place. It was not to avoid paying taxes or about wanting to preserve slavery. (These are misconceptions at best, distortions at worst.) It was to choose — between liberty under self-government and servitude under tyranny.”

Every class using Hillsdale’s Barney Charter School Initiative curriculum, to which Lake Country Classical Academy subscribes, “is taught with an emphasis on the history and traditions of American citizens as the inheritors of Western civilization.”

As for the touchy issues of slavery and genocide, teachers are urged to put those parts of American history in a positive light with questions for students including: “Even though many wanted to abolish slavery, why did many leading Founders think that permitting slavery and keeping the Americans united would be the only way to eventually get rid of slavery?” and “How did the Founders restrict slavery at the founding more than it had ever been before?”

Native Americans appear to be almost entirely absent from the early history units on “The American Founding” for grades K-2 and 3-5, apart from a lesson plan on “Self-Government or Tyranny” that instructs teachers to “Have students consider a few problems the British in North America faced following the French and Indian War … namely, the risk of further conflict (and associated costs) with Native Americans as colonists moved westward, and the money they owed after the late war.”

Vourax has said that Lake Country Classical Academy plans to add extra lessons on the history of the Lac Courte Oreilles to supplement the Hillsdale American history curriculum. “We’re able to not only just learn about this in a textbook, but reach out to the LCO and bring the speakers down and bring our kids up there and really learn their story first-hand,” she told legislators.

But none of that is required by the school’s charter. “As long as you’re teaching your children to be productive people, that’s what we want,” Schlender said. “That’s the idea of educational sovereignty — that’s the principle to it. We don’t make them do things; we don’t require things; we don’t imply things; we make ourselves available if they have questions about different things.”

Asked if Hillsdale’s sunny view of colonization and the superiority of Western European traditions came up in discussions of authorizing the school, Schlender told Wisconsin Examiner, “It did come up. But that’s a question for the school.”

How does the tribal college square its values of lifting up Native American people and their history with Hillsdale’s curriculum, which explicitly seeks to downplay the bad parts of U.S. history, including slavery and the Native American genocide? “What do you mean square it?” Schlender asked. “The school is responsible for what they teach.”

A member of the tribe who was involved in the charter school discussions but did not want to speak about them on the record explained, “I would never send my kids there, because my value system is different. But that doesn’t mean we have the right to impose our will on them. … The U.S. government has just shredded Ojibwe knowledge and indigenous knowledge. So for me, the big thing is educational sovereignty. Parents have the right to educate their kids the way they see fit.”

‘Separate historical trajectories meeting at a very odd place’

Lake Country Classical Academy is “a very curious case study,” says UW professor and Native American education historian Matt Villenueve. Villeneuve has done a lot of research on the way charter schools became important to Native nations, especially in places where there were no treaties that made it easy for indigenous people to contract with the federal government to open schools.

“Among non-Natives, there’s a lot of suspicion around charter schools that has to do with how they avoid oversight and direct public resources into private hands. And we know that’s true in a lot of cases,” Villeneuve says. “But in Indian Country, it’s often more complicated.”

In the case of the Lake Country Classical Academy, Villeneuve sees “two very separate historical trajectories meeting in a very odd place.”

One of those trends is the rise of charter schools as a solution for parents who feel that they don’t have enough control over their local public schools. “In the 1970s, that grew out of resistance to busing and integration,” Villeneuve says. “And at the same time Native American people were asserting their sovereignty. One way people exercise sovereignty is through schools.”

Increasingly people on the right see this argument about sovereignty and say, ‘Wait, isn’t that what we’re doing?’ It’s not.

– Matt Villeneuve, UW-Madison

The federal government has historically undermined Native sovereignty by seeking to control Native schooling – “hence a Native eagerness for charter schools as a vehicle to control the education of their young people,” says Villeneuve.

“During a period from the 1880s to the 1930s, the federal government would often overrule Native parents, drag Native children off of reservations, and coercively enroll them in boarding schools,” he says. “This was a deliberate attempt by the federal government to use federal schools to disrupt the passing of important cultural, linguistic, and experiential knowledge from elders to children that was critical to the future of Native communities.”

But “increasingly people on the right see this argument about sovereignty and say, ‘Wait, isn’t that what we’re doing?’ It’s not.”

He calls the strategic appropriation of the Native American legal concept of sovereignty by right-wing enemies of the federal government “incredibly uncomfortable.”

Charter schools make sense for Native American people in the context of a long history of resistance to the federal government, especially when it comes to education, Villeneuve says. But the Hillsdale charter, in his view, represents “a curious convergence.”

“Non-Native advocates of charters as a market-based carve-out from the public school system may believe they have allies in some Native nations, which have used charters as a means of asserting their educational sovereignty,” Villeneuve says. “Both rely on exceptions to state and federal power over schools to make the case for local community empowerment. Of course, only one of these groups has historically experienced the imposition of schools by the federal government as a means of colonization.”

Parity, discrimination, and the growth of independent charters

The last speaker at the Dec. 14 Assembly education committee hearing was the Menominee tribe’s lobbyist, Joseph Strohl, former Democratic Senate Majority Leader in Wisconsin.

Strohl said the Menominee College has not authorized any charter schools, because so far it has not been interested in “going through the red tape you have to go through to become an authorizer.”

Recently, when the tribe decided to create a Menominee language immersion school, it went to the local school board. “And so it looks like the Menominee tribe will get its immersion school, but the charter will be granted by the Menominee public school district,” Strohl said.

He did have a recommendation for a “minor amendment” to the bill to expand tribal charters, and referred lawmakers to Act 31, a collection of state statutes that require all public school districts to provide instruction on the history, culture, and tribal sovereignty of Wisconsin’s 11 federally-recognized American Indian nations and tribal communities.

