Here's why all eyes are on North Carolina

On Tuesday, the North Carolina Supreme Court reheard arguments in a redistricting case that has been the focus of much national attention. The new conservative majority on the court is reconsidering a recent decision to throw out GOP lawmakers’ gerrymandered voting maps — a decision that had already made its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and could have sweeping implications. Especially here in Wisconsin, North Carolina’s struggle over its heavily gerrymandered voting maps is important.

We all know the April 4 election for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court could change the balance of power on that body. If a new liberal majority takes over, voting rights advocates intend to bring a challenge to Wisconsin’s heavily gerrymandered voting maps, just as advocates did in North Carolina.

But in that state, the balance of power just tilted the other way — from a Democratic to a Republican majority on the court (unlike the nominally nonpartisan court in Wisconsin, North Carolina justices have declared party affiliations). On Tuesday, the new majority showed every sign it is prepared to reverse the decision that threw out Republicans’ gerrymandered maps less than three months ago.

In the rare rehearing, the court sped through oral arguments during which a lawyer for Republican legislators claimed that the court had overstepped its authority by taking away the legislature’s power to draw the voting maps.

“Just because it’s not fair doesn’t mean this body can do anything about it,” Phillip Stratch, an attorney for the Republicans argued, adding, “some things are beyond the power of this court. … sometimes it has to be left up to the people.”

But how can “the people” decide anything if their elected representatives have deliberately disempowered them through gerrymandering, Democratic Justice Anita Earls asked. Earls pointed to expert testimony on the effects of the North Carolina maps, “that they were among the most extreme partisan gerrymanders possible” and favored Republican candidates even in elections where Democrats got more votes, thus canceling the ability of Democratic voters to make their voices heard.

It all sounds very familiar here in a state that has, according to a federal judge, one of the most gerrymandered voting maps in the country, locking in big Republican majorities in the Legislature even when Democrats win statewide.

State courts have been newly empowered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Rucho v. Common Cause, which destroyed hopes of a federal remedy for partisan gerrymandering when it held that federal courts do not have the authority to review disputes involving political gerrymandering — unlike cases involving racial discrimination.

In North Carolina, the Republicans argued on Tuesday that the state court should take the same view that the U.S. Supreme Court took in Rucho and find that, as Stratch put it, there is no language about “fair districts” in the U.S. Constitution and there is also nothing about partisanship or fair maps in the state constitution.

In Wisconsin, advocates are optimistic they can make the case that the state constitution does, in fact, have a lot to say about fair maps.

“We believe gerrymandering is one of the greatest threats to our democracy,” says Dan Lenz, staff counsel for the nonprofit, progressive law firm Law Forward.

Advocates could draw on various sections of the Wisconsin Constitution to support a challenge, including sections covering equal protection and apportionment.

Gerrymandering hurts the citizens in our state not just by squelching their voices, but by creating a system where the government ignores the issues they care about, Lenz says. “The function of gerrymandering is to stop what people care about from becoming law.”

The whole reason politics has become so poisonously partisan, he adds, is that “politicians are not accountable in free and fair elections.” With so few competitive districts, all legislators care about are primary challenges — propelling them deeper and deeper toward one side, and away from bipartisan compromise.

That toxic, unproductive environment is just as much a problem as the rank unfairness of our gerrymandered map.

If the Wisconsin Supreme Court, under a new, 4-3 liberal majority, did throw out the state Legislature’s gerrymandered maps, there are various ways new maps might be developed.

The court could ask the petitioners who bring a lawsuit — nonprofit groups, elected officials, and/or voters who argue that they have been disenfranchised by extreme gerrymandering — to submit maps, as they did in the most recent round of arguments. They could appoint outside experts or special masters to come up with a new map. Or they could send the map back to the Legislature with the instruction to try again.

The timeline depends on how the whole process unfolds. But Lenz says he expects that, if there’s a change in the makeup of the court, a suit will be filed in August and a new map could be chosen by March — in time for the 2024 elections.

The good news, for now, is that the U.S. Supreme Court seems to be hanging back from a potentially game-changing decision in the North Carolina redistricting case. In the federal version of that case, a challenge based on the so-called “independent state legislature” theory argues that state courts should have no jurisdiction at all over voting maps; instead, state legislators should have unchecked power to draw their own districts.

As messy and maddening as this week’s tangle of arguments over gerrymandering have been in North Carolina, and as frustrating as our rigged voting system is in Wisconsin, at least for now, the U.S. Supreme Court does not seem to be on the brink of dealing a death blow to democracy by handing total power to hyperpartisan, gerrymandered legislatures.

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.

Why is UW still working with this controversial charter school network?

Controversy surrounding Hillsdale charter schools led the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University in Wisconsin to threaten to sever ties last month with Lake Country Classical Academy — Wisconsin’s first Hillsdale-affiliated charter school. The tribe cited “inflammatory, derogatory, and racist comments captured by hidden camera” by the president of Hillsdale College, Larry Arnn. Arnn’s comments, which made headlines after they were leaked from a private meeting he had with Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee, also led to the collapse of a plan to launch several Hillsdale charter schools in that state.

In Wisconsin, the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University and the conservative, Christian academy always seemed like strange bedfellows. I covered their partnership back in a December 2021 Examiner story exploring how the tribal college — which runs one other charter school emphasizing Ojibwe language and culture — came to authorize an academy whose curriculum centers the greatness of Western civilization and soft-pedals slavery and the genocide of Native American people.

While it received 3% of the taxpayer funds that followed each student to the school under its contract, the tribal college took a laissez faire attitude toward the actual running of the school, which was located at the other end of the state and did not serve any Lac Courte Oreilles children.

But Arnn’s inflammatory comments, which the Examiner reported on Oct. 3, disrupted the easy-going relationship between the school and the tribal college, which issued its denunciation on Oct. 4. Despite the strong language in the tribal college’s statement, Arnn’s secretly recorded comments actually didn’t have much to do with race. Instead, they focused on teachers, whom Arnn said are “trained in the dumbest part of the dumbest colleges in the country.” But a flurry of reporting on Arnn and Hillsdale around the same time also cited the Hillsdale K-12 curriculum’s criticism of the civil rights movement and its “emphasis on the history and traditions of American citizens as the inheritors of Western civilization,” as the Lake Country Classical Academy website puts it.

Hillsdale’s explicitly political project is no secret. Arnn was appointed by Trump to lead the 1776 Commission, created to promote a positive vision of America, in what Politico called “a direct challenge to The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which explored how racism and inequality shaped the founding of the country.”

A recent Facebook ad hawking Betsy Ross flags as a fundraiser for Hillsdale College quotes the Declaration of Independence and states, “Throughout most of our nation’s history, Americans learned about and revered these ideas. Sadly, because of the Left’s hijacking of history education in so many of our schools, this is no longer true.”

If the Lac Courte Oreilles is ending its relationship with a Hillsdale charter school because of such provocative political statements, why is the UW System now considering becoming a Hillsdale charter authorizer in Wisconsin?

The UW System’s Office of Educational Opportunity is reviewing another proposed Hillsdale charter school, the North Shore Classical Academy. The school’s founder was part of a failed recall effort to unseat four school board members in Mequon-Thiensville, a high-achieving, mostly white district in the suburbs of Milwaukee, based in part on claims that the schools were teaching “critical race theory.”

