Jay Stone addresses a meeting of the right-leaning grassroots group H.O.T. Government in Union Grove, Wisconsin, on May 11. The acronym stands for “honest, open and transparent.” (Nathanial Schmidt | special to ProPublica)
This story was originally published by ProPublica.
Jay Stone grew up in the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago ward politics, the son of a longtime city alderman. But his own forays into politics left him distrustful of Chicago Democrats.
When he ran for alderman in 2003, he was crushed at the polls after party leaders sent city workers out to campaign against him. Even his own father didn’t endorse him.
Then when Stone sought the mayor’s office in 2010, he only mustered a few hundred of the 12,500 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. He filed a federal lawsuit over the requirement and lost.
His father, Bernard Stone, who held office for 38 years, once told the Chicago Tribune: “My son is very good at what he’s trained to do. And that’s not politics.”
Jay Stone’s training was in hypnotherapy, and he eventually walked away from Chicago politics, carving out a living using hypnosis to help people with anxiety, weight gain, nicotine addiction and other issues. Only in retirement, and after a move to Wisconsin, did he finally find his political niche.
In 2020, Stone played a crucial, if little-known, role in making Wisconsin a hotbed of conspiracy theories that Democrats stole the state’s 10 electoral votes from then-President Donald Trump. The outcry emanating from Wisconsin has cast Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a force of untoward political influence and helped create a backlash against using private grants, including large donations from Zuckerberg, to assist election officials across the country.
In Wisconsin, Stone has finally been embraced politically, by activists and politicians who, like him, didn’t approve of the so-called “Zuckerbucks” or of big-city Democratic mayors. They, too, are unhappy with the way the 2020 presidential election was run in Wisconsin and how it turned out. And they, too, show no inclination of giving up, even when their claims have been rejected and other Republicans have told them it’s time to move on.
“The best part of getting involved in politics in Wisconsin is the wonderful people I’ve been meeting,” Stone said in an interview. “They’re just a great group of men and women that I admire and respect.”
The questioning of the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s 20,000-vote victory in Wisconsin continues thanks to Stone and others who have emerged to take on outsize roles after the election. Among them: a retired travel industry executive who has alleged voter fraud at nursing homes. Ten alternate GOP electors who signed documents to try to subvert the certification of Biden’s election. And some state legislators who are still looking for ways to hand the state to Trump, a year and a half after the election.
Stone hasn’t garnered much public attention, but records indicate that in the summer of 2020 he was the first person to complain to state authorities about grant money accepted by local election officials. The funds were earmarked for face masks, shields and other safety supplies, as well as hazard pay, larger voting facilities, vote-by-mail processing, drop boxes and educational outreach about absentee voting.
Stone, however, saw the election funding, which came from a Chicago nonprofit, as a way to sway the election for Biden by helping bring more Democratic-leaning voters to the polls in Wisconsin’s five largest cities.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission rejected Stone’s claim last year, on the grounds that he didn’t live in any of the cities he mentioned and that the complaint did not allege any violations that the commission had the authority to investigate. A separate complaint Stone filed with the Federal Election Commission, in which he objects to the Zuckerberg money, has not been resolved.
Nonetheless, the idea that the election was somehow rigged lives on.
Chief among the election deniers is Michael Gableman, who served on the state Supreme Court for a decade. A Trump ally, Gableman was named as special counsel by the GOP-controlled State Assembly to investigate the legitimacy of Biden’s victory in Wisconsin. Not only did Gableman give Stone’s accusations a platform, he took them even further. In his review for the Assembly, Gableman labeled the grants a form of bribery.
Gableman expressed his admiration for Stone during a March interview on the “Tucker Carlson Today” show, which streams online.
It’s “a private citizen, a guy named Jay Stone, who really deserves a lot of credit,” Gableman said, referring to questions about the election grants.
“He saw all of this coming,” Gableman said. “And he’s not a lawyer. I don’t know what his particular training is — he’s trained in the medical field. He filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission back in August of 2020, well before the election. And he foresaw all of this, he foresaw the partisan nature of all of the Zuckerberg money and all of the Zuckerberg people coming in to influence the election.”
Gableman, who has not responded to requests for an interview, had hired Stone as a paid consultant for his review by the time he appeared on Carlson’s show.
But that’s not the only thing keeping Stone from a quiet retirement in Pleasant Prairie, not far from the Illinois border, where he grows his own fruits and vegetables and heats his home only with firewood. Once again, he’s got his eyes on political office. This time he’s running for the Wisconsin State Senate.
