“Sen. Ron Johnson will be in Rothschild Tuesday giving a presentation for small business owners.
“Johnson will speak about the current business climate and how it affects small businesses in Wisconsin. There will be time for a question-and-answer session after he speaks.
“He will speak from 4:15 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesday at the Patriot Center, 10101 Market St., in Rothschild. The event is open to members of the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce.”
Okay, that sounds good, as far as it goes. I go to Chamber events from time to time, so I don’t find things like this all that unusual. And then on Monday, I was at a quarterly central counties joint legislative meeting at Central Wisconsin Airport and Sen. Johnson’s staffer, Camille Solberg, let us all know that we were invited to attend, too. A later e-mail from the county confirmed it:
“Ron Johnson will be at the Patriot Center at Cedar Creek 10101 Market Street, Rothschild from 3:30 to about 4:30 p.m. tomorrow, Tuesday, August 28th. His speech will concentrate on the business climate in the area followed by a question and answer period.
“You are all invited to attend.
“Clerks, please share with your Legislative Committee and/or County Board. Thank you.”
Okay, that sounds pretty good, too. The message looked like a direct paste-in from something that had been provided by the Senator’s office, based on the last line. But later came a clarification, which was also duly forwarded to the members of the Marathon County Board:
“This is a political event in which the Senator will speak about the businesses climate of our state. He will have a Q and A after his speech. Please make sure the constituents understand that.
By now, a lot of people might be asking the question: “Understand what?” Knowing that this is a “political event” isn’t necessarily very helpful to most people. Politician = political event, right? So let me define it for you a little more. A political event is an appearance by an elected official that has to do with things like campaigning, as opposed to appearing in an official capacity, as a public official. When it is a partisan office holder, it generally has to do with partisan interests.
Now, I would be the first to tell you that the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce tends to lean to the right on the political spectrum at times and so it would not be surprising that a fellow like Sen. Johnson would find them to be a friendly audience. But they are not really a political organization, per se. And anyway, Ron Johnson is less than two years into his term, so all of this was beginning to look a little mysterious to me. As far as we knew from what we had been told, it was an opportunity to hear a presentation from one of our U.S. Senators and engage in a Q&A session, “political event” or not. And then I finally got a look at the media advisory on the morning of Johnson’s appearance:
“Madison, WI – Senator Ron Johnson will be traveling with the Romney/Ryan Mobile HQ Bus today to discuss how Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan will be the clear choice to get America’s economy back on track. Romney and Ryan are offering bold ideas to strengthen the middle class and deal with our long-term debt while President Obama thinks our economy is ‘doing fine.’ With a national unemployment rate over 8%, Wisconsin small business owners and families know that we need new leadership to offer pro-growth solutions and grow our economy. The following events are open to the press…”
Now THAT is what I would definitely call a “political event.” Actually, three events were listed, including Rothschild’s. The press contacts were Nicole Tieman, Wisconsin Communications Director for the Republican National Committee and Ben Sparks from mittromney.com. Since I considered this to be important new information about the invitation we had received, I sent a polite “reply all” to my county board colleagues:
“Greetings to all —
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing to attend partisan campaign events. Personally, I do it all the time. But I also think that it is important to know the context in which people are appearing and by extension, the context in which people would be attending. In this case, I don’t think it has been made very clear that THIS IS A ROMNEY CAMPAIGN EVENT. Lest there be any doubt, the following will provide the context that I think has thus far been missing. I don’t fault anyone for not being aware prior and I think that the information you have received up to now was passed along in good faith. (Frankly, I didn’t even feel that Sen. Johnson’s representative at yesterday’s joint counties legislative meeting pointed this significant fact.) “
(I pasted in the media advisory below my comments.)
This brought an additional response from Camille Solberg to all the addressees:
“My apologies for not pointing out the fact that the Senator’s appearance today was political. Because he will be speaking about the business climate of the state my “wires” were crossed. Again, my deepest apologies for the confusion.”
At this point, I was down to two possible explanations for what had happened:
1. Neither the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce nor Camille Solberg – who made these communications using an official “senate.gov” e-mail address – actually knew exactly what was going on.
This would be a rather charitable conclusion toward both Solberg and the Chamber and it doesn’t seem all that likely. It would not really be such a good thing, either, because Senator Johnson and the representatives of the Republican National Committee and mittromney.com certainly did know what was going on. It would mean that the RNC, the Romney campaign and Sen. Johnson tried to dupe a senate staffer and their chamber pals into promoting a Romney event without even telling them that’s what they were doing. The story had appeared in the newspaper several days prior, after all. I don’t know who sent out the press release, but I’m guessing that if the newspaper had known what the context of the event was at that time, it would have been included. I’m thinking they didn’t — and leaving something like that out of a release would be the kind of glaring omission that good journalists tend to remember.
2. Camille Solberg knew exactly what was going on and just decided not to say it in straightforward way.
This would not be such a good thing, either. I don’t know what the rules are at the federal level about legislative staffers using their official government e-mail accounts to discuss campaign appearances. It is not uncommon to see legislative staffers working on campaigns, but it is done outside of their official duties. Here in Wisconsin, we have a growing John Doe probe and some folks are already in hot water over campaign work in Milwaukee County under Scott Walker. If Solberg deliberately obfuscated the context of Johnson’s appearance to get well-meaning central Wisconsin county staffers and officials acting in good faith to promote or attend a campaign event, then that’s more than just being rude. Whether for reasons of law or ethics, I can assure you that it was never allowed in Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton’s office when I worked in the capitol and I don’t even want to talk about how bright the line was in Russ Feingold’s operation when he held the seat that Ron Johnson holds now. (It was more like an alligator-filled moat with slippery, 30-foot walls, surrounded by electrified concertina wire and Claymore mines.)
We wouldn’t be talking about an honest mistake by some rookie staffer here, either. Solberg is a seasoned political operative who has been involved in political campaigns and various interest groups for years. Go ahead and Google her up. The picture of Solberg with Jack Abramoff-tainted former Christian Coalition rock star Ralph Reed from a Faith & Freedom Coalition event should give you an indication of where I’m coming from.
Federal rules and laws being what they are, I have no doubt that everything that happened was probably perfectly legal. In a country where gazillionaires can make unlimited, anonymous contributions to shadowy groups to support campaigns, it’s hard to believe there is much left to trip anybody up anymore. But it sure has a funny smell to it. And not that the GOP ticket ever had much chance of picking up my support anyway, but trying to lure folks into a Romney campaign event surreptitiously by leaving out critical information instead of just being upfront and honest about things doesn’t seem like a great way to operate either a senate office or a campaign.
UPDATE: Romney campaign bars reporter from Ron Johnson event: http://crooksandliars.com/karoli/romney-campaign-bars-reporter-ron-johnson-e
Ralph Reed and a curious plank in the GOP platform: http://billmoyers.com/2012/08/31/ralph-reed-in-the-marianas-trenches/