This story was produced in partnership with The NEWcomer, an independent, Northeast Wisconsin politics, arts, and culture publication.
Attack ads, outside political money, and partisan lines have taken the spotlight days ahead of the majority nonpartisan April general election in Brown County.
On March 31, International Trans Visibility Day, the Brown County Democratic Party released a statement asking for candidates in the local school board races to denounce transphobic statements from radio talk show host Joe Giganti, who hosts the Regular Joe Show on WTAQ (97.5FM-1360AM) owned by Midwest Communications, Inc. Midwest Communications owns 81 radio properties across multiple midwest states.
On March 29, Giganti made inflammatory, transphobic remarks about Brown County’s Branch 4 Circuit Court candidate Rachel Maes and her openly transgender identity by bringing up Maes’s marital history, deadnaming the candidate multiple times, and comparing Maes’s transgender identity as a lapse in judgment, similar to if the incumbent Judge Kendall Kelley suddenly “decided he wanted to be a leprechaun.”
The Brown County Democrats asked candidates and businesses to pull their support of WTAQ in the wake of this segment.
This comes to fruition as legislators across the state have introduced bills to restrict or harm the wellbeing of LBGTQ citizens.
State Representative Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc) was the lead author on a bill that would restrict transgender students in public K-12 schools from participating in organized sports and mirrors legislation being circulated in the dozens of states in the U.S.
The Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules is co-chaired by State Representative Joan Ballweg (R – Markesan) and State Senator Stephen Nass (R – Whitewater). This committee introduced a bill blocking a state Department of Safety and Professional Standards measure to prohibit conversion therapy, a historically harmful practice that aims to change sexual orientation.
Five days before the April election, Wisconsin school superintendent candidates Jill Underly and Deborah Kerr exchanged heated words regarding allowing trans children to play in high school sports.
Underly said she would reject the bill barring trans girls to play on a girl’s team, while Kerr said she supports the bill and has heard from many parents worried about the issue. In nearly every state proposing similar bills, lawmakers can’t cite local examples of the issue.
In the Brown County Circuit Court race, candidate Maes has faced ongoing anti-transgender attacks. The incumbent Kelley has been largely silent regarding the anti-trans sentiment his opponent faces and did not respond to repeated requests to comment on the ongoing rhetoric.
Maes has also been the target of a recent physical mailer circulating in Brown County.
Photos obtained by The NEWcomer show an advertisement calling Maes “radical Rachel Maes” and affirming Kelley as the “law and order candidate.” The mailer incorrectly states that Maes asked the City of Green Bay taxpayers to pay for her gender transition while also misgendering the candidate.
“The City didn’t even cover gender confirmation care until January of this year,” said Maes in a phone call.
As a City employee(Green Bay assistant attorney), Maes said she pays for her health care premiums like anyone else.
“How is it any different than someone getting the care that they need from their insurance plan,” Maes said.
The attacks against Maes are consistent with a fractured relationship between the transgender community and the health care industry.
‘It’s just transphobic and othering language,” said Maes.
The mailer is paid for by the Wisconsinites for Liberty Fund, an independent expenditure committee registered with the state of Wisconsin. The address listed on the fund’s registration forms is associated with a UPS store in Pewaukee.
The phone number the group filed with the state matches that of Forward Brown County, a tax-exempt advocacy organization under section 501c4 of the Internal Revenue Code. 501c4 organizations are dubbed social welfare organizations and “must not be organized for profit and must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare.”
Forward Brown County lists three representatives according to their 2018 990 filings: treasurer Brandon Rosner, a Milwaukee healthcare consultant and former Republican State Assembly candidate for District 97, president Rock Kramer, the retired owner of Temployment in Green Bay, and secretary Robert Atwell, CEO and chairman of Nicolet National Bank.
Atwell is the treasurer for the incumbent’s campaign committee Re-Elect Judge Kendall Kelley.
The same phone number for Forward Brown County is listed on the Wisconsinites For Liberty Fund’s filing and can be found associated with Rosner’s Midwest Growth Inc, which loaned the Wisconsinites for Liberty Fund $20,000 in February according to a campaign filing.
Midwest Growth has a history of funding attack ads, according to a 2018 report by RightWisconsin, where it was revealed Rosner was behind attack ads on then-State Representative Andre Jacque.
An April 1 expense report from the fund shows they spent $10,000 on mailers in opposition of Maes and in support of Kelley. A Dropbox link to the April report can be found here.
Atwell and Rosner’s direct relationship to the Wisconsinites for Liberty Fund is unclear. Rosner, Atwell, and Kelley’s campaign did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls.
Kelley has, however, been speaking with his campaign coffers. The incumbent judge has raised nearly seven times Maes has, according to campaign finance records released on March 29.
Kelley received $14,420 from individuals since the beginning of the year. Major donors include Atwell($2,000), Prevea Health Orthopedic Surgeon Mark Schick($2,000), general litigation attorney George Burnett($1,000), former State Treasurer of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Assemblyperson Cate Zeuske ($1,000), and Green Bay Packaging President and CEO William Kress ($500). Kelley’s most recent financial report can be found here.
Maes has not received a single sum donation over $100 so far this year, with a total amount raised of $2,707.98 in 2021. Notable donations come from attorney Gabriel Siehr($100), property claims attorney Crystal Uebelher($100), and UW-Green Bay Director of Inclusive Excellence and Pride Center director Stacie Christian($100). Maes’s most recent campaign finance report can be found here.
