Court decisions, law change create rivers of cash from ultrarich donors to candidates, as long as they flow through the partyContinue reading “Million Dollar Checks”
BY HOWARD HARDEE
In this time of nasty partisanship, the candidate from The Moderation Party is realistic about his chances of winning a seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly next month.
“Very slim,” said Steven Shevey, a 21-year-old steamfitter from Brookfield. “If I do win, great, but the one thing I want out of this is to get someone better.”
Shevey was inspired to run under the banner of his invented political party after getting fed up with the two-party system during the 2016 presidential election.
“You had two candidates no one liked,” he said. “After that, we had two government shutdowns that cost taxpayers billions of dollars. And then seeing the direction of everything and how it’s going, you have the two parties trying to outdo themselves. As in, ‘I’m a Republican, I’m going as far right as I can because I don’t want to be next to you Democrats.’ And the Democrats do the same. We need to find the middle.”
An usually crowded field is jostling for the open seat in Assembly District 14, which covers portions of the Republican-leaning towns of Brookfield and Wauwatosa, as well as part of blue Milwaukee. Four candidates are running to replace outgoing Republican Assemblyman Dale Kooyenga: Wisconsin State Treasurer and Republican Matt Adamczyk, Democrat Robyn Vining, Libertarian Rick Braun, and the independent Shevey.
During a recent interview in downtown Madison, he described himself as a family-oriented, working-class guy who likes to go fishing and keep up on the Packers. He has a “huge Christian background” and said he goes to church with his parents every Sunday.
A graduate of Brookfield Central High School, he briefly pursued an associate’s degree in accounting from Waukesha County Technical College, but dropped out to become a steamfitter’s apprentice.
Now he’s feeling squeezed financially.
“I’m trying to buy a house soon,” he says. “I’ve seen how the cost has skyrocketed to where you can’t really afford a house. You’re kind of forced to rent. It’s basically done a 180 from when my parents could get out of high school and get a good-paying job.”
“Nowadays, you can’t get a good-paying job unless you go to a four-year college or something like that,” he continued. “So, you’re kind of stuck at your parent’s house for a long time.”
When it comes to politics, he tends to lean to the right, but prefers middle-of-the-road over the extremes he sees today. He’s critical of both Obamacare and Trump’s tax plan, and he’s also turned off by the generally ugly tone of today’s political discourse. Shevey believes voters are ready for a younger candidate with an independent voice — someone who won’t engage in tribalism and personal attacks.
Enter his main opponent, Adamczyk. The outgoing state treasurer and likely favorite in the red 14th District fits the increasingly common mold of a brash and uncompromising politician.
Secretary of State Doug La Follete, a Democrat, and Attorney General Brad Schimel, who is from his own Republican Party, have both accused him of abusive behavior toward the state employees they oversee. The three elected officials sit on the State of Wisconsin Board of Commissioners and Public Lands, whose nine-employee agency manages a billion-dollar fund and caretakes some 80,000 acres of state land.
Adamczyk had previously voted to prevent staff from discussing climate change on the job, and also tried to have the administrator fired. She eventually resigned.
Most recently, Adamczyk butted heads with Schimel and La Follette during an August meeting.
After Adamczyk questioned the credentials of agency staff and suggested they didn’t have professional backgrounds, he interrupted repeatedly as a staff member attempted to explain his work experience. That prompted Schimel to say, “just shut it for a minute,” calling him “abusive and unreasonable” to staff, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
“Matt, I gotta tell ya, I’m counting the days ‘til you’re not on this board,” Schimel told Adamczyk in the meeting. “I’ve had enough.
Adamczyk did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The contrast between Shevey and Adamczyk is representative of the statewide shift away from relatively moderate and civil politics. Wisconsin has morphed from the moderate-to-progressive Midwestern state it had been for decades, said Joe Czarnezki, a former state assemblyman, senator and Milwaukee County Clerk. A lifelong Democrat, he said personal attacks were rare when he served as an elected representative in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and across-the-aisle collaborations were much more common.
“You would argue about the issues,” he said, “and go get a beer together afterward.”
In recent years though, partisanship in state politics has become much more overt, said Larry Anderson, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater.
“I’m left with the impression that it’s not as clean as it used to be,” he said. “It’s hyperpartisan now, reflecting the divisions in the United States, and it seems like nobody is happy.”
Yet Anderson disagrees with Czarnezki, saying the process of political polarization began long ago, well before the famously divisive 2012 recall election of Gov. Scott Walker. He referred to a political saying dating back to 1895 – “politics ain’t bean-bag.”
