The race for Chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin is the newest target for shady illegitimate groups seeking to co-opt and undermine progressive causes in Wisconsin, and they are getting help from an unlikely source: some of the candidates themselves.
The 2010 and 2014 elections were terrible for Democrats all across the country. The 2008 and 2012 elections, on the other hand, saw some improvements for the fortunes of some Democratic candidates. This is because Democratic voters tend not to show up as much for non-presidential elections, and that problem might be getting worse. It could be because of increased partisanship, greater income inequality, more money in politics since Citizens United, but it is a problem just about everywhere. This has made things especially tough on Democratic candidates in Wisconsin, and no one gets blamed more than state Chairman Mike Tate. So when Tate announced he would not seek a fourth term as chair and would step down this summer, five candidates stepped forward seeking to succeed him. The new chair will be elected by delegates at the state party convention in Milwaukee next week.
The candidates are:
- Jason Rae, a Milwaukee consultant originally from Rice Lake who also founded and heads the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce. He’s a longtime Party activist who is an elected member of the Democratic National Committee. Rae is running with former State Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber of Appleton.
- Martha Laning is a former executive from Target Stores and other companies, and also founded and led Generations, a community center in Sheboygan County. She ran for State Senate last year, and is running with freshman State Rep. David Bowen of Milwaukee. Laning has drawn notice for her reluctance to oppose so-called free trade agreements, and her claim of ignorance that the existence of the state Democratic Party until just about a year ago.
- Joe Wineke preceded Mike Tate as state Dem Party Chair, and served in the State Assembly and Senate from Verona. He also worked as a lobbyist and labor union political director, and is running with Dottie LeClair, longtime Chair of the Outagamie County Democrats.
- Jeff Smith is a former Democratic Party staff person who also served two terms in the State Assembly, but ran unsuccessfully to hold and regain his seat in 2010, 2012, and 2014. He is running with Stephanie Findley, a longtime Party activist from Milwaukee who also ran unsuccessfully for Assembly, but gained notice for earning support from the pro-voucher group American Federation of Children.
- Finally, Stephen Smith served one term in the Assembly by beating “some girls rape easy” Roger Rivard in 2012 but was unable to hold his seat, and doesn’t have a running mate.
Over the last few months, the candidates have been campaigning across the state, speaking with community leaders and activists about their vision for the state party going into a crucial election year. Wisconsin is a critical swing state for presidential candidates to carry, and U.S. Senator Ron Johnson is widely seen as the most vulnerable Senator in the country. With the announcement from former Senator Russ Feingold that he would challenge Johnson to regain his seat, this race will be one of the most closely-watched campaigns in the country. Furthermore, anger at Scott Walker’s cuts to education and poor budgeting have led to great interest in the opportunity for Democrats to win next year.
So, the right wing is deeply interested in who wins. The question is, how are right-wing groups really trying to influence the race, and why are they receiving cooperation from some of the candidates for Chair?
A group called “Citizens for a Blue Wisconsin” announced this week they would host a forum with all the candidates for Democratic Party Chair and their running mates. No one has ever before heard of such a group, and none of the organizers are members of the Democratic Party nor are they delegates to the Convention where the election will be held. Furthermore, no record of this group exists with the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board or any oversight agency. It is clear the group is not a real grassroots organization.
The forum, to be held this Saturday, was announced, cancelled, and then reinstated as candidates determined whether to participate. As of this writing, Martha Laning and Jeff Smith have agreed to participate, as has Joe Wineke. However, no candidate for Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair should be willing to be seen on a stage with the organizers of this event.
First and foremost, the moderator of the forum is retired judge Russell Stamper, Sr. In retirement, Judge Stamper has made statements that are charitably described as offensive, if not prejudiced and outright hateful.
Stamper is a vocal anti-Semite and homophobe, and has said that homosexuality is the equivalent of bestiality and pedophilia. He thinks there is a conspiracy by the United States to control the population of African-Americans, and that homosexuality is a mental war on African Americans to “weaken and feminize the mind of the Black man who would resist oppression.” He says homosexuality would create “weak, sissified” men incapable of “defending his woman, his children, his parents, grandparents and/or his people against the enemy.”