On Oct. 17, at a community meeting to gather public input on the school, the director of the OEO, Vanessa Moran, said the academy has already passed the first phase of a five-phase process for approval by UW System. During the public meeting in Mequon, Jenni Hofschulte, a member of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, says she spoke with Moran, who praised the academy and also had positive things to say about Lake County Classical Academy. Acknowledging that the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University is cutting ties with Lake Country, Moran told Hofshulte she had visited the school and that she felt it was doing great things. While UW System had not yet committed to authorize either Hillsdale school, according to Hofshulte, Moran said she was excited about the prospect that the two Hillsdale charter schools could form a “professional community.”

Moran did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting comment on the matter. But according to a UW System public information officer, Lake Country Classical Academy has not yet applied for authorization through the UW System.

For now, Wisconsin has one Hillsdale charter school whose authorizer has threatened to leave unless it meets a series of demands that include dropping its affiliation with Hillsdale and sending all of its staff and board members to Ojibwe/indigenous cultural sensitivity training — conditions it seems unlikely the school will meet.

And then there’s the North Shore Classical Academy, which, curiously, describes itself on its website as “the first in the state of Wisconsin to be a Hillsdale Curriculum School” (Lake Country Classical Academy’s website states that it is a “Hillsdale College Member School” and promotes its status as a “licensed user of the Hillsdale K-12 curriculum.”)

North Shore’s founder, Cheryl Rebholz, in addition to running in the recall election for the Mequon-Thiensville school district last fall, is a former school board member and the owner of a “boutique shooting range” in Mequon, according to a video produced by the right-wing Badger Institute. The video, titled “An Epidemic of Decline,” features Rebholz describing her disillusionment with the Mequon school district and her decision to launch the new charter school because of a breakdown in discipline and the way “politics” has invaded public school classrooms. “I don’t care what your politics are, they stop at the threshold. It is an epidemic of decline, and we need to restore it,” she says.

The video, which opens with a statement about independent charter schools and private voucher schools receiving “thousands less per student” than public schools, ends with Rebholz saying emphatically, “I want the same amount of money a public schooler gets in-district! That money should follow the child, period.”

This statement sums up the debate in Wisconsin and across the country about the privatization of public schools. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels promised during his campaign that he would create a universal school choice system in Wisconsin, removing all enrollment and income limits on vouchers.

One private school parent who attended the public meeting on the North Shore Classical Academy voiced opposition to the movement toward unlimited taxpayer funding for what is essentially a publicly funded system of private schools. “How many of these can we afford?” asked Mequon resident Beth Bauer. “Public school is for the public, not for every individual parent. … If you want private school, we have plenty of them around here.”

The UW System’s involvement in the expansion of charter schools like Hillsdale adds fuel to the fire that is consuming Wisconsin’s public education system.

The Office of Educational Opportunity was created by the Wisconsin Legislature in 2015, and its director is appointed by the UW System president.

The whole point of the office is to give charter schools that don’t get a green light from local school boards another shot at setting up shop, drawing money out of local school districts without local citizen input.

“Circumventing local school boards diminishes local control, thwarts transparency and damages democracy,” says Hofshulte.

If the OEO decides to become a Hillsdale authorizer, it will also mean the UW System is making Wisconsin taxpayers pay to support the right-wing, anti-public-school movement.

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 Wisconsin voters are reacting to the Jan. 6 committee revelations about Trump

Former Wisconsin Republican Congressman Reid Ribble joined a panel on Tuesday hosted by the Defend Democracy Project to discuss the House Jan. 6 Select Committee hearings and how they are affecting voters’ attitudes in Wisconsin.

Ribble is one of a handful of Republicans nationwide who have been outspoken critics of former President Donald Trump — although Ribble tweeted his congratulations to Trump’s pick for Wisconsin governor, Tim Michels, after Michels won the Republican primary last week.

Congratulations to @michelsforgov on his win yesterday. Also @RebeccaforReal you worked hard for years to win this race and it just didn’t work out. Hold your head high this morning there is no shame in not winning an election.
— Reid Ribble (@RepRibble) August 10, 2022

“The seeds of Jan. 6 were planted very, very early on,” Ribble said during the panel discussion. He blamed the Capitol attack on Republicans who echoed Donald Trump for months, creating a steady drum beat with their comments about “how the election was stolen.”

Still, Ribble said he was surprised and horrified by the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. “That a group of American citizens could believe that they could break in, they could do violence to the Capitol building, they could do vandalism to the Capitol building that could disrupt the functioning of the U.S. Congress, all based on a lie that the election had been stolen, was shocking to me.”

Ribble said he was impressed by the work of the Jan. 6 committee. He would have preferred to see a bipartisan investigation led by experts from outside Congress, but “this was a last resort because of obstruction of Republican members in Congress to not get to the truth. They didn’t want to see that.”

“Now the truth is coming out,” Ribble said.

“I was very worried about the politicization of the committee itself, and that we would just have this political farce going on,” he added. “The problem that the right has with that argument today is virtually all the witnesses that we’ve seen so far have been Republicans, so in fact it was partisan and partisan on the Republican side.”

But what effect has that had on Republican voters? In Wisconsin, a closely divided swing state, the Republican candidates for governor and U.S. Senator who will be on the ballot in November, Michels and Sen. Ron Johnson, are both close Trump allies. Michels won his primary handily against the establishment candidate, former GOP Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who had the endorsement of former Gov. Scott Walker, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and former Vice President Mike Pence.

“You worked hard for years to win this race and it just didn’t work out,” Ribble tweeted at Kleefisch after the primary. “Hold your head high this morning there is no shame in not winning an election.”

For Republicans generally, the results of Wisconsin’s gubernatorial primary show that getting out of the shadow of Donald Trump, as Ribble and his fellow anti-Trump Republicans are urging, is no easy task.

During Tuesday’s Defend Democracy Project panel, Jim Williams of Public Policy Polling shared the results of an Aug. 15 survey of 546 Wisconsin voters that gave a snapshot of how public opinion has shifted during the Jan. 6 committee hearings.

The poll found that a majority of Wisconsin voters were paying attention to the hearings and expressed support for the investigation, with 60% saying it is important to protect democracy. Independents showed a consistently high level of concern about the Jan. 6 committee’s revelations, with 57% saying they are concerned about Sen. Johnson having played an active role in Trump’s scheme to overturn the election, and now calling for Wisconsin Republicans to consolidate power over election administration in the state.

But among Trump voters only 9% supported the investigation, compared with 95% of Biden voters. More than half of Trump voters still said they found it at least somewhat concerning that Trump spread voter fraud misinformation. But when asked specifically about Johnson’s role in attempting to overturn the election, only 6% of Trump voters said they had very serious concerns and another 6% said they had somewhat serious concerns.

Among voters who describe themselves as independents, 54% said Trump and his team who took part in the Jan. 6 insurrection should be criminally prosecuted.

In a closely divided swing state, “you start talking about 55 to 60% of people, that’s pretty noteworthy,” said moderator Joe Zepecki, a veteran Democratic political consultant in Wisconsin who is currently working with the nonpartisan Defend Democracy Project.

Trump’s attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power is unprecedented in American history, said Praveen Fernandes, vice president at the Constitutional Accountability Center. “That hasn’t even happened since the Civil War; in the Civil War, we had a peaceful transition of power. It is stunning,” he added.