“It’s always been nasty,” he said.
The rise of social media has played a role, Anderson said. He also cited globalization, immigration and the changing economy as the primary forces behind the decline of civil politics.
But, he emphasized, it all starts and ends with us.
“We get what we ask for,” Anderson said. “If we start asking for more decency and more cooperation, I think we get that.”
“I don’t think Scott Walker or Donald Trump have done anything other than what some people want them to do,” he continued. “On the other side, I don’t think Democrats have done anything other than fight hard and take what they can, when they can. I think that’s what we’re asking for, so if we want things to change, we have to be really clear about expecting our politicians to be more decent.”
From Czarnezki’s viewpoint, the polarization of Wisconsin’s politics is a reflection of “voters losing control of democracy.” Big money talks in a big way, he said, often influencing politicians to act against the majority’s will.
Shevey said he isn’t accepting donations, noting he doesn’t want to owe anyone on the off-chance he’s elected. He’s self-funding his campaign through his work earnings, reporting about $2,700 in contributions from himself. His opponents certainly are taking donations though. Adamczyk has raised nearly $37,000, but has been outraised by Vining, his Democratic challenger, by nearly $6,000, according to the most recent campaign finance filings on www.followthemoney.org. The Libertarian Braun has raised $755.
Czarnezki also noted that thousands of Wisconsin voters were essentially barred from participating in the 2016 presidential election thanks to the state’s strict voter ID law, pointing to findings from a study at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
However, Czarnezki is encouraged by the surge in young, first-time candidates running for office throughout the country. Shevey’s politically-moderate campaign and others like it may cause his Democratic and Republican counterparts to “modify their positions on issues and soften their hardline stances,” Czarnezki said.
Shevey believes voters are tired of lifelong politicians who are more interested in career preservation than serving the public. And so he views youth and relative political inexperience not as a hindrance, but an advantage.
“I think that makes the best candidates,” he said.
By PETER CAMERON
At least six members of the Wisconsin State Assembly have filed for personal bankruptcy at some point, The Badger Project has discovered in an investigation of federal court records.
The six legislators, all men, are Republicans and Democrats. The group consists of Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee), Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville), Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin), John Spiros (R-Marshfield), Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego) and Leon Young (D-Milwaukee).
Five of the assemblymen did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
Wichgers, whose 83rd District covers Muskego, Big Bend and Waterford, told The Badger Project his bankruptcy was caused by large medical bills incurred when his wife endured two miscarriages in a short period of time, as well as another hospital visit for one of his eight children.
With their bills exceeding their monthly income by about $1,000, Wichgers said he and his wife tried to negotiate a payment plan they could afford. But the hospitals “would not budge at all,” according to their Milwaukee-based attorney, Joseph W. Seifert. Wichgers and his wife owed about $50,000 in medical debt, Seifert told The Badger Project. The Wichgers filed for bankruptcy in 2010.
Young, whose 16th District covers part of Milwaukee, reported more than $10,000 in debt to a Las Vegas hotel and casino, Mandalay Bay Resort, according to bankruptcy documents he filed in 2010. In total, he reported more than $200,000 in debt.
Spiros, whose 86th District includes part of Marshfield as well as Mosinee and Marathon City, reported more than $100,000 in consumer debt, according to his initial bankruptcy documents, which he filed in 2002.
Sanfelippo, whose 15th District covers West Allis and New Berlin in the Milwaukee suburbs, reported the most debt of the six politicians, at nearly $900,000. Much of that appears to have come from a failed business. That debt included nearly $21,000 in unpaid payroll withholding taxes owed to the state, and more than $300,000 in a tax debt for state unemployment insurance. Now 54, Sanfelippo filed for bankruptcy in 2001. He sat on the Assembly Committee on Financial Institutions in 2017 and 2018.
Fields, whose 11th District covers the north side of Milwaukee, was in between stints as a state legislator when he filed for bankruptcy in 2016. He listed $6,000 in assets, and reported some medical and student debt in the more than $270,000 he owed to creditors. Despite his financial history, Fields, 44, promotes himself as a professional investment manager. He also sat on the Assembly Committee on Financial Institutions in 2017 and 2018.
And in a situation that comes as no surprise to us at The Badger Project, Novak filed for bankruptcy in 1992 while working as an editor for The Dodgeville Chronicle newspaper (journalists don’t make much money).
