Quotes of the Week

You happen to have a Democrat governor right now. If you would have had Gov. Walker, that wouldn’t have happened.
– President Trump during a Fox News town hall meeting in Green Bay on a violent protest in Madison. Protesters toppled the statues of Lady Forward and Union Civil War Col. Hans Christian Heg, upset planters, broke windows and spray painted some doors. A group of protesters also attacked and injured Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee. Trump suggested he was there to encourage protesters “because Democrats think it’s wonderful that they’re destroying our country.” Trump also visited Fincantieri Marinette Marine. See WisPolitics coverage of the Marinette Marine visit here.

We’re listening, we’re learning, we’re leading, but we’re not going to defund the police.
– Vice President Pence during a rally in Pewaukee on calls to defund police following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. He called the event a “tragedy that shocked the conscience of the nation” and declared “justice will be served.” See WisPolitics.com coverage here.

I want to be clear: violence against any person—whether in the middle of the street in broad daylight, at home trying to sleep, going for a run, or happening upon a protest as was the case last night—is wrong.  It should never be tolerated.
– Gov. Tony Evers on the violence and vandalism at the Capitol. Evers activated the National Guard to assist local law enforcement and protect critical infrastructure. 

We’re not going to negotiate with terrorists.
– Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, who along with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said violence and vandalism wouldn’t speed up action on police reform. 

I am still very, very proud that for the first time in this city’s history, and for the first time in the history of this state, we were chosen to host a convention.  I think though, in the scheme of things, when we are seeing hundreds of people around the world who have lost their lives to COVID-19, that helps to put things in perspective.
– Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett after the DNC announced the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee will move to a largely virtual format. See WisPolitics.com coverage here.

Political Stock Report

-A collection of insider opinion-
(June 13- 26, 2020)

Rising: Tommy Thompson, voting by mail

Mixed: Tony Evers, police, Staush Gruszynski, civic participation, school openings

Falling: Donald Trump, Milwaukee tourism, Jim Johnsen

Rising

Tommy Thompson: The state’s longest-serving guv and former national health secretary is back — this time capping off his decades in public services as interim president of the troubled UW System. And university watchers say the former guv faces a mammoth task ahead of him with stabilizing a System budget in free fall thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and underlying issues tied to declining enrollment. But fans believe he’s up for it. Regents tap Thompson to lead the system on an interim basis that will likely last at least a year with the search for a permanent president on hold while the university deals with the pandemic and its fiscal challenges. Thompson says he plans to “hit the ground running,” enlisting two veterans — former regent and Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus and ex-DOA Secretary Scott Neitzel — to help with the transition. The System had already been facing a long-term budget challenge with demographic shifts leading to predictions of a drop in enrollment over the next decades, but the ongoing pandemic makes the situation so much worse, budget watchers say. Even after thousands of employee furloughs, hiring freezes and accepting federal aid, system estimates still predict a more than $100 million loss through the summer. Insiders wonder what approach Thompson will take to deal with those challenges. Will he see the president’s job as a temporary thing and put his energy into right-sizing the system by making politically unpopular cuts that a permanent president may shy away from for political reasons? Will he march up State Street and cajole GOP lawmakers into sparing the system from deep cuts once the full toll of COVID-19 on the state budget is known? Thompson was long a cheerleader for the university when he was guv, and some have a hard time seeing him agree to dramatic cuts without a fight. Insiders also note the Republicans in the Capitol are a much different brand than the ones he worked with prior to leaving the guv’s office in 2001. What’s more, the vast majority didn’t serve with Thompson in office. Thompson has long been floated as a possible UW president, but some insiders say they don’t believe the 78-year-old will look to stay on full-time past the interim appointment. Thompson’s next mission, watchers say, is to use his passion for the system and experience to draft a 2021-23 budget proposal that current Dem Gov. Tony Evers, regents and the GOP-controlled legislature can all get behind. It’s a process that’s going to take some time in a divided government facing its own virus-induced budget problems. But fans say Thompson is a bridge-builder, with American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin Vice President Jon Shelton saying his pick shows regents intend to “bring some firepower” to the Capitol on behalf of system interests. 

Voting by mail: Sending in absentee ballots through the mail may be the most powerful gadget in the Wisconsin Election Commission’s toolbelt as it seeks to safely administer the year’s remaining two elections in the midst of a global pandemic. The April 7 election shatters state records for absentee voting, and the commission is gearing up for mail-in ballots to far exceed that mark come November. After dragging its feet up to the deadline, the panel approves mailing absentee ballot applications to some 2.7 million voters. A commission spokesman tells WisPolitics.com the final designs have been submitted to the Department of Administration’s printing and distribution service. That thwarts a last-ditch effort by some Assembly Republicans, who draft a letter to the commission voicing opposition to the mailer on the grounds that it would pile on “significant expense and effort to each of Wisconsin’s 1,850 municipal clerks.” Observers of the commission note that criticism doesn’t quite play, largely because one of the driving forces behind the commission’s move to authorize the mailer was alleviating the workload on local clerks by processing the applications in Madison. The mailer promotes three forms of voting — in-person, in-person absentee and mail-in absentee — and doesn’t give preference to one over the others. But a second move by the panel does. On a 5-1 vote, commissioners choose to continue to prevent election officials from entering nursing homes and care facilities for the remainder of the year. Under normal circumstances, a local clerk can deputize so-called special voting deputies to administer an absentee election at those facilities. But in the lead-up to the April 7 election, the commission suspends SVDs to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 to at-risk residents. The commission extends that ban as Republican Dean Knudson says it “should be clear to everyone that when this virus gets into nursing homes, people die.” Instead, registered voters at those facilities who wish to exercise their right to vote will be dropping their ballots into a mailbox.

