How are Wisconsin voters being fooled?

My working-class parents were smarter than this

September 28, 2022 6:00 am
Protester in a MAGA cheesehead at the Reopen Wisconsin rally at the Capitol on April 24, 2020 (photo by Luther Wu).

Protester at the Reopen Wisconsin rally at the Capitol on April 24, 2020 (photo by Luther Wu).

STEVENS POINT – The older I get, the less I know. Maybe it’s the wisdom of age telling me I wasn’t nearly as smart as I thought.

Be that as it may, as the son of working-class parents and grandparents, I can’t for the life of my old bones understand why folks of modest means vote the way they do in elections today. Wisconsin has two men of modest means, incumbent Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, at the top of their ticket. Their opponents, GOP gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels and Sen. Ron Johnson, are men of great wealth, neither of whom built the fortunes they guard. Who knows, with recent revelations about Donald Trump’s wealth, or lack thereof, they may even be richer than the man they bow before.

 Johnson has complained about only doubling his wealth while in the U.S. Senate. He listed assets of between $16.5 and $78 million last year, not counting his $174,000 Senate salary. Meanwhile, Pro Publica reports that Johnson has worked to save his biggest billionaire backers hundreds of millions in tax breaks, all while he “personally benefited from [the] tax change he sought.” 

Meanwhile, as reported by Urban Milwaukee’s Bruce Murphy and Wisconsin Right Now, Michels and his family are more tied to wealthy East Coast enclaves than any humble Wisconsin community. To wit: An LLC traced to Michels purchased a $17 million house in upscale Riverside, Connecticut, in 2020, selling another home in the nearby exclusive bedroom community of Greenwich, for $6.5 million. Urban Milwaukee also reported that Michels and his wife own a New York penthouse purchased in 2015 for $8.7 million. They also own a home and lot in Hartland, Wisconsin, worth more than $5 million, and are registered to vote in Wisconsin.

The couple’s two youngest children attended Connecticut and New York City high schools for their entire high school years. The oldest child graduated from Xavier High School in New York City in 2016 (he started attending that school in 2013); the daughter graduated from Marymount School of New York in 2019; and the youngest son graduated from Brunswick High School in Greenwich in 2021. Dartmouth University lists the hometown for Michels’ youngest son, who graduated from high school in 2021, as Riverside, Connecticut. Michels may live here part-time, but it sure looks like he’s playing games on that. And little wonder that he trashes public education for the masses in Wisconsin whenever he can.

Michels claims he’s a self-made businessman, but the truth is that Michels Corp., which thrives on taxpayer-funded public works projects, was built by his parents and handed off to their children. Johnson, meanwhile, married into the plastics fortune he sits atop. In my working-class cohort, we used to call guys like this “SOBs,” as in sons of bosses. 

Despite these facts laid out for all to know, a lot of people of average means seem poised to choose these two incredibly wealthy men come November. I don’t get it, and it’s but one of many mysteries in a political world that seems painted more by illusion than reality. Take unions. Why would folks who toil at the hardest physical jobs in society accept the idea that a union working for their rights is a bad thing? Were and are unions perfect? Hell no. But — and it sometimes seems like you’re talking to light posts when you say this — to whatever extent workers today enjoy decent pay, benefits, vacation time and other considerations, unions had a hand in making it so. Recent upticks in union organizing hint that people of average means have had enough, but here in Wisconsin, we still live in a “right to work” state in which union power is weakened even in union shops, where employers can encourage some people not to join.

Pensions, Social Security, Medicare, these are all programs that help average folks achieve a measure of security, and unions were there to help make it so. Here’s a bit of reality from my life experiences: My dad and grandfather, who belonged to unions, were able to live decent lives, provide for their families, cover every penny of their debts, leave a little to their kids and die with dignity.

No matter how they vote, you certainly don’t hear people of average means clambering for messing with these programs, as Johnson has suggested. He recently proposed removing Social Security from nondiscretionary federal spending. Hmmm, let’s see. Put decisions about the hard-earned retirement savings of average folks in the hands of rich guys like him? 

Obviously, I’m not very smart, because I can’t figure out how hard-working people of average means can be bamboozled by these guys.


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Bill Berry
Bill Berry

Green Bay native Bill Berry has been a working journalist and environmental communicator for a hell of a long time. (or you could say several decades). His main areas of focus are the environment and the human condition, which he says are often intertwined. He authored "Banning DDT: How Citizen Activists in Wisconsin Led the Way," published by the WIsconsin Historical Society Press. The 2014 book was the winner in the nature category of the annual Midwest Independent Publishers Association competition. As a self-employed writer/communicator, he has also made presentations to national audiences on conservation, especially on private lands in the U.S. He lives in Stevens Point.