A group of demonstrators that included union members, faith leaders and voting rights advocates gathered on Friday evening to protest a fundraising event for Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels in wake of the Republican’s recent comments that appeared to call for violence against members of the media.
Around two dozen demonstrators showed up outside the Grand Meridian, a banquet hall in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Michels and his donors had scheduled an event. The group also condemned Michels for featuring Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who led a legislative-sanctioned audit of the 2020 presidential election in the state that sought to legitimize former President Donald Trump’s disproven claims of election fraud.
Earlier this month, Michels ranted against a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article detailing donations he and his wife made to anti-abortion groups and anti-LGBTQ churches.
Michels co-owns Wisconsin’s largest construction company but has faced questions about having residences out of state. On September 1, he denounced the reporting about his donations on a radio program, claiming that it was biased against him.
“I believe people should just, just be ready to get out on the streets with pitchforks and torches with how low the liberal media has become,” he said.
Demonstrators outside the fundraiser on Friday held signs blasting Michels and propped up a large effigy of his likeness wearing a red “MAGA” cap. Calena Roberts, a member of the Service Employees International Union who spoke at the protest, told Truthout that she was rattled by Michels’s comments.
“For a man to tell people to take up their torches and pitchforks and take to the streets gets me a little nervous,” she said. “Why not just say ‘put on your robes and your hoods?'”
“I didn’t take that very well,” Roberts, who is Black, added.
Roberts also spoke out against Michels appearing with Gableman at the fundraiser, noting that Republicans frequently denounced social spending projects using racist dog-whistles — including describing such spending as “handouts” — but were willing to spend more than $1 million on Gableman’s investigation into non-existent election fraud.
That audit was “ridiculous,” Roberts added.
Souls to the Polls-Wisconsin president Greg Lewis, a Black pastor from Milwaukee who participated in the protest, said the candidate’s words appeared to have racist undertones.
Michels’s commentary earlier this month “reminds me of some older days when Ku Klux Klansman were running around with torches and pitchforks,” Lewis told Truthout.
Michels’s words were unnecessarily divisive, he added.
“He wants to be governor, but he should be governor of all the people,” Lewis said. “He shouldn’t be stirring up that kind of violent rhetoric.”
Lewis said that he feared “this kind of rhetoric would continue to suppress votes, having people not really eager to participate in the process” because they might say, “‘what’s the use, people still haven’t changed.'”
Michels “has to know you can’t come into Wisconsin and talk like that and get away with it,” Lewis said to the crowd of protesters.
Emily Tseffos, chair of Outagamie County Democrats, also spoke during the event, noting that Michels was using “divisive and dangerous rhetoric” — like President Donald Trump — to rile up his base of supporters. Tseffos described Michels as “trying to be Wisconsin’s Donald,” adding that he and Gableman were “chasing ghosts…when it comes to the legitimacy of the 2020 election, simply because they didn’t like the outcome.”
A Michels fundraiser attendee came out from the building and heckled Tseffos during her speech. Calling herself “scary Mary” but refusing to otherwise identify herself, the heckler derided those who had come to demonstrate against Michels, and described local media who were covering the event as “fake news.”
Later during the demonstration, as participants marched through the parking lot, police vehicles arrived at the event, and an officer told event organizers they had to move to an adjacent lot away from the Grand Meridian. At least four officers arrived to respond to the peaceful protest, as fundraiser attendees looked on from the front door of the building.
Michels, who is facing Gov. Tony Evers (D-Wisconsin) in the gubernatorial race, is trailing close behind the incumbent, according to the latest Marquette University Law School poll. When “leaner” voters are included in the mix, 43 percent of voters presently back Michels, while 45 percent support reelecting Evers, per the survey.
The findings suggest the race is currently tied, as the two-point split between the top contenders is within the poll’s margin of error.