Reader Mailbag: Alex Lasry and the 2022 Senate Race, Ron Johnson's Unforgivable Insurrection Whitewashing, Wisconsin’s Legislative Inaction Streak Ends

A few words on the biggest story in Wisconsin, the end of a 300+ day streak, and then answers for a whole lot of your questions.

The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

Welcome to another Mailbag Edition of The Recombobulation Area. Thanks to everyone who sent in a question, or even just sent a kind email. We’re so lucky to have the very best readers around here.

Before I get to your questions, there are a couple things in thenews that happened over the past month or so that I don’t want to leave unaddressed.

1. What Ron Johnson is doing is unforgivable.

Ron Johnson helped fuel the Big Lie that led to the insurrection and now he’s leading the effort to whitewash what happened at the Capitol. As a guest on conservative talk radio, Johnson downplayed the violent reality of the attack that left at least five dead and injured more than 140 members of law enforcement, saying “it didn’t seem like an armed insurrection to me.” 

This was a very obvious lie, and one that’s beyond disrespectful to the people harmed by the riotous pro-Trump mob at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Johnson is showing a callous indifference of the immense gravity of this attack, and continues to be enveloped in conspiracy theories at every turn. 

Not only is he attempting to whitewash the most serious attack on the U.S. Capitol since the War of 1812, he has also attempted to baselessly cast blame on people like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Until very recently, Johnson was chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, where he drew ire from hearings over the last few months that gave a platform and lent legitimacy to covid disinformation, election conspiracies, and nonsense about Hunter Biden. It’s a good thing he won’t have that same seat when that same committee investigates the failures surrounding the insurrection.

Johnson is on a short list of people in government most responsible for fueling the Big Lie of a stolen election that led to the insurrection. He bears responsibility for the carnage of that awful day.

And now, having faced no consequences for those actions, and having expressed no regret, he is now unapologetically doing the same thing all over again. Johnson’s central role in this moment continues to be the biggest story in Wisconsin state politics. 

What he’s doing is unforgivable. Others may use their positions of power -- a six-year term as Wisconsin’s senior Senator, in his case -- to do some good. He’s using his to shamelessly peddle conspiracies and fuel domestic terrorist attacks.It is unacceptable. He has to go.

2. At long last, the Republican-led Legislature’s streak of inaction comes to an end.

As you well know as readers of The Recombobulation Area, the Republican-led Wisconsin State Legislature took hundreds of days off at this time of genuine crisis, earning themselves the title of the nation’s “least active full-time legislature” during the coronavirus pandemic. 

That inaction streak technically came to an end after 296 days, when Republicans in the Assembly abandoned a compromise bill struck between the Senate and the governor’s office, and instead passed a bill with revisions that ensured a veto from Gov. Tony Evers (namely, language that would have limited local health authorities from taking action to respond to the pandemic, even as the Legislature had made a localized plan with no statewide actions the thrust of their pandemic response for much of 2020). 

With the compromise bill abandoned and the doomed bill vetoed, the streak of inaction extended beyond 300 days until Thursday, Feb. 18. And on the 309th day without a new bill passed and signed, Evers signed a bill advanced by Republicans that received bipartisan support in both chambers of the Legislature. The bill would make PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans from the federal government received as part of coronavirus relief efforts deductible from state tax in addition to federal tax (and there’s a bitmore to it, and there are a few debatable details within the bill, too). Is that now-passed bill the single biggest priority of anything the state legislature could have dealt with these past 10 months? Not exactly, but it provides a necessary fix that will help businesses at a time of crisis. And hey, maybe there’s more that could fit a similar description of necessary helpfulness coming through the pipeline in Wisconsin, as the governor on Friday signed a bill allowing pharmacy technicians and students administer the covid vaccine, and a bill starting the process of updating the state’s antiquated unemployment insurance software appears headed for the governor’s desk to soon be signed, as well. Was that all so hard?

Things are finally happening in Madison. That’s a good thing. But a time period of about 300 days where the Republican-led State Legislature stopped working amid crisis after crisis will never stop being completely indefensible, and actively damaging to the state of Wisconsin..

With that, it’s on to the mailbag questions…

Kyle Carr: Who do you think will be the Democratic candidate to run for the Senate in 2022? 

This question was sent in to Recombobulation Area HQ just minutes before news broke that Alex Lasry would be joining the race for U.S. Senate., so circumstances around this news changed quickly, and the buzz around Lasry’s announcement was a big topic in the Wisconsin political universe this week. The 33-year-old Lasry, currently an executive for the Milwaukee Bucks, joins Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson as the two declared candidates in the race. More are expected to run, as well.

