Republicans use open records suit to raise questions about Milwaukee voting campaign

A new Republican Party of Wisconsin lawsuit against Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and the city's top election official accuses the city of withholding open records about an effort to encourage voters to cast their ballots.

The mayor's office suggested the lawsuit, filed just two weeks after records were requested, is more about political posturing than how the city handles open records.

The plaintiffs argue that comments by Johnson earlier this month about a "Milwaukee Votes 2022" campaign raised concerns about the city's "partnership with a partisan organization to conduct get out the vote efforts or other election administration functions" ahead of the Nov. 8 election, when heated contests for governor and U.S. Senate will be on the ballot.

Johnson on Sept. 12 described the campaign as involving canvassers going door-to-door, not just a city website widget announced in May. The mayor said it would be "funded by the private sector."

Johnson's spokesman, Jeff Fleming, then said the "Milwaukee Votes 2022" campaign the mayor referenced as conducting the canvassing is a privately funded group, and the city's association was "limited to the mayor voicing support for the work."

The next day, the party and the National Republican Senatorial Committee requested all records of communications between Johnson and his staff and any organizations involved in the "Milwaukee Votes 2022" initiative first announced in May.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Milwaukee County Circuit Court, states that Johnson's office referred further questions about the canvassing to Melissa Baldauff, a principal at GPS Impact, a communications firm. Its website touts its success in helping Democrats win elections in red states.

More: News media groups want the Wisconsin Supreme Court to reconsider a decision that weakened the open records law

Fleming on Wednesday said the office had been working on the records request and expected to provide the records soon.

"Gathering the records involved about a dozen staff people searching their emails, texts, and other communications channels," Fleming said. "The office has expedited the response, and it is surprising a lawsuit was filed so quickly.

"The fact that the Republicans have rushed out a news release on a lawsuit — based on a records request submitted just days ago — suggests this is more about political posturing than it is about a substantive legal issue."

Baldauff in an email said, "neither I nor GPS Impact are working for the City of Milwaukee, receiving taxpayer dollars from the City of Milwaukee, or running a canvass in Milwaukee."

She said she was at the Sept. 12 event in her capacity as an adviser to "some of the non-partisan, non-profit c3 organizations doing work in Milwaukee" and that a series of organizations will be working to increase voter participation.

The plaintiffs made similar open records requests to Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg. Both she and the commission are also defendants in the lawsuit, which has been assigned to Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Kashoua "Kristy" Yang.

The suit says the requests cited the need for a fast response, ahead of the Sept. 22 deadline for the city to start sending out absentee ballots to voters. It said an assistant city attorney suggested some requests would be filled by then, but no records were produced from the requests by Sept. 26, prompting the lawsuit.

The Republican lawsuit comes as the party raises questions about grants Milwaukee and other large cities received from Center for Tech and Civic Life to help administer the 2020 election. The group funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. Courts have repeatedly rejected claims the grants were illegal, but Republicans have cried foul that the bulk of the funds went to larger, Democratic leaning cities like Milwaukee.

More: Grants to five cities are at the heart of Wisconsin Republicans' election review. Here are the activities under scrutiny

Asked broadly about recent public spats with Republicans over this and other issues, the Democratic mayor told the Journal Sentinel Tuesday that he did not believe the relationship he's trying to build with members of the other party is breaking down.

"There's two competitive races for statewide office happening right now," he said.

Contact Alison Dirr at 414-224-2383 or Follow her on Twitter @AlisonDirr.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Republicans use lawsuit to question Milwaukee voting campaign