The Chicago connection
In the summer of 2020, cities across the U.S. were canceling Fourth of July firework celebrations. Public health departments were scrambling to put contact tracing measures in place to track the spread of COVID-19. Movie theaters remained shuttered. Vaccines were still undergoing testing.
Against this backdrop, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit based in Chicago, decided to get involved. Its stated mission is to ensure that elections across the country are “more professional, inclusive and secure.”
The group approached the mayors of Wisconsin’s five largest cities — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine — and encouraged them to draw up a “Safe Voting Plan” outlining how they would spend more than $6 million in grant money to make it easier for people to vote while also limiting their exposure to the highly contagious coronavirus.
Wisconsin’s April elections, including the presidential primary, had been a near-disaster. The state’s Democratic governor and GOP-controlled legislature bickered over whether to postpone the balloting. Election offices were deluged with requests for absentee ballots. National Guard troops stepped in to replace poll workers too scared to volunteer. Polling places closed or relocated. Some voters waited in long lines for hours.
The Safe Voting Plan envisioned a smoother election that November. The goals were to keep voters safe and educate them about how to cast a ballot properly, whether in person or by mail. The plan also expressed the desire to ensure the right to vote “in our dense and diverse communities.”
Green Bay, for example, proposed using $15,000 to partner with “churches, educational institutions, and organizations serving African immigrants, LatinX residents, and African Americans” to help new voters obtain documents needed to get a valid state ID that they could show at the polls or to get an absentee ballot.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life awarded the $6.3 million to Wisconsin’s five largest cities in early July 2020. That’s when a friend of Stone’s sent him a link to a newspaper article about the grants.
“Within 10 minutes, I knew this was a scam, because they were targeting the Democratic strongholds in the state of Wisconsin,” said Stone.
Stone recognized that the organization’s address on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile was in the same building that had once housed Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters, which he felt confirmed his instincts.
He took exception to the proposed outreach to communities that traditionally vote Democratic, saying such efforts are the responsibility of candidates and parties, not municipal election workers. On Aug. 28, 2020, he fired off a 27-page complaint to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which included 167 exhibits.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life “exploited COVID-19” to help Democrats, Stone wrote. “All of CTCL’s $6.3 million expenditures will increase voter turnout in Wisconsin cities that are heavily Democratic and increase the likelihood that Democrat Joe Biden will win Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes.”
Less than a week later, CTCL made a major announcement: It had received a $250 million donation from Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The couple later added an additional $100 million. CTCL’s previous funding had come from a variety of foundations.
Ultimately, CTCL awarded grants to more than 2,500 elections offices across 49 states, including rural parts of Wisconsin. The sums included $5,000 to small communities such as Ralls County, Missouri, and $10 million each for the city of Philadelphia and for Fulton County, Georgia, which encompasses most of Atlanta.
In an interview, Stone said he wouldn’t have objected if the grants had been awarded to each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties — with every county getting an equal amount per registered voter.
According to a ProPublica analysis, the biggest municipalities in Wisconsin received the most money and had higher per capita grants than smaller places like Waukesha, Brookfield and Fond Du Lac, which all had a history of voting for Trump. For instance, the per capita figure for Milwaukee was more than 10 times that of nearby Waukesha.
An analysis by Ballotpedia, a nonprofit focusing on elections, found that Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Michigan — swing states that ended up in the Biden column — received some of the highest per capita grants from CTCL. However, it’s nearly impossible to discern what may have turned the tide in those states and whether turnout was affected by the grant money, a motivation to vote against Trump, or other factors.
CTCL was formed in 2014. One of its founders, Tiana Epps-Johnson, was named an Obama Foundation fellow in 2018, providing her with leadership training and other resources to help her in her work. She has described CTCL as nonpartisan, but Stone said the Obama Foundation connection suggests otherwise.
Epps-Johnson, who is CTCL’s executive director, did not respond to a voice message left on her direct line, but the group replied with a statement saying the grant money was available to all parts of the country. “Every eligible local election office that applied was awarded funds,” CTCL stated.
The center also defended its actions in a lawsuit the Trump campaign filed against the Wisconsin Elections Commission; the suit alleged, in part, that the state election commission had improperly supported the five cities’ plan to promote expanded mail-in voting.
In an amicus brief in that case, CTCL wrote: “Most of those funds were used to purchase personal protective equipment for voters and election workers, to recruit and train additional staff, to provide improved security, to establish in-person polling places, to process mail-in ballots, and to ensure emergency preparedness. CTCL’s program thus helped officials throughout the nation to run secure, lawful, and efficient elections for all Americans.”
