In Leaked Audio, Vos Blames Immigrant ‘Culture’ for Racine County’s COVID-19 Outbreak
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, in full-body personal protective equipment during the April 7 election. (Photo via Robin Vos' Office)

Racine’s Latino county supervisor calls on Vos to resign. Community demands apology.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, blamed immigrants for the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in Racine County in racist and false comments made during a May 14 call with Gov. Tony Evers.

“Frankly, I know the reason, at least in my region, is because of a large immigrant population, where, you know, it’s just a difference in culture where people are living much closer and working much closer,” Vos told Evers as he argued against a statewide response to the pandemic.

Vos’ comments were made public when media outlets obtained a secret recording of a phone call Evers had with Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to discuss next steps the day after the state Supreme Court struck down the statewide stay-home order.

The Republican Assembly speaker was likely referring to an outbreak at Echo Lake Foods, a food processor in Burlington, where an unknown number of employees contracted COVID-19. 

Vos’ statement was also completely wrong. Only 23 percent of coronavirus cases are affecting Latinos in the jurisdiction of the Central Racine County Health Department, according to the most recent data. The department covers Vos’ entire district and all of Racine County, except for the City of Racine and two tiny suburban villages.

After the statement was first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Vos was swiftly condemned across the state.

Fabi Maldonado, the second-ever Latino Racine County supervisor, called on Vos to resign.

“When he talks about immigrants, he’s talking to me; he’s talking to my family; he’s talking to my community,” Maldonado said. “He needs to check himself before he starts putting the blame on somebody else.… We can’t have anybody who is a leader who is trying to pit people against each other. His job as an elected official should be bringing people together to get work done.”

Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant and worker advocacy group, said Vos should step down as Assembly Speaker. 

“This is 2020, not 1920,” said Christina Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, in a statement. “Instead of recognizing the important contributions immigrant essential workers and their families make to Wisconsin’s economy, he scapegoats them to absolve himself of his own failure to protect the health and lives of all workers against COVID-19.”

Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee, also denounced Vos.

“@repvos should step down from his position immediately,” Brostoff tweeted. “This is racist as hell and totally unacceptable.”

Darryl Morin, director of Forward Latino, said in a press conference that his organization was “asking — actually we are demanding — that Speaker Vos apologize for his comments.” 

In a Thursday interview with the Journal Sentinel, Vos refused to do so.

“There’s no need to apologize,” Vos told the paper. “This is once again people trying to look and make something out of a conversation that was ‘how do we deal with the coronavirus?’”

Vos did not respond to a call or text from UpNorthNews on Thursday. Vos’ office did not immediately respond to an email. He did respond to Brostoff’s tweet, writing, “Facts show communities of color are disproportionally [sic] impacted. That’s science.”

Coronavirus is indeed affecting communities of color the most severely, but Vos’ response leaves out some key context: The disproportionate amount of black and Latino people who work so-called essential jobs. In the City of Racine, 84 percent of the total cases are among black and Latino residents, despite only making up 45 percent of the population.

“I can’t tell you how sad and disappointed it makes me to hear such simplistic reasons given for COVID-19,” said Tamerin Hayward, vice president of the Racine Interfaith Coalition, in a press conference. “…It is true that people of color in Racine have 80 percent of the cases, but it is not a result just of culture or the fact that they are immigrants — and it isn’t just immigrants, all people of color. But it is a fact that they are essential workers.”

Racine County is now home to the most severe coronavirus outbreak in the state. While it has the third-highest total number of confirmed infections behind Milwaukee and Brown counties, the concentration is now so high that 1 in 100 of the county’s 200,000 residents are infected, according to the Department of Health Services.

Maldonado pointed out that Vos and Legislative Republicans have repeatedly ignored opportunities to address the pandemic. Vos and Fitzgerald have only convened the Legislature once since the pandemic began, to pass a coronavirus relief package a month after the stay-home order was issued. The passage was so late that it cost the state $25 million in federal aid.

“He needs to take ownership of that,” Maldonado said.

Evers declined to say Thursday whether he thought Vos should apologize, claiming he had not heard the tape. Evers was, however, on the tape and part of the original conversation. 

“I have a difficult time in saying whether Vos should apologize,” Evers said Thursday.

Vos’ hypothesis mirrors the insensitivity of a Republican Ohio state senator who this week wondered whether COVID-19 is so prevalent in minority populations because “the colored population do not wash their hands as well as other groups or wear a mask or do not socially distance themselves.” That senator, Steven Huffman, is an emergency room physician.

This is Vos’ second significant gaffe in as many months. In the April 7 election, which he helped force to proceed with in-person voting in the middle of a pandemic, Vos claimed it was “incredibly safe to go out” to vote. As he spoke, he was clad in head-to-toe personal protective equipment.

On Wednesday, when it became known that media outlets had obtained the recording, Vos and Fitzgerald attempted to redirect attention to the fact that the call was secretly recorded, ostensibly in an effort to get ahead of stories on Vos’ comments. 

Vos said the recording was “shameful,” and Fitzgerald compared the governor to disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon. Evers’ spokeswoman claimed the governor did not know a staffer recorded the call.

Correction: Fabi Maldonado is the second-ever Latino Racine County supervisor, and the first to win a second term. A previous version of this story said Maldonado was the first Latino supervisor.