Mixed

Tony Evers: Insiders expected the guv’s job approval number to slide after it hit 65 percent in March as the coronavirus swept across the country. So that it dipped for the second month in a row is no surprise, and insiders say he’s still in good territory with 54 percent approving of his job performance in this month’s Marquette University Law School Poll and 38 percent disapproving. Still, they also see a disconnect between a series of issues that have led to Republicans questioning the guv’s leadership and a public that seems unfazed by them. Capitol insiders link Evers’ overall job approval numbers in the Marquette poll to the marks voters give him for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, figures that have tracked together in the last three polls. Both tallies fall by roughly five points from last month, but both remain comfortably above water. We’re in the midst of both a global pandemic and economic crisis — the guy at the top was naturally going to see some slippage, Dems say. While criticism of Evers leadership is mounting on a host of topics — delays in paying out jobless claims, vandalism at the Capitol and a secret recording scandal —  insiders say it’s really not sticking to the guv outside of the Capitol Square bubble. For some, a set of voters in the middle are not driven by policy and the guv’s folksy, disarming persona feels like a breath of fresh air, particularly given the current political environment nationwide, analysts say.  After decades of born-and-bred politicians occupying the East Wing, some say one of Evers’ great strengths is that he doesn’t inspire the vitriol that other prominent politicians in both parties do. That’s helped to soften the blow from a taping scandal that may have ensnared a more political animal. Evers and a top aide again decline to name the staffer who authorized recording his call with legislative leaders, much to the chagrin of GOP lawmakers. But insiders from both sides of the aisle say the ordeal, when taken on its own, hasn’t laid a glove on the guv with the public even though it has further strained his relationship with GOP legislative leaders. But it could later though, Republicans say. It’s all well and good to be likable and plainspoken, but at some point you have to show your work and tout your accomplishments. To do that, Evers needs to find a way to work with the Republican-controlled Legislature, the critics say. And if the taping incident truly is the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back and GOP lawmakers try to starve Evers of wins, how long will the guv be able to counter criticisms of his leadership? Republicans howl as violent protesters tear down two statutes on the Capitol grounds and assault Dem state Sen. Tim Carpenter, of Milwaukee, demanding to know why the law enforcement agencies under Evers’ command weren’t called out to prevent the damage done rather than the guv calling up the National Guard the next day and vowing it wouldn’t happen again. It provides more fodder for critics who say Evers hasn’t been a strong leader. New U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Minocqua, even calls for the guv to resign; Dems say that is so over the top that such a call is laughable. It underscores to some that Evers is just likable in a way that Republicans don’t understand.

Police: A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum finds Wisconsin is one of 23 states where police departments and law enforcement take up the largest slice of municipal budgets — making them a target for cutting as muni budgets become pressured by the pandemic. What’s more, the report finds a near 60 percent increase over a 34-year period in spending on police when accounting for inflation. The report also shows a 55 percent drop in crime over that period, powered largely by a sizable decrease in property crime. Violent crime is up though, and the report warns against drawing a causal relationship between crime and spending. Then a new Marquette University Law School poll shows 86 percent of respondents say police make them feel mostly safe, and 72 percent hold a favorable view of law enforcement. But a deeper dive into those numbers paints a more complicated picture. Among whites, 90 percent feel safe around police while 8 percent say law enforcement makes them feel mostly anxious. But among Black people, the metric is underwater at 43-44; and among Hispanics 72-28. Poll Director Charles Franklin says “whites’ experience of the police is just qualitatively different, and they bring to that a much more positive view of police actions than do people of color.” The poll finds 70 percent of Wisconsinites reject calls to defund the police, but 81 percent support “calls to restructure the role of the police and require greater accountability for police misconduct.”

Staush Gruszynski: Endorsements don’t guarantee votes. Still, insiders take notice when the Green Bay Dem’s former employer endorses his primary opponent. The question for many, however, is how many more groups may follow suit, what resources they may be willing to invest in the race and if voters in Green Bay are fully paying attention to the sexual harassment case against the freshman lawmaker. Immediately after Gruszynski acknowledged in December he “made a terrible mistake after drinking too much in a Madison bar” two months earlier, some insiders believed his political career was over. After all, that kind of behavior just doesn’t fly for many Dem primary voters in the #MeToo era. Still, as time has passed, insiders have also questioned whether voters in Green Bay are as in tune with what Gruszynski did. That’s particularly true because details of what Gruszynski did haven’t been made public beyond the finding that he acted inappropriately toward a staffer. The initial attention on the case has died down, and Gruszynski got some backing from high-profile Dems that suggested to some he may be able to ride out the controversy. Still, insiders also have been watching to see whether groups that previously backed Gruszynski would stick with him or jump to Dem primary challenger Kristina Shelton, who’s vice president of the Green Bay School Board. The American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin and Democracy for America both back Shelton. But the endorsement that really catches insiders’ attention is the decision by the Wisconsin Conservation Voters to endorse Shelton even though Gruzynski was the group’s political director prior to his run for the Assembly in 2018. For insiders, that’s an eye-opener. For voters in the district, some say, that only carries weight if it comes with a paid media effort supporting Shelton or tearing down Gruszynski. The same goes with other endorsements. Will those groups do paid media campaigns focusing on the harassment case? Insiders also note how hard it can be to read an August primary and what turnout might look like. There’s also a Dem primary in the Green Bay area for the 30th SD between Jonathan Hansen, the De Pere alderman and nephew of retiring Sen. Dave Hansen, and Sandra Ewald, who worked as a health care exec. The combination of the two could help pull out voters. Insiders also note several things could really turn the tide of the primary. Will Dave Hansen endorse someone in the Assembly primary? Will details of the harassment become public? And will more groups — and their checkbooks — get involved in the primary? Those things could determine Gruszynski survives the primary.