Novak represents the 51st District, which includes Dodgeville, Mineral Point, and Monroe. The 53-year-old politician also serves as the mayor of Dodgeville, earning $7,000 annually for that position. Because Novak’s bankruptcy documentation is so old, it has been disposed of, according to the Federal Records Center in Chicago.
All six assemblymen filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, according to federal court records. Individuals file for bankruptcy when they can’t afford to pay their debts. The chapter 7 type allows debtors to sell some nonessential assets and put that cash towards their debts, rather than entering a payment plan. Many of the other debts are wiped clean and the debtors no longer legally owe them to their creditors.
More than 16,000 bankruptcies were filed in Wisconsin in 2016, the most recent year data is available from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. That’s about 3.7 per 1,000 adults in Wisconsin.
The number of bankruptcies filed in Wisconsin has fallen steadily since 2010, the heart of the Great Recession, when more than 29,000 filed in the state in 2010, for a rate of about 6.8 per 1,000 Wisconsin adults.
Source: Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts
With at least six assemblymen filing bankruptcy at some point, that’s a rate of at least 6 percent in the 100-member Assembly. That body, along with the Wisconsin State Senate, was responsible for crafting and passing the state’s $76 billion, two-year budget last year. The Republican-controlled State Assembly and State Senate haggled 10 weeks past the July 1 deadline before passing it.
The legislators’ bankruptcies raise questions about the Assembly’s ability to balance a budget, especially in a year when the legislature took weeks past its deadline to get it passed.
But managing one’s personal finances and crafting and voting on a state budget is not an apples to apples comparison, according to James Simmons, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh.
“State budgets involve the value and priorities legislators place on policies and programs,” he wrote in an email. “Furthermore, their voting on budgets usually reflect clear partisan divisions and party line agenda rather than the individual financial acumen of the elected official.”
And legislators don’t manage the state’s day-to-day finances as the heads of state agencies do, he noted.
The two Democrats, Fields and Young, were serving as assemblymen during part or all of their bankruptcy process. State representatives and state senators make about $50,000 annually.
All four Republicans declared bankruptcy years before taking office.
It’s not uncommon to see legislators with a history of personal bankruptcy, Simmons said.
“This is not something that usually hurts them,” Simmons said. “I can’t think of any race in which bankruptcy or personal finance can be attributed to a loss.”
“When it comes to state legislators, most people who vote for them know very little about them,” he continued.
Simmons also noted the high profile case of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose companies have filed for bankruptcy protection multiple times over the years.
“If (a history of bankruptcy) isn’t going to affect a high-information race, it certainly won’t have much effect on a low-information race,” Simmons said.
Fields is the only candidate virtually assured of retaining his seat next year. The Democrat is running unopposed in both the August primary election and the November general election.
Republicans Novak, Sanfelippo and Wichgers have no primary opponents, but must defeat Democrat challengers to remain in the Assembly.
Spiros, a 57-year-old Republican, faces a challenger in the August primary. Should he prevail, he must defeat a Democrat and an Independent candidate in the general.
Young, a a 51-year-old Democrat, is leaving the Assembly after more than two decades. Party leaders stripped him of his committee assignments earlier this year. The reasons why are unclear, but Young has said they did so because he pushed for an assault weapons ban.
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By PETER CAMERON
The future soldier and politician lost his temper, and turned violent.
Dale Kooyenga tackled and punched a 17-year-old boy in 2000 during a dispute outside a summer party in Sheboygan. Now a 39-year-old Republican state representative from Brookfield, Kooyenga was 21 at the time police filed a criminal charge of disorderly conduct against him.
The incident has received little public attention. The assemblyman did not return messages seeking comment.
While at the party at Kooyenga’s Sheboygan residence, the minor victim got into an argument with his sisters and Kooyenga. Eventually, Kooyenga chased down the teen and struck him, according to the report from the Sheboygan Police Department. Officers noted the boy had a torn shirt and a black eye.
Investigators originally charged Kooyenga with a misdemeanor criminal offense, which carried a maximum fine of $1,000 and 90 days in jail, but he was allowed to plead no contest to a lesser offense of disorderly conduct. He paid a fine of $181.25.
Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative was apparently the first to break the story, though The Badger Project discovered it independently.
Kooyenga is trying to move up politically, running for the Wisconsin State Senate seat in the 5th District being vacated by state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield), who is running for U.S. Senate.
The conviction is probably not a major blemish for a politician, said Joe Czarnezki, who served for 12 years in the Wisconsin State Assembly and Senate as well as in Milwaukee city government.
“I think generally, voters are willing to forgive youthful indiscretions,” the 63-year-old Democrat said. “Especially today, when people see what’s going on in the Trump administration, things that would have been major scandals in the past.”
