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Collateral Damage from Walker’s Speech

Jan. 29, 2014
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Pre-election state-of-the-state speeches by governors are even more dishonest than they are in other years. In Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s speech, he pretended Wisconsin’s job creation was booming when it trails most other states, having dropped from 11th in the nation to 37th since he’s been in office.

He also fraudulently claimed his tax cuts help everybody in the state instead of overwhelmingly going to the very wealthy.

His proposed property tax cut would mean only about a hundred extra bucks to the owner of a median-priced $151,000 home while sending nearly 10 times as much—$951—to the richest 1%, according to the Wisconsin Budget Project.

Those were the major election-year distortions in Walker’s speech. Unfortunately, a sideshow related to employment in Wisconsin got most of the attention afterwards.

That’s unfortunate, because it sent exactly the wrong message to employers and policymakers throughout the state.

And it was all for just a bit of theatrics Walker threw into his speech. It’s become a cliché for governors to introduce ordinary people during speeches to humanize their claims of success.

Walker, who is about 150,000 jobs short of his campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs, decided to introduce a few people from the stage who’ve gotten jobs since he’s been governor.

It’s difficult to know exactly what Walker thought that meaningless gesture might prove. Even Walker’s harshest critics have never suggested absolutely no one’s been hired since he’s been governor.

But Walker’s opponents were gleeful to learn Chris Barber, one of the employees joining the governor on stage for his human show-and-tell, was a formerly incarcerated, registered sex offender with two felonies and three drunken-driving convictions.

Democrats weren’t going to pass up the opportunity to politically embarrass Walker by associating him with yet another convicted felon in addition to the six staff members and associates incarcerated for crimes uncovered in a John Doe investigation.


Ex-Offenders Need Jobs

The failure in vetting also suggests a governor who continues to surround himself with staff and appointees of questionable competence who can’t even protect Walker from publicly embarrassing himself.

But the saddest outcome of the whole incident is that a man who successfully overcame a lot of personal difficulties in his past to be held up by his company as an outstanding employee now has his history publicized statewide and could even lose his job.

Walker, who used Barber politically as one of “the faces of an improving economy in our state,” now says he obviously wouldn’t have celebrated Barber’s achievement if he had known the man’s past record. Why not?

People who’ve been incarcerated need to be employed, too. It may even be more important to encourage employers to give ex-offenders a chance because so many doors are automatically closed to them. If ex-offenders can’t ever get legitimate employment, we push them into illegitimate activities to survive.

People who’ve had alcohol problems are another large population that needs employment. So too, in fact, are people on that really scary list of “registered sex offenders.”

The details of Barber’s offense weren’t reported, but it was “third degree” assault. That can cover sexual intercourse without consent, but it often refers to inappropriate touching, which is certainly inappropriate. But it’s easier than most people think to get on that really scary list.

Now, here’s what got Barber on stage with the governor. Walker’s office reached out to friendly companies for suggestions of outstanding employees who’d been hired since Walker became governor.     

The Ariens Co. in Brillion, Wis., whose CEO Dan Ariens is vice chairman of the board of Walker’s ineffectual Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC), nominated him.

Barber was originally hired in December 2012 as a seasonal employee, but soon was promoted to a full-time job. His work performance for the past year got him chosen by his company to be honored by the governor.

Walker could have made this one of those feel-good stories about a Wisconsin employer who took a chance on someone with a past that worked out great for both the company and the employee.

Instead, the governor hung the guy out to dry. Now, the Ariens Co. says Barber’s hiring is under internal review.

For the record, it’s against the law for employers to discriminate against hiring ex-offenders unless the job is somehow related to the offense. It’s difficult to see how Barber’s job as a welder at Ariens would qualify.

But employers regularly check criminal records of applicants on the official state blacklist, CCAP, a public database of criminal offenders, to illegally discriminate anyway.

It’s encouraging a spokeswoman said the company still supports Barber as an employee. But if Barber failed to fully report his criminal record on his employment application, that still could be used as an excuse to fire him despite his job performance. That’s why some other states have passed “ban the box” legislation forbidding employers from asking about criminal records on applications.

An unemployed worker who overcame major obstacles to get hired was honored for his work performance. Now his job is suddenly at risk because of a political mistake by Walker’s staff.

In politics, that’s called collateral damage.


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