Civic participation: Public political participation in the state is on the downswing. A new nonpartisan report from a coalition led by the Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies evaluates how citizens volunteer, donate and otherwise participate in state and local communities and politics. And the results are a bit of a mixed bag. Overall, the report finds races in local government are becoming more and more uncompetitive, with the number of single-candidate village board or city council seats rising from 52.4 percent to 62.4 percent between 2015 and 2017. Meanwhile, the total number of newspapers in Wisconsin drops from 274 to 197 between 2004 and 2019. And over one-third of all state papers are now owned by one of the top 25 national media corporations, according to the report. The coalition notes the decline in media diversity and competitive races “have been particularly notable in smaller communities.” But Wisconsinites still vote. The report points out voter registration in the state was still one of the highest in the 2016 election country at 72.8 percent and voter turnout at 64.6 percent. The national average for voter registration in 2016 was 66.9 percent, while for voter turnout it was 53.4 percent. But turnout still did decline between 2012 and 2016, according to the report, especially in African American, Latino, and Asian communities. The coalition writes its goal in the study is “not only to deepen our understanding of Wisconsin’s civic health but also to inspire action.” Based on the findings, it argues there needs to be a “regular assessment of civic health in the state, and organizations must begin to collaborate and encourage civic participation among Wisconsinites. Several orgs, including the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, add their names to a list promising to boost political engagement.

School openings: School districts and colleges face a huge range of challenges as they try to plan for a fall term in the era of COVID-19. And what they do will help determine whether a host of parents and businesses can get back to more normal hours and staffing, in turn boosting the economy.  With COVID-19 around for months to come, schools have to figure out personnel issues, classroom sizes, days in-person vs. online — not to mention the skyrocketing costs from the need to provide safety equipment and the necessary technology for continued distance learning. Marquette University this week suspends employer contributions to its employee retirement plan after it reveals a 16 percent student enrollment deficit compared to what it anticipated for the fall semester. And UW-Madison, which anticipates a gross $115.6 million budget shortfall through the summer, says it intends to have some in-person classes at semesters’ start but return to an all-online format after Thanksgiving. A spokesman for the Madison campus says it’s “cautiously optimistic” about fall enrollment, though preliminary data won’t be available until September. Many want to adhere to the recommendations in the recently released guidelines from DPI but predict that certain guidelines, such as social distancing on school buses or 10-to-1 student-staff ratios, will be difficult or impossible to meet. DPI officials appearing before an Assembly Education Committee meeting stress the recommendations are just “things to keep in mind.’’ Districts will have to contend with students unable to return to school because of concerned parents or other health problems that put them at higher risk. Transportation is a major issue given the social distancing recommendations for students in enclosed spaces. Scheduling student time in buildings is another challenge, and some districts have proposed students coming to school on alternate days, with other days reserved for deep cleaning. School meals are another difficult area given social distancing requirements and the need to bring on extra staff and add meal periods to respect safety and cleanliness guidelines. Districts are taking varying approaches to reopening. Milwaukee Public Schools has released three potential scenarios —  hybrid virtual/in-person, all-virtual and a full return to face-to-face instruction with students rotating in and out of buildings to limit contact. Stevens Point Area School District plans on reopening with similar virtual, hybrid, and in-person instruction options, and limiting 24 students to a school bus. Madison Public Schools has released minimal information so far but promised parents and students that policies would align as much as possible with the DPI guidelines. Racine Unified School District is surveying parents about their preferences for the return to instruction this fall. Hiring extra staff is a DPI recommendation, but many school districts, especially low-spending ones, will likely be short of the cash to do so. 

Falling

Donald Trump: The president’s numbers take a tumble in Wisconsin, according to a trio of new polls. But Dems, recalling Hillary Clinton’s lead, aren’t confident they’ll stay there. After months of seeming like “teflon Don” with any number of controversies failing to dent his numbers, the latest Marquette University Law School Poll finds Trump has fallen 8 points behind presumptive Dem nominee Joe Biden as several factors take their toll on the president’s standing. Other polls show an even bigger margin — a survey from the New York Times and Siena College has Biden up 11 while the conservative Restoration PAC has it as a 16.5-point spread in favor of the presumptive Dem nominee. The Marquette poll finds 30 percent of voters surveyed approve of how Trump has handled the protests over George Floyd’s death in late May, a point that poll Director Charles Franklin calls “a strikingly weak spot for him.” Just 44 percent approve of his handling of the coronavirus, and while his handling of the economy has been his strong point in the Marquette poll, even that has dropped with 50 percent now approving of Trump’s performance on that front. Add in dropping support among self-identified Republicans (down 10 points to 83 percent) and independents (down four points to 30 percent), and it results in a 49-41 advantage for the presumptive Dem nominee. Dems, however, haven’t forgotten 2016 and how Hillary Clinton’s polling lead disappeared in the final days of the race as pollsters either got it wrong or failed to capture late momentum in Trump’s favor. Dems also note Biden’s numbers are soft. The Marquette poll finds 44 percent of registered voters have a positive view of Biden, while 46 percent have a negative one. That plays into the notion that some voters aren’t as much enthused about Biden as they are turned off by Trump. Some Dems argue that underscores the need for Biden to give voters a reason to vote for him and not just to assume they’ll cast their ballots against Trump. That also plays into the debate over whether it’d be better for Biden to get in the public eye regularly — risking one of his regular verbal gaffes — or hunkering down and letting Trump continue to damage his own brand. Still, insiders say the president may be in the toughest spot he’s been in since descending a golden escalator and announcing himself as a political force five years ago. Analysts see the country as embroiled in twin crises, and voters see the president as fanning the flames of tension. But hope endures in GOP circles that Trump can use his powerful megaphone to redirect the conversation. Get away, some say, from the social and racial justice conversation and focus on the law-and-order issue. Reframe the COVID-19 conversation from testing levels and death rates to the economic recovery. If Trump can direct the conversation to a place that benefits him, it might be enough to push him over the top as polls naturally begin to tighten as November approaches. But Trump in an appearance at Marinette Marine to tout job creation from a big federal contract, wanders from the economic message to attacks on the media, China, Canada and congressional Dems. Dems say that’s just one example from a president who loves to air grievances in free-wheeling campaign rally speeches. Besides, Dems say, there’s little chance voters will hold Biden responsible even if Trump manages to shift the conversation. Republicans are trying to paint Tuesday night’s chaos in Madison’s streets as an example of the type of feckless leadership Dems would bring to the White House, but will voters really hold Joe Biden responsible for problems more attached to Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Gov. Tony Evers? Not likely, Dems say. 