During eight heavily publicized Congressional hearings, the committee laid out evidence that suggests that former President Trump and his associates engaged in a criminal conspiracy to overturn the results of an election they knew Trump had lost. Republican witnesses in hearing after hearing described Trump’s pressure campaign on state and federal officials, as he tried to get them to change the results. In several hearings, White House staffers described how Trump and his allies coordinated with violent extremists and directed an armed mob towards the Capitol. The final hearing focused on how Trump refused to intervene for 187 minutes as the violence at the Capitol was unfolding.

As dramatic as they were, the Jan. 6 hearings are “having some effect, but I think it’s relatively small from a voting standpoint,” Ribble said.

The Public Policy Polling data backed that up, he said, showing the state is about evenly divided on the hearings, with a little more than half of voters saying they are quite concerned about the Jan. 6 revelations.

But Williams of Public Policy Polling pointed to the difference between the more than 90% of Democrats who say they are very concerned about Jan. 6 and the 70 to 75% of Republicans, who say they are not very concerned. Almost no one on the Democratic side is unsure what they think, Williams said. On the Republican side that’s not the case. “You’re starting to see a 20 to 25% segment of Republican voters who have concerns about this and are saying so,” Williams said. “It begs the question, you know, how much it’s weighing on their mind.”

Ribble doesn’t see the needle moving very much on his side. “When I talk with conservatives, those in that 15 to 20% that were very concerned about what happened on Jan. 6, they are more concerned about inflation. They are more concerned about economics. And so even though they are concerned about what happened on Jan. 6, even though they say they are concerned about election integrity related issues, they are more concerned about other things that are right in their pocketbooks,” he said.

“I’m not 100% convinced that this rises to the level to convince many Republicans to support an independent or a Democratic candidate or more progressive candidate that might be opposed to them on all these other issues,” he added.

Ribble, who has consistently tried to debunk election conspiracies in his social media posts, closed and opened the panel discussion with his main point: that local election workers are “the real heroes.”

“More than anything, we must trust the American people working in those polls, mostly senior citizens who are volunteering — tens of thousands of them — to donate their time to see that their precinct had a free and fair election,” he said. “Let’s trust our neighbor and put this nonsense behind us.”

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.

NOW WATCH: Fox News’ Laura Ingraham admits 'exhausted' Americans may finally be done with Trump

Fox News’ Laura Ingraham admits 'exhausted' Americans may finally be done with Trump

Trump's favorite candidate for governor in Wisconsin inadvertently exposes Republican hypocrisy on immigration

Tim Michels, the construction company owner and Donald Trump’s favorite Republican candidate for governor in Wisconsin, has been having a hard time squaring his past and present views on immigration. Michels is taking fire from his main GOP rival after Dan Bice reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that a group led by Michels fought against the get-tough approach to undocumented immigrants he now champions.

Michels has made cracking down on the people he calls “illegals” a centerpiece of his campaign. He brags in his TV ads about building a prototype for former President Donald Trump’s border wall. And he touts his “blueprint to stop illegal immigration,” including “no drivers’ licenses, no benefits, and no tuition.”

But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published documents showing that when Michels was president of the board of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association during the 2007-2008 legislative session, the group lobbied against a bill that would have prevented companies that hire undocumented workers from receiving government contracts, tax breaks or loans.

Michels’ campaign responded by saying he didn’t know about his group’s lobbying on the bill, which was ultimately killed.

Michels’ opponent, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, jumped on that claim, putting out a statement saying Michels “won’t take responsibility” for the conflict.

But Michels’ troubles expose a more significant problem with Republicans’ position on immigration.

Across the United States, employers in the construction industry as well as food service, hospitality and especially agriculture are heavily dependent on undocumented immigrant labor. All the racist immigrant-bashing you hear from Republican candidates like Michels is not just mean-spirited, it’s hypocritical. The Wisconsin road builders whom Michels led know they rely on undocumented immigrants. That’s why they opposed a bill that would take away lucrative contracts if they employed them.

For my new book, “Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers,” I spent a lot of time with Wisconsin farmers who voted in big numbers for former President Donald Trump, but who also employ undocumented immigrants. By some estimates, undocumented workers, mostly from Mexico, now do 80% of the work on Wisconsin dairy farms. (Because there is no U.S. visa program for year-round, “unskilled” farm work, dairy workers, unlike seasonal farm laborers, are almost all working in the U.S. without documents.)

‘Milked’ by Ruth Conniff | book cover art from The New Press

I traveled to Mexico with a group of farmers who go every year to visit the families of their workers. They expressed a feeling of kinship and pride in the success of the hard-working people from rural Mexico who have spent years laboring on their farms and built homes and businesses back in Mexico with the money they make milking cows.

These workers are carrying the economies of two places on their backs — rural Wisconsin, where they are doing the work that keeps our dairy industry going, and their rural villages in Mexico, where the money they send home rivals petroleum as a share of Mexican GDP, causing Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to praise them as “living heroes.”

Most of the Republican farmers I interviewed for my book voted for Trump because they were upset about the North American Free Trade Agreement and other bipartisan policies that have accelerated the “get big or get out” trend that is killing family farms in Wisconsin. Trump’s attacks on Mexicans made them uncomfortable, but they hoped he would shake up a system that for too long has not done enough for rural people.

To their credit, members of the Dairy Business Association have worked with the immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera to set up skeleton crews on their farms that allowed their workers to take time off for a Day Without Immigrants rally and lobbying day at the Capitol in Madison. The workers delivered milk bottles to legislators’ offices with the slogan “Got Milk? Not Without Immigrants.” Among the issues they lobbied on that day were the restoration of driver’s licenses — which Republicans in our state Legislature took away from undocumented immigrants in Wisconsin in 2007 — and the defeat of a bill that would turn local law enforcement officers into immigration police.

Lots of Republicans recognize the contributions of immigrants to our economy. As one Trump-voting farmer put it, admiring the way a whole community in Mexico pitched in to help someone build a house, “Small town Mexico, small town U.S.A. — same thing.”

It’s a bad look that Michels, whose group didn’t want to be punished for having undocumented employees, is now running on a promise to make those employees’ lives as miserable as possible.

With the horrifying discovery of 53 migrants who died in an abandoned tractor trailer in Texas while attempting to cross into the United States, it became clearer than ever that we need comprehensive immigration reform and a more humane approach to the people we rely on to do so much of the hard work that makes our country run.

Instead of competing to outdo each other by bashing immigrants, Republicans should listen to the rural Wisconsin voters who know full well what Michels doesn’t want to admit — that our economy is irreversibly dependent on immigrant labor. Instead of talking about putting driver’s licenses and college tuition out of reach for these workers, they should champion a legal visa program that recognizes the longstanding economic reality that the people of rural Wisconsin and rural Mexico are inextricably intertwined.

It’s time to drop the tough-guy posturing and stand behind an honest policy solution.

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.

Top Wisconsin Republican penalized in open records case

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has been ordered to search for and turn over records relating to the partisan investigation of the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin. Vos must also pay statutory fees and attorneys’ costs associated with the case, according to an order issued Friday by Dane County Circuit Court Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn.

“In this public records case, Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos… did not respond to four records requests for six months,” the judge states in her decision. “After the Court ordered Vos to respond, he finally did so. It took him one day.”