A federal judge appointed by Trump found no merit in the former president’s case and dismissed it.
Zuckerberg also denies having hidden motives in funding nonprofits that targeted voting issues. His spokesperson Brian Baker said in an email to ProPublica that Zuckerberg and his wife stepped in when “our nation’s election infrastructure faced unprecedented challenges” and the federal government “failed to provide adequate funds.” The goal, Baker said, was to “ensure that residents could vote regardless of their party or preference.”
When Wisconsinites went to the polls in November 2020, there were far fewer issues with people having trouble casting a ballot or having to wait in long lines than there had been in the spring election.
Jay Stone’s grievances
Stone’s skepticism was deeply rooted. His own family and his political failures were shaped by Chicago politics, giving him a close-up view of the unseemly tactics of loyalists associated with Democratic rule under Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and then, to a lesser extent, his son Richard M. Daley.
Running for 32nd Ward alderman on Chicago’s North Side in 2003, Stone preached good government, transparency and election reform. He lost. Testimony in a 2006 federal corruption trial involving top Daley administration officials described how party bosses ordered city workers to campaign for Stone’s opponent, the sitting alderman.
“They wanted a puppet they could control,” Stone said.
After his election defeat, Stone filed a claim against the Daley administration as part of a class-action suit seeking compensation for damages related to political patronage. A federal monitor awarded him $75,000 based on Stone’s claims about city workers forced to campaign against him. His efforts taking on the Daley machine earned him a description as a “passionate independent” from a reporter for the Chicago Reader, an alternative weekly.
Reflecting on the experience, Stone said that even his father was unwilling to endorse him for fear of political retribution. (Stone’s father died in 2014. Jay Stone said that despite their political differences, they remained close.)
Undeterred, in 2010 Stone made a bid for mayor, hoping to take on Richard M. Daley, but Daley announced he would not run for a record seventh term.
Stone didn’t obtain enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and sued the city’s Board of Election Commissioners, claiming the requirement was onerous and unconstitutional, designed to keep the machine in power. The courts disagreed, and the case failed.
Stone never won an election in Chicago, but he was able to build a professional life there as a hypnotherapist in private practice. Stone decided to enter the field after earning first an undergraduate philosophy degree and then an MBA. He received a doctorate in clinical hypnotherapy through remote learning from a now-shuttered California institute.
Hypnotherapists are not licensed in Illinois. But the treatment has gained acceptance. According to the National Institutes of Health, hypnosis has been shown to help people manage some painful conditions and deal with anxiety.
Stone sought to help clients visualize a better future, a goal he said he wanted to achieve in politics, too. In hypnosis, Stone said, some of his patients experienced flashbacks to past lives that helped them find peace and change their behavior for the better. He wrote a paper, posted on his website, on the potential to use DNA to prove the existence of past lives.
Science, he noted, always starts with a theory. “And then you have to be able to prove it,” he said.
His theories about elections tend to lump all Chicago Democrats together, so that Michelle and Barack Obama are considered just as capable of unsavory political tactics as the two Daleys who governed Chicago for decades.
Stone maintains that the Obamas have unduly influenced elections through a network of former White House staffers associated with nonprofits Stone believes are inappropriately registering and influencing voters. (He said he soured on Barack Obama long ago because he believed that Obama had failed to confront the Chicago Democratic machine as a U.S. senator.)
He is particularly opposed to the star-studded nonprofit When We All Vote, set up by Michelle Obama to register voters and help “close the race and age gap.” By the 2020 election, more than 500,000 people had started or completed their voter registration process through When We All Vote, according to the group.
“I believe Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote is the most powerful political organization or political machine in the country,” Stone said in a video he posted on Rumble, a video platform that’s popular among some conservatives. “When We All Vote is more powerful than the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee combined.”
When We All Vote told ProPublica in an email that it is nonpartisan and works with schools and educators to increase civic engagement and voter participation, saying its “initiatives comply with the letter and spirit of the law.”
Stone filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission against the former first lady, alleging criminal violations for offering financial prizes to schools that registered the most voters and for enticing people to early voting sites with food and music. The commission, in a 5-1 vote in April, dismissed the matter “due to a lack of reasonable suspicion” and fined him $500 for filing a “frivolous” complaint. (Stone on Friday appealed that decision in Kenosha County Circuit Court.)
Stone saw the supposed Obama network’s fingerprints on the 2020 election grants offered by the Center for Tech and Civic Life.