“If the tribal colleges are going to be authorizing charters to schools that are probably primarily not for Indian children, there should be some education in them that should follow the Act 31 requirements,” Strohl said.

Following the money that follows the students

During the hearing, Rep. Timothy Ramthun (R-Campbellsport), requested a fiscal analysis of the impact the charter school expansion would have on local school districts. Steffen, the author of the bill, assured him the impact would be negligible.

Education committee chair Jermey Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) jumped in to say, “I think the impact is less money is likely going to be spent, because independent charters receive … a lesser amount per student.”

That’s a familiar talking point for proponents of school choice programs, who argue that regular public schools spend more money per student in general than voucher and charter schools.

“There’s this idea that the parental choice or charter school model saves taxpayers money. That’s completely false,” says Kettle Moraine School District business manager John Stellmacher. “It’s true they get less money, but they are also largely not providing special ed or transportation.”

The higher costs of providing programs to kids with special needs, English language learners, special education, and, for a district such as Kettle Moraine, long bus rides among far-flung schools, remain fixed for regular public schools, even if schools that don’t have those expenses spend less per student. This is a particularly sore point this year, as the current state budget brought state funding for schools to a historic low despite much larger than expected revenue.

“Our state taxpayers are now financing two systems. There are more options, but there is also more cost. It’s prohibitive to serve kids because you don’t have those economies of scale.”

– Kettle Moraine school district business manager John Stellmacher

Kettle Moraine, situated one mile from the Lake Country Classical Academy’s Holy Trinity campus, just over the district line from Oconomowoc, felt the impact of the new tribal charter school in a big way this year, Stellmacher says, after 111 students left the district to go there. Stellmacher remembers getting the report on Oct. 15, when the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released the numbers of students heading out of district to independent charters, taking their per-pupil funding with them.

Kettle Moraine took a $1.5 million budget hit this year to pay for 118 students who went to independent charters. State education department data shows that 111 of them went to one of the state’s tribally authorized independent charter schools (almost certainly Lake Country Classical Academy; the only other tribally authorized charter is the 15-student Ojibwe school-within-a-school five hours north in Hayward). “Our operational budget is about $50 million,” Stellmacher says, “and having a budget swing of about 3% a week or so before you set your final numbers definitely causes a little heartburn.”

When he got the news, Stellmacher scanned the other Waukesha County schools on the list and noticed that they, like Kettle Moraine, went from zero students leaving the district for independent charters to significant numbers right after Lake Country Classical Academy opened.

According to DPI data, 364 students from Waukesha County school districts now attend a tribal charter, including 96 students from Oconomowoc, 61 from Waukesha, and 31 from Elmbrook.

The way Stellmacher sees it, “Every time you add more choices for parents, that’s good, I guess, but it also undermines the economies of scale of the public school system.”

Pulling out a few students from several classrooms doesn’t reduce costs, he explains, because each class still needs a teacher, but it reduces the total amount of money available to educate those students.

Over the next few years, the fiscal impact on surrounding districts of a single independent charter school opening will be mitigated by the complex state equalization formula that seeks to even out money among districts. But in the long run, Stellmacher says, “Our state taxpayers are now financing two systems. There are more options, but there is also more cost. It’s prohibitive to serve kids because you don’t have those economies of scale.”

As charter authorizers and new charter schools proliferate, “We’ve created all these strange barriers and back doors that make it easy to manipulate the system for financial gain, or to push a political agenda, which I believe the 1776 curriculum clearly does,” says Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network.

She does not oppose putting more resources into charter schools that serve Native American students, and would embrace allocating additional funds to them, she says, “but to children who need those investments who will directly benefit from it — not, in this case, children who live nowhere near the reservation, have no connection whatsoever, and whose schools do not even intend to provide a rigorous education in that area as a subject.”

“Buyer beware,” she adds. “I just hope people know what they are getting into when they sign up for these schools, and how they divert money from the rest of the community.”

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.

McCarthyism makes a startling return in Wisconsin as GOP bullies hunt for election fraud

Sen. Joe McCarthy is alive and well in Wisconsin. The bullying, sneering, dishonest demagogue who dragged so many people through the mud with his specious “investigations" of “unAmerican activities" in the 1950s would be impressed by the Wisconsin Legislature's phony hunt for election fraud.

McCarthy would be particularly proud of Michael Gableman, who, for the sheer audacity of his presentation to the Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee on Wednesday, wins the McCarthyism award.

Gableman, who has been paid $11,000 per month from July to October to lead the Legislature's partisan election investigation, told committee member Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit), “I took this job … because nobody else would take it. And you know why I took it, Representative? I took it not for the rich, not for the powerful, not for the politically connected. I took it for the average citizen who was working a job where they're trying to make ends meet, and they're trying to raise a family and they're trying to do the best they can and they feel that their right to vote has been stolen."

Gableman's populist rant did not stop there. “Powerful and rich forces are aligned against me," he declared. Incredibly, Gableman, who ushered in a new era of big spending by outside groups and brass-knuckles partisanship in Supreme Court races, and who then refused to recuse himself from cases involving his supporters, posited that one of his chief concerns is the corrupting influence of “outside money" on elections.

And that wasn't all. When Spreitzer repeated the findings of the Legislative Audit Bureau report and elections experts that the 2020 election was safe and secure, Gableman shot back, “That is one of the most absurd things I've ever heard."

“If you're so confident, Representative, that this election was a model of integrity, then you are in the minority in this country and in this state," he added.

In fact, according to the latest Marquette University Law School poll, released Nov. 3, “Confidence in the accuracy of the 2020 election in Wisconsin is little changed at 65% from 67% in August. Those with doubts about the election were 32% in October, the same as the August poll."

