Plus, politicos once again fail to understand Wisconsin’s Senate primary.
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.
Surprise, surprise, WILL lied
A Wisconsin Watch report on the terrorism campaign in the city of Kiel revealed that the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty (WILL) lied, downplaying the incidents in a case involving young boys bullying a transgender student, in order to rile up far-right Newsmax and Fox News consumers. Throughout May and June, WILL pushed the narrative that it was suing over a Kiel Area School District Title IX investigation into some middle-school students’ misuse of pronouns. WILL attorney Luke Berg admitted to Wisconsin Watch that the case ran much deeper. Wisconsin Watch‘s Mario Koran writes:
“A Kiel music teacher’s report flagged four or five incidents between the boys and the transgender student, Berg said. “Rose Rabidoux, the mother of one of the accused boys, added that the teacher documented incidents across multiple days, not an isolated conversation in class. She acknowledged that one of the boys once ‘lashed out’ and threw food at the transgender student — none of which was revealed in initial media interviews.”
So, a group of boys repeatedly bullied a transgender student, and the school opened a Title IX investigation. This was a) the correct course of action and b) not disclosed to the public until WILL got involved. Some of the parents hired WILL to represent their children, WILL whipped up a far-right audience that is already being primed with anti-trans rhetoric, and for weeks the city of Kiel was terrorized with bomb threats. As a result, graduations, sports games, and the Memorial Day parade were all canceled, and the middle school had to close and finish the school year online.
A few years ago, as part of a trend of debunking narratives from the ’80s and ’90s, we had a collective realization about the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee incident when the HBO documentary Hot Coffee came out. Turns out Stella Liebeck, the plaintiff in the case, was not a grifter looking for a quick buck, but a grandmother who had suffered 3rd degree burns that had to be treated with multiple skin grafts. At that time, McDonald’s policy was to serve coffee at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit, at least 40 degrees hotter than any of its competitors, and liquids at that temperature can cause 3rd degree burns within seconds.
But the bigger lesson from that case, which was emphasized in an episode of debunking podcast You’re Wrong About, was that the “frivolous lawsuits” narrative was deliberately distorted and pushed by corporations and their political allies. The United States had downsized its regulatory agencies on one hand, and on the other, made it easier to sue corporations, so lawsuits became the most effective way for people who had been harmed to seek redress. And corporations curbed that avenue for redress by humiliating those people, painting them as just some schmoes out for easy money.
Plaintiffs can’t speak out about active litigation without endangering their cases, and defendants have every incentive to downplay the reason they’re being sued or investigated. So when a big, powerful corporation like McDonald’s or a cynical far-right law firm like WILL says a case is so frivolous you won’t believe it, don’t. Be very, very skeptical.
It’s too late to undo the harm to Liebeck, who died in 2004, but it’s not too late for the city of Kiel, and the Kiel Area School District. Hopefully, it’s also not too late for the kid at the center of all this. So the question now should be, what will be the consequences for WILL?
Don’t forget about the Bern
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday endorsed Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes’ run for the U.S. Senate and the politicos, pretending they understand Wisconsin politics, came out of the woodwork saying there’s no way that Barnes could possibly win now against Sen. Ron Johnson.
Outsiders tend to see Wisconsin’s purple politics and assume we’re a state chock-full of moderates who can be swayed one way or the other, depending on which candidate is the most moderate. (In all fairness, plenty of politicians and commentators in Wisconsin suffer from this misconception as well.) And it’s an assumption that loses elections.
For example, in the 2016 primary, Bernie won Wisconsin. And he didn’t just squeak by: Sanders received 570,192 votes over Hillary Clinton’s 433,739. That’s 56% over 42%. Sanders won every county in Wisconsin except for Milwaukee County. Then in the general election, Clinton went on to lose the state to Donald Trump, 1,405,284 to 1,382,539.
Let’s go back even further to 2012, when pundits said Tammy Baldwin was too liberal to win against former Gov. Tommy Thompson. She went on to win 1,547,104 votes over Thompson’s 1,380,126—51.4% to 49.5%.
And yet this is a lesson that centrist Democrats refuse to learn: if you pick a good progressive candidate, they will energize the base and boost voter turnout. When you run middling centrists, you lose the infrequent Democratic voters, and there’s no evidence that you’re skimming off conservative voters.
That assumption has plagued Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson’s campaign in the Democratic Senate primary. During Sunday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, Nelson opened by touting his record winning elections in Outagamie County. But Outagamie County is not Wisconsin.
There’s definitely a valuable place in state politics for someone like Nelson. He first announced his candidacy with a fun, folksy, dad-joke video about funding his campaign with a garage sale. And he’s a policy wonk in a political world where candidates are discouraged from making detailed promises in case they can’t fulfill them. The result is that so many candidates make similarly vague statements to an electorate that is hungry for action, so Nelson’s knack for detailed plans could have been refreshing.
But going from the executive of a midsize county to U.S. Senator is quite a jump. With his experience in Outagamie, Nelson could have flipped an Assembly or Senate seat in the statehouse, or put up a good fight for one of the Congressional seats Dems have written off this cycle.
Instead he’s dug in, and as the race has heated up, his vibe has shifted from folksy Midwestern dad to entitled bitter uncle. One of the highlights of Sunday’s debate was when Nelson tried to go after State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski for not voting in 2016. Godlewski has said she wasn’t sure if she met the residency requirement at the time, and pointed out that she quit her job to organize for Clinton.
Godlewski shot back that she wouldn’t “be lectured by men” about the importance of voting, the 2016 election, and abortion access. Girl, same. And I bet I’m not alone.