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Who the hell is Tim Michels?

Tony Evers’ challenger shifts from a relatively bland primary campaign to an unsavory far-right mess.
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.

Tony Evers’ challenger shifts from a relatively bland primary campaign to an unsavory far-right mess.

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.

For years, the primary-to-general election pivot has become so commonplace it’s almost expected. A candidate lets their freak flag fly, showing their bona fides to energize the hyperpartisan base for the primary, but once they’re the nominee they tone it down, soften some of their hard edges, and roll back some of the more extreme messaging to court the ever-elusive (and probably imaginary) centrist swing voter.

Whether Tim Michels’ gubernatorial campaign likes it or (probably) not, his trajectory has been the opposite. The latest chapter was a rally in Green Bay on Sunday before the Packers’ home opening game against the Chicago Bears. The timing raised eyebrows and shook heads, but maybe it was deliberate. 

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A sponsor display for the Stoughton Opera House.

After all, who’s going to skip out on tailgating and prime Wisconsin football to listen to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Michels, Sen. Ron Johnson, and U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, other than the most die-hard Republicans? Especially considering it was just revealed that DeSantis spent $615,000 to traffick asylum seekers with false promises of food, housing, and financial support from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard for a cruel political stunt.

“Everything we’ve done in Florida, you will be able to do in Wisconsin and then some,” DeSantis told the crowd. Because if there’s one state with a stellar reputation we all want to emulate, it’s definitely Florida

Which is probably why Michels felt he could cut loose and give a “shoutout to Tim Ramthun,” according to Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Molly Beck. Ramthun, who represents District 59 in the Wisconsin assembly, also ran in the primary solely on the platform of decertifying the 2020 election which, AGAIN, is not a thing. Anyway, Michels, who said during the Republican primary debate that he wanted to “move on” from the 2020 election—while still embracing the overall narrative around the right’s Big Lie—now says he’ll consider decertifying.

Michels also said he would sign into law bills that Gov. Tony Evers has vetoed during his term. Michels didn’t name any specific bills, but Evers has vetoed bills that would make it harder to vote, ban transgender children from participating in school sports that align with their identity, micromanage public health responses to COVID-19, and cut state funding to municipalities if they reduce their police budgets, all while the legislature continues to squeeze municipalities by refusing to raise state funding and limiting what local governments can collect from taxpayers.

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And given what we’ve learned about Michels since the primary, none of those bills would seem to be off the table. Michels ran on his military service and business experience and kept his stances on social issues close to the vest, for good reason. The donations from his foundation, as reported by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, indicate Michels is far more anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ than the average Wisconsin voter. 

As I wrote in the September 7 edition of Capitol Punishments, Michels donated to Pro-Life Wisconsin, which not only advocates for a total ban on abortion with no exceptions, but even advocates banning “artificial” birth control. He also donated to the Milwaukee Veritas Society, which claims to have developed technology to scrape the personal cell phone information of people entering abortion clinics. 

Michels touts his experience at Michels Corporation, which he and his brothers inherited from their father, as evidence of his leadership capability. This part of his pitch is also going sour.

“We know at Michels Corporation if you take care of people, good things will happen,” Michels said during his primary victory speech in August. “And as governor, my number one priority is to take care of the hard-working people of Wisconsin.”

His workers may have a different story to tell. Just yesterday, CBS 58 reported the company has faced five lawsuits from 1998 to 2020 alleging workers were subjected to sexual assault, racial discrimination, and a hostile work environment.  

“Federal court documents reveal three former female employees separately sued Michels Corporation in 1998, and twice in 2012, claiming they faced repeated verbal and at times physical abuse, and some were pressured to have sex with male coworkers,” CBS reported. “The company was also sued by workers who were Black, most recently in 2020, over allegations of racial hostility including a report of a noose found near a jobsite.”

Go read the full article, because the details of the cases are disturbing. But what’s more disturbing is that the incidents alleged in the lawsuits take place over two decades. Any large company is going to have bad actors; the real test is whether that behavior is nipped in the bud or allowed to fester and push out workers.

It’s also telling that Michels’ campaign declined to comment and instead told reporters to approach the company. It’s a campaign that loves to talk about a limited number of things and then is extremely tight-lipped about others. What else isn’t he telling us?

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