Lasry’s entry into the race was not unexpected, but what came as a bit of a surprise were those alongside him, showing support for his candidacy in his campaign announcement. Big names in Milwaukee politics, including County Executive David Crowley, Common Council President Chevy Johnson, Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa, Alderwoman Nikiya Harris Dodd, and Democratic Party officials Martha Love and Khary Penebaker were prominently featured, and that’s no small thing. 

That support lended some immediate legitimacy to a campaign that could be (and has been) an easy target for criticism. Alex Lasry has never before held elected office, and is the son of Marc Lasry, the billionaire Bucks owner and co-founder and CEO of Avenue Capital Group, a New York-based hedge fund, and those first-line-of-the-biography facts certainly open the door for critics to walk right through, especially those within the Democratic electorate who have grown increasingly wary of particularly wealthy individuals making their way into politics. And though he’s been a visible (and largely well-liked) figure in Milwaukee in recent years, it’s unclear how well-known he is in other parts of the state. On the national stage, he would be running to be the youngest U.S. Senator (he’s about a year younger than newly elected Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff), and this race will absolutely be attracting national attention -- meaning heightened national scrutiny for a political newcomer. Being a political candidate who is part of a professional sports franchise when players are often told to “stick to sports” could create complications, too. Lasry will face challenges, to be sure.

He could also win. There is a real path to victory for a Lasry campaign. But much of that will depend on the type of campaign infrastructure he surrounds himself with (so far, so good), what message he wants to send, and of course, who else is running. 

So, who else is running?

On the Republican side, we still don’t know what the hell Ron Johnson is doing -- both in general, and in 2022. He made a 2016 campaign promise not to seek a third term in 2022, but he says a lot of things. He also might apparently take another full year to decide on his political future, the AP reported. 

If Johnson opts against running for a third term, things could get messy for state Republicans, already navigating a potentially tricky gubernatorial primary (one that could now potentially include Reince Priebus!). After losing all but one statewide election since 2016 (state Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn in 2019, in a close low-turnout race), does the state GOP still have the bench to bring fresh candidates for two high-profile statewide races in 2022? That remains to be seen. 

However, considering Johnson’s abysmally shameful actions in recent months, the Republicans might fare better with a different candidate. Congressman Mike Gallagher is frequently mentioned as someone poised to run for higher office. Would this be his time to do it? Other Republican candidates mentioned for statewide runs have included former congressman Sean Duffy, former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch (almost certain to be running for governor), Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow (another likely gubernatorial candidate), Rep. Bryan Steil, and 2018 candidate Kevin Nicholson. 

On the Democratic side, the key figure in that larger discussion about 2022 appears to be Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes. As I mentioned in the last mailbag edition of The Recombobulation Area last October, I think he is incredibly important to Tony Evers’ re-election chances, providing an ideal complement to the governor on what proved to be a winning ticket in 2018. But Barnes could also be a formidable candidate in a Senate race. Winning in 2018 and becoming Wisconsin’s first Black lieutenant governor made him a household name statewide, and being a Milwaukee native could give him certain advantages in the state’s largest city. He could stick with Evers and help keep the governor’s mansion in Democratic control, or the 34-year-old could take a big swing and run for U.S. Senate. Which path will he choose?

Another elected official who appears set on running for higher office is State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski. She, too, could be a very strong candidate in the race for Senate. Although the office of state treasurer isn’t typically a contentious, high-profile contest, she won that race by a convincing 110,000-vote margin in 2018. Notable, too, is that she is perhaps the only woman set to join the race. Women have been powering Democratic victories in Wisconsin in recent years and Godlewski could help continue that winning streak. 

To be sure, neither Barnes nor Godlewski would be a perfect candidate (there are no perfect candidates!). There will be legitimate reasons to criticize both of them in this campaign if they choose to run. And others could join the mix, too. Steven Olikara, CEO of the Millennial Action Project, State Senator Chris Larson and former congressional candidate Randy Bryce are all reportedly considering candidacies. Tom Nelson’s campaign could prove to be formidable. It’s still very, very early. 

So, will we end up with a smaller Nelson-Lasry-Godlewski primary, or a Nelson-Lasry-Barnes primary? Or, could it be a sprawling Nelson-Lasry-Godlewski-Barnes-Olikara-Larson-Bryce-Surprise Candidate primary? It’s way, way too early to tell, and while I have many of my own preconceived notions about who I might support, I’m going to be giving every candidate a fair chance. 

What’s clear, though, is that the race for Johnson’s seat will be among the national spotlight campaigns for the 2022 midterms, and the Democrats absolutely cannot miss their shot to win this race. It’s going to be impossible to overstate its importance. This one is a monster. They had better be ready. 


Monica Reida: Justice Brian Hagedorn is particularly conservative, but he's been splitting from the other conservative justices regarding cases involving COVID-19. Is Hagedorn our state's version of Justice Kennedy? Or is that just a once in a blue moon thing of Hagedorn not being awful?