Milwaukee tourism: Tourism is another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Milwaukee is taking the brunt of it. Visit Milwaukee was calling 2020 “the year of Milwaukee,” and there is no question that it would have been with the Ryder Cup and the Democratic National Convention bringing in thousands of out-of-state visitors. But the DNC has been shifted to a largely virtual format and is to be held in a smaller venue (the Wisconsin Center rather than Fiserv Forum) to limit the potential spread of COVID-19. While former Vice President Joe Biden will still accept the Dem nomination in the city, the DNC Committee has further dimmed Milwaukee’s spotlight by calling it a “Convention Across America.” Even the delegates were told to just stay home rather than attend in-person. The event had been projected to bring in around $200 million to the local economy, but Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said that the four-day event will now bring in only a fraction of that. The DNC is only the latest in a series of hits for the region. Summerfest was postponed, then canceled — losing another $200 million in economic impact for the year. The Ryder Cup was moved to 2021, delaying the arrival of some 50,000 tourists and an economic impact of $80 million dollars. The Wisconsin State Fair is canceled too, costing Milwaukee another $200 million in economic impact. And Visit Milwaukee can’t even predict how much money the Bucks would have brought in as the number one team for the Eastern Conference. A shortened Brewers season is a small bonus. The city has also taken a huge hit in terms of meetings and conventions that have been postponed. At last count those lost or delayed conventions totaled 83, amounting to $65 million in lost economic impact for 2020. With all the excitement gone, the losses are taking an emotional toll as well. While Milwaukee may never get those dollars back, Visit Milwaukee is working full throttle to rebook meetings and conventions for later in 2020 and into 2021. In fact, if you take out the anomaly of booking the DNC in 2019, VISIT Milwaukee is 15,000 rooms higher for future years year-over-year than at this point last year. So hold on Cream City, because 2021 might be your year. 

Jim Johnsen: June has not been a good month for former University of Alaska System President Jim Johnsen. The UW System’s presidential search committee names Johnsen as its sole finalist candidate to replace outgoing UW System President Ray Cross. Regent Vice President Mike Grebe at the time says Johnsen had been “the very clear favorite” of all committee members since at least the semi-finalist phase. The move comes to the chagrin of system shared governance representatives who slam both Johnsen’s tenure steering the Alaska system through existential budget cuts, as well as the search process as a whole for presenting only one candidate — a straight white male — for consideration while the search committee itself contained no staff, faculty or students as members. Even so, insiders expected Johnsen’s ascendance to the presidency was essentially a done deal, so long as he didn’t fall on his face through a final interview blitz. But Johnsen suddenly withdraws his name from the process, leaving the system scrambling. He says he and his family see a future in Alaska and “it’s clear (UW System members) have important process issues to work out.” System watchers see Johnsen’s comments as a dig at the committee’s search process presenting him as the sole option even as other finalists dropped out late in the game. Some say this put Johnsen under a microscope with nobody to compare him to, and shared governance might even have been convinced to endure his candidacy if it only had some representation on the committee to explain the process. Just 10 days after his announcement, the University of Alaska System in a press release says Johnsen would resign from the job he previously said he would keep. According to the release, Johnsen and regents came to a “mutual” decision the system needed new leadership. Ahead of the announcement, the Alaska system’s faculty union deliver a petition demanding Johnsen’s resignation, saying he has “failed in all areas that matter to the academic mission” and attempted to gain a new job rather than lead Alaska when the going got tough. And since taking the job in 2015, Johnsen received two separate no-confidence votes from UA-Anchorage faculty over his leadership through financial challenges, with the state’s contribution falling by nearly $100 million in his presidency. Some university watchers suggest his ouster might not have been entirely about his search for a new job in the midst of a pandemic, but one final straw against someone many in the Alaska system already soured on. 

Elections Commission increasingly deadlocks on party lines

Wisconsin elections commissioners have been over five times more likely to deadlock on party lines this year than in the panel’s previous three-and-a-half year history.

In interviews with WisPolitics.com, the panel’s four political appointees attribute that uptick to two factors: Capitol gridlock, and the October 2019 appointment of outspoken Republican Bob Spindell.

Eleven of the 13 party-line deadlocks in the commission’s history have come since Spindell joined the panel. But for his part, Spindell told WisPolitics.com he was “very, very pleased” with the shift away from the commission unanimously approving nearly every decision.

“We are a bipartisan commission, but we do represent on my side, on the Republican side, the Republican Party and what we believe in along that line,” the appointee of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told WisPolitics.com. “On the Democratic side, those commissioners do a good job representing the Democratic Party point of view.”