As a further insult, the forum is being held on the day that openly gay Jason Rae is marrying his longtime partner. The organizers and other candidates for Chair expect Jason to come to a forum on his wedding day, moderated by a known anti-gay activist.
If that weren’t enough, this is a forum for Democratic Party chair, yet Stamper equates President Barack Obama with Adolf Hitler and calls him “Der Fuhrer.” Stamper mourned the death of Muammar Ghaddafi of Libya, and sings the praises of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Stamper even defends ISIS and says they are the equivalent of the Catholic Church. He uses the most offensive possible language to describe Israel and the Jewish people. Finally, in an era where women are fighting for rights long-thought won, Stamper proudly speaks up and praises domestic abuser Floyd Mayweather and rapist Bill Cosby.
Why would any Democrat agree to be at a forum moderated by someone with such awful, extreme, anti-progressive views?
Judge Stamper’s involvement is not the only reason to be concerned about this group and their event. Organizing the event is perennial candidate Laura Manriquez, who has been supported by the pro-voucher school group American Federation for Children, and has attacked her opponents based on sexual orientation. See a theme here? She even proudly accepted an endorsement from disgraced GOP legislator Scott Suder. And, in case that wasn’t enough, Manriquez was stripped of her nursing license for stealing medication from her patients, and has been sued by the state for owing over $60,000 in taxes.
Manriquez’ buddy Robert Miranda has also been promoting the forum, after spending much of last three weeks loudly attacking Rae and his colleagues. Miranda has opposed many successful Latino candidates in Wisconsin that Rae and his firm have helped, including Alderman José Pérez, Judge Pedro Colón, and State Rep. JoCasta Zamarippa, and works under the banner of a website called Kingfish Milwaukee in addition to running the weekly Spanish Journal.
What is Kingfish? Well, this group, described as “shadowy” by Urban Milwaukee, served as an African-American front group for Sheriff David Clarke and has promoted privatizing public schools. They front for opponents of Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett and Police Chief Ed Flynn.
In fact, Kingfish allied with the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity to oppose economic development projects in Milwaukee. So, they must have salivated at an opportunity to make up a tie between Rae and the Koch Brothers, a falsehood which has been rejected by reporters at Urban Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and which was condemned by longtime labor reporter Dom Noth.
Miranda has a lengthy legal history, and was earlier this year convicted in a scheme to steal taxpayer money from the City of Milwaukee and obstruct the ensuing police investigation. He’s also been the subject of several restraining orders.
These individuals have used this playbook before, trying to pit progressives against one another in an effort to advance an anti-women, anti-education, homophobic, and bigoted agenda. Given that record, one must question the judgment of candidates for Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair who have agreed to appear at this event. Are Martha Laning, Jeff Smith and Joe Wineke really going to stand on a stage with these people? Do they endorse the attacks on Rae for not attending this terrible event on his wedding day?
The Republicans have a long record of trying to influence the Democratic election. Sometimes they run fake candidates in primaries. Sometimes they support weak candidates to try and defeat strong champions. They use misinformation and shadowy groups. We’ve seen this before, but now candidates to lead the state party are working with groups seeking to undermine it.
Jason Rae, who has a long record of standing up for Democrats, for labor, for education, for equal rights, is accused of conspiracy with right-wing groups. In this upside-down race, multiple candidates with a history of losing their own elections, and one who has no documented history of being a Democratic activist who didn’t vote in recent key elections now claim they have the formula to lead the party to victory.
If you’re willing to stand up next to a bigot, asking your opponent to come on his wedding day and submit to questioning from individuals with these beliefes, I seriously doubt that you’re the person with the competence and judgment to lead the Democratic Party. This event crystallizes the race between the leaders and the followers, and I think it is clear Democrats should stand with Jason Rae.
Saul Newton is a student at University of Wisconsin-Waukesha and a U.S. Army veteran, serving one deployment to Afghanistan. Newton writes about state and local politics, education and veterans issues for the “Rally Point” blog on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Purple Wisconsin community of bloggers.