A look back at Steineke’s tenure as he announces his departure
The Assembly majority leader says he plans to seek work in the private sector
Race task force cochairs Shelia Stubbs and Jim Steineke, May 2021 | legislative photo via Facebook
Majority Leader Jim Steineke — by most accounts the friendlier and funnier half of the Assembly leadership team that also includes Speaker Robin Vos — announced Tuesday that he will finish his term, but does not plan to run for reelection in the fall.
The Kaukauna Republican served in local government as a town board chair and county supervisor before winning an Assembly seat in 2010, the start of full GOP control in Wisconsin under Gov. Scott Walker that resulted in Act 10 along with other anti-union, right-to-work and prevailing wage measures. These laws were cited by both Steineke and Vos as his top accomplishments.
“Serving as an elected representative has been one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of my life,” said Steineke in a statement announcing his decision. “However, I firmly believe the time has come to pass the torch and allow for others in our community to step forward and serve their neighbors.”
Even while serving in one of the top legislative positions, Steineke was a frequent detractor of government. “While Jim believes in the importance of the services government provides, he also believes that the scope and size of government has spiraled out of control,” states the bio on his campaign website. “Government that is closest to the people is best, and Jim believes that we must do our part to ensure that decisions are made at the lowest level of government possible. It also became clear to Jim that government’s influence on the economy is often detrimental to the interests of the people they are supposed to serve.”
Boosterism for local control did not stop Steineke, along with his GOP colleagues, from passing laws overturning municipal ordinances that differed from state laws in such areas as minimum wage and election oversight, to name a few. In addition, he is the author of a bill that would make certain that non-citizens are prohibited from voting, just in case any municipality wanted to allow that for local elections, as is permitted in San Francisco for the school board.
Despite his declared local focus he interjected himself into the dispute over policy on the U.S./Mexico border, which he and other Republicans warned was being overrun with undocumented immigrants. In May 2021 Steineke and a few other GOP legislators took a junket to the Texas border where they turned their excursions with Border Patrol agents into a video and used it to criticize Democrats.
To mark his decision not to run, Vos praised Steineke in a statement, writing, “Jim was first elected to the Assembly in 2010, a time when Wisconsin was getting national attention [for] its monumental reforms – Act 10, right-to-work, and prevailing wage. He has proven to be an essential part of moving Wisconsin forward.”
Steineke’s northeast district includes a section of Brown County and large swaths of rural Outagamie County. Previously Steineke indicated an interest in being Outagamie county executive — a position currently held by Democrat Tom Nelson who is running for U.S. Senate — but he told the Appleton Post Crescent he is no longer interested in elected office.
“I’m looking at returning to the private sector,” he told the newspaper. “That’s the takeaway at this point. I’m not sure what the next step will be. I will spend the next weeks and months figuring that out. I think my time in elected office has passed.” He added that he would consider “anything and everything that’s out there.”
Steineke’s past private sector jobs included restaurant and real estate experience and he was recognized as a local leader in the Tea Party movement. He was elected despite being dogged by a police rap sheet that included drunk driving, a hit and run and driving after revocation, but he put that swiftly behind him and rose quickly in the Assembly Republican Caucus ranks, becoming assistant majority leader in 2013 and majority leader in 2015.
Recently he co-chaired the Task Force on Race Relations with Democratic Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison), which has seen its recommendations watered down from what was proposed by Gov. Tony Evers and the Legislature’s Black Caucus. He made his own task force plan weaker once it got to the Assembly floor when it came to police use of force, infuriating his co-chair Stubbs.
The task force was created by Republicans in response to calls for racial justice that Republicans refused to act upon after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. After Kenosha resident Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by police three months later, Steineke proposed the task force in an Aug. 24, 2020 email to Vos, uncovered by Up North News, which called the issue a “political loser.”
“So this is how I see the task force,” Steineke wrote. “Leading it for anyone is probably a political loser. If you get nothing done you get hammered by the left, part of the middle and the press. You get something done you probably get some kudos from the press but the left and the right will have some issues with it.”
He volunteered to chair the task force — a role he was given a few weeks later — saying it wouldn’t hurt his political career.
“I don’t have any delusions of grandeur beyond this [Assembly] seat,” he wrote. “[County executive] maybe, but that’s it and whatever I do with this would have little impact either way. Anyone else that did it would have to be in a similar spot. And you’d have to trust them not to be too malleable or too intransigent. Tough needle to thread.”
Steineke also rejected a resolution recognizing Black History Month forwarded by Black legislators, but scheduled a resolution praising Rush Limbaugh after his death, despite the talk-radio host’s frequent racist statements. Democrats slammed Steineke for refusing to schedule any resolutions authored by Democrats after they spoke out on the Black History Month decision.
Former Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) slammed Steineke and Vos for using task forces to avoid taking action, not only on race relations, but also on water quality, suicide prevention and adoption. And he called the refusal to schedule Democratic resolutions — including recognizing LGBTQ month in June and May as Motherhood Month — “an additional tactic that is being used to bully the minority and an attempt to suppress individual members’ expression.”
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His GOP colleagues who praised Steineke on Tuesday celebrated the bipartisan bills and issues he worked on, none mentioning the race relations task force with the exception of Vos.
“Not only has he been an incredible advocate for his district, he’s championed numerous initiatives of statewide importance including sporting heritage, wetlands and homelessness,” Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton) said in her statement. “His leadership and institutional knowledge have been instrumental in successfully passing many conservative reforms over our tenure in office.”
After highlighting Act 10, right-to-work legislation, prevailing wage reforms and budget tightening, Steineke himself brought up racial equity and homelessness in the statement he put out from his office, “He’s equally proud of the work he did to expand access to mental health care for our school aged children, combat homelessness, address racial disparities, and ensure the child’s best interests are paramount when determining adoption placement.”
Steineke thanked his constituents, along with his wife and kids, for their support over the years, and will serve until whoever is elected to replace him in November is sworn in next January.
“As I refocus my efforts on returning to the private sector in the weeks and months ahead, I remain committed to doing everything in my power to advance conservative policies and serve as a check against the governor and his administration to prevent extreme ideologies from being enacted.”
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