But Dem Chair Ann Jacobs warned that viewing items that come before the commission solely through a partisan lens is unproductive.

“I think as issues come before the commission that are framed as partisan, there is a distinct risk of decisions breaking down on partisan lines,” she said. “However, you can’t have a functioning commission if everything breaks down on partisan lines, so in that regard, we need to get the work of election administration done.”

The commission is made up of six members — two political appointees and a former clerk from both parties.

Republican Commissioner Dean Knudson added he believes with relationships between Gov. Tony Evers and the GOP-controlled Legislature fraying, those who would normally pursue policy changes by lobbying lawmakers are instead turning to agencies.

“It seems like we’ve got more partisan with more 3-3 votes — true. But different issues have come to us now that might not have come to us in the past,” the panel’s former chair said.

The panel was created by legislation drafted by Knudson with equal partisan appointments to foster bipartisanship in any significant ruling after accusations that its predecessor, the Government Accountability Board, was biased against conservatives. Now it’s deadlocking on some of the most important issues coming before it — issues that could relate to the presidential race outcome in battleground Wisconsin. The panel’s increasing partisan splits also comes as Wisconsin is viewed as one of the most important swing states in the presidential election. When the commission fails to reach a bipartisan compromise, more often than not, the issue ends up in court and ultimately before a state Supreme Court with a 5-2 —  soon to be 4-3 — conservative majority.

A WisPolitics.com review of the panel’s votes over the last six months also found six instances where two political appointees from the same party opposed a motion. Overall, commissioners have only come to unanimous consensus on just over half of their motions this year, a stark contrast from the 96 percent rate from the first three calendar years of the commission’s existence. Over that period, members unanimously agreed 170 times in 177 votes and only deadlocked once.

Because minutes for the commission’s 20 meetings after Feb. 12 are not available, the review of this year’s votes was largely conducted based on WisPolitics.com’s notes of the meetings and excludes non-policy motions such as approving minutes and adjournment. 

The 11 party-line votes so far this year have centered on four topics: a lawsuit from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty on voters who may have moved; the administration of the April 7 election in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic; mailing an absentee ballot application to some 2.7 million registered voters; and a WILL petition for an administrative rule to explicitly ban ballot harvesting.

Even on some issues where there’s a measure of consensus, the panel has bogged down on party lines on execution. Commissioners broadly agreed from the outset that the state should send the absentee applications but split on procedural steps along the way. 

“Bob Spindell wasn’t there”

When pressed with specifics on the number of party-line votes so far this year as compared to his tenure as chair, Dem Mark Thomsen largely complimented Knudson, his successor. But he blamed the change to a shift in appointments, pointing to one member in particular: Spindell.

“Bob Spindell wasn’t there,” he said when asked about the changes between his tenure as chair and now. “Bob Spindell has clearly brought in an agenda that wasn’t at the table before; there’s no question about that.”

Spindell said since last year when he was appointed to the panel by Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, he’s seen increased willingness to buck commission staff recommendations and debate issues. 

“I’m pleased as we’re going forward in terms of the progress we’re making,” he said. “One of my goals when I started was to get commissioners to take control of situations because I believe that if I’m going to be on a board, I’m going to be active on the board. Otherwise it’s a waste of time.”

For Dems on the panel, concerns about Spindell center on his rhetoric, not his approach.

“Bob is edgier than the other Republican, and you know, that’s his style,” Thomsen said, adding that “hasn’t stopped us from doing what we need to on the big issues.”

That style — punctuated with Spindell often framing issues in starkly partisan terms — has at times led to verbal sparring with the panel’s Dems. 

This culminated in an argument during a meeting earlier this month between Spindell and Jacobs at the commission’s meeting. Jacobs accused Spindell of employing dog-whistle politics when the Republican commissioner said there are rumors of ballot harvesting “in the various projects, apartments and so forth and so on.”

“It may not matter for the Democrats, but it’s a hot-button issue for the Republicans,” Spindell said during the meeting.

Both Jacobs and Spindell then proceeded to argue over each other — Jacobs labeling the comments “unnecessary and very unfortunate” and calling for Spindell’s mic to be muted since she had the floor, and Spindell demanding an apology for the accusation.

Jacobs said during the meeting that if Spindell was limiting his comment to solely apartment buildings, she would assume the reference was “a slip of the tongue.” Spindell didn’t respond and the meeting moved on with the commission addressing the comments again.

”We’re the agency that gets sued”

Knudson offered another reason for the increasing partisan votes: his old place of employment. 

The former Republican lawmaker — whose two-year term as chair of the commission ended earlier this month — told WisPolitics.com “the most significant thing that has changed” during his time running the panel was partisan gridlock in the Capitol. That’s led those who want to see changes to the way elections are administered to seek judicial remedies “and we’re the agency that gets sued.”

As an example, Knudson cited lawsuits seeking “the Democrat Party wish list for election changes” that were brought before federal Judge William Conley in the leadup to the April 7 election. The lawsuits brought by state and national Dems and a coalition of the advocacy group asked Conley to push back the deadline for absentee ballots to be received and relax regulations — including photo ID and witness signature requirements.

“There was nothing really new in all those requests, nothing particularly significantly tied to the pandemic,” Knudson said. “The pandemic is just a means to try to get all that wishlist of changes.”

Conley ordered a series of changes only to have the 7th District Court of Appeals narrow his ruling the next day, and the U.S. Supreme Court changed it further the day before the election. The case is still before him after he earlier this month rejected GOP legislators’ call to dismiss an amended version of the lawsuit that seeks changes to the August state primary and November presidential elections.