“On another occasion, Vos responded to a request for records ‘from November 3, 2020 through the date the search is conducted’ by producing 1,400 pages of unwanted records from August 2020, but none from the requested period,” the decision states.

The court found that Vos had violated Wisconsin’s public records statutes by not producing records “as soon as practicable,” and by failing to respond to a request for a specific time period and instead producing records from a different, unasked-for time period. Furthermore, “based on the undisputed evidence of Vos’ ineffectual records practices, I can draw no reasonable inference except that Vos did not search for records in the first instance,” the judge wrote.

American Oversight, the government watchdog group that requested the records, won its motion for summary judgment against Vos, who must now search for and produce the records within 20 days as well as paying American Oversight’s costs.

Among the records American Oversight is seeking are copies of contracts or other written agreements between the Wisconsin State Assembly and the parties investigating the 2020 election, copies of guidance or policy procedures given to those parties and copies of resumes, bids, proposals, cost estimates and invoices related to the investigation.

The group has also requested copies of internal and external communications between Vos and the Arizona state government and former President Donald Trump, as well as copies of communication “regarding the Assembly’s decision not to pursue a large-scale investigation or review of elections in Wisconsin.”

Vos delayed passing on some of those requests to his staff, the court found. “As a result, Vos admits that responsive records could have been deleted after his office received a request, but before Vos told his employees about that request,” the order states. (Thanks to a loophole in Wisconsin’s records retention law, legislators, unlike other public employees, are permitted to routinely delete records that have not been specifically requested by the public.)

The Court did not agree with American Oversight that Vos’ conduct was “arbitrary and capricious” and therefore deserving of punitive damages, and ruled against that portion of the group’s motion for summary judgment. Instead, the decision scolds Vos for delegating responsibility for fulfilling open records requests to “untrained and unsupervised individuals” in his office, noting that Wisconsin Department of Justice guidance on the state’s open record’s law is very clear that “[r]equests for public records should be given high priority,” and that “10 working days generally is a reasonable time for responding to a simple request for a limited number of easily identifiable records.”

Vos’ office did not respond to a request for comment on the court’s decision.

“The judge’s ruling reaffirms Speaker Vos’ status as a transparency scofflaw,” says Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a group dedicated to open government. “There is nothing so complicated about the responsibility of records custodians under the state’s open records law that it should require multiple judicial rebukes.”

“Vos wears his contempt for the idea that he should be accountable to anyone on his sleeve. It is not a good look,” adds Lueders, who wrote a piece for the Examiner in 2019 about Vos’ poor open records compliance. “The penalties that the Speaker incurred should not be passed on to taxpayers. He should pay them with his own money, since he broke the law of his own accord.”

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 at the center of the Jan. 6 conspiracy

On the eve of the next Jan. 6 House committee hearing, which begins at noon Central Time on Tuesday, the Defend Democracy Project, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting efforts to undermine elections, held a virtual press briefing focused on Wisconsin’s central role in the plot to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Norman Eisen, former ambassador to the Czech Republic and an expert on corruption and democracy issues at the Brookings Institution, gave an overview of the evidence so far and previewed Tuesday’s hearing. Possible crimes the committee has uncovered include obstruction of an official proceeding in Congress and a conspiracy to defraud the United States, Eisen said.

“And it’s not just federal crimes we’ve heard about,” Eisen added, recapping testimony from Republican officials in Arizona and Georgia about being pressured to falsify election results, as well as Trump advisers’ coordinated push to get phony electoral ballots for Trump from seven states including Wisconsin.

Eisen was joined by three Wisconsinites, State Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison), Kyle Johnson, the political director of BLOC (Black Leaders Organizing Communities) and Mel Barnes, an attorney with Law Forward, the nonprofit, progressive law firm that is suing Wisconsin’s fake electors who cast phony electoral ballots for former President Donald Trump.

Underscoring the panel’s message that Wisconsin played a critical role in the battle over democratic elections and the 2020 results, Trump took to his social media platform, Truth Social, over the weekend to celebrate a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that bars the use of drop boxes for voting. Trump called for the nullification of Wisconsin’s 2020 Electoral College votes and ordered Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), to “do something, for once, about this atrocity!”

“I think it’s really important for members of the public in Wisconsin to know we’re not talking about something that’s happening somewhere else, or to other people. This is something that is happening in Wisconsin, specifically,” said panel moderator Joe Zepecki of the Defend Democracy Project. He pointed to Trump’s remarks about the drop box decision as evidence that “this is not over. This is ongoing.”

Tuesday’s hearing will focus on Trump’s connection to a plan to use violence to help overturn the 20202 election results. And the violent white nationalist groups that took part in the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, including the Proud Boys and the Oathkeepers, have used Wisconsin as a “training ground,” Zepecki said, when extremists met in Wisconsin while plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “These extremist groups are here. … they are dangerous,” Zepecki said, adding, “We also have the dangerous, dangerous idea that the votes of the people of Wisconsin don’t matter.”

“It’s really important to remember that here in Wisconsin, the fraudulent electors, these are not random people who walked off the street and decided to do this,” said Barnes of Law Forward, adding that Andrew Hitt, the former head of the state Republican Party and Robert Spindell, a current member of the Wisconsin Elections Board were among those who cast false electoral votes for Trump. “This is a big deal,” said Barnes. “It’s a danger to our democracy, and certainly to our future elections, which we know will continue to be close. And we must make sure that voters continue to decide the outcome of elections in our state.”

Barnes connected the revelations of the Jan. 6 House committee hearings to recent unpopular U.S. Supreme Court decisions on abortion, gun safety and voting rights, saying, “the facade that these unpopular views are winning in our political discourse is really starting to crumble.”

“We’re seeing that as the committee uncovers more and more of this conspiracy, the extreme actions that these folks had to take to try to hold on to power. We know that Wisconsinites and Americans do not agree with them.“

On Tuesday, “I think we will learn more about what happened with this coordinated criminal conspiracy theory,” Barnes said, “and hopefully be able to hold some of the bad actors here in our state accountable to make sure this never happens again.”

Johnson of BLOC, an organization committed to building political power at the street-level for underserved communities, said, “The best way to describe how we’re all feeling is pissed off.”

The voters he has contact with have been angry to learn about Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s role in attempting to deliver Wisconsin’s fake electoral ballots to Vice President Mike Pence, he said. Community members feel poorly served by political leaders who would rather cheat to hold onto power than win by meeting the real needs of their constituents, he said.

“No one is exempt from the law — Black, white … Pacific Islander, American Indian — all of us in Wisconsin want everyone to be held accountable,” he added.

“I think it’s important to understand that it isn’t really about 2020,” said Roys. “It is about undermining confidence in our whole electoral system and the mechanisms for how we vote.” By casting doubt on a highly decentralized election system, Trump and his supporters continue to try to set up a plan to steal the next election, 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.

The rightwing assault hits close to home

It’s pretty hard not to take it personally when the highest court in the land erases your humanity. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has rolled back a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion, the power of the state reaches right through us, deciding what happens inside our bodies. What we think and feel doesn’t matter. It doesn’t get more personal than that.

By “the state,” I mean, of course, “the states” — in our case, the gerrymandered Republican majority in the Wisconsin Legislature, which the Supreme Court put in charge when it declared, “the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.”