“I don’t know if the public is becoming more tolerant, or just numb to what’s going on,” he added.
In an unrelated and more recent incident, police confronted Kooyenga last year when he was caught on security cameras taking a sign from the state Capitol building criticizing President Donald Trump and Wisconsin Republicans. The owner of the sign had received a permit for it and complained to Capitol Police when it disappeared. Kooyenga later returned the sign and apologized.
But that didn’t stop the man from filing a federal lawsuit against him. A judge had set a jury trial date, but Kooyenga agreed in April to pay a $30,000 settlement to the man. The state representative also said he would cover the costs, rather than allow taxpayers to do so. He did not clarify whether he would pay the settlement with his own cash or campaign contributions, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The assemblyman is a captain and intelligence officer in the Army Reserve. He deployed to Iraq in 2008 and was awarded a bronze star, according to his Army service record.
He was first elected to the Assembly in 2010.
The race for the Wisconsin State Senate seat in the 5th District, which covers the Republican-leaning west suburbs of Milwaukee, is a crowded one. Kooyenga faces a Democrat, Julie Henszey of Wauwatosa and an Independent, Joe Zwier of West Allis. The general election is in November.
The disorderly conduct conviction could come up in the fast-approaching campaign season, Czarnezki said.
“While the voters may be willing to overlook a youthful indiscretion, that doesn’t stop an opponent from using it against you, which is the more likely scenario,” he said.
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By PETER CAMERON
On an early Sunday afternoon in January of 2014, police responded to a car crash in the Milwaukee suburb of Brown Deer. Officers arrived to find the vehicle up on a snowbank in the median. The bloodied driver had stumbled from the van and tried to leave the scene, witnesses told police.
That driver was Jason M. Fields, who at the time was in between stints as a Democratic Assemblyman from the 11th district, which covers Milwaukee. It was about 12:30 p.m.
When Brown Deer Police confronted Fields after the crash, the man said he “f***** up” in slurred speech, according to the police report.
Fields told police he had “a lot” to drink, according to the report, and officers found an open bottle of vodka in the van. He was later found to have a blood-alcohol level of .305, well over the legal limit of .08.
Police arrested Fields, and he later pleaded guilty to his second drunk driving conviction. The Badger Report discovered the conviction while sifting through the court records of state legislators.
Fields did not respond to messages seeking comment.
He was again stopped in Madison on March 18, 2015 by Capital Police and cited for driving without a license, which had been revoked. He has still not paid his fine of about $200 for that citation, according to court documents.
A police mugshot of State Rep. Jason M. Fields from 2014 while in between stints in the Wisconsin State Assembly.
The politician’s first drunk driving arrest came in 2008 when he was a sitting state representative. Police arrested Fields in March of that year after seeing him swerving on the highway, according to an article from The Pioneer Press.
He lost his seat in a primary election in 2012 to Mandela Barnes, who is now running for lieutenant governor.
While running to return to office in 2016, Fields seemed to hint at the second drunk driving conviction during an interview with Fox 6 in Milwaukee.
“I have lied, cheated, done some outrageously stupid things and made horrible decisions,” he told the TV station. “But I will always confess to them and do my best to be as transparent as possible.”
He declined to elaborate when asked, according to the Fox 6 piece.
Fields went on to easily defeat Darrol D. Gibson of Milwaukee, earning more than 58 percent of the vote and winning by a vote count of 2,933 to 2,063 in the Democratic Primary election in August 2016. He faced no opposition from the Republican Party in the November 2016 general election.
At the moment, no challengers have announced they are running against Fields.
Joe Heim, a longtime political science professor at UW-La Crosse, said drunk driving convictions are not always fatal to political careers. Particularly in Wisconsin, a view Fields seemed to prove by winning reelection after his first arrest.
“Part of that has to do with the fact that Wisconsin is widely known as a drinking state,” Heim said. “I think most of us that see stuff like that and feel bad for the person. We all kind of remember that maybe there were times in our lives when the same thing could have happened, but for the fate of God, we got lucky. I think a lot of people in this state are fairly sympathetic about it.”
Fields is not the only sitting representative in the Assembly with at least one drunk driving conviction on his record. State Rep. Josh Zepnick, another Milwaukee Democrat, was arrested for the offense in October of 2015 and later convicted.
“But if (a drunk driving conviction) occurs two or three times, that’s another story,” Heim said. ‘In cases like that, I think it can be fatal or very difficult for a politician to win reelection.”
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