“When you have the DNC, the Democrat Party themselves suing the commission, I think you can probably expect that you’ll have a lot of splitting, 3-3 votes on cases like that,” Knudson said.

Thomsen said he wasn’t surprised by his GOP colleagues’ position.

“Dean, the chair and his two fellow Republican commissioners were following the Republican Party position on the election as argued in the lawsuit,” he said. “I was with the governor that I thought that the election should have been moved to a safer time.”

“There will be a number of these 3-3 votes as we go forward”

The combined challenge to how the commission planned to administer the spring election wasn’t the only time legal action led the panel to split along party lines though. 

A WILL lawsuit challenging the commission’s decision to wait until 2021 to strike voters suspected of moving who did not confirm their address has also caused division. The commission had previously deactivated the registration of potential “movers” who did not respond to an address confirmation mailing within 30 days.

A motion to follow an Ozaukee County judge’s order to deactivate movers drew just the third-ever party-line vote in January. That order was overturned shortly after the meeting by an appeals court.

While the decision to push back deactivation until 2021 was unanimous, Knudson said the move only won the panel’s full backing because of a unique set of circumstances. When commissioners made the decision in June 2019, the panel was short one member during the transition between Republicans Beverly Gill and Marge Bostelmann. 

That left GOP members short of the leverage necessary to negotiate a compromise, leading to an end result Knudson says “isn’t the way it would have happened had we had our normal makeup.”

“I think it would have been a different policy,” Knudson said when asked what a six-member commission would have come up with. “I had no objection to allowing (movers) to stay on for the spring election, but we would have inactivated them about this time of year.”

Even though the movers case is unresolved and before the state Supreme Court, a different move by WILL threatens to further expose the commission’s fault lines.

A WILL petition for an administrative rule to explicitly ban third parties from requesting or returning an absentee ballot on behalf of a voter led to a party-line deadlock during a recent meeting. Spindell told WisPolitics.com legal action on the topic, which WILL President Rick Esenberg has hinted at, could draw more.

“I suspect there will be a number of these 3-3 votes as we go forward,” he said.

 

Opioid addiction worsens due to pandemic

While the attention of media, elected officials and community leaders has been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, another crisis — opioid addiction — has worsened.

From January to May of this year, Wisconsin Department of Health Services data show that the state’s suspected opioid overdoses number 2,739. That number represents a 48 percent increase from 1,852 the same time last year.

“The opioid crisis is happening within a pandemic,” said Mary Henningfield, principal investigator with Wisconsin Voices for Recovery. “Even before COVID started in January, there has been an increase (in suspected overdoses) every month over 2019. We do hear frequently that there is definitely an uptick in the need for services.”

One legislative champion of measures to curb addiction agrees the shutdown hurt those who were suffering from addiction and other issues.

“Understandably, COVID kind of took the focus. But our response to it unfortunately, in my opinion, actually probably made the opioid crisis, mental health crisis, drug addiction crisis… suicide actually worse because the response was: basically shut down all nonemergency type procedures,” said Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette. “You have to make sure that the cure isn’t worse than the disease, and unfortunately for some of our most vulnerable I’m afraid it might have been.”

Wisconsin Voices for Recovery is within UW-Madison’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. Funded primarily through DHS, the addiction advocacy organization works with 11 recovery community organizations statewide to provide peer support. Before COVID-19, the organization planned to do a lot of community outreach, primarily in communities of color, as part of a recent grant. 

Montee Ball is an outreach specialist for Wisconsin Voices for Recovery, an organization with a mission to support those in recovery or seeking recovery for substance use disorders, including opioid use disorder.

He joined forces with the organization to use his voice as a former Badger and Denver Broncos running back to help others avoid addiction that eventually ended his NFL career. Today he meets with minority community leaders and helps them get the support they need.

But with COVID-19, everything had to be shut down, including support meetings and non-emergency health care, forcing groups like Wisconsin Voices for Recovery to rely on virtual meetings and connections.

“I’m thankful to be going on four years of sobriety, but I can only imagine how it would be if I was two months into it and then everything gets shut down,” Ball said. “I most likely, probably would relapse, unfortunately. And because you’re told to stay home, well I would stay home and maybe do some things I shouldn’t have done.”

What helps individuals to stay sober is to build a community by going to therapy, hanging out with friends who understand the path and attending sober events. While virtual peer support has allowed sponsors and support to easily reach people far away and in more remote regions of the state, Ball said that it’s just not as personable — or effective.

“There’s something very special about being face to face and in the same room with those that are in recovery,” he said. “Seeing the energy, feeling the vibes and hearing the stories out of someone’s mouth other than a speaker in your laptop.”

Both Ball and Henningfield agree that Wisconsin Voices for Recovery has done a great job of adapting and pivoting to be there for those who need it, whether it’s to hear a positive story or keep individuals on their sobriety journey. 

But it’s not easy. There’s all kinds of factors at play, including the stay-at-home orders, the stress and anxiety related to that, and the financial concerns when people lost their job or were homeless, according to Henningfield. 

“That has all contributed,” she said. “The opioid crisis is still there very much, and if anything, it has accelerated a little bit. There is so much focus on COVID, but we don’t want to lose sight of helping other people.” 

Nygren is no stranger to the effects of substance abuse and opioid addiction. 

“My daughter, who is 31 years old now, has struggled with addiction, pain pills, later heroin, to the point where she’s incarcerated now,” he said. His constituents are also impacted by the crisis.

“Marinette was an early indicator for what was to come nationally,” Nygren said. “We had a doctor actually selling prescriptions for oxycontin back in the mid-2000s. Because of that, we had a lot of (young) people who became addicted.”