That phrase “the people and their elected representatives” is a cruel joke in Wisconsin, where the people elected Democrats to represent them in every statewide race in 2018 and chose Democratic President Joe Biden in 2020, yet Republicans retain control of our Legislature because they’ve rigged the maps.

Never mind that. State legislatures are the proper forum for regulating individuals’ most intimate lives, according to the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Roe v. Wade was “wrongly decided” according to that opinion, because the Court “short-circuited the democratic process by closing it to the large number of Americans who disagreed with Roe.”

Most Americans agree with Roe. So do most Wisconsinites. But in states like Wisconsin, where the minority rules, we are governed by the extremists who refuse to revise our Civil War-era felony abortion ban with no exceptions for rape and incest. (And despite Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ promise not to enforce that ancient, draconian law, it is effectively now in force, since Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin has decided to stop providing abortions to avoid the risk of future prosecution.)

The rightwing extremists are coming for us. And it feels very personal.

That reality hit close to home in a different way on July 4th, when we learned about the horrific mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois. After murdering seven people at a holiday parade, the shooter drove to Wisconsin, where he planned to commit another mass murder. I was at my house in Madison with my family, sheltering from the thunderstorms that caused our local fireworks display to be canceled, when the shooter drove through town. Apparently he only dropped the idea of going on another shooting spree here because he didn’t have a solid plan in place. A near miss.

Keep in mind that Robert Crimo, the 21-year-old Highland Park shooter, was a licensed gun owner who bought his AR-15 style assault weapon legally.

And, according to another recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, when it comes to guns, “the people and their elected representatives” must not meddle in the sacred individual right to purchase a weapon of mass murder.

In a ruling striking down a New York law that restricted the right to carry a pistol or revolver unless the gun owner could demonstrate a credible need for self protection, the Court ruled that the restriction “violates the Fourteenth Amendment by preventing law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms in public for self-defense.”

So states can make it illegal for 10-year-old incest victims to obtain an abortion after being raped, but they can’t stop people like Crimo from bringing their guns to parades, church picnics, and other public gatherings. As Bill Berry wrote in a commentary last week, the Second Amendment has superseded the First Amendment, with its quaint language about “right of the people peaceably to assemble.” We’ve lost that right.

This madness Republicans pass off as patriotism is anathema to American values of liberty and democracy.

As Americans we expect to have the right to be safe in our homes and communities. We expect to have the freedom to regulate our own bodies and private lives without overbearing intervention by the state — not to mention nosy neighbors deputized by state legislatures to chase young women and their family members across state lines on suspicion of seeking abortions where they remain legal. And we expect the right to actual representation, not despotic minority rule.

But the right wing of the Republican party has played a long game, undermining liberty and self-government.

As Nicole Safar, executive director of Law Forward, pointed out in a July 4th commentary for the Examiner, the same bad actors who worked for years to roll back abortion rights and defended anti-abortion terrorist organizations in the 1990s were also the architects of the Jan. 6 fake electors strategy and the attempt to steal the 2020 presidential election for Donald Trump.

“There is a direct through line from the anti-majoritarian movement to overrule Roe and the anti-democracy efforts of the last decade,” Safar writes.

That effort continues with yet another case recently accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court — Moore v. Harper, involving North Carolina’s voting map.

In that case, North Carolina’s state Supreme Court declared an egregiously gerrymandered Congressional district map created by Republican legislators unconstitutional. The state’s Republican leaders appealed, using an obscure, legal theory called the “independent state legislature doctrine” to argue that state legislatures can make their own rules for federal elections, and that state courts can’t override them.

If the Supreme Court agrees with the North Carolina Republicans, state legislatures would be free to override the will of the people and choose the losing candidate in the next presidential election.

Expanding the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court — which progressives have called for and Biden has rejected — hardly seems like a radical idea compared with the complete overthrow of democratic elections. But somehow Biden still seems reluctant to take bold steps.

Women’s March activists gathered on Saturday at the White House, where many were arrested in a sit-in, demanding that Biden do more to protect abortion rights than the steps he took in the executive order he signed on Friday to ensure medication abortion is widely accessible and to protect patient privacy. Biden has been agonizingly slow to respond to the long-anticipated elimination of federally protected abortion rights, and advocates want the president to declare a public health emergency and make abortion services available in restricted states on federal land.

The Women’s March is right. The attacks on our rights, our democracy and our civil society have escalated to the point where we have to start taking these things personally. We have to fight like our lives depend on it. Because they do.

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 2020 election 'fraud' investigator held in contempt of court

It’s not really a coincidence that, the morning after the first, explosive public hearing by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman — the man appointed by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to lead the partisan probe of the 2020 election in Wisconsin — was held in contempt of court.
Gableman’s contempt for the rule of law and the institutions of our democracy, which he demonstrated in his bombastic, sarcastic performance in Dane County circuit court on Friday, is the same style of demagoguery practiced by Donald Trump.

Like Trump, Gableman is a narcissist and a bully whose taboo-breaking nastiness — posturing as an injured hero of a popular movement who is somehow standing up for the little guy by displaying sneering disrespect for public officials and the courts — is part of a more general, dangerous trend.

Trump, according to House investigators, encouraged a murderous mob to attack the U.S. Capitol to try to prevent the certification of the 2020 presidential election. Gableman has furthered Trump’s efforts with his baseless investigation, pushing the discredited idea that there was massive voter fraud in Wisconsin. While leading his publicly funded probe that has cost Wisconsin taxpayers almost a million dollars, he has refused to turn over records — the issue for which Judge Frank Remington held him in contempt.

Even aside from the mounting evidence that Wisconsin Republicans played a major role in the conspiracy to overturn the results of the 2020 election, the coarsening of civic dialogue that Gableman represents is, in itself, a threat. That threat was already evident long before Trump was elected, when Gableman, the most overturned judge in the state, was elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court after a scandalous, racist campaign and brought his disdainful, know-nothing style to an institution led by the late Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, one of the most respected jurists in the nation. Gableman’s rude treatment of Abrahamson was stomach-turning, as was his successful drive to erect a veil of secrecy around court business — which conveniently cloaked discussions of his conflicts in not recusing himself from cases involving his donors. Gableman’s only defense of the policy change was to say the open meetings were an “experiment” whose “time has passed.” Things have gone downhill ever since.

The footage of mayhem at the Capitol aired Thursday night during prime time by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6th attack is a natural outgrowth of the dangerous demagoguery practiced by Trump and Gableman.

Contempt is the right word for it: Contempt for the truth, contempt for democracy, contempt for due process, and, finally, contempt for civility and common decency and even the physical safety of citizens, legislators and public servants, including the Capitol police who were attacked and killed.

House investigators are seeking to show that Trump was at the center of a far-reaching conspiracy to overturn election results. Wisconsin’s fake electors and the fake Gableman investigation are an important part of that conspiracy.

It’s a short road from the assault on civil society launched by Gableman and Trump to mayhem. Their rhetoric encourages the destruction of peaceful civic life.

Consider Gableman’s appearance Friday, when, after 45 minutes of argument by his lawyers that he should not have to testify at all, he finally took the stand. He proceeded to deliver a bombastic speech, refused to answer questions and denounced the judge, who, he declared, without evidence, “has abandoned his role as a neutral magistrate and is acting as an advocate.”

