Seizing on tragedy, Republicans seem determined to make things worse

May 18, 2022 6:45 am
BUFFALO, NEW YORK - MAY 15: People visit a makeshift memorial outside of Tops market on May 15, 2022 in Buffalo. A gunman opened fire at the store killing ten people and wounding another three. The attack was believed to be motivated by racial hatred. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

BUFFALO, NEW YORK – MAY 15: People visit a makeshift memorial outside of Tops market on May 15, 2022 in Buffalo. A gunman opened fire at the store killing ten people and wounding another three. The attack was believed to be motivated by racial hatred. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

There is no shortage of godawful news to turn into fodder for this year’s political campaigns. True to form, Wisconsin Republicans are preparing for their political convention this weekend by putting out statements seeking to one-up each other in a game of Who’s the Toughest in response to the shootings last Friday night outside the Bucks stadium in Milwaukee.

Seizing on the shootings of 21 people (no deaths have been reported so far) in a crowd of revelers gathered for Game 6 of the NBA playoffs, former Lt. Gov. and current gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch rushed to the Deer District outside the Bucks arena. Referring to the area as the “fear district,” she announced that “we need Milwaukee to be a safe place for families” and promised to fire Democratic Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and hire 1,000 new cops around the state.

Not to be outdone, Kleefisch’s opponent in the Republican gubernatorial primary,  construction company owner Tim Michels, declared that if elected governor he, too, will fire Chisholm, hire more prosecutors, increase penalties for felons caught with guns and build a new $350 million prison. Michels even took it a step further, laying out a campaign platform that sounds like a plan to impose martial law. He cited last year’s riot in Kenosha following the police shooting of Jacob Blake and declared he would create a special counsel to bring civil actions against anyone participating in a riot, promised to start a special prosecutors’ unit to address mob violence, and proposed targeting future protests with a quick-reaction force within the National Guard. 

We’re sure to hear more of this sort of law-and-order rhetoric at the state GOP convention. What we won’t hear are calls to address gun violence by getting guns off the streets. (The convention is listed on the state party’s website along with the other GOP events coming up this weekend: gun shows in Barron, Mukwanago and New Lisbon.)

Ald. Robert Bauman, who represents much of downtown Milwaukee, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that local business owners and police say the bar scene is scary because “everybody has a gun.” When police confront belligerent drunks, “They’re outgunned, by far,” Bauman says.

But Republicans have no plans to do anything about that. When Gov. Tony Evers called a special session to address gun violence in November 2019, the Republicans thumbed their noses and refused to participate. That angered state Sen. La Tonya Johnson, who attended the funeral of a 10-year-old girl killed in crossfire on an elementary school playground in her district, and who has watched the devastating effect on families as gun violence spirals out of control.

“Until I start hearing more than lip service from the same people responsible for starving my city of revenue and making it a dumping ground for illegal guns, you’ll have to forgive me for disbelieving the [B.S.] and phony concerns from Republicans who have chosen not to act time and time again,” Johnson said in a statement.

“The dangerous opposition from Republicans to common sense gun safety legislation has allowed guns to continue to flow into the hands of those who shouldn’t have them,” Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) agrees. Republican refusal to even consider closing gun loopholes and reduce the number of guns on the street makes their efforts to stoke outrage about gun violence look deeply cynical. 

That’s bad enough. But the other mass shooting last weekend, in Buffalo, New York, makes it clear that the GOP’s divisive, us-versus-them talk is also dangerous. Their rhetoric, increasingly drawing on fringe conspiracy theories to stir up resentment and anger, is lighting a match and tossing it on the pile of loose weapons they’ve unleashed on the land.

As the New York Times reports, Republicans who promote a pro-Trump, Fox News view of the world are increasingly spreading once marginal memes including “replacement theory” — the toxic, white nationalist notion that Jews and people of color are actively trying to push white people out of their jobs, homes and secure positions in society. The same politicians who are running on law and order (and more guns on the street) are fanning the racist paranoia that stirs up domestic terrorist attacks.  

Our Trump-captive state Republicans are not making an explicit call for race war. But they know they are courting something deeply ugly with their racially tinged talking points about cracking down on Milwaukee and Black Lives Matter protesters. Even the nasty swipes from Republican legislative leaders at the new UW-Madison chancellor, Jennifer Mnookin, who was chosen unanimously by bipartisan appointees on the Board of Regents, shows how the Republicans are hell bent on sowing alienation and discord. 

Instead, what they ought to do at their political convention this week is distance themselves from murderous white supremacist ideology and put forward some constructive ideas for actually governing.

Sadly the only Republican in the state who appears interested in doing that is no longer running for office. 

On Friday, May 6, at the Milwaukee Press Club’s annual Gridiron awards dinner, former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson lamented his choice not to run in a speech accepting the press club’s Headliner Award. “Everybody knows I wanted to run for governor. It’s not a very big secret,” he sighed.

In his trademark self-deprecating style, he joked about the two-hour meeting he held with his children, their spouses, and his grandchildren, emerging with only one vote in favor of his plan to run again — his own.

It was a strange feeling, he told the assembled Wisconsin press corps, “because tonight I was going to talk to you about how I was going to run my campaign.”

“I’m one of those individuals that believe you run as a Republican, an R, in the campaign. You run as a D, a Democrat. But I believe after you win the election, you belong to the W party — the winning Wisconsin party. And I do not understand the acrimony and the partisanship and the absolute vitriol that’s going on in modern day politics,” he said.

Thompson’s campaign was going to be different. He was going to run as an “independent Republican,” riding his bicycle from Superior to Milwaukee and stopping in communities along the way, “to ask the people of this state, what are your ideas? What would make the city of Rhinelander better? What could we do with Green Bay to make Green Bay the best that it possibly could be? And how do we make this state the best?”

“And that’s what I think is wrong in politics,” Thompson added. “We don’t run on ideas. We run on partisanship and how do we tear down. I’m a builder. You know I love to build things. Love to change things. Love to make things better for people. And that’s what I wanted to do.”

It’s impossible to imagine Thompson, who recently stepped down as interim head of the UW System, threatening, as our Republican legislative leaders just did, to defund the entire university because they don’t like the fact that the new chancellor supports the accurate teaching of history and has backed Democrats.

But unfortunately for his party, and for Wisconsin, Thompson is on the sidelines. And the Republicans have other plans.


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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 the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She 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 lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.