And while he measures his words more carefully than Gableman and others who see the 2020 Wisconsin election results as tainted, he clearly is in that camp.
“There was so much, I don’t want to say ‘fraud,’ but there was so much deviation from the election laws and the election norms, it raises serious questions,” he said of Trump’s loss in Wisconsin.
“I don’t think the election was fair and just.”
Allies in Wisconsin
The CTCL money has become a central theme in complaints about Biden’s victory in Wisconsin — and in the review by Gableman. Under pressure from Trump, GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos appointed Gableman to review whether the election was administered fairly and lawfully.
Gableman has fallen short of proving fraud, but did use an interim report and an appearance before the legislative oversight committee on March 1 to highlight the Zuckerberg money and call for disbanding the Wisconsin Elections Commission. He said the legislature should look into decertifying the 2020 election results, but even Republican officials balked at that.
Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke tweeted that “handing authority to partisan politicians to determine if election fraud exists would be the end of our republic as we know it.”
Jay Stone sat in the front row behind Gableman during the meeting, where Gableman released a report of his findings thus far. It spanned 136 pages, half of which dealt with the CTCL grants, which he characterized as “election bribery.”
Stone helped in the review but won’t talk about what exactly he did in the ongoing investigation, which was budgeted by Vos to cost taxpayers $676,000. “I’m on a confidentiality agreement,” Stone said.
Stone billed Gableman $3,250 for 128 hours of work between Feb. 16 and March 1, according to an invoice obtained by the nonprofit group American Oversight, which has sued to get access to Gableman’s records.
Asked about Gableman’s bribery terminology, Stone sighed. “It’s not a typical case where somebody gives a politician money for, let’s say, a zoning change,” he said. “So, it’s not your typical bribery case, but certainly it’s worth looking into.”
Lawsuits in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota about the CTCL grants have failed, as did Stone’s complaint to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Just last week in Madison, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Ehlke called the election bribery allegation “ridiculous,” saying he saw no evidence that CTCL offered anything to change anyone’s vote. “I mean, what proof is there in the record anywhere of an inducement of bribery? That whole thing just falls away. There’s nothing in the record. Is there?”
Minnesota lawyer Erick G. Kaardal, who continues to challenge the grants, replied that he reads state law to mean: “We don’t want Wisconsin public officials taking money to get people to go to the polls.”
The county case is an appeal of the elections commission’s rejection of a similar complaint Kaardal filed there about the grants. Ehlke has yet to rule.
Gableman’s work, meanwhile, has been widely discredited, cast by politicians, including some Republicans, and legal analysts as unprofessional and amateurish. Wisconsin’s Democratic governor called the investigation a “colossal waste of taxpayer dollars.”
“This effort has spread disinformation about our election processes, it has attacked the integrity of our clerks, election administrators, and poll workers, and it has emboldened individuals to harass and demean dedicated public servants,” Gov. Tony Evers said in a prepared statement.
The issue of using private grants in administering elections, however, remains alive.
Zuckerberg will not be making future donations to election offices, his spokesperson told ProPublica earlier this month, calling it “a one-time donation given the unprecedented nature of the crisis.”
More than a dozen states, meanwhile, have banned or restricted the use of private funds for election offices. The Wisconsin legislature passed a bill in 2021 prohibiting counties or municipalities from applying for or accepting any private donations for elections, but left room for the Wisconsin Elections Commission to take outside grants so long as the money is distributed statewide on a per capita basis. Evers vetoed it.
In southeastern Wisconsin, however, the Walworth County Board of Supervisors passed its own ban last month, prohibiting the county from accepting donations or grants for election administration from individuals or nongovernmental entities.
Now that he’s left a mark as a political activist in Wisconsin, Stone is back on the campaign trail.
At an event hall near Kenosha this month, Stone addressed about 100 people gathered at a regular meeting of the H.O.T. Government group, a right-leaning Wisconsin grassroots organization that adopted an acronym for the words “honest, open and transparent.” (Stone is the group’s vice president.) A stuffed effigy of a torso with a white foam head hung from the rafters, wearing a shirt labeled “Corrupt Officials.”
Standing before a large American flag, he politely asked people to sign his nominating forms. Republican State Rep. Janel Brandtjen, who chairs the elections committee overseeing Gableman’s investigation and supports the effort to overturn Biden’s Wisconsin victory, jumped up from her seat to lead the crowd in a chant: “Jay Stone! Jay Stone!”
“Jay is the one who filed the complaint in the very beginning,” she told the audience. “Jay is a real hero in what he’s done for Wisconsin.”
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