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Frank Remington directed Gableman to stop his filibuster. “You’ve had a long and storied career, serving the public as … let me finish please,” he said, as Gableman interrupted him.

“Sure, if you’ll let me finish,” Gableman shot back.

That’s not how it works. Remington reminded him, “I do not need to tell you how I expect you to control yourself and the behavior that I expect of a witness on this stand.”

After a brief further exchange, Gableman said, “You have a right to conduct and control your courtroom, judge, but you don’t have a right to act as an advocate for one party over the other. I want a personal counsel if you are putting jail on the table. I want a personal attorney to represent me personally. I will not answer any more questions. I see you have a jail officer here. You want to put me in jail, Judge Remington, I’m not going to be railroaded.”

All of this talk of putting Gableman in jail was precipitated by Remington’s instruction in an earlier hearing about the legal consequences of willfully withholding evidence in contempt of court, which includes, he explained Friday, reading from the Wisconsin Judicial Bench Book, “imprisonment six months or as long as contempt continues, whichever is shorter … in addition to payment to compensate loss or injury suffered by a party … not to exceed $2,000 per day for each day a contempt continues.”

Despite Gableman’s histrionics, “At no time did I suggest that that was a sanction that I intended to impose,” Remington added.

The irony, of course, is that Gableman himself filed a petition in the Waukesha County court asking that city staff, election workers and the mayors of Green Bay Madison and Racine be thrown in jail if they don’t comply with his subpoenas, including demands that they give testimony in secret, closed-door sessions the mayors said were improper.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the city administrator of Kenosha, upon answering Gableman’s subpoena, appeared only to find that he was to be deposed by a lawyer who was not licensed to practice in Wisconsin, upon which he left.

This kind of bumbling is par for the course in Gableman’s Office of Special Counsel.

As the Examiner’s Henry Redman reports, Gableman has repeatedly disregarded open records requests and his lawyer has said that he regularly deletes records he deems “irrelevant” to his review — which so far has turned up nothing more than baseless accusations of election fraud.

In a separate lawsuit seeking records he has so far refused to release, Dane County Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn said he had “run amok” and “gone rogue” as he continued to disregard the state’s open records laws.

What is Gableman hiding? Keystone Kops-style incompetence, wasting money and coming up with nothing are the hallmarks of his ridiculous probe, which he and Vos justify as an effort to increase “transparency” and public confidence in Wisconsin elections. We already know Gableman used the taxpayers’ funds to attend a conspiracy theory conference hosted by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and to visit Arizona to inspect its discredited audit.

After throwing his tantrum on the stand Friday Gableman invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself and swept out of the courtroom. No one arrested him. His gambit worked — he was able to continue withholding information. Later, Remington issued an order holding him in contempt.

American Oversight, the group that has been suing Gableman for information, issued a statement: “Mr. Gableman’s outrageous and disrespectful conduct in court today removed any last shred of credibility from this partisan charade. Far from increasing transparency and instilling greater confidence in the 2020 elections, by repeatedly flouting Wisconsin transparency laws, Mr. Gableman and Speaker Vos have shamed their offices and undermined their own investigation.”

Undermining public trust in democratic institutions and sowing chaos and distrust is actually what the investigation is all about. And that’s a growing problem for all of us.


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 would rather sell you snake oil than talk about his most significant legislative achievement

On tax day this year, wouldn’t you like to be Sen. Ron Johnson?

Wisconsin’s senior U.S. senator paid only $2,015 in state income tax in 2017, despite earning more than $450,000 that year. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice, who first reported on Johnson’s teeny-weeny tax bill, pointed out that the multimillonaire’s 2017 Wisconsin tax payment was two dollars less than what a married couple filing jointly paid on a taxable income of $40,000.

Johnson also recently confirmed that he personally benefited from the change in the tax code that he pushed through in 2017. Johnson cast the deciding vote for President Donald Trump’s tax code rewrite giving corporations tax cuts worth $1.4 billion — but only after he arm-twisted Trump and Congress into including special benefits for so-called “pass-through” corporations — companies like his own PACUR plastics firm — whose profits are distributed to their owners.

A few months later, Johnson began the process of selling his company, reaping the benefits of the tax law change, which increased the value of pass-through companies and made him more money on the sale.

Johnson won’t say how much money Trump’s “big, beautiful tax cut,” was worth to him personally, but he spins his work on the tax bill as some sort of populist crusade, claiming that the tax break was good for “90% of small businesses.” That might be true of the general, across-the-board corporate tax cuts contained in the massive piece of legislation, but when it comes to the pass-through clause Johnson personally shoehorned in, an analysis by Pro Publica of confidential tax records “reveal[s] that Johnson’s last-minute maneuver benefited two families more than almost any others in the country — both worth billions and both among the senator’s biggest donors.” Those two families are Liz and Dick Uihlien of Pleasant Prairie and Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, who donated a combined $20 million to groups backing Johnson’s 2016 re-election campaign. Between them, according to Pro Publica, they netted $215 million in deductions in 2018 alone thanks to Johnson’s tax stand.

Johnson makes no bones about whose interests he represents in the U.S. Senate. He voted against federal pandemic relief, wrote a letter asking Gov. Tony Evers to cut unemployment benefits on the grounds they make people too lazy to work, embraced outsourcing of good, union jobs from his hometown in Oshkosh — saying “It’s not like we don’t have enough jobs here in Wisconsin” — and opposed the 2021 child tax credit for couples who made $150,000 or less and which the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated would benefit 1.2 million children in Wisconsin. “In general,” Johnson explained in relation to anti-child tax credit position, “I don’t like to use the tax code for either economic or social engineering.”

But Johnson is willing to do plenty of reverse engineering when it comes to lightening the tax burden on the rich and increasing taxes on the less wealthy. In a Fox News interview he took a stand against progressive taxation, calling tax brackets that allow people with less money to pay less in taxes “absurd.” He endorsed “most of” a controversial 11-point plan by Rick Scott, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, that would raise taxes on the bottom half of Americans and open the door for cuts in Social Security and Medicare, calling it “a positive thing.” The poorest one-fifth of Americans would pay 34% of the total tax increase under the proposal, through an average tax hike of about $1,000, according to an analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, which also estimates that 32% of Wisconsinites would see their taxes go up under the proposal.

These ideas are so bad for the majority of Wisconsinites, it’s hard to see how Johnson can run on them. And, in fact, raising taxes on the poor and middle class is not the centerpiece of his campaign. This week Johnson released an ad with testimony from a COVID-19 patient who says he was close to death and only access to an alternative remedy not approved by the FDA saved his life. The ad touts a bill Johnson promoted that allows terminal patients to use drugs that haven’t been approved.

Off-label drug use is standard practice and speeding up the process for experimental drug use for terminal patients was the centerpiece of the early movement to force action on AIDS. But Johnson’s advocacy for unproven COVID remedies, one of his proudest achievements in the U.S. Senate, is an embarrassment.

Like a peddler pushing quack medicine he has aggressively promoted the horse dewormer Ivermectin, prompting the FDA to launch a public information campaign urging people to stop trying to self-treat their COVID symptoms with veterinary medicine. And Johnson has continued to go to great lengths to undermine confidence in doctors and scientists in the midst of a public health crisis.

