Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz calls Majority Leader Jim Steineke’s statements regarding the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities “offensive and appalling.”
On Wednesday, an email that Steineke sent to Speaker Robin Vos in August, suggesting that Vos set up the group and appoint him to lead it, was reported by Up North News. The email had been sent using personal accounts of Steineke and Vos, but because Vos forwarded it to a legislative employee; it subsequently turned up in an open records request by the outlet.
The email indicates that the task force was being used by the Republican leaders to gain political points, labeling the issue of racial disparities a “political loser.”
Hintz says that it was shocking to read the email, but it confirmed the skepticism he and other Democrats suspected at the time: that in response to the outcry of the international Black Lives Matter movement and protesters, the Republicans were looking for window dressing over action. The email was sent one day after Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey.
As a co-chair for the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities, I’m proud of the bipartisan work we’re doing. Our 33-person membership has held meetings around WI, & succeeded in finding areas of consensus. I look forward to continuing to make progress on this important issue. pic.twitter.com/l9iaR9PeuQ
— Rep. Jim Steineke (@RepSteineke) February 3, 2021
Steineke responded to the email being made public by alleging that there were indications that the Democrats would not even participate in the process and claiming he wanted to lead the task force to avoid political grandstanding.
“When I agreed to be a co-chair for the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities, I knew we would have our work cut out for us in terms of finding common ground in what has sometimes been a very divisive issue,” Steineke said in a statement. “Through our diverse 33-person membership and in meetings held around the state, we have succeeded in finding areas of consensus and are hopeful that these will translate into real differences for equity in our state. I’m proud of the bipartisan work we’re doing, and look forward to continuing making progress on this important issue.”
In the email to Vos proposing the task force, however, Steineke stated: “Worst case scenario, we show a willingness to work on these issues and make the Democrats say no to things.”
“When you don’t want to act, you put forward a study group,” says Hintz. “I think it’s important to point out here though, that that’s pretty much the model put forward for all of the task forces the speaker has ever done. A speaker’s task force essentially should be titled, ‘Give the Appearance That You’re Doing Something Without Ever Doing Something.” In a press release, Hintz’ office cited the speaker’s task forces created in 2019 and 2020:
- Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality (announced 1/3/19)
- Speaker’s Task Force on Suicide Prevention (announced 3/6/19)
- Speaker’s Task Force on Adoption (announced 5/14/19)
- Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities (announced 8/24/20)
According to staff calculations by the Hintz’ office, the first three task forces produced and recommended 30 bills, of which two became law.
Vos and Steineke had promised swift action by the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities when unveiling the task force in public The Steineke email indicated an intention to slow down action on racial disparities rather than acting on bills that Gov. Tony Evers, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and the Legislative Black Caucus put forward in June 2020. The Republicans in both houses refused to come into a special session called by Evers to address racial disparities and police reform.
“My proposal is for us to sit down and figure out some guardrails. Things we could give on, things we wouldn’t,” wrote Steineke. “Then I’d sketch out a plan on how to proceed, making sure it takes some time but yet there will be enough activity to show progress.”
To date, no legislation has been unveiled. Wisconsin has among the worst racial disparities in the nation.
Since the current legislative session began on Jan. 4, the Assembly Republicans have been focused on legislation banning mask orders. They also have rejected two compromise bills on COVID relief, but are expected to take up a partisan version on Thursday, and send it — along with the resolution overturning the public health mask order — back to the state Senate for possible action later this month.
Another issue Vos has discussed as a top priority and advanced in January is examining potential fraud and issues from the Nov. 3 presidential election. Those bills, which he said would be public and voted on in February, have not moved forward at this point.
Hintz says Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison), who co-chairs the racial disparities group with Steineke, recently told him she was pleased with the dedicated work by participants — a diverse group nominated by both parties and approved by Vos.
“The exercise and the participants certainly have created an opportunity to produce something,” says Hintz. “But at the end of the day, if you don’t see it through, if the recommendations and the legislation that comes out of those task forces isn’t being signed into law, then it is really just window dressing.”