Walking all over Wisconsin women: The alarming silence around Scott Walker’s secret emails

Walker EmailThe flood of emails released last week, linking Wisconsin governor Scott Walker to a secret email system that was used to avoid public scrutiny during his days as Milwaukee County Executive, yielded something that should surprise no one. The soon-to-be governor was directly responsible for the firing of a competent woman doctor for no reason other than her history as a “thong model.”

The email shown at right (click to enlarge) shows Walker’s then-chief of staff, Thomas Nardelli, apprising Walker and Kelly Rindfleisch (who was later convicted of campaign finance abuses) of the unnamed doctor and the desire to get rid of her “without much fanfare.” There is no indication that anything other than her “checkered past” as an underwear model was the motivation for her firing.

Walker’s curt response? “Get rid of the MD asap.”

That sentence, by rights, ought to be as damning as “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” has been for Chris Christie (and Gov. Christie himself did not even write the offending emails; here, Walker’s approbation for a profoundly misogynist and potentially illegal firing is stamped on the missive in his own words). 

Equally worrying was the fact that this secret email loop played host to racist emails that seemed to meet with the tacit approval of Walker’s handpicked staff. The chain email read as follows:

“In the nightmare … I am a homosexual, and on top of that with a Mexican boyfriend. Oh, my God … Black, Jewish, disabled, gay with a Mexican boyfriend, drug addict, and HIV-positive!!! …

Say it isn’t so!!! I can handle being a black, disabled, one armed, drug-addicted, Jewish homosexual on a pacemaker who is HIV positive, bald, orphaned, unemployed, lives in a slum, and has a Mexican boyfriend, but please, Oh dear God, please don’t tell me I’m a Democrat.”

The breathtaking layers of contempt in the email speak for themselves. As to the email’s author, it was none other than the same Tom Nardelli who brought the “problematic” doctor to Walker’s attention.

Legitimate questions ought to be raised about Walker’s personal beliefs, considering that he is currently responsible for a state whose residents include of all the groups slandered in that email. There are Mexican, gay, Jewish, disabled, and seropositive Wisconsinites; there are slums in cities like Milwaukee (which is the most segregated city in the United States); and, as in every state, half of its population is female. Yet more questions might be raised about how Walker’s county executive office responded to the starvation death of a woman, a patient at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, by saying, in the words of Rindfleisch, “no one cares about crazy people.”

Walker himself, as of this writing, still refuses to comment in any detail.

We ought to draw a bright line connecting Walker’s unsettling paternalism and crypto-misogynist firing of that unnamed doctor to his crusade against Wisconsin’s Planned Parenthood and his evisceration of Wisconsin’s equal pay law. We should have the audacity to suggest, in other words, a causal relationship.

These emails serve as a reminder, on a grand scale, that there is a reason we say that words like these are not “just jokes,” but often shape one’s worldview to the point of enacting very material consequences. The belief that a woman who has engaged in sex work or modeling work is unworthy of “higher” labour, or unworthy of respect in spite of her proven competence and her credentials, is not a harmless or quirkily old fashioned notion: it has real consequences that shape the gendered topography of our society. It cost an actual woman her job.

Just as sobering, however, is the fact that this news has passed mostly unnoticed in the mainstream press. These emails, linking Walker to the most base of prejudices, and implicating him in a potentially sexist firing of a competent doctor, are not oddball errata of political life. They constitute, rather, the virulent venom of an administration that has all but declared war on half of its constituents. This ought to be a scandal that sees Walker’s administration bedeviled by pointed questions and the kind of accountability that can only be found in a graceful and contrite exit from the halls of power. Yet Walker remains steadfastly ensconced in Madison, and is still being vigorously defended by a Republican Party that sees him as the great white hope of 2016.

The man who hired people who believe racist chain emails are uproarious, and who fires women who do not meet his puritanical standards, seeks to be our president.

Unaccountable for Prejudice

There are echoes, too, of how Toronto mayor Rob Ford received more criticism for his use of crack cocaine than for his proclivity for racist and homophobic tirades—some of which have been caught on the very video that implicates him in drug use. That ought to be as much cause for scandal as the impairment of his judgement caused by drug addiction; a man who governs Canada’s most diverse city, who must be able to represent constituents from a mosaic of racial, ethnic, and sexual backgrounds, remains in office unapologetic about his obvious and publicly-known prejudice.

We are not confronted here by men with strong opinions, but by powerful men whose grip on power remains unbroken by the public revelation of prejudice at its most malevolent, where their opinions are manifested as material attacks on the very people they are “critical” of, whose behaviour has been, and remains, corrosive to our democracy.

What does it say, then, about our media culture when “get rid of the MD asap” does not occasion the same swarms of press coverage and wall-to-wall analysis that brought Chris Christie’s administration to its knees? Would it be too cynical to say that if Christie’s own secret office emails revealed his approval of a sexist, rather than vehicular, illegal act that he would still be a top contender for the 2016 GOP nomination?

In his brief response to the court-ordered release of these documents, Scott Walker predictably suggested of his critics, “It shows the cynicism we see in politics today. These are people who are naysayers who want something bad to happen in Wisconsin.” Speaking for myself, Wisconsin is a state that I have come to adore over the past year as it has, in its way, become a significant part of my life. People I love — people who happen to be women, LGBT, and people of colour—make their homes in that beautiful state.

I would be doing them a disservice if I allowed Governor Walker’s “l’etat c’est moi” rhetoric to obscure the fact that the only bad thing to happen to Wisconsin has been him.

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross learned to love cheese curds in Wisconsin.

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