But even after the doctor went to federal prison and the opioid supply “dried up,” Nygren said heroin dealers came in to fill that void. 

“We were impacted early and a lot of deaths, a lot of lives that have been negatively impacted,” he said.

But an increase in suspected overdoses is just one of the challenges that addiction advocates are facing. The other is stigma.  

“One of the barriers that we’re still facing is stigma within public perception, because I still hear people say things like ‘if you have an opioid problem, just stop,’” Henningfield said. “There’s not really the compassion or empathy that this is a really serious health care crisis and people need help on their road to recovery.”

Ball echoed Henningfield: “I want to bring down that wall, that stigma, because I feel like as more people approach addiction with compassion, empathy, we’ll be able to make some significant strides.”

And while Nygren argues that Wisconsin and the nation has come a long way, he too said outdated perceptions pose challenges in obtaining funding and passing legislation. 

“Until it affects someone you know, until it affects your family directly, I still do think there’s a certain amount of stigma revolving around both of them,” he said. “We’ve improved, we’ve put a lot more money in Wisconsin into substance abuse and mental health and nationally as well. I think there is still more investment that needs to be made.”

Nygren noted two bills pending in the state Senate: an extension of the 911 Good Samaritan Law, which will expire if the Senate does not act; and a pilot program that would allow for coverage of nonaddictive form of pain treatment such as chiropractic, physical therapy or acupuncture, which is not a covered service today.

Johnson says he’s advised Trump to temper his tone while campaigning in Wisconsin

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said today that a “New York street fighter” like President Trump could be out of his element while campaigning in Wisconsin, where polls have shown the president lagging behind presumptive Dem nominee Joe Biden.

The Oshkosh Republican also says he plans to read the book penned by former Trump national security adviser John Bolton; Johnson said he’s “always respected” Bolton, whom Trump has trashed. And he declared “now is the time to put in the controls” on mail-in ballots as Election Day approaches, as he acknowledged he has voted by absentee ballot before.

When it came to the fight for Wisconsin this November, the Oshkosh Republican said during a Newsmaker lunch hour with the Milwaukee Press Club and WisPolitics.com that he hoped the election would center on which candidates’ policies would best boost economic recovery. 

Johnson noted the president’s combative personal style might turn off some Wisconsin voters. He said he’s advised the president on the importance of tone while campaigning in the state.

“There are two things you need to succeed in Wisconsin. First of all, Wisconsinites have to like you. The second thing is, they need to think you care about them,” he said. “The tone you take is pretty important here.”

Johnson went on to say that Trump is “incredibly empathetic and highly concerned” about the country.

Johnson acknowledged mail-in and absentee voting is  “a foregone conclusion” for the upcoming election given the likely continued threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. And he said he would encourage voters to use an absentee ballot if they are uncomfortable going to vote in person. 

“I do it myself,” he said. “I think that’s a system that has proper controls.”

However, the senator was concerned that mail-in ballots could lead to some to question the results and lead to delays in reporting. He used the Iowa caucuses as a recent example, saying that situations where results took days or weeks to be finalized were “bad for our democracy.”

Johnson said he was looking forward to reading Bolton’s book, which has drawn fire from the Trump administration.

“I think it will be a pretty good insight into history. There will just be an awful lot of interesting revelations about what happened,” Johnson said.I’ve always respected John, I agree so much with his policymaking — though not 100 percent.”

Asked whether he agreed with remarks from earlier this week from Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah, that recent protests of police violence “racialize the issue” and are meant to make white people feel guilty, Johnson hedged. He decried what happened to George Floyd, saying that it violated Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of an unprejudiced society but followed by saying he doesn’t think racial bias is a major issue in law enforcement. 

“Do we live up to [King’s] ideal? No. But I think most of us try to. Is racial discrimination systemic throughout law enforcement? I doubt it. Are there bad cops? Yes,” he said.  

He added that while he thought law enforcement was primarily a state and local issue, he was disappointed with Senate Dems for not voting on the police reform bill their GOP colleagues had proposed because it didn’t include all of their own proposed reforms. 

“It was their way or the highway,” Johnson said. “Where there are areas of agreement, they refuse to work with us on that and just reject that and we get nothing. Apparently they would rather have the issue than make some marginal progress.”

See the event here.

With campaign ramping up, Steil unconcerned about Trump trailing in the polls

U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil says he’s “not concerned” about recent polls showing President Trump trailing presumptive Dem nominee Joe Biden because there are still four months before Election Day and the campaign is just starting to ramp up. 

Steil, during a WisPolitics.com virtual luncheon, predicted a “compressed election cycle” due to the COVID-19 pandemic and civic unrest following the death of George Floyd. 

“From a campaign standpoint, a lot of this has been really on hold as we faced the most challenging issues in front of us,” the Janesville Republican said. “The election will be in November. … It’s not today.”

He also said that Wisconsin televisions were still relatively clear of campaign ads, though he noted that will likely change “pretty darn soon” as Election Day approaches. 

Steil’s assertion comes on the heels of the news that Dem super PAC Priorities USA made two ad buys this week slamming Trump on his handling of COVID-19. The Biden campaign also recently announced its first ad buy of the general, a $15 million campaign in Wisconsin and other battleground states.

Wisconsin’s battleground status was underscored this week with the visits of Trump and Vice President Pence. Pence made two stops in Waukesha County on Tuesday, and Trump toured the Fincantieri Marinette Marine on Thursday before hosting a town hall in Green Bay. 

Polls following the Monday luncheon continued to show Biden leading Trump.

A Marquette University poll released Wednesday showed Biden up 8 points over Trump in Wisconsin, with 49 percent backing Biden and 41 percent saying they would vote for Trump. A New York Times poll released Thursday found Biden with an 11-point advantage over Trump in Wisconsin. 