His public promotion of wild theories, undermining trust in physicians, has some very negative real-world consequences. Just ask hospital staff in Madison who have had to treat the flood of unvaccinated COVID patients from all over the state. These patients and their families, bolstered by internet conspiracies, have become hostile and confrontational, demanding remedies they’ve read about online that are entirely inappropriate, rejecting appropriate medicine, accusing doctors of withholding life-saving medication and even of trying to do their patients harm.

Johnson’s press conference featuring people allegedly harmed by the COVID vaccine during the height of the pandemic was the opposite of a public service announcement. But then, Johnson’s whole record shows that he’s the opposite of a public servant. He’s a public official who has used his office to serve himself.

Going after the wingnut aspect of Johnson’s record — going back to his interrogation of the MIT nuclear physicist who served as President Barack Obama’s Energy Secretary, Ernest Moniz, on internet conspiracy theories about electromagnetic pulse weaponry — is like shooting fish in a barrel. But none of Johnson’s would-be Democratic opponents appears very interested in pursuing that line of attack.

Instead, they are emphasizing how out of touch Johnson is – a multimillionaire who complains that he has “underperformed” by merely doubling his net worth during his time in the Senate.

Johnson, an advocate of trickle-down economics, responded to that criticism last Friday in Medford, Wisconsin, by saying, “Now, did my business benefit? Sure. Did some of my donors’ businesses? Sure. When you give tax relief to everybody, everybody benefits.

But serious analysis of the 2017 tax cut shows just the opposite.

As Chye-Ching Huang of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explained in February 2019 testimony to Congress, the 2017 tax law Johnson helped craft exacerbated inequality, weakened revenue and encouraged “rampant tax avoidance and gaming.”

It also, contrary to the fiscally conservative posturing of Johnson and his fellow Republicans, blew a nearly $2 trillion hole in the deficit. Their answer is to raise taxes on people who can afford it least, while proposing to cut essential services for most people.

No wonder Johnson would rather sell you snake oil than talk about his most significant legislative achievement — making the rich more comfortable and sticking it to workers by making the tax code less fair.

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.

The wheels are off the wagon with GOP elections bills

Wisconsin made the front page of The New York Times on Sunday in an article headlined “Scheme to Reinstall Trump Opens a Schism in Wisconsin GOP.

The state’s election audit, a raft of new voting restrictions pushed forward by Republican leaders of the Legislature, the nation’s only special counsel investigation into the 2020 election and the move led by State Rep. and GOP gubernatorial candidate Timothy Ramthun to decertify the state’s electoral votes, taken together, put Wisconsin in a class by itself.

“The situation in Wisconsin may be the most striking example of the struggle by Republican leaders to hold together their party when many of its most animated voters simply will not accept the reality of Mr. Trump’s loss,” The Times reported.

That struggle was on display at the Assembly State Affairs Committee Monday, where GOP committee members attempted to simultaneously encourage and distance themselves from testimony by members of the public spouting conspiracy theories — some of whom pointed fingers at the GOP legislators themselves.

The bills the committee put on a fast track Monday, after first announcing them Friday, without input from Democrats, elections officials or voting rights advocates, included a raft of measures Jay Heck of Common Cause described as “hyper-partisan” and “anti-voter.”

Assembly Joint Resolution 133 seeks to amend the state constitution to add a photo ID requirement for voting. Another joint resolution, AJR 134, would prohibit private donations to help with election administration.

Dominique Uhl, testified to the committee as a concerned citizen who has done her own research into the supposed massive fraud perpetrated by local officials and election clerks with money “laundered” by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg through the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) — a nonprofit organization that provided grants to municipalities to help with the 2020 election. “It’s critical to understanding the scope and size of this election fraud enterprise that individuals were aware that the election officials in the five Wisconsin cities of Madison, Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha and Green Bay formed a contractual alliance that is allegedly criminal when they accepted money from CTCL for their individual cities,” Uhl said. (There is no evidence of anything criminal about the donations from CTCL, which went to pay for personal protective equipment and other supplies in numerous areas around the state, including those where Trump won a majority of votes.)

Another voter testifying in favor of the bills, Holly Addison from Mukwanago, said she couldn’t give examples of all the voter fraud she was aware of because it would take too long. Urged by Rep. Tod Ohnstad (D-Kenosha) to watch a Youtube video of Elections Commission testimony last week that laid out the sheer impossibility of getting around all the checks and double-checks that prevent election theft, Addison replied that she had seen “endless videos” about election fraud and could not be convinced that something was not true when she had seen it “with my own eyes.”

Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay), the author of a bill to require the verification of citizenship of voters on voter registration lists, conceded under questioning from Democrats on the committee that he does not believe that there were a lot of fraudulent votes in the 2020 election. “But some people do believe it,” he said. “And the perception of an injustice is just as bad as an actual injustice.”

This circular logic is at the heart of the Republicans’ position on voter fraud. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, the leader of Wisconsin’s partisan election review, have similarly justified their quest for fraud by saying a lot of people believe there was fraud — a false belief they themselves are fanning.

It’s no accident that people are getting worked up about perceived injustice. Gableman on Friday filed a motion in Waukesha County Circuit Court once again demanding the jailing of local officials including the Wisconsin Elections Commission chair and the mayors of Madison and Green Bay if they don’t answer his subpoenas.

The GOP continues to create the perception of injustice. But the perception, as The New York Times reports, is getting out of hand.

At the hearing on Monday, the wheels came off the wagon shortly after Rep. Daniel Knodl (R-Germantown), waving around a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution, introduced a joint resolution calling for a constitutional convention to draft new amendments to the U.S. Constitution focusing on term limits for members of Congress. Three serious-looking schoolgirls showed up to testify rather forcefully against Knodl’s amendment. Elena, “a 16 year old girl who cherishes the Constitution of the United States of America,” lectured a surprised-looking Knodle on the text of Article V. A constitutional convention, she explained, is dangerous, “because it opens the Constitution up to revisions or replacement.” She and Knodle engaged in a brief debate about the text of Article V. Christie, a somber, bespectacled “13-year-old patriot” also opposed Knodle’s resolution, telling him, “It is my deepest dream to die in a free United States.” Her sister, 12-year-old Christie, testified that she is “proud to be an American and Wisconsinite” and that “I believe that opening our Constitution in the convention will ruin our America as we know it.”

The girls, it turned out, were the children of Dominique Uhl, the self-styled investigator of election conspiracies, who returned to the witness table with her husband, Curtis, who wielded his own pocket copy of the Constitution. Curtis expressed his pride in his children. Then warned, “We need to go back to the small precincts, hand-counted ballots and get rid of these machines that can be hacked at will.” Instead of the dangerous idea of a constitutional convention, Republicans should focus on preventing election fraud.

That’s what they did for the rest of the hearing.

At the end of the day, voting rights advocates finally had a chance to speak.

Madison’s city attorney, a weary looking Michael Haas, fresh from advising the mayor on Gableman’s threats to throw her in jail, explained how the bills will harm voters.

Most of the bills make it more burdensome and difficult to vote, and will do little to address fraud, which is exceedingly rare, he noted. Haas pointed out that in all the redundant and highly specific information required on absentee ballots by one GOP fraud-prevention measure, nowhere does it mention the most pertinent information of all: where the ballot should be sent. Presumably absentee voters are requesting ballots because they are absent, Haas noted dryly. Yet the new procedures don’t address the possibility of a temporary change of address.

