Commentary

Ron Johnson is crazy like a fox

Known for tinfoil hat conspiracy theories, Johnson practices old-fashioned politics

February 10, 2022 6:30 am
"Ron Johnson" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Ron Johnson (Gage Skidmore | CC BY-SA 2.0 CC BY-SA 2.0

Today’s  Republican Party, with the exception of Mitch McConnell — who, god help us, is now  the GOP’s voice of reason — appears to have given up on the idea of representing mainstream voters. 

The lunatic fringe of the Republican party in Wisconsin has three candidates for governor so far — Rep. Timothy Ranthum (R-Campbellsport), who wants to recall Wisconsin’s electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election, former marine Kevin Nicholson, who, in his announcement, compared himself to Donald Trump, and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who wants to abolish the Wisconsin Elections Commission and launched her campaign with a video featuring apocalyptic scenes of destruction in Kenosha, reminiscent of Trump’s dystopian  “American carnage” inaugural address.

Where is the candidate for normal people? What has become of the happy-go-lucky, country club Republicans of yore, who just wanted to make more money, pay less in taxes, and sip their martinis on the golf course without worrying their pretty heads about unpleasant matters like racism, inequality and climate change?

Our own Sen. Ron Johnson, who is running for re-election in one of the most high profile Senate races in the country, is a fascinating example of GOP wingnuttery.

Johnson became famous for downplaying the Jan. 6 insurrection even before the RNC declared that the rioting cop killers in the Capitol were merely practicing “legitimate political discourse.” He organized press conferences to warn people that getting vaccinated could have dire health consequences and has spent much of the pandemic touting the merits of horse dewormer and other unproven COVID remedies

But Johnson jumped the shark this week when he told people in his hometown that he won’t fight for them to get 1,000 good-paying manufacturing jobs building the next generation of U.S. Postal Service delivery trucks. Bringing home the bacon to your district is Standard Operating Procedure for a U.S. Senator of any political stripe. 

Outside the fever swamps of election conspiracies and COVID-19 quackery, you would think GOP leaders would still want to do what they can to bring good jobs and economic development to their own constituents.

Local civic leaders celebrated six months ago when Oshkosh Defense, a division of Oshkosh Corp., won a $6 billion contract to build a new fleet of U.S. Postal Service vehicles — a project that would have created 1,000 good-paying, union jobs in Oshkosh, where Johnson has his home. 

But then the company announced it was sending all those jobs to South Carolina, where it is building a large plant to be staffed by a cheaper, nonunion workforce.

When he was asked about the issue, Johnson said he would not push for Oshkosh Defense to keep the jobs in Wisconsin. And then he went even further. “It’s not like we don’t have enough jobs here in Wisconsin. The biggest problem we have in Wisconsin right now is employers not being able to find enough workers,” Johnson said.

Unlike Wisconsin’s other Senator, Tammy Baldwin, who has been working feverishly to get Oshkosh Corp. to reconsider and keep the jobs in Wisconsin, Johnson told reporters, “I wouldn’t insert myself to demand that anything be manufactured here using federal funds in Wisconsin.”

What the heck does he think people elected him for?

“Obviously, I’m supportive of it,” Johnson said limply, of the idea of Oshkosh Corp. bringing more good manufacturing jobs to the area he represents. “But in the end, I think when using federal tax dollars, you want to spend those in the most efficient way and if it’s more efficient, more effective, to spend those in other states, I don’t have a real problem with that.”

A lot of other people have a problem with it, though.

The whole field of Democrats who are running against Johnson immediately jumped on his comments. Johnson “doesn’t give a sh*t about Wisconsin workers,” state treasurer and Democratic candidate for Senate Sarah Godlewski tweeted.

Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson sent a letter to Sen.Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, and Sen. Gary Peters, chair of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee,  asking them to amend the U.S. Postal Reform Act to ensure that new vehicles are fully electric and are made in Wisconsin by Wisconsin workers. Lasry’s campaign released a statement calling Johnson’s remarks “just another example of how out of touch he is with Wisconsinites.”

“It isn’t just about jobs — and this is where someone like Ron Johnson really gets it wrong,” Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh), who has represented the city in the Wisconsin Legislature for 15 years, said in a press conference reacting to the news. “It’s about quality jobs. It’s about good paying jobs. The people of the state of Wisconsin and the people in Oshkosh aren’t widgets.” Good, union manufacturing jobs built a stable middle class in Oshkosh, Hintz explained, adding, “It’s what’s really made us more recession-proof than a lot of other communities.”

Plus, Oshkosh Corp.’s plans to build a big, new South Carolina facility “kind of sets off alarms for me,” Hintz said. “Maybe it isn’t just about the postal vehicles. Maybe it’s about shifting further production down there.”

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is leading the pack of Johnson’s challengers, joined Hintz in a press conference to explain exactly what’s wrong with Johnson’s vision of a more “efficient” economy that ships manufacturing jobs out of Wisconsin. 

“The men and women at UAW local 578, they’ve been building the highest quality vehicles for the Oshkosh Corp. for nearly 100 years,” said Barnes. “Now they’re denying jobs to Wisconsin workers because they don’t want to pay for skilled union labor.”

 “This is personal for me,” Barnes added, explaining that his dad is a UAW member who spent 30 years on the assembly line making catalytic converters. “The factory where my dad worked is a strip mall today,” Barnes said. “ If Ron Johnson had his way, that will  be the future for all manufacturing in Wisconsin.”

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Johnson, Barnes said, “wouldn’t mind shipping all of our jobs out of the state as long as it was good for the bottom line for his corporate donors.”

And that’s where Johnson’s vision of “efficiency” comes into clearer focus. When he says he won’t “second guess” the Oshkosh Corp. and that it might be better for it to send all those good  jobs that were headed to Wisconsin to another state, it turns out Johnson is not being nutty. He’s just weighing the interests of his constituents against the interests of his donors.

According to campaign finance data available on OpenSecrets.org, Johnson has taken $66,652 from Oshkosh Corp., including from PACs and individual donors, over the course of his career. In the last election cycle, Oshkosh Corp. was Johnson’s sixth biggest donor, with PACs and individuals contributing a total of $50,039

Oshkosh Corporation Executive Vice President James W. Johnson gave Johnson $500 in 2016. Oshkosh Corp. board member Craig P. Omtvedt gave $2,000 to Johnson in 2016. Another Oshkosh Corp. board membe,r John S. Sheily, gave $6,400 to Johnson’s 2010 and 2016 campaigns. 

By helping Oshkosh Corp. ship good-paying manufacturing jobs out of the state he represents, Johnson is protecting the company’s profits at the expense of Wisconsin workers. That’s not crazy. It’s just an old-fashioned political quid pro quo.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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