But Gableman and Republicans are seeking to change all that.

Casual dishonesty is a hallmark of McCarthyism, as is being a bully. Gableman's sneering contempt for Democrats on the committee revived the ghost of Joe. Take his nonanswers to Spreitzer and Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) who pressed him fruitlessly for information on how he is spending the $680,000 in taxpayers' money awarded to him to conduct his investigation by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

Gableman refused to tell the committee whom he has hired to investigate the election, but also denied that he was refusing to disclose the information, saying he would tell them eventually. At this, Spreitzer threw up his hands. “I'm familiar with the filibuster in the U.S. Senate," he said. “I didn't know we had one. And if we're not here to answer questions, there's not much point in asking."

“I'm here to answer relevant questions," Gableman replied acidly.

Gableman didn't even begin his investigation until multiple recounts had already affirmed the outcome of the 2020 election and more than 50 lawsuits brought by President Donald Trump and his allies alleging wrongdoing were dismissed. Before he took his current job, Gableman made public comments about the election being “stolen," traveled to Maricopa County to view the much-derided election-fraud “audit" in Arizona (that found no proof of fraud) and attended an election-conspiracy conference hosted by MyPillow CEO and far-right conspiracist Mike Lindell.

Gableman's fraud “investigation" is the product of a parallel universe populated by conspiracy theorists like committee chair Janel Brandtjen (R-Waukesha) who thinks Vos is too soft on fraud and that “ghost voters" cast untraced ballots all over the state.

Brandtjen, a happy warrior of the right-wing fringe, moved things along in Wednesday's hearing, admonishing Democrats to keep a civil tone even as Gableman and Sgt. Michael Luell of the Racine County Sheriff's Office talked over them. She cut off discussion of how Gableman is spending the taxpayers' money as if it were unseemly to ask.

The Racine County Sheriff's report was another display of aggression designed to appeal to the Trump base. Luell testified in full uniform, conferring a tough-guy, law-and-order feel to the proceedings.

The bullying during the hearing was hard to watch. Both Luell and Gableman tried to turn the tables on the Democrats on the committee, asking their own questions and grandstanding in a display of aggression and disrespect worthy of both McCarthy and Trump. Performative aggression, it turns out, is what the election fraud “investigations" are all about — not any actual investigation of the facts.

As Louis Menand wrote in a piece on McCarthy in The New Yorker in 2020, “You could fight him, in which case he just made your life harder, or you could ignore him, in which case he rolled right over you. He verbally abused people who disagreed with him."

Like Trump and his imitators in the Republican Party, “His fans liked that he was a bully," Menand writes of McCarthy, “and they liked that he scandalized the genteel and the privileged."

On that score, Gableman's exchange with Emerson was troubling. Having been whacked by committee chair Brandtjen for interrupting Luell when he tried to talk over Legislative Counsel and give his own legal opinion, Emerson sounded apologetic.

“I'm really not trying to be a partisan hack here," she told Gableman, unnecessarily.

“I want to have faith in your investigation," Emerson said. “And in order to do that, I need you to share with me, and with the taxpayers of Wisconsin, who is digging into this stuff? Who's asking the questions and how you are getting the results? And I truly am asking this with all due respect, sir."

Gableman smiled indulgently, “I would love to drop by sometime soon and have a cup of coffee," he said. Then, ignoring Emerson's question, he turned his attention to the Republican members of the committee, who, one by one, expressed their gratitude for his hard work on behalf of the little guy.

On the same day the Assembly committee held its hearing, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg), Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), and the chair of the Senate elections committee Sen. Kathleen Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) issued a subpoena to the city of Madison clerk, Maribeth Witzel-Behl, ordering her to turn over election documents. “Out of the thirty municipalities surveyed by LAB [Legislative Audit Bureau] auditors, only the City of Madison refused to allow nonpartisan auditors full access to their ballot certificates," the senators declared.

That refusal, as the LAB itself noted in its report, followed guidance from the federal government that warned elections clerks they could be in violation of federal law if they gave up physical custody of ballots.

McCarthy made copious use of subpoenas and pursued spurious charges, forcing people to appear before his committee and answer questions. He took particular pleasure in browbeating and insulting people.

“He also had easy access to money, much of it from Texas oilmen, which he used to help unseat politicians who crossed him," Menand writes.

Sounds a lot like Gableman, the Legislature's Republican leaders, and the whole election-fraud scam promoted by Trump and supported by rightwing millionaires like the MyPilllow executive.

One of the odder moments in the hearing came from Luell, as he explained why the Sheriff's office was recommending criminal charges (which the county DA has so far declined to pursue) against elections officials who didn't send special voting deputies into nursing homes during the pandemic.

He launched into a long, emotional anecdote about a conversation with the sobbing wife of a nursing home resident, who, we were given to believe was forced to vote even though she says his mind is going. (The only way you can lose the right to vote is if a court determines you're not competent, which did not happen in at least seven out of the eight cases Luell presented.)

Unbothered by the facts, Luell puffed out his chest, invoked the U.S. Constitution — “the greatest document in the world" and pointed to his cases involving the sexual assault and murder of little girls — “and no one is supposed to care?!"

“What distinguished McCarthy's claims was their outlandishness," Menand writes. By that measure we are surely entering a new McCarthy era.

McCarthy finally outdid himself when he went after George Marshall, the Secretary of Defense, former Secretary of State, and the author of the Marshall Plan, claiming that he was at the center of “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man."

At last, people decided he had gone too far, besmirching too many innocent people with his lies and wearing down the patience of the public, the press and his colleagues in the Senate, who for too long were frightened into silence and complicity. That memorable line: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" spoken by attorney Joseph Welch at the Army-McCarthy hearings, finally summed up a whole dark era. But it took many years and many wasted lives to get to that point.

