First of two parts.
Politics is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a rough-and-tumble sport that delivers hard hits and leaves deep resentments, especially during elections.
The battle wounds of politics are very much on display in Oneida County in northern Wisconsin, where claims of election law violations involving a prominent state senator are now under review by the state Department of Justice.
Days before the April 1 election, fliers mailed to voters in four Oneida County Board races warned that some county supervisors had a plan to “ELIMINATE DAMS!*” in Oneida County, an incendiary charge. The fliers were identical, except for the name of the candidate who would “Stop Their Dam Plan!” and “Save Our Dams.”
The asterisk in the flier’s screaming assertion led to fine print that said one county supervisor, Bob Martini, had “proposed the removal of dams in Oneida County” as an amendment to its master plan. “The proposal,” it noted, “did not advance.”
But Martini, one of the four targeted candidates, insists he has “never made an amendment or proposal to remove dams in Oneida County” and does not support a policy of doing so. He adds that counties don’t even have this authority.
Martini should know: He is the former rivers protection coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources, where he played a role on controversial dam removal projects. He says the flier sought to create confusion on this score.
“It’s just wrong to lie to try to get elected,” says Martini, who was trounced by challenger Robb Jensen, 213 to 128 votes. He thinks the flier was a factor; others say he ran a lackluster campaign.
Another targeted incumbent, Candy Sorensen, lost by five voters, and blames the flier. She also says “there has never been any discussion or plan on removing Oneida County dams.”
The two other targets were incumbent Bob Mott, who was narrowly re-elected, and newcomer Alan VanRaalte, who won election to an open seat. Both deny knowing of any dam-removal plan. Exclaims VanRaalte, “I live on a lake that’s created by a dam!”
What makes this backwoods issue of larger import is that the controversial fliers are the handiwork of Wisconsin state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, a rising star within his party and chamber. He admits helping craft the wording of this and another flier, accusing the county board of being eager to sell a county building at a loss.
Tiffany was also involved in sending the fliers out. He says he acted not as a state senator but as a resident of Oneida County: “I care about my county. It’s important to be engaged.”
Tiffany defends the mailing. He says that besides Martini’s “instrumental” role on past DNR dam removal projects, he serves on the board of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, which is “associated with” the national group American Rivers, which has “a bias toward removing dams.” River Alliance officials say the two groups have no formal ties.
And Tiffany says Martini, during discussions on a county land-use plan, offered “some wording that was favorable to dam removal when possible.” Candidate Ken Dirks, who lost to VanRaalte, admits he doesn’t know the basis for the flier’s claim about Martini; he says Tiffany came to him with the fliers, and he approved their use.
According to Jensen, a draft land-use plan favored by Martini included language that was removed when some towns objected: “Support dam/drainage way repair and removal where appropriate.” This language, which Martini says he did not craft, is the basis for the flier’s feverish claim of a plan to eliminate dams.
In October, a citizens group formed in response to these mailings filed a complaint with the Oneida County district attorney, who forwarded it to the state Justice Department, which says it is under review. The complaint alleges possible violations of election law involving the fliers’ content, origin and funding.
More on this next week.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.wisconsinwatch.org). The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight. The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.