Hulsey’s gubernatorial bid sparks a lot of questions

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Wisconsin Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, makes his intentions to enter the state’s gubernatorial race official as he confirms his candidacy papers under oath with an elections specialist with the Government Accountability Board in Madison on April 21. -PHOTO: AP/Wisconsin State Journal/John Hart

Everyone has a lot to say about state Rep. Brett Hulsey, especially Hulsey himself.

But no one knows what to make of his unexpected entry into the Democratic gubernatorial race — or whether it will affect the race. 

There’s one thing about Hulsey, however, on which everyone agrees: He was a bright, energetic and effective environmentalist before he went off the rails a couple of years ago and made headlines for some rather bizarre antics. Reports of his erratic behavior were alarming enough have sunk most politicians’ careers.

In fact, it’s widely believed that the Madison Democrat chose not to seek re-election in the 78th Assembly District because he realized all the negative publicity had destroyed any chance he had of retaining his seat. 

Two members of the Madison Common Council — Lisa Subeck and Mark Clear — are battling it out for the Democratic nomination in the solidly blue district. Embarrassingly for Hulsey, Clear is his former campaign treasurer.

Why?

If Hulsey was afraid to run for re-election to the Assembly, then what prompted him to run for governor? Several Democratic insiders interviewed for this story speculated that it’s an act of retaliation against his party for marginalizing him. An aide to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos reportedly told WisPolitics that Hulsey’s bitterness has taken him so far that he asked to join the Republican caucus after Democratic leadership blocked his efforts to offer amendments to the state budget. Hulsey denies that charge but has hinted he might run as an independent.

If Democrats have more or less censured Hulsey, it’s because of the alarming behavior he’s demonstrated. In 2012, he flipped a 9-year-old boy off a flotation device while swimming at a public lake on July 4. He then intimidated the boy by taking pictures of him.

Hulsey pleaded no contest after being cited for disorderly conduct. His version of the story, however, was that he intervened to protect two little girls from the boy, who he said was splashing them. He claims that Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, a political enemy, engineered the whole incident to discredit him.

Hulsey has kept the story alive by refusing to stop talking about it, said John “Sly” Sylvester, the colorful, popular radio host on 93.7 WEKZ-FM. Hulsey first claimed that he was taking pictures of the sunset, not the child, prompting some skeptical Madisonians to check out whether it was possible to shoot a sunset picture from the lake in July. It isn’t.

Hulsey also appeared on Sly’s show and insisted that he’d deleted the pictures. But he later turned up at a Democratic meeting insisting that he had pictures from the incident that would prove his innocence.

Sly said Hulsey “was always kind of a minor irritant to people because he was so dogged and wanted to get the spotlight. But people didn’t think he was crazy. And issue-wise he’s not stupid.”

Although Hulsey has provided some “pretty entertaining” moments for Sly’s listeners, “I kind of laid off after a while,” Sly said. “He said he’s going to counseling. I don’t know what the issue is. But I’ve got mental illness in my family, and I didn’t want to push someone over the edge.”

Some of Hulsey’s fellow Assembly members have been so terrified by Hulsey’s aggressive behavior they’ve asked not to be seated near him for safety reasons. An aide to Hulsey was reassigned after she told Capitol Police she feared for her life when he brought a box-cutter to his office, urged her to seek self-defense instruction and threatened to bring a gun to work.

Hulsey also came under fire for purchasing a red convertible with campaign funds.

Despite so many well-publicized incidents swirling around him, however, Hulsey was on the campaign trial soliciting signatures for his nominating petitions when WiG caught up with him by phone.

No saint

“Like most people in Wisconsin I’m not perfect,” Hulsey said. “I’m running for governor, not saint.”

Hulsey adroitly dodged further questions about his personal behavior and launched into a complaint about the way that the Democratic Party of Wisconsin has united around candidate Mary Burke. He accused Democratic leadership of making a decision that should have been left up to the Democratic voters.

But voters do, in fact, have two other candidates to choose from in the Democratic primary.