The same question about decency should be put to the GOP today. Let's hope it doesn't take as long this time for it to sink in.

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.

'Wrong, immoral and anti-democratic' — Wisconsin's voting maps get a public hearing

The Wisconsin Legislature held an eight-and-a-half-hour public hearing on voting maps for legislative and Congressional districts on Thursday — the first such hearing in more than a decade and the only one planned. Hundreds of members of the public packed the hearing room and spilled into two overflow rooms to give testimony and watch the proceedings in the Capitol, many wearing purple “fair maps" T-shirts.

The hearing of the Joint Committee on Government Operations and State Affairs began with testimony from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, who introduced the Republican legislative leaders' proposed maps, and continued with testimony from citizens, advocates and experts who overwhelmingly opposed them.

In a combative back-and-forth with Democrats on the committee, Vos said “Democrats have a problem winning in much of Wisconsin because your agenda is clearly out of step with the reality for most of Wisconsin," and that President Joe Biden, Gov. Tony Evers, and other Democrats have won statewide races because they “break the law" in elections.

Vos said the Legislature relied on “classic redistricting principles" in drawing its new voting maps after the 2020 census. Among these, he said, was maintaining existing districts to “promote continuity of representation" and avoiding creating challengers to incumbents.

In response, Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mt. Horeb) told Vos “This is not a core principle that we in the Legislature should protect our own status as legislators."

The Republican majority in the Legislature passed a resolution last month declaring its intent to hew as closely as possible to the 2011 voting maps, which are widely regarded as among the most partisan gerrymandered maps in the country.

Responding to Democrats' objections that Republicans are simply trying to hold onto their unfair, partisan advantage in their new maps, Vos insisted, “The maps are fair; you just haven't been able to be successful."

Vos also said the 2011 maps, which the Republicans spent millions of taxpayer dollars defending in court, were a good basis for future voting maps because “they met all the constitutional criteria" and had survived legal challenges.

Committee chair Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) echoed Vos' assertion that surviving legal challenges actually bolstered the legitimacy of the 2011 maps .

However, Sachin Chheda, director of the Wisconsin Fair Elections Project and chair of the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition, pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court had only ruled that partisan gerrymandering, unlike the disenfranchisement of racial minorities, was not a matter for federal courts. “They did not, as was alleged very clearly and falsely this morning, rule on the merits," Chheda said.

The only federal court ruling on Wisconsin's partisan gerrymandering came from the Western District of Wisconsin, where two judges who were Republican appointees and one judge appointed by a Democrat ruled that the maps violated the rights of Wisconsin citizens, saying they were designed to create “a permanent Republican majority."

Chheda described what he called a “natural gerrymander" in Wisconsin's political landscape, which has Republican voters spread among many rural districts, while Democratic voters are clustered in fewer districts around the state's urban areas.

“I will concede that Republicans have a slight advantage — about 2% — in Wisconsin elections," Chheda testified. “But you have five to eight times that bias in favor of Republicans in these maps."

In the 2006 and 2008 elections, Democrats won the Assembly and then the Senate, gaining control of both houses of the Legislature, Chheda reminded the committee. He acknowledged that in 2010 Republicans won back control of the Legislature “under fair maps drawn by a court."

“And then in 2012, the Democrats won even more of the vote than they had won in 2006. And they didn't get a single seat in the Assembly, and they lost the majority of the Senate," Chheda said.

The only explanation for that, he concluded, was partisan gerrymandering. “That didn't reflect bad candidates. That didn't reflect the will of the voters. It's simply a lie. It's not true, because not enough Democrats moved from one place to another in the state of Wisconsin between 2008 and 2012 to justify the massive redistribution."

Nor is it a justifiable goal to keep the old, gerrymandered maps, Chheda testified.

“Continuity is not only not required," under redistricting rules, he said, “it's wrong, immoral, and anti-democratic."

Matthew Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Jay Heck of Common Cause both testified that, while Republicans moved hundreds of thousands of voters in Wisconsin into new districts in 2011, this year, according to research by the Legislative Reference Bureau, there is almost no movement; the average “core retention rate" for Assembly seats under the proposed map is 84.16%, while the average core retention rate for Senate districts is 92.21%.

“Somewhere over the last decade, Republicans got religion on core retention," Rothschild said, “because back in 2011, they retained at only a 58% rate in the Assembly. It didn't matter to them at all back then. But now that they've got a math that works for them, now they're saying Hallelujah to core retention. This is very hypocritical. Actually, it's outrageous."

Partisanship was a major focus of the hearing, with Vos insisting that the goal of Gov. Tony Evers' nonpartisan People's Maps Commission was to gain more seats for Democrats.

“There's no doubt that the process that Gov. Evers set up was intended to produce a result and he has gotten the result that he intended from the beginning," Vos said.

The commission's draft maps have produced maps that tilt slightly Republican.

Vos and LeMahieu spoke from behind posters of two large maps — one showing the serpentine districts drawn by Democrats in Illinois and one showing the blocky Wisconsin district map, which Vos said “passes the eye test."

The point — that Democrats are the real culprits when it comes to gerrymandering — was waved away by the members of the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition.

“I'm on the record saying Democratic gerrymandering is wrong," Chheda said, pointing out that his organization opposes the partisan maps in Illinois and Oregon.

Heck and Rothschild also said they were against Democratic gerrymandering in Illinois.

Heck and several other advocates and experts testified that the Princeton University Gerrymandering Project, which analyzed voting maps all over the country, gave the Wisconsin Legislature's new maps an F. “And lest Princeton be accused of having some partisan bias," Heck added, “they also issued F's to redistricting plans devised by majority Democrats in Illinois and Oregon."