If the Legislature is going to outlaw private grants to municipalities to help run elections (on the completely unfounded premise that they are an insidious effort to influence the results), it ought to at least provide some public funding in the same bill for overburdened and underfunded local elections officials.

Among the worst ideas in the whole batch of bills are criminal penalties for election clerks who fail to meet stringent standards for verifying voters’ identity and eligibility to cast a ballot. Why on Earth would anyone sign up to perform that public service ever again?

Another measure, replacing nonpartisan staff attorneys at the state elections commission with partisan attorneys, is “a very bad idea,” Haas said. “I cannot think of a worse agency for that to happen in than the state election agency.”

The committee thanked him for his testimony. There were no questions.

The Senate will take up the measures on Tuesday with final passage in the Assembly expected on Thursday. Gov. Tony Evers has said he will veto the bills.

Stay tuned to see what the insurrectionists and the Republicans who are still attempting to harness their outrage do after that.

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 is crazy like a fox

Today’s Republican Party, with the exception of Mitch McConnell — who, god help us, is now the GOP’s voice of reason — appears to have given up on the idea of representing mainstream voters.
The lunatic fringe of the Republican party in Wisconsin has three candidates for governor so far — Rep. Timothy Ranthum (R-Campbellsport), who wants to recall Wisconsin’s electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election, former marine Kevin Nicholson, who, in his announcement, compared himself to Donald Trump, and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who wants to abolish the Wisconsin Elections Commission and launched her campaign with a video featuring apocalyptic scenes of destruction in Kenosha, reminiscent of Trump’s dystopian “American carnage” inaugural address.
Where is the candidate for normal people? What has become of the happy-go-lucky, country club Republicans of yore, who just wanted to make more money, pay less in taxes, and sip their martinis on the golf course without worrying their pretty heads about unpleasant matters like racism, inequality and climate change?

Our own Sen. Ron Johnson, who is running for re-election in one of the most high profile Senate races in the country, is a fascinating example of GOP wingnuttery.

Johnson became famous for downplaying the Jan. 6 insurrection even before the RNC declared that the rioting cop killers in the Capitol were merely practicing “legitimate political discourse.” He organized press conferences to warn people that getting vaccinated could have dire health consequences and has spent much of the pandemic touting the merits of horse dewormer and other unproven COVID remedies.

But Johnson jumped the shark this week when he told people in his hometown that he won’t fight for them to get 1,000 good-paying manufacturing jobs building the next generation of U.S. Postal Service delivery trucks. Bringing home the bacon to your district is Standard Operating Procedure for a U.S. Senator of any political stripe.

Outside the fever swamps of election conspiracies and COVID-19 quackery, you would think GOP leaders would still want to do what they can to bring good jobs and economic development to their own constituents.

Local civic leaders celebrated six months ago when Oshkosh Defense, a division of Oshkosh Corp., won a $6 billion contract to build a new fleet of U.S. Postal Service vehicles — a project that would have created 1,000 good-paying, union jobs in Oshkosh, where Johnson has his home.

But then the company announced it was sending all those jobs to South Carolina, where it is building a large plant to be staffed by a cheaper, nonunion workforce.

When he was asked about the issue, Johnson said he would not push for Oshkosh Defense to keep the jobs in Wisconsin. And then he went even further. “It’s not like we don’t have enough jobs here in Wisconsin. The biggest problem we have in Wisconsin right now is employers not being able to find enough workers,” Johnson said.

Unlike Wisconsin’s other Senator, Tammy Baldwin, who has been working feverishly to get Oshkosh Corp. to reconsider and keep the jobs in Wisconsin, Johnson told reporters, “I wouldn’t insert myself to demand that anything be manufactured here using federal funds in Wisconsin.”

What the heck does he think people elected him for?

“Obviously, I’m supportive of it,” Johnson said limply, of the idea of Oshkosh Corp. bringing more good manufacturing jobs to the area he represents. “But in the end, I think when using federal tax dollars, you want to spend those in the most efficient way and if it’s more efficient, more effective, to spend those in other states, I don’t have a real problem with that.”

A lot of other people have a problem with it, though.

The whole field of Democrats who are running against Johnson immediately jumped on his comments. Johnson “doesn’t give a sh*t about Wisconsin workers,” state treasurer and Democratic candidate for Senate Sarah Godlewski tweeted.

Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson sent a letter to Sen.Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, and Sen. Gary Peters, chair of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, asking them to amend the U.S. Postal Reform Act to ensure that new vehicles are fully electric and are made in Wisconsin by Wisconsin workers. Lasry’s campaign released a statement calling Johnson’s remarks “just another example of how out of touch he is with Wisconsinites.”

“It isn’t just about jobs — and this is where someone like Ron Johnson really gets it wrong,” Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh), who has represented the city in the Wisconsin Legislature for 15 years, said in a press conference reacting to the news. “It’s about quality jobs. It’s about good paying jobs. The people of the state of Wisconsin and the people in Oshkosh aren’t widgets.” Good, union manufacturing jobs built a stable middle class in Oshkosh, Hintz explained, adding, “It’s what’s really made us more recession-proof than a lot of other communities.”

Plus, Oshkosh Corp.’s plans to build a big, new South Carolina facility “kind of sets off alarms for me,” Hintz said. “Maybe it isn’t just about the postal vehicles. Maybe it’s about shifting further production down there.”

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is leading the pack of Johnson’s challengers, joined Hintz in a press conference to explain exactly what’s wrong with Johnson’s vision of a more “efficient” economy that ships manufacturing jobs out of Wisconsin.

“The men and women at UAW local 578, they’ve been building the highest quality vehicles for the Oshkosh Corp. for nearly 100 years,” said Barnes. “Now they’re denying jobs to Wisconsin workers because they don’t want to pay for skilled union labor.”

“This is personal for me,” Barnes added, explaining that his dad is a UAW member who spent 30 years on the assembly line making catalytic converters. “The factory where my dad worked is a strip mall today,” Barnes said. “ If Ron Johnson had his way, that will be the future for all manufacturing in Wisconsin.”


Johnson, Barnes said, “wouldn’t mind shipping all of our jobs out of the state as long as it was good for the bottom line for his corporate donors.”

And that’s where Johnson’s vision of “efficiency” comes into clearer focus. When he says he won’t “second guess” the Oshkosh Corp. and that it might be better for it to send all those good jobs that were headed to Wisconsin to another state, it turns out Johnson is not being nutty. He’s just weighing the interests of his constituents against the interests of his donors.

According to campaign finance data available on, Johnson has taken $66,652 from Oshkosh Corp., including from PACs and individual donors, over the course of his career. In the last election cycle, Oshkosh Corp. was Johnson’s sixth biggest donor, with PACs and individuals contributing a total of $50,039.

Oshkosh Corporation Executive Vice President James W. Johnson gave Johnson $500 in 2016. Oshkosh Corp. board member Craig P. Omtvedt gave $2,000 to Johnson in 2016. Another Oshkosh Corp. board membe,r John S. Sheily, gave $6,400 to Johnson’s 2010 and 2016 campaigns.

By helping Oshkosh Corp. ship good-paying manufacturing jobs out of the state he represents, Johnson is protecting the company’s profits at the expense of Wisconsin workers. That’s not crazy. It’s just an old-fashioned political quid pro quo.

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 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.