Steil pinned his confidence in a Trump rebound on an improving economy, an area where Trump’s numbers have suffered less. In the Marquette University poll, 50 percent said they approved of the president’s handling of the economy, while 46 percent disapproved. The spread last month was 54-40.

“I think that the proof is going to be in the pudding,” he said. “I think people are gonna say they want to return the economic strength that the United States had prior to the pandemic.” 

Steil also said he didn’t think voters would be enthusiastic about Democrats’ economic vision and that continued passage of massive stimulus packages would be “catastrophic” for future generations.

“If Joe Biden was elected into office and Nancy Pelosi has a speaker’s gavel, I think we would have a really challenging economic future in the United States of America,” Steil said, noting a House-passed coronavirus relief measure that has been rejected by Republicans. “Just look at the $3 trillion bill that the House of Representatives passed.” 

And while Steil said Wisconsinites don’t want to rely on the federal government for economic support, he also didn’t foresee cuts to Social Security or Medicaid. 

“Those are promises we made and need to be kept,” he said. 

Watch the WisPolitics.com event with Steil here.

See reports on the Trump and Pence visits here and here.

Political TV

(Check local listings for times in your area)

“UpFront” is a statewide commercial TV news magazine show airing Sundays around the state. This week’s show, hosted by ADRIENNE PEDERSEN, features ABC Political Director RICK KLEIN and Wisconsin Democratic National Committee member KHARY PENEBAKER.
*See more about the program here: http://www.wisn.com/upfront/
*Also see a recap of the show online each Monday at WisPolitics.com 

“Rewind,” a weekly show from WisconsinEye and WisPolitics.com, airs at 8 p.m. on Fridays and 10 a.m. on Sundays in addition to being available online. On this week’s episode, WisconsinEye’s STEVE WALTERS and the AP’s SCOTT BAUER discuss DPI’s school reopening guidance, violent protests in Madison, results of the latest Marquette poll, visits by President DONALD TRUMP and Vice President MIKE PENCE and more.
*Watch the show here.

Check out WisPolitics.com’s Midday, a daily podcast offering insights into the top news of the day.
*Listen to the podcasts here

“The Insiders” is a weekly WisOpinion.com web show featuring former Democratic Senate Majority Leader CHUCK CHVALA and former Republican Assembly Speaker SCOTT JENSEN. This week, the two gauge the state of the presidential race amid the release of new Wisconsin polls and visits from President TRUMP and Vice President PENCE.
*Watch the video or listen to the show here.

Wisconsin Public TV’s “Here and Now” airs at 7:30 p.m. Fridays. On this week’s program, anchor FREDERICA FREYBERG speaks with U.S. Rep. GLENN GROTHMAN, Marquette University Law School Poll Director CHARLES FRANKLIN and Department of Public Instruction Senior Policy Advisor JENNIFER KAMMERUD.

“Capital City Sunday” airs at 9 a.m. Sunday on WKOW-TV in Madison, WAOW-TV in Wausau, WXOW-TV in La Crosse and WQOW-TV in Eau Claire. Host EMILEE FANNON has Gov. TONY EVERS, state Sen. VAN WANGGAARD, and Dem operative SACHIN CHEDDA on the show.

Week Ahead

Monday: Milwaukee protest organizers to headline Newsmaker Lunch Hour.
– Noon: Online event.

Names in the News

*A Monday WisPolitics.com/Milwaukee Press Club virtual lunch hour features KHALIL COLEMAN, DESTINY MONAE AND MARIAH SMITH, three core organizers for Milwaukee protests to promote racial justice and police reform. The activists will take questions from a panel of local journalists and the audience. See more here

Former second lady JILL BIDEN and California U.S. Sen. KAMALA HARRIS and state Rep. ROBYN VINING, D-Wauwatosa, in an online event to touted the Affordable Care Act and slammed the Trump administration’s ongoing lawsuit to have the program overturned. See more later at Battleground Wisconsin 2020.

Gov. TONY EVERS has appointed Public Defender SUZANNE O’NEILL to the Marathon County Circuit Court. Evers in a statement said she brings “a wealth of experience” to the bench with her nearly 30 years of service at the State Public Defender’s Office. O’Neill, a DePaul University College of Law graduate, replaces Judge JILL FALSTAD, who announced her retirement effective July 3.  

U.S. Rep. MIKE GALLAGHER and his wife ANNE welcomed GRACE ELLEN GALLAGHER to the world this week. Grace was born on June 24, weighing 7 lbs and 3 oz. 

U.S. Sen. RON JOHNSON’s Communications Director BEN VOELKEL successfully underwent a kidney transplant procedure. 

A new book on JOE McCARTHY titled “Demagogue,” written by former Boston Globe reporter and BOBBY KENNEDY biographer LARRY TYE, debuts on July 7. Tye had exclusive access to McCarthy archives at the former Wisconsin senator’s alma mater, Marquette University. See an interview with Tye and an excerpt next month.

Former Wisconsin Public Radio Director JACK MITCHELL has been inducted into the Wisconsin Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Mitchell served as director of WPR from 1976 to 1997.

CHRIS BORGERDING, an aide to Joint Finance Committee Co-Chair JOHN NYGREN, is set to take a job as the in-house lobbyist for the Wisconsin Dental Association.

NYGREN, Rep. MARY FELZKOWSKI and Marinette Mayor STEVE GENISOT were on hand to greet President TRUMP after the president’s 13-minute flight from Green Bay to Marinette.

Lobbyist Watch

Fourteen changes were made to the lobbying registry in the past 10 days.

Follow this link for the complete list.

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