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Capital City Sunday: Kleefisch on pandemic, election investigation amid new twists

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Over the course of the past week, the early frontrunner to be the Republican challenger to Gov. Tony Evers called for the Milwaukee mayor to resign, announced a campaign leadership staff, and declined to say whether she'd sign a bill that would allow lawmakers to overturn election results.

Rebecca Kleefisch maintained Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett should resign amid an ongoing spike in gun violence. The city experienced a record 190 homicides last year. Kleefisch has called for hiring 1,000 new officers and surging the state patrol into high-crime parts of the city.

Kleefisch was asked what more city officials could do considering the police department is already its largest source of spending amid declines in shared revenue, limits on property taxes, and legislature's denial of cities' request to allow votes on having a municipal sales tax.

"You need to prioritize your priorities," Kleefisch said. "Tom Barrett in Milwaukee, for example, has not prioritized law enforcement and safety and security in high-crime neighborhoods."

The state Democratic Party has criticized Kleefisch over her lack of a stated platform for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, which has now taken the lives of more than 8,000 Wisconsinites. 

"Her campaign's platform on Covid is all about things that we can't do in order to reduce the pandemic," said Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler. "She's against vaccinating health care workers, for example, requiring health care workers to have a Covid vaccine."

The parties' response to the pandemic was illustrated last month by Kaiser Family Foundation report that noted the vaccination rate was 53 percent in counties that voted for President Joe Biden compared to 40 percent in counties that voted for former president Donald Trump.

Kleefisch said she believed the role of government in handling the pandemic was to simply inform people with the most accurate information and then allow individuals to make the decision that's best for them, accusing Evers of needlessly taking a "one-size-fits-all" approach. 

"As governor, I would protect individual rights but, at the same time, encourage people to do the things that are right for their own families.," Kleefisch said. "In my case, getting vaccinated was the right choice but, for some folks, that's not the right choice."

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Response to Gableman investigation, whether lawmakers should be able to reject election results

The city attorney for Madison said new instructions Friday from the team hired by Republican lawmakers to investigate the November election conflicted with the request they received just one day earlier. 

Madison City Attorney Michael Haas shared an email received Friday from Andrew Kloster, who's now working for former state Supreme Court justice Mike Gableman having previously served under former president Donald Trump.

The email seeks to establish with Haas that Gableman, through subpoenas sent to elections officials in each of the state's five largest cities, expected Madison to turn over documents that included -- but were not limited to -- files the city had already produced through previous open records requests.

Haas responded by saying his understanding and notes from a phone conversation Thursday with Kloster led him to believe Gableman only sought the records already available by the due dates of October 15 and October 22 with the possibility investigators would ask for more paperwork and possibly interviews in the future.

Semantics aside, it's the latest source of confusion in an investigation for which Assembly Speaker Robin Vos agreed to pay Gableman $676,000 in taxpayer money.

Kleefisch said she supported the legislature's investigation.

"I have a deep concern about disenfranchised voters who are telling me that they're worried about even bothering to go in and cast a ballot," Kleefisch said. "Because they don't believe we've had a full investigation of what went down in November of 2020."

Kleefisch also announced her campaign leadership staff earlier in the week. Her grassroots leader in the tightly-contested third congressional district is Bill Feehan, who was a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by former Trump campaign lawyer Sidney Powell.

The suit claimed, without evidence, people acting on behalf of Iran and China hacked the November election and rigged voting machines in Biden's favor. The suit was quickly dismissed in federal court.

"Bill Feehan is a good friend and an incredibly hard-working grassroots leader," Kleefisch said when asked about his hiring. A reporter followed up by asking if his involvement in the lawsuit gave her any concern.

"The lawsuit was dismissed," Kleefisch responded. "And the lawsuit has nothing to do with my campaign."

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Kleefisch declined to say whether, as governor, she would sign a bill that made lawmakers the ultimate decider of who won an election. Kleefisch said she hadn't seen any bill language drafted proposing to give election certification powers to the legislature.

"So I think it would probably be awfully premature for me to comment on a bill that hasn't even been drafted nor an idea that I've heard floated," Kleefisch said.

In December, PBS Wisconsin reported two Republican state representatives in Wisconsin, Rep. Jeff Mursau (R-Crivitz) and Rep. David Steffen (R-Green Bay), joined a lawsuit arguing state legislatures should have the final word on certifying a state's election results. A federal judge dismissed the suit in January. 

"You're talking about an idea that I have never heard discussed among legislators or even the folks I'm talking to across the state," Kleefisch said. "So for me to try and comment on future bill language that hasn't been drafted would be awfully premature and kind of irresponsible."

Ann Jacobs, a Democratic appointee on the six-member Wisconsin Elections Commission who now serves as the WEC Chair, described the Arizona bill and the lawsuit Mursau and Steffen joined as "anti-American and anti-democratic."

"Any political candidate who makes that a policy or refuses to denounce it is refusing to denounce everything that is anathema to our American way of life," Jacobs said.