In early October, Republican State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos organized a Task Force on Racial Disparities. But as of today, it has proposed no legislation — one month into Wisconsin’s legislative session.
The task force is co-chaired by Madison Representative Shelia Stubbs and Jim Steineke, a Republican from Kaukauna and the Majority Leader in the State Assembly. On his appointment, Steineke said the task force will show “that the government isn’t completely broken, that Democrats and Republicans can still work together on the big issues of the day to get things done to make significant change in people’s lives.”
But an internal email between Steineke and Vos sent just one day after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha – obtained by UpNorthNews and released today – contrasts sharply with Steineke’s public statements on the task force.
Steineke opens his email by saying that the leader of a task force on racial disparities is a “political loser,” adding that he would make a good leader because he has low political ambitions. Wrote Steineke: “I don’t have any delusions of grandeur beyond this seat. County Executive maybe, but that’s it.”
The email was sent on August 24th, the day after Blake was shot, and the same day Governor Tony Evers called for a special session on police brutality. The GOP-controlled legislature rejected Evers’ call, gaveling in and out swiftly, in a move that was widely criticized.
Instead, Vos organized the task force to gather public input and propose reform legislation. It includes a variety of politicians and community leaders, and is divided into two subcommittees.
Steineke co-chairs the task force on law enforcement policies with Shelia Stubbs of Madison. The other group focuses on education and workforce development, co-chaired by Democrat Kalan Haywood of Milwaukee and Republican Bob Wittke of Racine. All four of those state representatives did not respond to WORT’s requests for further comment.
The rest of the 30-plus member group includes religious leaders, heads of organizations like the Milwaukee NAACP, and seven people involved in law enforcement
Speaking with the Associated Press, Steineke denied that he was looking to bog down the task force. He said that, in referring to the leader of the task force as a ‘political loser,’ he meant that some Wisconsinites would be unhappy with the task force’s recommendations no matter what.
He went on to tell the AP that “if you pull certain phrases out of there, I get where people might have concerns about it…But if you look at the totality of the email, I’m raising my hand to volunteer for this because I think it’s important. I felt like I had the right temperament to lead the task force on this.”
In his email to Vos, Steineke proposed creating guardrails on what Republicans would and wouldn’t give in negotiations. “Worst case scenario, we show a willingness to work on these issues and make the Democrats say no to things,” he wrote.
Wayne Strong, a retired lieutenant of the Madison Police Department and task force member, says Steineke’s comments were deflating and contradicted what members of the task force set out for the group to be.
“We didn’t want this to be a dog and pony show,” said Strong. “Representative Steineke assured us that it wouldn’t be, that we were gonna make some progress, we’re gonna do some meaningful stuff here.”
In the email, Steineke expressed doubt legislation would get passed during the 2021 session. He wrote, “we probably need to pick some things that we can get bipartisan agreement on early in the next session since we all know not much will get done after the budget is signed.”
The task force doesn’t have legal authority, so there is no guarantee any eventual proposals will go to lawmakers. And it missed its self-imposed January deadline to send reform and equity proposals to the Legislature
But Strong is not deterred. He sees the release of Steineke’s comments as an opportunity for the task force to make meaningful progress on reducing racial disparities and improving the state’s criminal justice system.
“Moving forward as a task force,” he said, “we are gonna have to reconvene here and figure out ‘OK how are we gonna move forward in a way that is going to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the citizens of the state of Wisconsin?'”
Jonah Chester contributed reporting to this story.