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A Wisconsin politics scandal that is and one that isn’t

Recent news cycles around Tim Michels and Mandela Barnes demonstrate that not all political dirt is created equal.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

Recent news cycles around Tim Michels and Mandela Barnes demonstrate that not all political dirt is created equal.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

Just admit you’re deeply regressive, Tim

During the Wisconsin GOP primary earlier this year, Tim Michels came across as the (relatively) mild option compared to Rebecca Kleefisch and Tim Ramthun. When asked about the 2020 election, Michels waffled that he “had some questions” but that it was time to move on. He took almost every opportunity to veer off course and talk about his military service and running a business. 

The most extreme stance he took was in opposition to “red flag” laws, which would allow courts to temporarily confiscate someone’s firearms if they’re proven to be a danger to themselves and others. The proposal has broad support nationwide, including among Republicans and gun owners.

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But overall, Michels presented himself as relatively moderate, maybe even boring. Maybe that was by design.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published an investigation last week into the charitable donations of the Timothy and Barbara Michels Family Foundation, which lists Michels and his wife Barbara as the sole trustees. In 2020, the foundation donated $250,000 to anti-abortion and anti-LGBT organizations, including Pro-Life Wisconsin, which advocates for a total ban on abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest, or a “perceived threat to the mother’s life or health,” as well as a ban on “artificial” forms of birth control. Whatever that means.

In a bullet-point list of smaller contributions is the Milwaukee Veritas Society, which claims to have developed technology to capture the cell phone ID’s of anyone who enters an abortion clinic, and then sent anti-abortion ads to their social media. Veritas says they successfully did this at the Milwaukee Planned Parenthood clinic. If those claims are true it raises a whole host of questions on privacy, particularly since Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health rescinded a woman’s right to abortion acces. 

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The Michels’ campaign’s response was full-Trump, decrying the “dishonest media” for criticizing the foundation’s “charitable giving.” 

In the press release, the misdirection went on: “Assaulting the reputations of Catholic nuns, some of the largest churches in Wisconsin, and even cancer research is shameful, and the people of Wisconsin should not tolerate this disgusting, anti-religious bigotry.” Michels went on to tell a right-wing radio host that people should “be ready to get out on the streets with pitchforks and torches with how low the liberal media has become”—another instance of Republicans dangerously escalating their long-held contempt for a free press.

Tim: you, and me, all of your staff, and frankly everyone else knows that the issue wasn’t your donations to cancer research or Catholic nuns, or even religious organizations. You could have donated to Christian organizations that run soup kitchens, provide veterans services, resettle refugees, shelter the homeless, or any community service—and are not anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion, and anti-birth control. But you didn’t. In fact, you donated to organizations that are laser-focused on trying to deny people their rights. 

Furthermore, this whole thing wouldn’t have been such a big deal if Michels’ campaign hadn’t spent months dodging questions and downplaying social issues. I emailed his campaign and asked detailed questions about his stance on on abortion, birth control, and LGBTQ rights. As of publication, I have not received a response.

Tell the people of Wisconsin where you stand and what you would be willing to sign into law if they elect you Governor. If you’re willing to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to these organizations, why not just put your mouth where your money is? 

Manufacturing a Mandela Barnes scandal

We’ve got another two months until the midterm election on November 8 and the Journal-Sentinel‘s Daniel Bice is already scraping the barrel for dirt on Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. The latest article was about Barnes’ security detail, but fails to mention that the State Patrol’s Dignitary Protection Unit makes those decisions—not Barnes—until the third subhead. 

But even after acknowledging that Barnes does not make these decisions, Bice quotes Alec Zimmerman, the spokesperson for Barnes’ opponent, Sen. Ron Johnson, saying it is “hypocritical” for Barnes “to use the State Patrol as his own Uber service.” Zimmerman also goes on to falsely claim that Barnes supports defunding police.

Why is Bice framing this story as Barnes potentially misusing taxpayer dollars when Barnes does not make decisions about his security detail, and when the context Republicans use to frame this as hypocritical is completely built on lies? The real story here is that the political climate has become so hostile and dangerous that the State Patrol believes Wisconsin’s first Black Lieutenant Governor needs this much security. They’re not chauffeuring and buying him coffee; they are trying to keep him safe. 

Of course, this comes from Bice, the same “political watchdog” who whined that Barnes won’t take questions from him after he wrote about Barnes saying that chattel slavery and the genocide of Native Americans was bad, and in 2019, broke the sensational scandal of Barnes’ $108 in unpaid parking tickets. Maybe Barnes would trust Bice enough to answer questions if Bice weren’t consistently turning trivial things into outrage fodder for his opponent. 

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Meanwhile Johnson tried to have a field day with this story by posting an awkward video of himself driving an SUV that costs twice what the average Wisconsinite earns annually onto a golf course. You know, to be relatable. 

Johnson’s legislative record consists of giving himself and his rich friends tax cuts, trying to give fake electors to former Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election, and recently Johnson “stepped on a political landmine” by saying he wants to make Social Security and Medicare discretionary spending. 

But what’s really frustrating is that other news outlets are now picking up the security detail story, some more responsibly than others. Wisconsin Public Radio had the sense to make the subhead, “[Johnson] accused Barnes of abusing taxpayer money, though Barnes doesn’t make security decisions,” stick with that framing and then pivot to Johnson’s proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare. But not all outlets are that careful, and the result is that this “scandal,” which should never have been framed as a scandal in the first place, will linger even longer.

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