Voting carrels set up at a library on Election Day. Culture war topics including attacks on the school library are feeding local campaigns in Waunakee. | Photo by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner
In a news void, wild conspiracies take hold, pitting neighbors against neighbors, poisoning civic dialogue and, in some cases, driving the stealth takeover of local government bodies by people with no concern for the real needs of communities.
Case in point: Waunakee.
Waunakee gained national notoriety a year ago after rightwing radio talk show host Vicki McKenna began spreading the false rumor that the district had a special policy to accommodate students who identified as “furries,” encouraging them to use litter boxes instead of toilets and letting them sit and lick their paws instead of running laps in gym class.
Those claims — and others like them spread by rightwing social media in school districts all over the country — are total nonsense.
But they have proved useful to Republicans who have been using fear and anger to win seats in increasingly partisan school board races, weaponizing community unease over changing social norms regarding race, gender and of course the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, a group of candidates for seats on the school board and the village board in Waunakee are carrying on the rightwing crusade. As one candidate put it in a private email chain — shared anonymously with a local blogger by a conservative citizen on the list who disapproved of the group’s stealthy effort — “…we have unknowingly allowed individuals with very destructive, anti-American, and harmful ideals get into positions of power and influence.”
“The only way to right the ship, in the long term,” this candidate writes, “is to ensure we replace those types of dangerous people with individuals who share the same morals and values that the majority of us on this email share.”
There’s nothing wrong with people with strong political views running for office and denouncing their opponents in the strongest terms, of course. But the quote above comes from a candidate who has declined to publicly state his positions on the issues, refused to participate in candidate debates and declined to answer the Wisconsin State Journal’s candidate questionnaire.
And here’s where the problem gets really serious.
It’s not just that campaigns disseminating misinformation and accepting tons of money from outside local communities is becoming the norm. It’s that all that is happening at the same time that local news is drying up, leaving a void to be filled by shady characters with dangerous ideas. And by that I don’t mean public health officials who tell you to wear a mask during a pandemic, or gay-friendly teachers, diversity workshops or the new rightwing boogie man of the hour — your children’s librarian.
One person on the same local election email chain in Waunakee issued this dire warning about the local librarian in Waunakee: “It is very obvious grooming and the destruction of our children is the priority! Get the librarian out! Who approved that waste of money library anyway? These people are sick and demented!”
Waunakee has a spiffy public library. It also has a gorgeous public school campus, a state of the art theater and a swimming pool and athletic complex that made my Madison Public School kids green with envy when they visited for a swim meet. And the town just approved a referendum to build even more new facilities.
It seems unlikely that most village residents think it’s more important to elect people who want to save America from the librarian than figure out how to raise the money to cover significant new capital budget costs.
But most residents haven’t heard about what’s driving the crusading candidates in their local election.
The local newspaper, which comes out once a week on Wednesday, is cosponsoring a candidate forum Tuesday with the local Chamber of Commerce — right after the newspaper’s final publication deadline before the election. That timing pretty much wipes out the chance of local news coverage of the election this year. That’s a travesty in the opinion of former school board president David Boetcher, who was on the board for nine years before he lost to a conservative challenger in the last election.
Boetcher was involved in an effort to organize an earlier candidate forum. Only one candidate showed up.
“Nobody used to ignore the Wisconsin State Journal’s candidate questionnaire. Now they do. It’s getting worse and worse,” he says.
“Waunakee is a target for conservatives in Dane County,” Boetcher says. “But this area has still voted liberal” — including for Democratic-supported Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz by a big margin in the February primary. In Boetcher’s view, that’s why the rightwing candidates are being quiet this year and “trying to run without telling people their positions.” They’re worried that firing up the conservative base might not be enough to win in a district that’s trending blue.
Even at the one candidate forum hosted a week before the election by the Chamber of Commerce — which not all candidates have agreed to join — there are new rules this year that block questions from the public.
Boetcher remembers when a local citizens group held candidate forums for the county board, village board and school board a month before the election, and the local paper covered the whole thing. Later, the Chamber of Commerce picked up the forums and there was still news coverage.
This year there’s one tightly controlled forum and practically no coverage.
Following the leak of those inflammatory emails to the local blog, motivated members of the community might still show up and try to ask questions about book banning. But Boetcher isn’t optimistic that the candidates will answer, or even that the questions will be allowed to be asked.
Last year, when the furry controversy was consuming the town, Boetcher says the board managed to raise $4,000 to help needy kids through a GoFundMe campaign that capitalized on Waunakee’s sudden notoriety. Boetcher wore cat ears to the meeting where the funds were announced at the request of donors. The fundraiser was a thank you for his service on the board and a way to call out the false attack.
We desperately need that kind of humor and common sense right now — along with a robust local news presence to give citizens real facts.
The sad thing is that, even as they stir up a moral panic over nonexistent litter boxes, cynical political actors are doing real harm to kids. Just ask the first graders in Waukesha who were “devastated” according to their teacher, when the school district forbade them from singing “Rainbowland” by Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton, which they had been rehearsing for a spring performance, because of the “controversial” LGBTQ-positive message.
As the teacher, Melissa Tempel, explained, “These confusing messages about rainbows are ultimately creating a culture that seems unsafe towards queer people.” That’s genuinely harmful.
And as the first graders know, the song contains a valuable message: “Let’s all dig down deep inside, brush the judgment and fear aside. Living in a Rainbowland, where you and I go hand in hand.”
Correction: An earlier version of this column stated that conservative candidates and their supporters are targeting the school librarian. In fact, the attacks are aimed at the librarian at the Waunakee Public Library.
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