Rothschild, Heck and former state Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) testified about the damaging effects of gerrymandering beyond building an unfair advantage for one party, including a poisoned political atmosphere in the Capitol and less responsiveness of elected officials to voters.

The last point was echoed by Sharon Johnson, an SEIU health care worker, who talked about her frustration with elected officials' opposition to mask rules and other basic safety measures during the pandemic, saying, “It's as if our legislators don't listen to us, because they don't think they have to listen."

Cullen, Rothschild and Heck spoke in support of adopting a nonpartisan redistricting system like the one in Iowa.

Citing overwhelming public support, across party lines, for nonpartisan redistricting, Rothschild pleaded, “Can we at least get a hearing on that bill that so many people in Wisconsin want to see?

“By rigging the maps again, you're not only not doing what we the people want, you're doing the opposite of what we the people want. And in the process, you're undermining people's faith in our democracy," he added.

Rothschild pointed out that issues supported by a majority of voters, including the legalization of medical marijuana, cannot even get a hearing in the Capitol.

Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) testified that the Republican maps violate the Voting Rights Act, holding up as an example the famous Milwaukee politician Polly Williams' old district in Milwaukee, a historically Black district that would not even have 50% Black voters under the new Republican plan.

“We lost half our representation in this body in 2012," Taylor said of Black voters. When she raised this point after the last redistricting process, she said, some of her white colleagues called her racist. “It's not racist. It's called the Voting Rights Act," she said — an issue that will almost certainly come up in federal court cases that are bound to unfold over the next six months around Wisconsin's new maps.

Calena Roberts, Wisconsin state field director of the SEIU, extended the point about racism and gerrymandering in her testimony to the committee.

“We know we sit in the most segregated state in the United States," she said. She objected to what she saw as the arrogance of Republicans on the committee for making snide remarks about Democrats and seeming unreceptive to the testimony of people like herself. “The insults, the rudeness, acting like little toddlers. … I already feel we are at a disadvantage when we're sitting in this space," she said.

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.

How undermining elections became central to the GOP plan

Harassing election officials and working to undermine the integrity of Wisconsin elections has become a central part of Republicans' electoral strategy.

On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters that it is “possible if not likely" that his election investigator, former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, will interrogate Meagan Wolfe, the beleaguered administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), even before Attorney General Josh Kaul's request to block that interview is heard by a judge.

In his press conference, Vos claimed that he has grave concerns arising from the Legislative Audit Bureau report on the 2020 election, which found no evidence of wrongdoing and which Republican state Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Allouez), who co-chairs the Legislature's Audit Committee, summed up by saying it had proved that the 2020 election in Wisconsin was “safe and secure."

“Basically, WEC is being mismanaged," Vos said, putting his own spin on the report. “And there were major problems during the course of the 2020 election."

Republicans seem to figure they can get away with distorting the audit bureau's findings because most people won't actually read the report for themselves. Specifically, Vos pointed to elections officials in Madison who “wouldn't even turn over the basic ballots to have the Legislative Audit Bureau — totally nonpartisan, totally respected — even do their job." But, as the LAB report itself states, the clerk in Madison who didn't turn over those ballots was merely following guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice, which warned that she could be violating the federal Civil Rights Act if she gave up physical custody of election records. “In part as a result of this guidance from the Department of Justice, the City of Madison clerk did not allow us to physically handle election records," the LAB report explains.

Rather than run afoul of federal law, the Madison clerk offered auditors the chance to view the ballots without taking physical custody of them. The auditors didn't take her up on that offer.

The audit bureau report made a series of recommendations for improving election processes and training, but it also noted a high level of satisfaction with WEC training among local election clerks, and found no evidence of significant problems with voting machines nor discrepancies in the vote count.

And yet, four days after the LAB released its report, Wisconsin Senate leaders announced they were launching yet another investigation of the 2020 election, claiming, “The audit findings released on October 21st paint a grim picture of the Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC) and their careless administration of election law in Wisconsin."

For election workers, who managed to pull off a safe, secure election in the midst of a pandemic, then slogged through recounts while angry, anti-mask supporters of the former president breathed down their necks, the continuing GOP attacks just add insult to injury.

Republicans, who keep launching more election investigations even as they simultaneously scramble to re-rig one of the nation's most gerrymandered partisan voting maps, claim they are motivated by deep concerns about good government.

But here's the thing: They are already on the record laying out their plan to undermine voter confidence in elections as part of an explicit political strategy.

At a Nov. 21, 2019 meeting of the Republican National Lawyers Association in Wisconsin — secretly recorded and posted on YouTube by the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge — then-Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald explained how the Republicans' move to get rid of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board back when Scott Walker was governor has benefited the GOP. Fitzgerald gave a shout-out to Republican lawyer Eric McLeod, for his help in eliminating the GAB and replacing it with the WEC, whose members are partisan appointees, and where “we have much more control." “There's a lot less behind-the-scenes stuff," Fitzgerald said of the WEC, which was designed to be plagued by gridlock with its three Republican and three Democratic appointees. “But that doesn't mean you can take your eye off 'em — it can be very frustrating."

Meagan Wolfe can certainly attest to that.

The featured speaker at the Republican National Lawyers Association event in 2019 was Trump campaign lawyer Justin Clark, who talked about the importance of focusing on voter fraud — a phenomenon considerably less common than UFO sightings — to Republican electoral victories.

“The strides you have with respect to Election Day voting and the mechanics of voting in Wisconsin are miles ahead of most other battleground states," Clark told the group. “ID rules, voting machines, the way you structure your elections, the entire process here has really done a complete 180 in the last 20 years, which is a good thing, because I'm going to say over and over again, Wisconsin is the tipping point to 270 [Electoral College votes]. If we win Wisconsin, Donald Trump is re-elected."