Hulsey is likely to attract a number of Republican crossover voters. Since Gov. Scott Walker faces no challengers, Republicans are reported to be drooling over a prospective dirty-tricks campaign to increase Hulsey’s vote total and make Burke look weak.

Hulsey dismissed the notion that he’s a spoiler. 

“Listening to Mary Burke, I just realized that at bare minimum she needs some spring training,” he said. “She’s playing more like the Bucks than the Brewers.

“I have a get-Wisconsin-to-work plan. It’s a real jobs plan, so I thought I’d put it out there and see what happens.”

Hulsey’s challenged Burke to debates in every one of the state’s 72 counties, and he intends to have someone in a chicken suit show up at every Burke appearance to underscore her refusal.

“While Mary Burke is tirelessly meeting voters around Wisconsin and rolling out her plan to take back our state and bring back hope to the many people suffering due to Scott Walker’s mismanagement, Brett Hulsey’s in his basement making a chicken suit,” said Dane County Democratic Chair Mike Basford. “This stunt doesn’t deserve the respect and attention that would be due to a serious candidacy. The bottom line is that there is only one serious candidate for governor, and my job will be to work with Democrats to elect her in November.”

Burke spokesman Joe Zepecki refrained from commenting on Hulsey’s candidacy. “Our focus remains squarely on Scott Walker,” he said. “Mary Burke has a real plan to grow our economy, create jobs and strengthen the middle class and a game plan to beat Walker in the fall.”

Hulsey’s candidacy presents a dilemma not only for Democratic officials, but also for conservationists. Hulsey, a state leader on environmental issues, runs an energy and environmental consulting business called Better Environmental Solutions. He served for 17 years as an environmental educator and advocate for the national Sierra Club. That puts the club’s Wisconsin chapter in an awkward position when it comes to issuing its endorsement in the race. 

David Blouin, chair of the club’s Four Lakes Group in Madison, said, “It’s pretty early in our (endorsement) process, and we have a lot of factors to consider. Endorsements are reserved for the best, most qualified candidates for office, and we’re still reviewing records.”

“We have endorsed Brett in his Assembly races but a race for governor is clearly a much bigger post,” Blouin added.

The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters had already endorsed Burke before Hulsey announced his candidacy. 

Implications

Dennis Dresang, professor emeritus of political science and public affairs at UW-Madison, expects Hulsey to have a “pretty negligible” effect on the Democratic primary.

“There is a frontrunner, so he’s entering the race late,” Dresang said. “Burke’s really got the momentum in terms of visibility and the like. He doesn’t have statewide name recognition.”

Dresang and his wife belong to a bike club in which Hulsey is also a member. Having known and respected Hulsey in the past, Dresang said it’s been uncomfortable to watch his unraveling.

“The disrespect he’s generated for himself just gets enhanced by a quest for something that is really just beyond what is achievable,” Dresang said.

“A large number of people who know him are speculating about his mental health,” Dresang added. “How else do you explain this change from someone who was an effective advocate for environmental issues and is now, if anything, very counterproductive. He’s just made himself a laughing stock. When you try to search for an explanation, I think illness does come right up there to the top.”

Dresang said it’s for this reason that he doesn’t expect Republicans to try exploiting the situation with Hulsey.

“If they take somebody who’s not really respected and perhaps really sick and use (him) as a source for trying to attack Mary Burke, that comes off as an act of desperation,” he said.

Like Burke’s supporters, Scott Walker’s don’t know quite what to make of Hulsey’s entry into the Democratic gubernatorial race. Colin Roth, a right-wing blogger, wrote that “conventional wisdom says Hulsey’s last-minute campaign for governor will actually help Mary Burke. It may toughen her up, boost her name ID, and could even serve to make her positions seem more moderate to voters.”

Roth added, however, that Hulsey’s presence in the race could prove to be a two-edged sword for Burke. “This may all end up working out just fine for (her). Or it could make Burke look afraid, timid, and lacking in confidence,” he told his readers.

“Hulsey said he wants to make the governor’s race ‘more interesting,” Roth added. “That we are guaranteed. But take heart Democrats. This, after all, is what democracy looks like.”