Bipartisan Wisconsin business group backs state elections head

A bipartisan group of prominent Wisconsin business leaders is voicing support for the state's embattled elections administrator, her staff and local election officials, issuing a letter Monday backing Meagan Wolfe even as Republicans have called for her resignation and pursued investigations into how the 2020 election was run.

The Wisconsin Business Leaders for Democracy Coalition, formed last year, sent letters offering "sincere gratitude and full support" to Wolfe, the Wisconsin Elections Commission and more than 1,800 municipal clerks who run elections in the battleground state.

"This is just such a critical issue to me and others in this group," Tom Florsheim, chairman and CEO of Milwaukee-based Weyco Group and a signer of the letter, said in an interview. "For me, I’m publicly stepping up for really the first time maybe ever because I see this as so critical in terms of what’s happening here threatening democracy."

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Florsheim, a Democrat, said the group intentionally reached out to business leaders who had voted for and donated to Republicans in the past, including Austin Ramirez, CEO of Husco, and Paul Sweeney, partner of PS Capital Partners.

Other signers included Peter Feigin, president of the Milwaukee Bucks and Fiserv Forum; Matthew Levatich, the former president and CEO of Harley-Davidson; and Sachin Shivaram, CEO of Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry.

Florsheim said he hoped the Republican-controlled Legislature takes notice and might "rethink some of what they’re trying to do."

"We just see it as an existential threat to stability here in the state," Florsheim said of the attacks on the integrity of the election. "If we have people question every election and we go through all this turmoil, that’s going to make our state look bad and it affects businesses."

Republican pressure on state and local elections officials increased exponentially after Donald Trump refused to concede his defeat to President Joe Biden in Wisconsin. Biden won by nearly 21,000 votes, an outcome that has withstood recounts, investigations and lawsuits. There is no evidence of widespread fraud, as Trump and others have falsely claimed.

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Still, Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature have called for scrapping the bipartisan elections commission, created by the GOP-controlled Legislature in 2016, forcing commissioners to resign and ousting Wolfe. Republican candidates for governor also support dissolving the state commission.

Republican candidates for secretary of state are running on the platform of moving elections administration duties back to that office, a job it hasn't had for more than 40 years. There is also an ongoing Republican-ordered investigation into the 2020 election that is embroiled in numerous court battles. The elections commission is fighting a subpoena it received seeking a vast array of data and a private interview with Wolfe.

Florsheim decried the investigation being led by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, accusing him of harassing and threatening elections officials.

"It just makes you shake your head and make you wonder what’s going on here," Florsheim said.

Wisconsin Capitol in Madison

Wolfe has refused to resign and has called attacks against her "baseless." She was appointed director by the commission in 2019 and confirmed unanimously by the Republican-controlled Senate for a term ending in the middle of 2023.

Current and former election officials have repeatedly warned that the unrelenting attempts to discredit Biden’s win have led to an erosion of public confidence in elections and threats of physical violence against election workers. They worry that longtime election officials will be driven from their jobs, creating a vacuum of experience that in some cases could be filled by partisan actors.

"We will continue to call upon our colleagues and peers to stand with us, support the Wisconsin Elections Commission, and commit to efforts that defend our democracy from further attack," the letter said.

The letter follows a similar one sent last year by a bipartisan group of more than 50 election experts from across the country calling Wolfe "one of the most highly-skilled election administrators in the country."

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