Task force is “not a substitute for action,” on racial justice, but it “is what we have”

Co-chairs: Stubbs stresses urgency and action, Steineke stresses bipartisanship

Co chairs of the new task force on policing and racial justice Rep. Jim Steineke and Rep. Shelia Stubbs hold a press conference. 9/8/20
Co chairs of the new task force on policing and racial justice Rep. Jim Steineke and Rep. Shelia Stubbs hold a press conference. 9/8/20

Rep. Shelia Stubbs marched in the streets after the police killing of George Floyd and the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha. At protests of police brutality and racial disparities in Wisconsin she was often handed a microphone. It is safe to say her rallying cry was not, “Let’s form another task force to report back next year!”

“Wisconsin is in a state of crisis, it is an urgency, it is an emergency, that we must tackle racial disparities in our state,” the Democrat from Madison said on Tuesday. She was addressing reporters after Speaker Robin Vos announced she will join Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kakauna) as co-chair of the Legislature’s new racial disparities task force. As pressure built on state elected leaders to act after the shootings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Vos announced he would appoint a task force.

Task forces have been formed to look into issues surrounding racism, inequality and criminal justice since at least as far back as 1919.

Rep. Shelia Stubbs at news conference on 9/8/20
Rep. Shelia Stubbs at news conference on 9/8/20

But Stubbs indicated that trying to make change through Vos’ task force is what she’s left with for now. The Legislative Black Caucus and Gov. Tony Evers proposed bills to address the issues in June — many of which had been around and ignored by Republican leaders for years — and the governor called a special session around those bills that got gaveled in and then ignored last week.

“Let me be clear, this task force is not a substitute for action,” Stubbs said Tuesday. “And it is not the solution, but it is a step forward.” She added, “Let’s be clear we already know what the problems are. We already have bills that have been in this Capitol that have been introduced for years. It’s coming to the table and [having] everyone agree to move forward with the consensus. As you can see, now we are stuck. … Our governor did the best he could do with the authority that he had and right now, this is what we have.”

The session remains technically open, which Steineke indicated will not change, although he said no action is planned, rendering the special session meaningless. 

The Stubbs and Steineke joint appearance at the news conference was cordial and cooperative, each indicating they are invested in finding positive, bipartisan outcomes. But their words tell disparate stories.

Immediate action

The situation for Black Wisconsinites, asserted Stubbs, is urgent, a crisis and an emergency. 

“We cannot allow another Black person to be shot or killed,” she said. “Racism is a public health crisis. It has plagued the Black community for far too long. We need to address the systemic racism and injustice with action — not with speeches, not with press conferences, but with action.”

Steineke said an “urgent and aggressive” schedule would be taking the next weeks to find community members and give their names to Vos for his consideration, and “then we’re hoping to have our first task force meeting late September early October … meeting every two to three weeks after that.” 

He took umbrage at a media query on whether meeting once every two or three weeks showed real urgency, calling it an editorial comment. His end goal, he added, is to “hopefully have that bipartisan package of bills, ready to go” for the next legislative session, which does not begin until January 2021.

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Racism and disparities in Wisconsin

Stubbs spent most of her time at the news conference talking about what is driving the need for reform. She was armed with statistics illustrating disparities in Wisconsin: Blacks make up 7% of the population, but 44% of the prison population, the Black four-year graduation rate is 22.5% lower than that of white students and the median annual income of a Black family is less than half that of a white family.

“Wisconsin is the worst place to raise a Black family. That is unacceptable. That is shameful,” said Stubbs “ This is unacceptable and our community deserves better. Racism is a public health crisis. It has plagued the black community for far too long.”

She said topics addressed in the Black Caucus/Evers bills had to be on the agenda, including banning choke holds, racial profiling and excessive use of force by police.

Majority Leader Jim Steineke at news conference on 9/8/20.
Majority Leader Jim Steineke at news conference on 9/8/20.

Steineke’s comments were focused on bipartisanship and working together. “That’s how we show not only the state, but the nation, that government isn’t completely broken, that Republicans and Democrats still can work together on the big issues of the day to get things done to make significant change in people’s lives.”

“And that’s really what the goal of the task force is, is to bring people together,” said Steineke.

He made no mention of racism, police reform, inequality, specific policies, Jacob Blake or the disparities faced by communities of color.

“It’s what we have”

Stubbs’ summary of the task force as the only avenue she sees open was not a ringing endorsement, but she vowed that she would not waste her time on something meaningless. Here is what the news conference and today’s press releases revealed about the upcoming task force: 

  • Unlike many previous task forces that have been told they have a budget of a certain number of dollars, some in the millions, to address their focal issue, this task force has not been allocated any budget, according to Steineke, who pointed to budget problems tied to COVID-19 to say that  resources are tight, but, he added, “those are conversations we’re going to have to have at some point.”
  • This will be the first task force that is not comprised solely of state officials. It will include community members who send a resume and a “statement of interest” to  [email protected]. People may also nominate members through Sept. 18.
  • Stubbs said that public members will include community organizers, nonprofit groups, faith-based groups, and law enforcement. 
  • Bills that will be on the table for consideration will include those from the Legislative Black Caucus, other legislative bills, laws in other states, bills proposed by the Wisconsin Professional Police Association. and potential new bills from legislators.  
  • The mission of the task force, according to Stubbs’ release is: “To end racial disparities that exist at every age and in every aspect of a person’s life across the State of WI. We will work to close gaps that are present in far too many aspects of the lives of people of color by turning community voices into actionable legislation.”
  • Senators may — or may not — participate.
  • There will be an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, according to Stubbs, but community members will outnumber elected representatives.
  • Vos said the committee “will focus on racial disparities, educational opportunities, public safety, and police policies and standards.”