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We’re paying Wisconsin Republicans to lie about bail and everything else

Drawing a line from Ron Johnson’s tax-cut votes to the 2022 campaign’s merciless attack ads.
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.

Drawing a line from Ron Johnson’s tax-cut votes to the 2022 campaign’s merciless attack ads.

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.

Looks like Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson’s singular legislative accomplishment during his 12 years in office is paying off this election cycle. 

A tax cut for “pass-through” companies Johnson personally pushed to add to the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act saved Dick and Liz Uihlein (of Uline) $43 million and Diane Hendricks (of ABC Supply) $35 million in 2018 alone. Now they’re repaying Johnson by footing the bill for the wave of negative ads about Johnson’s opponent, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, that have inundated Wisconsin.

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In August WisPolitics reported that Wisconsin Truth PAC had spent $10.7 million since the start of the year, and based on all of the ads popping up it doesn’t look like it’s slowing. A Forbes article from August, titled “Meet the Wisconsin Billionaire Spending Big to Keep Ron Johnson in the Senate,” reported the Uihleins contributed $4 million to the PAC and Hendricks gave $6.5 million. Another familiar face from my great home state of Kansas, Charles Koch of Koch Industries, gave $6.5 million to another PAC, Americans for Prosperity Action, which spent $2.8 million to support Johnson. 

Also, let’s have a little sidebar on “tax cuts.” I put those in quotes because the 2017 bill didn’t create any efficiencies to reduce the cost of running the government. It just shifted the burden of who has to pay for it. Billionaires like the Uihleins and Hendricks, who frankly don’t need the extra cash, get to pocket more money and guess who has to pick up the slack to keep everything running. Everyone else, including me and you. So in a roundabout way, we helped pay for those attack ads. 

And they are some nasty pieces of work. But what’s more frustrating is the hedging from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in the headline “Supporters of Mandela Barnes accuse Republicans of airing racist ads in Senate race with Ron Johnson.” In 2022 it’s self-parody to say that “some people claim this is racist,” as if no one with two brain cells to rub together couldn’t immediately see that it is. There’s nothing ambiguous about showing Barnes with a group of Black and brown politicians with ominous text saying Barnes is “different” and “dangerous.” Stop indulging Republicans’ willful denials of racism.

On top of that, the Willie Horton-esque claims about Barnes, bail reform, and Darrell Brooks—the man who is on trial for the Waukesha parade attack—are not only untrue, they are the opposite of the truth. 

The claim is the bail reform Barnes supports would have allowed Brooks to be released. The reality is that Brooks was released under the terms of our current cash bail system, where it doesn’t matter how dangerous a suspect is if they have enough money. As Wisconsin Watch pointed out in July, our cash bail system isn’t designed to protect public safety. Bail reform would mean that judges would decide whether or not a suspect can be released based on the risk they pose to the public. 

If implemented properly, it means that suspects judges deem dangerous would remain in jail regardless of how much money is in their bank account, and low-income, low-level, nonviolent suspects would no longer languish in jail solely due to their inability to post bond. In other words, what Barnes proposes would be a modest adjustment to a system riddled with pervasive violence and bias.

It’s the principle behind the “Pretrial Fairness Act” Illinois passed and will implement at the beginning of 2023. Given all the hysteria around Chicago’s crime rate, it’s sad but not surprising that the act is being weaponized and has snowballed into a misinformation campaign against bail reform. 

You would think we could agree that bail should be based on whether a suspect is potentially dangerous, not whether they have money. Instead it’s just another page added to the “Dems are weak on crime” playbook. Another way to “stick it to the libs” that benefits no one. 

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