With less than a month until the election, Wisconsin remains a critical battleground state. Congressman Paul Ryan entered the national race as the Vice Presidential Candidate for Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, in one of the more closely watched Senate races, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, who is the first, and thus far only, out lesbian elected to Congress (who would also the first openly gay Senator in the country) is in a close contest against Tommy Thompson, a former governor in the state and George W. Bush’s Secretary for Health and Human Services. The spotlight is finally off Governor Scott Walker and has turned toward these hotly contested races.
Even though he is not campaigning this fall, Walker is not fully removed from the public’s glare. Since May 2010, a series of investigations have been ongoing regarding Governor Walker’s former staff and associates during the time he served as Milwaukee County Executive. So far, there have been fifteen felony indictments including allegations of campaign finance malfeasance, embezzlement of veterans’ funds, bid-rigging, and even child enticement. The most recent of these cases involve Kelly Rindfleisch, a former aide to Governor Walker who is scheduled to go to trial next week on four counts of felony charges involving misconduct in public office, particularly doing campaign work while at the deputy chief of staff to Walker (a taxpayer-funded job). Whether or not the investigations are meritorious, or a tactic by the other side to create and appearance of corruption will be left to the court to decide.
Today, however, the possibility of the trial came into question as a Milwaukee County judge scheduled a plea hearing for October 11, 2012, just days before the trial was slated to begin. A plea deal would mean that Walker would avoid having to testify for the trial which undoubtedly would have created major headlines negatively spotlighting the Republican establishment in the state. His possible testimony was highly anticipated by the press and remained a source of contention for his office who did not want him involved in the handlings of these sweeping corruption charges.
In addition, a plea deal would mean that the details of the investigation would remain outside of the purview of major news sources. As Deputy Director of the Center for Media and Democracy Mary Bottari describes a Wisconsin John Doe investigation as “a closed-door criminal proceeding that operates much like a Grand Jury in other states. Rather than appearing before a jury, a John Doe investigation takes place before a judge.” The process does not move into open court until defendants are charged with wrongdoing, meaning that many of the details of Rindfleisch’s case, as well as Darlene Wink’s case last week who pled to a misdemeanor conviction of campaigning while working as an aide to Walker, will not be aired in public.
What do the Wisconsin John Doe investigations mean for the state’s independent voters? During the Wisconsin recall elections in June 2012, a Marquette Law School poll showed that half of the 77 percent of Wisconsin voters who were familiar with the cases thought that the issue was nothing more than ‘politics as usual’ and politically motivated. In addition, the plea agreement will ensure that Walker, the star of the Wisconsin Republican party who remained in office after tumultuous protests and a hotly contested recall election, will remain off the stand and largely out of the limelight. If the trials’ lawyers are able to keep Walker distanced from the web of corruption charges through the election next month, it appears that the investigations will have little impact on the results. However, all bets are off if the plea agreements do not go through and Walker is forced to testify, which could influence the entire state’s Republican voters and many independents. Up until now, Ryan and Thompson have both remained cordial but with a comfortable distance from Walker in their campaigning. Even as the Republican party faces further indictments below the radar and behind the scenes, the spotlight has rightly been on the faces running to represent the state and the substantive issues which distinguish their political visions.