Wisconsin  Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) talks to the media Aug. 31, 2020, after Republicans decide not to debate a package of police reform bills. Instead, Republicans are moving forward with a task force that he and Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) will co-chair. (Photo © Andy Manis)
Wisconsin Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) talks to the media Aug. 31, 2020, after Republicans decide not to debate a package of police reform bills. Instead, Republicans are moving forward with a task force that he and Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) will co-chair. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes: “Can the task force still be seen as legitimate? It’s hard for these legislators to be seen as legitimate right now. This whole thing was a ruse.”

Activists, Democratic lawmakers, and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes on Wednesday pilloried Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke after UpNorthNews published a private email in which he described leading the state’s Task Force on Racial Disparities as “a political loser” and said Republicans should use the task force to score political points while making Democrats look bad.

“Can the task force still be seen as legitimate? It’s hard for these legislators to be seen as legitimate right now. This whole thing was a ruse,” said Barnes in an interview with UpNorthNews. “People have given up their time and people have wasted their time on this task force that was designed to go nowhere.”

The email, sent by Steineke to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos the day after the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, raised questions of whether the task force was ever intended as a true force for reform in the state, or simply a way by which Republicans could continue to sideline racial-justice issues. 

Barnes, the first Black man elected to statewide office in Wisconsin, said the email proves the latter— something he and Gov. Tony Evers had long suspected.

“The fact is they just didn’t want to do anything,” Barnes said. “I think that’s what should stand out [when people read the email]. They literally did not want to do a thing.”

Steineke said in the email: “My proposal is for us to sit down and figure out some guardrails. Things we could give on, things we wouldn’t. Then I’d sketch out a plan on how to proceed, making sure it takes some time but yet there will be enough activity to show progress.”

Shortly after UpNorthNews published the email Wednesday morning, Steineke issued a statement saying that when he agreed to be co-chair, he knew the task force would have its work cut out for them “in what has sometimes been a very divisive issue.”

However, Steineke did not directly address or provide additional comments for any statements made in his email to Vos. He did not return requests for comment to UpNorthNews Tuesday or Wednesday, but he defended the email Wednesday in interviews with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and WDJT-TV.

Steineke told the Journal Sentinel that only one of the 33 task force members reached out to him and had “high hopes for the task force and hoped the publication of the email would not hurt its efforts.”

“I would hope as we’ve gotten to know each other on the task force over the last few months, I hope people see me for who I am, as somebody that’s trying to facilitate a conversation to bring people together to come up with a solution,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “If any of the task force members have concerns, I hope they reach out and ask questions and talk to me about it.”

Earlier: Debate on Cops Drawing Guns, Banning Chokeholds Reveals Serious Divides on Racial Disparities Task Force

Barnes said if he was a task force member, he would show up to the next meeting specifically to ask why real change isn’t happening when Republicans have the votes to make change happen. 

“We are first at being the worst in so much. Why are you ok with things going on as they are when you have the opportunity—you have the votes—to actually make anything you want to happen,” Barnes said. “If they want to make something happen, what has stopped them since 2011?”

Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, said the email “revealed very clearly [Republicans’] true intentions, which are not authentic, not in good faith, and designed just to dissipate any energy for true reform.”

“What Steineke expressed here is a toxic cynicism, which makes it nearly impossible for us to address the state’s most vexing problems,” Kraig said.

Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), a Black voter-mobilization group in Milwaukee, said the email was a symptom of a political climate that often ignores the voices of Black citizens.

“When people see things like this, this is why people don’t want to get involved in politics. This is why people don’t even want to show up to vote,” Lang said. “We’re able to peel back the curtain and see people’s true agendas, and it is not rooted in addressing racial inequality in Wisconsin, unfortunately.”

Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison), the task force’s co-chair and Assembly District 77’s first Black representative, did not respond to requests for comment. 

“Can you imagine how it would feel to be a Black elected [official] on the task force and see this email?” said Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee). 

Johnson said there were plenty of concerns over the sincerity of the Speaker’s task force when it was first announced last summer. She said for Stubbs and Rep. Kalan Haywood (D-Milwaukee) to put that distrust aside and agree to serve shows they are trying to help the Black communities they were elected to serve.

Johnson questioned Steineke’s ability to lead after putting his thoughts down on paper. 

“Who would be stupid as s–t to put that in writing?” Johnson said. “Wisconsin should feel real comfortable with these two at the helm.”

When Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) first read the email, she took to twitter, immediately calling for Steineke’s resignation. Elected in November to her first term in office, she said for Steineke to be in a position of power “is dangerous.”

“He doesn’t think Black people matter,” said Hong, the first Asian American elected to the Wisconsin Legislature. “To be on a task force without the intention of change is dismissing groups of people. For them to see this all as a political game instead of lives and livelihoods is beyond despicable.”