Clark then delivered some good news about the “huge differences" between the elections of 2016 and 2020, starting with the elimination in 2018 of a federal court's consent decree that had limited the Republican National Committee's ability to challenge voters' qualifications and target “ballot security." The decree, Politico reported at the time, came out of a 1982 lawsuit over Republican voter-suppression tactics, including targeting African-American voters in mailings warning of serious penalties for violating election laws and posting armed guards at the polls in minority neighborhoods.

The end of the consent decree, Clark crowed, “frees the RNC up to coordinate" creating a network of national and local Republican groups focused relentlessly on voter fraud.

Clark did not straight-up concede that claims of voter fraud, which have been repeatedly disproven, are baloney. But he did acknowledge that it was hard to get the media to take the stories seriously. That is, until former President Donald Trump and his barrage of disinformation on social media really turned the tide. “We've got a guy who's committed to this, who is able to short circuit media attention on stuff and just say things — and we're gonna be able to highlight these things that are really, really, finally, the biggest difference."

“We've all seen the tweets about voter fraud and blah, blah, blah," Clark told the Republican lawyers' group. “Every time we're in with him, he asks, 'What are we doing about voter fraud? What do we do about voter fraud?'"

“Which is great for guys who are looking for budget approval on stuff," Clark said to appreciative laughs. “Point is, he's committed to this. He believes in it, and he'll do whatever it takes to make sure that it's successful."

Trump, it turned out, was not successful. State and federal courts dismissed more than 50 lawsuits presented by Trump and his allies challenging the election or its outcome.

But the infrastructure Clark was crowing about in 2019 is still in place. Wisconsin has led the nation in its restrictive voter ID laws and other voter suppression efforts, which specifically target voters of color, low-income voters and students. And now the emphasis on undermining elections, discouraging voters and making false claims of fraud has become central to the GOP strategy.

“It's going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better funded program," Clark said. We're now running downhill a little bit more, and we've got the resources to do it."

That's bad news for election workers all over Wisconsin. It's even worse news for our democracy.

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 risks igniting a backlash as it doubles down on division and resentment

Pushing for a wolf massacre and an open season on sandhill cranes; attacking school board members and trying to force schools to drop COVID safety measures; bringing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to Madison and then moving his speech because of the University of Wisconsin's “Marxist COVID mandates". What are Republicans and their so-called conservative allies up to?

Neither Hunter Nation, which brought Ted Nugent to the Capitol on Wednesday to call for shooting and eating sandhill cranes, nor Young Americans for Freedom, which brought Cruz on the same day to denounce “lefty students" and “commie professors," and tell people to “take off your damn masks," nor the state Republicans who welcomed them to town want to win hearts and minds. It's all about getting attention — the crazier and more controversial you act, the better.

The Trump administration is over, but the GOP is not ready to get out of the deep end. They're still addicted to former President Donald Trump's reality TV approach to politics.

Clearly, this has some benefits — it generates headlines and helps exacerbate division and resentment, which motivates the hard-right, identity-politics base. And it has the added advantage, for Republicans, of depressing the majority of regular citizens and turning them off so they don't turn out. Low turnout, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told us, is the explicit goal of GOP party leaders who are working on a coordinated strategy to make it harder to vote nationwide, so a minority of angry voters can help them hold onto power.

Wednesday's two Ted talks in Madison, by Nugent (in the Capitol) and Cruz (off campus), are part of a national push by Republicans and their allied interest groups to win our crucial swing state. To do that, they are trying to make Wisconsin politics as divisive and toxic as possible. That approach is a gamble, especially given Democratic victories in statewide races led by Gov. Tony Evers in 2018 and President Joe Biden's win here in 2020. Still, the Republicans are doubling down on former Gov. Scott Walker's “divide and conquer" approach — turning people against each other and feeding the politics of resentment nurtured by Walker and weaponized by Trump.

A recent story in the Washington Post calls Wisconsin “an incubator for the kind of tribal politics and deep divisions that [now] characterize civic life." It all started with Walker's attack on unions and the mass protests that followed. The Post's Dan Balz writes: “The widening gulf between the two parties exposed in 2011 foreshadowed the extent to which American politics would come to focus more on the extremes rather than the middle of the political spectrum."

Wisconsin is not a purple state, according to Balz, but a patchwork of blue islands in a sea of rural red. And the whole nation is headed in a similar direction. That's why moderates like retiring congressman Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) are going extinct, while the rest of our state's delegation in Congress is squarely on the right or left.

Of course, Trump made things worse. As Wisconsin's Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin told Balz, “Having a leader who kind of was a divider-in-chief has given a green light to that sort of conduct, and it's filtered into our communities."

Following the Trump model, Republicans are stoking rage and rebellion against school board members, local public health departments, election clerks and civilization itself. Remember that Cruz was on the floor of the Senate delivering a speech opposing the certification of the 2020 presidential election just moments before the “stop the steal" rioters broke down the doors.

Even after that harrowing moment in our nation's history, the burn-it-down rhetoric from GOP officials who know perfectly well the election wasn't stolen and the pandemic is real continues. Inchoate anger is too alluring a power to give up, apparently, even as the country spins closer to the edge.

So what about Wisconsin voters? Are we really driving all of this?

In 2020, Trump voters in rural areas of the state doubled down on their 2016 choice, throwing a rock at the establishment — in both parties — that has paid insufficient attention to rural concerns.

What Republicans have recognized is that, as little as either party has done for rural areas, rural people had a strong sense of grievance that their needs are not being met and that urban liberals view them with contempt.