With Hagedorn, I think there is a different factor emerging within the larger conservative political realm. And more so than the covid cases, I think his decision in the 2020 election case is more illustrative of the space he and others will occupy. 

As you’ll recall, Hagedorn sided with the court’s three liberal justices to uphold the results of the 2020 election. And perhaps what shows is that many on the right, maybe even a majority, are more committed to electoral victory for their side than to the nation’s foundational democratic principles. Upholding the results of a free and fair election shouldn’t be a difficult decision, but it’s one that the three other conservative justices did not make. 

So, I think Hagedorn’s place as a swing vote on this Court puts him in a category of conservatives more like that of Mitt Romney or Illinois’s Adam Kinzinger than of Donald Trump and Ron Johnson. The space I see Hagedorn occupying will be one in which he will continue to make decisions as a conservative justice, perhaps even as a very conservative justice, just not one beholden solely to partisan interests when it comes to simple, foundational decisions like if votes should count or if the governor is allowed to govern.

Douglas Mahnke: Will the 2021 redistricting be as gerrymandered as the previous effort? I am disturbed that once again, the Republicans are calling in a legal team to do the work instead of a bipartisan committee.

Certainly disturbing was the news this week that Republican legislative leadership in Wisconsin is using nearly $1 million of our tax dollars to hire lawyers to defend them in the state’s inevitable redistricting fight. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LaMahieu “agreed to have the state pay as much as $965,000 for the services of attorney Adam Mortara and Consovoy McCarthy, the boutique law firm that has represented former President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee,” the Journal Sentinel reported. 

But with Tony Evers in the governor’s office, it won’t be as easy for Republicans to draw the maps this time. State law currently says that maps need to be approved by the Legislature and governor. I broke this down further in the last mailbag, but the most likely endgame is that it is headed to court. It’s just enormously depressing that we’re going to be stuck with the Legislature’s legal bill in its ongoing efforts to cement its position as the nation’s worst state legislative gerrymander. 

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Maxwell Love: Why did Evers go with $10.15 by 2024 instead of $15 by 2025 (for his proposed minimum wage increase)?

Minimum wage increases are always phased in over years; that’s not the issue. The issue is the number itself, which does seem low, and should be at $15 per hour. However, no Midwestern state currently has a minimum wage higher than $11 per hour. So perhaps this is both a hedge against the effort to raise the wage at the federal level falling flat, and a number that could be perceived as more palatable to gain bipartisan support. 

Michael Grimm: Why did Biden chose Milwaukee as his first non-White House public appearance since taking the oath? My gut is it’s a small reparations for the DNC fiasco and cancellations.

Because Milwaukee should be everyone’s first choice for everything!

Greg: Are there any parts of Evers’ budget that might pass as-is through this Legislature?

Certainly, there will be something to pass as-is. But the obstructionists are already out in full force. At a WisPolitics event this week, new Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Howard Marklein and Mark Born shot down proposals to legalize marijuana and raise the minimum wage. One area of potential compromise identified by Born was Evers’ $200 million proposal to expand rural broadband services. Other more pro-business aspects of the budget like $200 million in small business grants through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and establishing a new $100 million venture capital fund could also find bipartisan support within the budget. But to be sure, the Republican-led Legislature will be going out of their way to find fault with as much of the budget as they can. It seems as if the Democratic Party is the only one ever expected to make any compromises or attempt to work together to find common ground.

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Now, for a couple non-serious questions from the bird website to bring us home.

Ashley Luthern: Paczki: cultural touchstone or glorified donut? Related: best paczki filling?

Amy Lindner: How are we the only place that understands the joys of a crueller donut?

I suppose when you put out a call for questions on a Saturday morning, you shouldn’t be surprised when those questions are doughnut-related. Alas, I do not have the Polish heritage required for a paczki question. My relationship to the paczki consists largely of seeing them alongside a King Cake in the bakery at Metcalfe’s and thinking, “Oh, right. Lent is coming up,” and then must moving on to buy bread. I do love how much Milwaukee loves the paczki, though, and it is of course a cultural touchstone around here. Milwaukee also loves the cruller, and there’s a great WUWM piece on how the cruller is uniquely appreciated around here. 

So, let’s combine these questions into a Wisconsin bakery ranking.

1. Kringle

2. Cruller

3. Paczki

(enormous cliff)

4. Cream puff

It’s a close call between kringle and crullers for me, but kringle reminds me of holidays at my grandma’s house, so that gives it the edge. And though I love all the cheese-brat-beer staples of the Wisconsin diet, one of my least Wisconsin-ey food takes is that cream puffs are just not very good, so that is deep in last place. I always feel like I’m missing something with the cream puff. Something this difficult to eat should at least have the payoff of being especially tasty, and this is just a replacement-level pastry. We’ve got better options, Wisconsin. 

Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.

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