A recent physical mailer circulating in Brown County lobs transgender attacks in opposition of candidate Maes while supporting candidate Kelley. The mailer was funded by the Wisconsinites for Liberty Fund, an independent expenditure committee registered with the state of Wisconsin.
Two candidates for local school board elections, Angela Hoisington for Unified School District of De Pere and Rhonda Sitnikau for Green Bay Area Public Schools, were asked to pull funding for WTAQ following the attacks on Maes.
There are two challengers to two incumbent seats in the Unified School District of De Pere. Incumbents Dan Van Straten and Jeff Mirkes are up against Hoisington and Chad Jeskewitz. Hoisington and Jeskewitz are the only candidates who have had to file campaign finance reports according to DePere Administrative Assistant Tracy Schrader. All other candidates have filed campaign exemption reports. To be eligible for a campaign finance exemption, the candidate’s committee must not accept contributions or expenditures in aggregate of $2,000 in a calendar year according to Wisconsin State Statutes. Hoisington initially filed as exempt but had to amend this filing.
Jeskewitz has raised a total of $9,622 year to date and Hoisington has raised $3,418 according to finance reports received from the school district. All of Jeskewitz’s donations have come from individuals while Hoisington received donations from the Republican Party of Brown County($500) and Rebecca PAC, a fund created by former Wisconsin Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch($400).
Hoisington came under fire from the Brown County Democrats for running advertisements on WTAQ, which according to campaign filings, she paid $725 to Midwest Communications in late March. When Hoisington was reached for comment, she was unable to provide one as she was unaware of any communications from the Brown County Democrats.
In Green Bay, two challengers are also up against two incumbents on the school board. Incumbents Sitnikau and Andrew Becker will face Nancy Welch and Bryan Milz in the April general election. Sitnikau was asked by the Brown County Democrats to pull advertisements from WTAQ in the wake of transphobic remarks.
Sitnikau said she is a staunch supporter of LGBTQ rights, but felt the nature of the Brown County Democrats’ actions were hypocritical.
“This was marginalization in the most vindictive and inaccurate and false way to rally around marginalization, it is one of the biggest issues we have in politics right now,” said Sitnikau.
Sitnikau said adding partisan flavor to nonpartisan elections creates a lot of issues.
Incumbent Sitnikau has since asked that WTAQ pull her advertisements from the Regular Joe Show airtime and be placed somewhere else in their schedule, and according to Sitnikau, the station has agreed.
“The Brown County Democrats attempted to link me with the insensitive comments of the host of the Regular Joe program,” said Sitnikau in a statement on Facebook. ”His comments do not represent me. Any effort to say otherwise is a complete and total fabrication.”
Almost all of the positions up for election this April are supposedly nonpartisan positions. The same can be said for the parties associated with the Brown County Democrats’ call to action.
Renée Gasch, Chair of the Democratic Party of Brown County, said they do not endorse local nonpartisan races, but this didn’t keep them out of the mix.
“It’s within our values to defend the trans community and that’s what we did,” said Gasch.
Gasch said the party campaigns for LGBTQ rights strongly and has a history of supporting the community, with the sole example of routinely supporting Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, the first openly LGBT woman elected to the House of Representatives and to the Senate.
“Frankly I worry more about transphobia in the community than I do partisanship,” said Gasch.
The recent mailers sent and continued radio rants paint a clear picture for Gasch, who is aware that partisanship is encircling nonpartisan elections.
“We don’t endorse in races,” said Gasch, “but I can tell you personally there’s a clear choice for the candidate that aligns with my values.”
Incumbent Kelley publicly lists endorsements from Wisconsin Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher, State Senator Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay), and Representative Dave Steffen(R – Green Bay) on his campaign website.
The Republican Party of Brown County “recommends” candidates according to their website, but does not formally endorse nonpartisan candidates.
Despite the nonpartisan label, a local expert in the matter said voters are well aware of outside influences on candidates.
“Voters are certainly capable of picking up on partisan or ideological cues in nonpartisan races,” said Aaron Weinschenk, UW-Green Bay’s Ben J. and Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Political Science, whose work focuses on political behavior in the United States.
Weinschenk said some voters actually prefer partisanship on the ballot, as it helps voters have an understanding of a candidate and can lead to stronger turnouts.
“Voters like and use cues in low-information races and partisan elections tend to see more voter engagement,” said Weinschenk.
Weinschenk said for positions in which voters would hope party lines do battle elsewhere, such as judges or justices, there are still internal biases for those in the role.
“If everyone just read laws and policies and knew what they meant, then we wouldn’t need judges. There would be no ambiguity,” said Weinschenk. “You can probably take any law or rule and interpret it in a variety of different ways depending on your predispositions.”
Weinschenk and his students observed these party lines as it relates to State Supreme Court elections in a May 2020 Justice System Journal study.
The study found states with partisan ballots have a tight link between presidential and state supreme court voting patterns, which remained consistent over the timespan studied.
“In states with nonpartisan elections, there has been some variability in the relationship between presidential and supreme court voting patterns, although there has been an uptick in the strength of the relationship over time,” according to the report.
When asked about how voters should navigate partisanship with local, nonpartisan elected officials, Weinschenk referenced a March 2001 Political Research Quarterly study which found “nonpartisanship depresses turnout and in nonpartisan contests voters rely less on a party and more on incumbency in their voting decision.”
“Perhaps some of the positions that people think are not partisan are partisan after all,” said Weinschenk.