Resentment at feeling looked down on motivated a lot of Trump voters, and Republicans continue to capitalize on it. That's why the idea of shocking the “commies" in Madison by talking about blowing graceful birds out of the sky is so appealing. It's a revenge fantasy.

I spent a lot of time between the presidential elections of 2016 and 2020 working on a book for which I spoke with dairy farmers in Wisconsin who rely on undocumented Mexican workers and yet voted for Trump — twice. A question I was asked repeatedly by editors on the East and West Coasts was whether those rural voters had learned the error of their ways. The answer is no. And the question shows a striking failure to grasp why dairy farmers who have been watching their neighbors go bankrupt at a rate of two family farms per day were drawn to a populist candidate who claimed to represent “the forgotten men and women of America."

If Democrats did a better job of offering major help to rural areas — as both Evers and Biden have been making an effort to do, the politics of rural Wisconsin might change. Recognizing that, Republicans are frantically pushing distraction, tribalism and macho posturing.

Will the politics of division continue to be a winning strategy for the GOP? Balz doesn't offer an opinion. But at some point Republicans are going to realize they have jumped the shark.

Our state Legislature has put an awful lot of effort into rejecting federal COVID relief and support for schools and infrastructure and health care that people really want. In exchange, they are offering the chance to blow things up, spread COVID-19 and eat migratory birds.

My own experience talking to people around the state, and recent election results, show that people want real fixes for their real problems more than cheap talk. On the whole, people care more about their own interests than photo ops by loudmouths like Ted Nugent and Ted Cruz.

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.

Republicans are hell bent on undermining democracy – and don't mind humiliating themselves in the process

Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman is acting like a clown. First he threw in with far-right conspiracy theorists and claimed without evidence that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen" from Donald Trump. Then he put on a suit and tie and accepted $680,000 of taxpayers' money, courtesy of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, to run an “investigation" of the 2020 election, which he somberly declared could involve subpoenas to local elections clerks who must prove to him there was no election fraud. On Thursday, he backed off the subpoenas. Then, on Friday, he declared that the subpoenas were on again. Also on Friday, a judge ordered Gableman and the overseers of his partisan investigation in the Legislature to turn over records, noting that while Gableman has been demanding reams of information from local elections officials, he has, at the same time, unjustifiably refused to provide records of his own investigation to the public.

The shoddiness of that investigation has been matched only by its aggressiveness, as Gableman threatened local officials and demanded information via a non-secure gmail account.

It's a shame that Wisconsin Republicans continue to prop up the Big Lie. Last week Assembly Elections Committee chair Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), who has launched her own election “investigation" was in the Capitol ushering a news crew from the conspiracy-minded, pro-Trump One America News Network into the Assembly parlor to interview “concerned citizens" about examples of voting fraud they claimed to have witnessed.

The clown car keeps on rolling.

On Tuesday, Gableman admitted to Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he does not know how elections work. “Most people, myself included, do not have a comprehensive understanding or even any understanding of how elections work," he said.

On Thursday, Gableman reversed course and cancelled interviews he had demanded with the mayors and city clerks of Madison, Racine and Kenosha and backed off on the subpoenas he had issued them just days before.

“Attorney Gableman said he doesn't know how elections are run in Wisconsin and I think what he's made clear is that he doesn't know how investigations are run either," Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway told the Journal Sentinel.

On Friday Gableman reversed himself again, telling conservative talk radio host Dan O'Donnell, “I'll tell you what, they're going to show up now. All of them."

Gableman personifies the know-nothingism that has gripped the Republican Party in the era of Trump.

Bullying is now a standard political tactic. As is hurling accusations of “fraud" without a shred of evidence or expertise and proposing to blow up our democratic institutions. It's all nonsense — just a way to fire up the base that wants to believe the Big Lie that Trump won, and more insidious lies about the need to crack down on “illegal" voting — particularly by people of color in Democratic-leaning cities.

While Gableman is busy casting doubt on the integrity of our elections, having been assigned that role by Robin Vos, Vos is getting ready to redraw Wisconsin's voting maps. Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) have declared their intention to draw new districts, as required by law after the 2020 census, that closely hew to the same lines as the current, gerrymandered map, drawn by Republicans in 2011 to give themselves a disproportionately large number of seats and disproportionate power. Republican legislative leaders have said they'll vote on a redistricting plan by Nov. 11.

Fair maps, like election integrity, is an area where Republicans are trying to game the system while waging a campaign of misinformation and distraction to keep the public from noticing what they're doing.

A huge majority of Wisconsinites of every political stripe want fair maps. In a Marquette University Law School poll, 72% of Wisconsin voters said they wanted a nonpartisan commission to draw the legislative and congressional district maps instead of elected officials. That group included 63% of Republicans, 76% of independents, and 83% of Democrats.

It is too bad that Gov. Tony Evers' People's Maps Commission released draft maps before vetting them to make sure they comply with the Voting Rights Act. Only now, after releasing its first round of drafts, is the commission consulting with an expert to make sure the maps are in line with the federal voting law. That has opened the door for the Republican authors of the current, rigged map, to accuse Evers and the commission of “gerrymandering".

But if the People's Maps Commission is gerrymandering on behalf of the Democratic governor, it is not doing a very good job. All of its draft maps would continue to favor Republican majorities in the Legislature. That's because Republicans make up the majority of voters in Wisconsin's rural counties, scattered across the state, while Democratic voters are concentrated in a handful of urban areas.

The commission, in consultation with citizens throughout the state and a team of mathematicians from Tufts University came up with maps that make sense to local people, and in which Wisconsin remains a divided state with a slight Republican edge in legislative races — just not the disproportionate edge Vos and his cronies now enjoy.

