Commentary

Three years of digging up the truth in the Badger State

The Wisconsin Examiner hits a new milestone

July 16, 2022 7:00 am
Ruth Conniff, Henry Redman, Isiah Holmes and Erik Gunn at the Milwaukee Press Club Awards dinner | Examiner photo

Ruth Conniff, Henry Redman, Isiah Holmes and Erik Gunn at the Milwaukee Press Club Awards dinner on May 6, 2022 | Examiner photo

The Wisconsin Examiner turns three years old today, and our work is more important than ever.

When we launched in July of 2019, in the midst of the budget battle between Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican leaders of the state Legislature, we declared our intention to keep an eye on the Capitol, where so much policy that directly affects the people of Wisconsin is made.

Today it’s clearer than ever that crucial decisions about citizens’ fundamental rights and the future of our democracy are emanating not from Washington, DC, but from state capitals, including Madison.

When the U.S. Supreme Court wrapped up its recent term by overturning Roe v. Wade, the majority declared that it was returning decisions about abortion rights “to the people and their elected representatives” — by which the conservatives on the Court meant state legislatures.

We’ve been reporting on what that means in heavily gerrymandered Wisconsin, where an 1849 felony abortion ban with no exceptions for cases of rape and incest now takes effect.

We covered Wisconsin Republicans’ refusal to take up Evers’ call to repeal the 1849 abortion ban, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s push for a “right to travel” bill that would protect Wisconsin women’s ability to cross state lines to get abortions legally. 

Erik Gunn, who has done award-winning work on health care, covered the public health agencies that are ramping up contraceptive care, and abortion providers who are shifting to offer services across state lines where abortion remains legal. Gunn also reported on Wisconsin doctors’ worries about how to care for patients with severe pregnancy complications that could put their health in danger.

Abortion is not the only issue that has devolved to the states. When the Supreme Court returns in October, it will take up a North Carolina case that could fundamentally alter the way federal elections are managed, giving state legislatures the power to set rules and declare the outcomes of elections. The North Carolina Republicans who appealed a gerrymandering case want the Court to accept the so-called “independent state legislature doctrine.” Under that doctrine, according to political scientist Eric Davis,state courts could lose their role as a check over district maps, leaving gerrymandered legislatures a free hand to continue drawing gerrymandered congressional district lines.”

As Nicole Safar, executive director of Law Forward wrote in a 4th of July commentary for the Examiner “There is a direct through line from the anti-majoritarian movement to overrule Roe and the anti-democracy efforts of the last decade.”

Safar describes “a coordinated, carefully constructed effort that has been built by the right-wing legal movement for decades” to  “lock in minority rule.” Some of the same players who worked in the radical anti-abortion movement, she notes, also participated in the effort to steal the 2020 presidential election for Donald Trump.

Safar is one of the people fighting back against that effort. She and her colleagues at Law Forward have filed the first lawsuit in the nation against a slate of fake Trump electors. 

The Examiner covered Wisconsin’s fake electors early on, and we have stayed on the story.

It’s terrible to think that, if the Republicans prevail in their North Carolina case before the U.S. Supreme Court, another slate of Wisconsin fake electors could be empowered by our gerrymandered Republican legislature to override the will of the people and cast electoral ballots for the losing candidate for president, as Trump pressured state Republican officials to do in 2020.

What’s happening in our courts, our legislature, and in state agencies and regulatory boards is shaping the future of our democracy. 

On a host of other issues, the right has made progress recently on its long-term goal of empowering the states.

The Supreme Court’s decision limiting the power of the federal Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions also leaves state regulators in charge.

Which is why Henry Redman’s reporting on water regulation, CAFOs, and lax regulation of state forests is so important.

“Certainly, the states are where the action is today on a number of key policy and values issues — including not only abortion, but also gun control, marijuana, healthcare, and most recently the way in which schools teach about racism, gender theory and sexual orientation,” Gallup Senior Scientist Frank Newport writes in an article on public opinion regarding federal versus state power.

We have been covering all those issues here at the Examiner. Just recently Isiah Holmes reported on the records he uncovered that showed how state legislators and rightwing interest groups have been coordinating efforts to remove LGBTQ-positive books from school libraries.

Holmes also regularly produces award-winning coverage of the threats to civil rights and civil liberties from overzealous tough-on-crime policies and overeager policing

Republicans have been shifting their attention to the state level for decades, aware of the policy-making power of undercovered state governments, as Newport writes, “undertaking successful efforts, often under the national media’s radar, to take over state legislatures.” Republicans now control 30 state legislatures, he points out, while Democrats control only 18.

And if this phenomenon took place under the national media radar, state-level media has been giving off an increasingly weak signal lately, as newsrooms downsize and the Capitol press corps shrinks. That’s where the Wisconsin Examiner and the larger States Newsroom effort come in. If citizens aren’t aware of what’s going on in state government, it becomes easier for unpopular measures to pass and unpopular politicians to grab power and erode democratic control of elections.

Redman has been closely following the embattled Wisconsin Elections Commission for us. Most recently, he covered  commissioners’ inability to advise local elections clerks on how to handle the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision outlawing ballot drop boxes. 

Redman also brings you the news on Michael Gableman’s taxpayer-financed, partisan election investigation, which has spent a million dollars without turning up new evidence of fraud in the 2020 presidential race in Wisconsin.

And he has been on the Fred Prehn beat, covering the Republican appointee who wouldn’t leave his seat on the Natural Resources Board, and his coordination with state Republicans who won a victory in the Wisconsin Supreme Court when it ruled that Republican appointees can stay in their expired positions indefinitely as long as the Legislature refuses to approve Evers’ nominees to replace them.

Talk about minority rule. We have it here in Wisconsin. And, not coincidentally, our state has been at the center of the Jan. 6 conspiracy to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

But as people become informed and get involved, they can turn the tide.

There’s really no other option but to stand and fight — despite the increasing talk about liberals fleeing to blue states and conservatives declaring themselves the victors in Republican enclaves. 

“If state legislatures have more and more power over policies and laws, red states’ policies could become more conservative and blue states’ more liberal,” writes Gallup’s Newport. “This, in turn, means people may increasingly ‘vote with their feet’ in an effort to locate in a politically compatible environment.”

The problem with that approach is that it cedes too much power to the minority who want to drag us backwards to an era when most of us in this country had no rights. 

Newport even envisions a similar sort of fragmentation within states, 

“There could be increasing conflict in situations where those living in local jurisdictions have different views than the state taken as a whole,” he writes.

We’ve certainly seen that in Wisconsin, where Erik Gunn has reported on the battles over public health orders and their meaning for both the political landscape and public health in the state. 

Newport goes so far as to predict that counties with significantly different politics than the surrounding state might form enclaves with warring policies, or even secede and form their own states.

That’s going pretty far.

The reality in Wisconsin is that people in red and blue counties alike want drinking water that is not poisoned with manure or cancer-causing PFAS chemicals. They want fair elections and fair maps. They want a reasonable standard of living and not to be spied on or abused by police or surveilled without their knowledge. They want common-sense gun safety laws that keep people safe from deranged gunmen who carry semi-automatic rifles to parades and protests. They want good public schools and public services.

To abandon those goals is to abandon the will of the majority. And no matter how much a radical minority on the right has been emboldened to try to do just that, we need robust journalism that calls them out, examines the issues, and digs up the truth.

That’s what we’ve been doing at the Examiner for the last three years. And we intend to keep on doing it.

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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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