By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Joel Kleefisch said the nastiness can be relentless.
But the verbal assaults on his wife, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, and his family are the most hurtful, he said.
“One of the protesters yelled at me, ‘Your wife’s an effing whore,” said Kleefisch, a Republican state representative from Oconomowoc. “It’s abhorrent and in no way a form of expression that we should protect.”
These are politically charged days in Wisconsin, where angry, profane, abusive speech has become more common than any time in recent memory, state political watchers say.
Political expression, it seems, has become all the more pitched in these days of recall, and Rebecca Kleefisch carries a big recall target on her back.
The lieutenant governor, Gov. Scott Walker and four Republican state senators all face the very real prospect of being recalled, with campaigns collecting a reported 1.9 million signatures combined on recall petitions.
“Being the husband of target makes me a target,” Joel Kleefisch told Wisconsin Reporter.
Kleefisch, an arch-conservative in a deeply divided Legislature, has been a point of ire of liberal lawmakers for his outspoken approach to law-making.
But Kleefisch and other subjects of political vitriol and threats say some have taken protest and free speech too far.
Record of threats
A review of updated state Department of Justice report, released in late last year, notes 90 incidents of suspected threats against lawmakers, the governor, their families and others between Feb. 17, 2011, and March 25, 2011.
The information, subject to an open records request from multiple media outlets, covers the period when Wisconsin politics exploded in the days following the introduction of Walker’s Act 10, the bill — now law — that ended collective bargaining from most unionized public employees in Wisconsin.
Tens of thousands of protesters descended on the Capitol, the 14 state Democratic senators fled to Illinois to delay a vote on the bill, and hostilities flared.
While many of the incidents could not be substantiated or not deemed a viable threat, the language was no less alarming to those who filed the complaints.
Some of the reports included:
- An anonymous typed letter sent via U.S. mail addressed to the first lady, Tonette Walker.
- Request to follow up on a threat to the governor: The suspect reportedly was very agitated and stated that if the governor keeps attacking teacher unions he would be assassinated. This was deemed to not be a viable threat.
- Caller to the home of state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, asked his whereabouts. Daughter identified herself and stated, “You need to leave him alone.” Caller responded to the effect of “then we’re coming after you next.”
- An unidentified male called and wanted to meet with state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma. When told she was unavailable, he asked the chief of staff asking for her address and stated that he would like to take her on a date and take her “for a ride.”
- An email sent to state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, saying “just maybe some nut will do too (sic) you what happen too that poor congresswoman in Arizona,” a reference to former Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, who was shot in the head and seriously wounded in a mass shooting in Tucson.
‘Growing like a cancer’
Some lawmakers have said the threats, vandalism and other crimes haven’t stopped during the past year.
“I’m expecting it to get worse,” said state Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, who claims he’s been the victim of vandalism, noting an incident where someone peeled the N from his name on his office door.
“It’s just keeps growing like a cancer. I think it will get heated up going into the recalls, in particular with Walker,” the lawmaker said.
Nass said his friend and fellow Republican lawmaker, Neal Kedzie of Elkhorn, has reported multiple incidents of roofing nails tossed all over his driveway.
Walworth County Sheriff David Graves confirmed his department has taken a number of reports of nails and dead fish thrown on the lawmaker’s property. He said the investigation is ongoing and could not release information.
Protester Miles Kristan shouted profanities at Vos and dumped beer on him at a Capitol-area bar last September.
In December, Kristan pleaded no contest to a charge of disorderly conduct and was ordered to pay court costs. He apologized to Vos, and paid for the costs of cleaning the lawmaker’s suit.
It’s unclear if the number of threats to lawmakers and Capitol officials has increased in recent months.
Asked for figures and comment, Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs referred questions to the state Department of Administration.
Asked for incident numbers, DOA spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster told Wisconsin Reporter that “Capitol Police investigate all threats and suspected crimes reported to them. As a matter of policy, DOA and Capitol Police do not comment on security procedures.”
She did not respond to a follow-up email noting that Wisconsin Reporter is not seeking information on “security procedures” but numbers on suspected threats.
Department of Justice spokeswoman Dana Brueck, too, said the office could not comment on what the department “may or may not be investigating.” She advised Wisconsin Reporter to file an open records request, something Wisconsin Reporter intends to do.
There have been relatively few arrests for threats against state public officials, although there have been some controversial dismissals.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne in November opted not to file charges against Regan Cowan, the woman who posted a death threat against Walker. Ozanne argued the Facebook post did not appear intended to reach the governor.
Late last year, Katherine Windels, found to have emailed death threats against Republican lawmakers, was allowed by a judge to enter a first offender’s program, eligible to avoid conviction if she meets program requirements.
Several other cases in last year’s incident reports weren’t deemed viable threats, some involving an individual who claimed to have had too much to drink and behaved rashly and others who, when located, said they regretted their actions and meant no harm.