Over the next few weeks we're bound to hear more noise about how keeping the current, rigged districts is somehow more fair than an impartial map that truly represents Wisconsinites' voting preferences. Don't believe it.

Just as the Republicans are seeking to shut down access to the ballot box for people they don't think will vote for them, they want to rig the maps to favor them again. It's all part of the same strategy — endlessly litigating the legitimate outcome of elections when they don't like the results, making it harder for people to vote when they know they can't win fair and square, rigging the map so even when they lose they win.

They are hell bent on undermining democracy. And it seems they don't mind making fools of themselves in the process. If we let them get away with it, we'll be letting them make fools of us, too.

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 superintendent calls out Republicans’ war on schools in fiery speech

In her first annual State of Education address, Wisconsin's new state schools superintendent Jill Underly did not hold back. “We're now failing a generation of kids," Underly declared. “And we're failing our state by putting Wisconsin's economic future at risk."
Standing in front of the bust of Fighting Bob La Follette in the Capitol rotunda, after a student sang the national anthem and the requisite acknowledgements of various educators and public officials were dispensed with, Underly launched into a speech that sounded more like a call to arms than the usual anodyne annual report from the state department of ed.

Drawing on Wisconsin's progressive history and praising the state for being a leader in education, Underly acknowledged standing on “the shoulders of those who came before us," then slammed Republican legislative leaders for their “shortsightedness" in passing a budget that declined to spend part of a historic surplus on schools.

“Not long ago, Wisconsin's budget invested in our public schools," Underly noted. “We saw the impact of this on the kids who graduated from our schools before 2010." But over the last decade, the state has failed to make up for budget cuts made during the Great Recession. As a result, “in 2020, we graduated an entire generation of kids who have known nothing but austerity in our school funding — who have known years of divestment in their future."

“This, folks," she declared, “is the state of education in Wisconsin.

Calling on Wisconsinites to “stand up to those who want to use our schools to distract and divide our communities." Underly referred to the rash of cases of harassment and intimidation of school board members throughout the state, spurred by conservative groups and Republican donors who have stirred up anger over school mask policies, school funding and anti-racism curriculum.

“I urge us to keep our focus on what unites us instead of getting caught up in division," Underly said. “Our kids are doing just that by focusing on their shared desire to be with their friends, and to learn and to protect each other. And it's time for the adults to step up, too."

Describing public schools and libraries as “the common thread that binds us together," Underly noted that, “the fabric is fraying." The vitriol in public attacks on teachers and school officials is hurting kids, she added.

The anger unleashed in the Trump era, fanned by Republicans at both the national and state level in order to motivate the former president's voters, is now focused on a soft target — local school boards. Across Wisconsin, they have endured mini versions of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In Kenosha, a crowd jammed a meeting and forced a vote to drastically cut school board members' salaries, while making it mandatory that they attend meetings in person. In Eau Claire, a school board meeting was cancelled after some participants refused to wear masks. Recall efforts targeting school board members for voting to sustain mask requirements and online learning during the pandemic have proliferated across the state. And school board members in different districts across the state quit this fall saying they and their families were threatened by angry members of the public.

Against this backdrop, Underly wryly noted a Republican legislative proposal for a civics requirement in Wisconsin schools.

“If you want a stronger civics curriculum, you'll find no resistance from me," she said. “Maybe it would end up resulting in a future Legislature that understands the complex legal and societal issues our families and communities face." Maybe it would even teach the Legislature, which has been busy running over local control with a series of curriculum mandates, the separate roles of state and local governments. “Most of all," Underly added, “maybe it will encourage us to be better citizens and hold our legislators accountable and set a strong example for our kids of what it means to be civically engaged, but also civilly engaged."

Underly gave her endorsement to the call for civility issued by John Ashley, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

“Our kids matter most, our public schools matter most," Underly said. “They are the thread that binds our communities together, and we should be supporting each other instead of tearing down those who dare to provide leadership during a crisis."

Indeed, by targeting teachers, schools, and school board members, conservative “freedom fighters" have ripped the mask off Republican politics in more ways than one, exposing the sheer nihilism of Trumpism, division and destruction. What's at stake, as Underly ably put it in her address, is our shared sense of community, decency, and civilization itself.

“For democracy and civility to thrive, we need our public schools," she declared, bringing it all together. Our public schools and libraries are a precious resource, both for the role they play in unifying and lifting up communities, nurturing our future, and giving us a sense of shared purpose, pride, and values. All of that is currently under attack.

In a video statement released shortly after Underly concluded her speech, Gov. Tony Evers, a former state schools superintendent himself, congratulated Underly and reinforced her message that “our schools are the heart of our community."

Speaker Robin Vos, not surprisingly, pushed back on her strong criticism of his leadership with his own statement. “The Democrats' singular focus to push more money into schools isn't a winning strategy for our kids," Vos declared sourly. “We need to look at improving how they are being taught and why so many students are struggling with the basics – reading, writing, and arithmetic." He called for more assessments and “allowing parents to be part of the conversation."

By conversation, Vos presumably means this week's hearing featuring national conservative activists deriding so-called critical race theory, or the mobs that have been threatening school board members.

“Unfortunately, politics is too much a part of the conversation around schools," says Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “Threats to school board members, who are our neighbors, who have families of their own, who thought that they were serving their communities and signing up to help our kids, are way beyond the line," she adds.

No wonder several of those school board members resigned when it all got to be too much. But, says, DuBois Bourenane, bullying has driven some people to quit, “others have become even more deeply committed to doing what's best for our students and our communities, and are using this moment to shake awake those who have too long been asleep to a decades-old assault on our public schools."

One of those people seizing the moment is Jill Underly.

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