Assembly Democratic leaders Friday officially backed a challenger to Green Bay Rep. Staush Gruszynski and warned they wouldn't allow him to return to the caucus if he ends up winning re-election.
Though leadership had previously asked Gruszynski to resign from the chamber after he sexually harassed a Capitol staffer in 2019, the Democratic freshman rebuffed the calls and kick-started his campaign with the backing of at least one of his female colleagues in the state Assembly this spring.
Meanwhile, Democratic challenger Kristina Shelton, vice president of the Green Bay Area School Board, has launched a campaign to take on Gruszynski. On Friday she got the backing of Minority Leader Gordon Hintz along with caucus leaders Reps. Dianne Hesselbein and Mark Spreitzer.
“We look forward to welcoming Kristina into the Democratic Caucus and working with her to advance Green Bay’s priorities in Madison," they said in a joint statement.
The move is an unusual one in a system where parties typically don't get involved in primary battles, let alone publicly throw their weight behind an individual who is not an incumbent.
But the trio stressed in their statement they "take sexual harassment seriously" and said they continue to stand by their call for Gruszynski to step aside.
"As leaders, we see no place for Representative Staush Gruszynski in the Assembly Democratic Caucus now or in the future," they noted.
An internal investigation late last year found Gruszynski verbally sexually harassed a legislative employee at a Madison bar in October. He has apologized for his actions.
"I need to be responsible for my actions and following that night I’ve taken steps with my family, and more importantly myself, to rebuild what I’ve broken," he said in December, adding: "My concern and focus at this time is my family, and how in the New Year I continue to move forward serving the constituents of the 90th district.”
This spring, Gruszynski planned a re-election kickoff event in Green Bay that would feature fellow Democratic Rep. Amanda Stuck, who's running for Congress in the northeastern 8th Congressional District, and 6th District contender Jessica King, a former state senator.
At the time, Stuck, who has been sexually assaulted, told the Cap Times that while there's "no doubt that he did something wrong," Gruszynski has taken responsibility for the incident and is "worthy of a second chance and redemption."
Few other details are available about the incident. The Cap Times and other media outlets requested copies of the complaint and the investigation, but they were denied by the Assembly Chief Clerk's office. That's because the Legislature determined keeping those documents confidential while "respecting the privacy and dignity" of complainants outweighed the public interest in disclosing them.
Assembly Chief Clerk Patrick Fuller said Gruszynski would attend anti-harassment training. The Legislature's human resources director said in a March email that Gruszynski "was very proactive and cooperative in scheduling his required training" and has completed it.
This spring, the Cap Times joined other news organizations in suing the state Assembly and its chief clerk in Dane County Court for refusing to release the records. The case is pending.
Gruszynski is a former political director for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, a group that in June endorsed Shelton in the race. Shelton is a former teacher and current program director at the YWCA Greater Green Bay.
Assembly Democratic leaders last session asked a different member of their caucus to resign in light of sexual misconduct allegations: former Rep. Josh Zepnick, of Milwaukee, who was accused of kissing two women without their consent at political events in 2011 and 2015.
Zepnick in late 2017 declined to do so, though he was stripped of his committee assignments, and he ultimately failed to win re-election in 2018 after losing in an August primary.
While Hintz at the time said he had no plans to restore Zepnick's committee assignments, leadership didn't publicly endorse his challenger in the race, current state Rep. Marisabel Cabrera.