Voting rights protesters descend on Reagan Day Dinner

‘Don’t choke my vote!’

By: - February 21, 2022 6:30 am
Sarah Weinstraub, a member of the Poor People’s Movement, speaks during the rally. A giant walking puppet of Rebecca Kleefisch stands in the background. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Sarah Weinstraub, a member of the Poor People’s Movement, speaks during the rally. A giant walking puppet of Rebecca Kleefisch stands in the background. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow a ban on ballot drop boxes during elections in April generated a backlash from voting rights advocates in the state. Organizers from the Poor People’s Campaign, Souls to the Polls, Voces de la Frontera, Fight for $15, and other activist groups showed up to raise their voices on Friday evening outside the Radisson Hotel in Wauwatosa, where the state GOP’s annual Reagan Day Dinner was underway.

“These diners at the Radisson know that we could win these elections if they played them fair,” Rev. Greg Lewis, founder of Souls to the Polls, said during the rally. “So they have to do everything they can to make it difficult for us.” Lewis spoke to a crowd of a couple of dozen protesters gathered on the sidewalk near the hotel. The crowd’s energy seemed unaffected by the heavy winds that buffeted them. Among the items created for the demonstration was a towering walking puppet in the image of Republican candidate for governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who attended the dinner at the Radisson.

The Radisson Hotel in Wauwatosa. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The Radisson Hotel in Wauwatosa. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

“The people coming to this expensive dinner tonight are people who want us to be quiet and go away,” said Lewis. “They want us to stop voting so they can control who leads our communities, our state and our nation. We will fight back every step of the way. We will win back our state and we will rebuild a society where everyone matters, everyone is cared for and everyone can flourish in their own way.”

The dropbox ban stems from a January ruling by Waukesha County Judge Michael Bohren. Bohren declared  that absentee ballot dropboxes are illegal under state law. Later the Wisconsin Court of Appeals stayed the ban. However, the stay was removed on Feb. 11 by the Supreme Court, and dropboxes will not be permitted in the April elections.  The Supreme Court has not yet decided what will become of absentee ballot dropboxes in the longer term. Sarah Weinstraub, a member of the Poor People’s Movement, introduced herself as a working mother of four. “I deserve to be able to vote freely and fairly in this election,” said Weinstraub. “That includes voting early, voting in dropboxes, registering on Election Day, and everything else that makes voting more accessible for all.”

Protesters organize against GOP voter supression efforts at the Radison Hotel, during the GOP's annual Reagan Day Dinner. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Protesters organize against GOP voter supression efforts at the Radison Hotel, during the GOP’s annual Reagan Day Dinner. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Republican lawmakers and legal groups have repeatedly accused Democrats of using absentee ballots to facilitate voter fraud. False allegations of voter fraud flow from disproven allegations that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. Recent polls show that more than half of Republican voters won’t vote for a candidate who doesn’t buy into what’s now known as Trump’s “big lie” that the election was stolen.

Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) stressed the importance of voting. “This is about our families,” said Johnson. “This is about youth, and this is about your ability to live your lives.” Johnson emphasized that, “as Milwaukee goes, so does the rest of this state.” Pointing out that Milwaukee has some of the highest rates of infant mortality, mass incarceration and morbidity for Black people, Johnson also blasted recent comments by Sen. Ron Johnson, who attended the Reagan Day dinner. “People decide to have families and become parents, that’s something they need to consider when they make that choice,” Johnson said in a January interview with WKBT. “I’ve never really felt it was society’s responsibility to take care of people’s children.”

Sen. LaTonya Johnson. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Sen. LaTonya Johnson. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Sen. LaTonya Johnson declared that the fight for equality “starts at the ballot box.” Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, highlighted the Reagan Dinner’s role in fundraising for GOP causes. “It is so important that we call out the people in the Radisson right now who are raising money to attack our rights,” said Neumann-Ortiz. “They are raising money to pluck everything that’s good and popular, such as immigration reform, restoring drivers’ licenses, fully funded education, childcare, affordable permanent housing, all of those things that the majority of people here in Milwaukee and in Wisconsin and across this country support. We are not going to let them silence us. We are standing up, we are united, we are part of a modern-day voter rights movement.”

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Christine Sinicki, interim chair of the Milwaukee Democratic Party, pointed to voter suppression efforts in the Legislature including bills that would make it illegal for people to drop off absentee ballots for a spouse or friend. Restrictions on absentee ballots affect families in a wide variety of ways, she said.

During the rally speeches, some protesters noticed hotel staff taking down license plate numbers of cars in the lot. Soon afterward, Wauwatosa officers arrived to talk to some of the demonstrators.

Outagami County Executive and senatorial candidate Tom Nelson (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Outagami County Executive and candidate for U.S. Senate Tom Nelson (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Outagami County Executive and candidate for U.S. Senate Tom Nelson declared, “We have got to stand up to these bullies, because it’s our right to vote. And not just our right to vote, but the next generation and the generation after that.” Nelson recounted that his wife, who is a cancer survivor, was unable to vote due to the pandemic. “She wasn’t going to go to a polling site because she had an immuno-compromised system and it was during the pandemic, and she didn’t get her absentee ballot until after the election,” said Nelson. While some Republican officials claim absentee ballots are a vehicle for voter fraud, many voters see their ability to cast an absentee ballot as a matter of safety.

Following the speeches, rally-goers gathered for a brief march around the hotel’s parking lot. As soon as they entered the lot however, Wauwatosa officers exited the building to direct marchers off the private property and back to the sidewalk. Later, hotel staff denied Wisconsin Examiner and other media outlets entry into the building on orders from the general manager. This was despite a police sergeant having granted permission for media to enter and talk with Johnson’s staff during the dinner itself.

Wauwatosa officers direct protesters off the Radisson's parking lot and back to the sidewalk. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Wauwatosa officers direct protesters off the Radisson’s parking lot and back to the sidewalk. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Some protesters had purchased tickets to the dinner, and live streamed the dinner on Facebook. Johnson spoke of defending conservative values. “We never thought we’d have to defend them,” said Johnson. “Who ever thought that we’d have to defend freedom? Who ever thought you had to defend the family as a foundational building block to any successful society? We just never even thought about it. But all of that’s been under assault. You talk about a culture war, we didn’t want to go to war. We didn’t start this. We just want to be left alone, to raise our family, live our life in peace and security. Use that freedom to build a life for ourselves. That’s not what the left wants.”

The protesters disrupted the dinner with a banner drop, after which they were escorted away. “You scream like a crazy person and prove all of us right about you,” one of the dinner speakers yelled over a microphone.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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