Flanked by Nick Ramos of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (left) and Sen. Chris Larson, U.S. Navy retired Rear Admiral Michael Smith speaks Thursday at a news conference called to mark the third anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Wisconsin Examiner photo)
During his 30-year career in the U.S. Navy, Michael Smith says he stayed mostly detached from politics. Now the retired rear admiral has assumed a new post-military mission: working to keep Donald Trump from returning to the White House.
It’s not a matter of partisanship, he says.
“The election that’s in 2024 is clearly not a traditional election, where you are voting for the policies of one party against another,” Smith said at a press conference Thursday. “This election is different. This is against Donald Trump, who is an existential threat to everything I swore to defend.”
Two days ahead of the third anniversary marking the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Smith joined a group of voting rights advocates who gathered to call renewed attention to that day, when a mob of hundreds of Trump supporters burst into the building and Congress delayed for hours certifying the results of the 2020 election that Trump had lost.
“Anyone who watched that live [as it] unfolded, seeing the attacks on the police, seeing the broken glass in the windows, seeing them take a Confederate flag into our nation’s Capitol, couldn’t have walked away thinking that this is okay,” Smith said.
Trump is now awaiting trial on federal charges that he and his co-conspirators attempted to subvert the 2020 election to maintain power through illegal actions that culminated in the Capitol attack.
Five people died in the attack and more than 100 police were injured, said Nick Ramos, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which along with other voting rights groups organized the press conference held in the Wisconsin Capitol’s state Senate parlor.
“January 6, 2021, was one of the darkest days in this country’s history and a desperate attempt to cling on to power and overturn a free and fair election,” said Ramos.
He tied the Capitol attack to events in Wisconsin since then. Ramos cited widespread conspiracy theories about the 2020 vote; the harassment and threats directed at election workers, and state legislation to make voting more difficult. And he pointed to Wisconsin’s fake electors who sent fraudulent Electoral College ballots for Trump to Washington after President Joe Biden won the election in this state — and who have since admitted they knew Biden won.
“Wisconsin has endured political corruption for far too long, and it’s time that we as a state restore balance and give power back to the people,” Ramos said. “We must hold bad actors accountable.”
“We cannot stand by and let Jan. 6 happen to us again,” said Rev. Greg Lewis of Souls to the Polls, which works to mobilize voters in Milwaukee’s Black community. He called the attack “the worst kind of suppression” of voters.
“I don’t care how much money you have or influence you have,” Lewis said. “You only get one vote, and that vote is equal with mine. We have to protect that.”
Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Women Voters, called for passage of federal legislation to make voting and voter registration easier, block gerrymandering and prevent the use of funds from undisclosed donors to influence election outcomes, as well as the passage of legislation to restore protections that have been stripped away from the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“In Wisconsin, we need to work across the aisle to defend our democracy,” Cronmiller said, including ensuring the safety of elections officials. “Our democracy has been weakened by the partisan misinformation about our elections and our elected officials. In the same manner, misinformation has done real harm to our democracy.”
Military retiree turns activist for democracy
Smith outlined his own journey from non-political military veteran to pro-democracy activist — a departure from what he called “a sort of unwritten rule” that typically keeps retired senior military officers out of politics,
“Make no mistake — this year democracy is on the ballot,” Smith said.
Smith retired from the Navy in 2015. During the 2016 campaign, he said in a short interview after the news conference, he and some fellow military retirees were alarmed by Trump’s campaign positions.
“He was talking about abandoning our allies,” Smith said. “He was talking about closing the borders, too, and not allowing anybody in, [that] type of thing. We saw him as a threat to national security.”
That led Smith and his colleagues to assist the campaign of Hillary Clinton, giving voice to their concerns about Trump. “In retrospect, we had no idea how bad that would become,” he said.
In 2020 he assisted the Biden campaign, forming National Security Leaders for America — “all volunteers, bipartisan, Democrats, independents, Republicans” — to oppose Trump and support Biden’s election.
“We thought we were just going to be around for the campaign to get rid of Trump,” Smith said. With the Jan. 6 attack, “we saw he wasn’t going away, and so we stayed together.”
The organization’s reason for being has expanded beyond Trump. “Our whole mission is to defend democracy and to counter candidates and issues that are anti-democratic,” Smith said.
At the news conference, Smith was unequivocal in his criticism of the former president and political leaders “who serve as apologists, if not promoters” for the Jan. 6 attack.
“This implicit or even explicit endorsement normalizes the use of violence as an accepted action, should the vote not go the way the losers wanted it to go,” Smith said. “No one who was so willing to undermine the rule of law should be responsible for faithfully executing our nation’s laws. Trump must be stopped.”
Getting the word out
Ramos said the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign plans a series of events in 2024 to reach “the average, everyday person [who] isn’t as tuned in” to political news. He added that the organization plans nonpartisan, educational outreach to engage more voters and to highlight the ways in which democracy has been attacked beyond the Jan. 6 assault, identifying those attacks as “political corruption.”
Lewis said Souls to the Polls will ramp up post card and in-person campaigns to boost turnout. Cronmiller said the League of Women Voters will continue its longstanding efforts to inform voters about the dates of elections and procedures for voting, both at the polling place and by absentee ballot. The League will also launch campaigns to reach marginalized communities, she said.
Smith acknowledged that “millions of normal Americans,” occupied with their work, their families and their everyday lives, pay little attention to political news — in contrast to the activists who attended the news conference in support of the organizers.
“Heck, for me, that was most of my career,” he said. But in an election year and on the verge of the Jan. 6 anniversary, “it’s time to make clear to the people in your lives, who don’t follow every twist and turn of the news cycle, that the threat Donald Trump poses is real.”
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