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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Saturday, September 30, 2023

If not by land, then by sea

Last Thursday was a slightly dismal day. It was almost raining, but not quite. Out on Lake Mendota, the air was cold and quiet, until you reached the eastern shore bluffs, where the governor's mansion sits. There, the only quiet came when a protestor would wait for a response to his chant, "Two, four, six, eight!"

The response? "Walker sucks!"

And if this chanting from the 13-boat flotilla that had gathered in the waters outside the executive residence wasn't loud enough for those on shore to hear, the "Recall" boat that came equipped with five portable speakers and a DJ was sure to get their attention.

"It's hard to know how effective any of this has been because they seem to ignore what's going on, but I do think it does get to them a little," said Whitney Steffen, an activist in Madison.

Like others who took part in the flotilla, Steffen was there to protest Gov. Scott and Tonette Walker's "Wine and Wickets" fundraiser. The event, put on by the governor's wife Sept. 22, raised funds for the restoration of the Maple Bluff home.

The fundraiser raised eyebrows with protesters who gathered that day, believing attendees may be trying to seek favor with the governor.

The governor's political office declined comment and said in an e-mail that the event has "nothing to do with the Governor" and that Walker was not in attendance.

Tonette Walker, Wisconsin's first lady, released a statement about the event, explaining the couple's reason for fundraising.

"The Wisconsin Executive Residence is truly the people's home. At times like these, we are trying to preserve this beautiful landmark of Wisconsin's history without using any taxpayer dollars," she wrote.

According to Annie Nolan, assistant to the first lady, invitations went out about a month ago to over 2,000 people, asking for donations of $50 to $1,000 to the mansion's non-profit foundation.

Those invited included Madison lobbyists, lawmakers, GOP campaign contributors, neighbors and friends of the governor and his wife.

The attendees who signed up as hosts, meaning they donated between $250 and $1,000 for the restoration of the mansion, included people who have previously donated to the Republican governor's campaign funds and several lobbyists. For instance, according to a host-distribution list sent by Nolan, two lobbyists who signed up to host included former Sen. Bob Welch, who donated $500, and senior director of Corrections Corporation of America Kelly Durham, who donated $1,000.

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According to the invitation sent out to guests, attendees who donated $1,000 received a private tour of the mansion, private reception, recognition on the invitation and free admission to the event's croquet tournament.

Reid Magney, spokesperson for the Government Accountability Board, said the governor and his wife are well within their legal limits to ask for privately donated dollars for the mansion's upkeep.

"The money goes to a foundation that supports the governor's mansion and it is, in fact, legal," he said. "These are not campaign contributions, they are donations to a foundation that supports improvements to the governor's mansion."

Of the 16 boats that assembled on the waterfront—kayaks, canoes, pontoons, speedboats, fishing boats and three police boats—about 50 people showed their displeasure with the governor's event. Among them was a young man dressed as President Abraham Lincoln, who  stood three feet from the rocky bluff with fishing waders full of water. The boat he was invited on wasn't able to get through the locks between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona that Thursday. The Tenney Lock, whose posted hours of operations are from noon until 7 p.m. on Thursdays in September, was closed at 5 p.m. that day.

Arthur Kohl-Riggs, a political blogger in Madison, said he suspected the locks were closed because of the flotilla protest.

"That means that all traffic between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota was shut off. I don't know if it was for this but it seems a little too conspicuous," he said.

Darren Marsh, parks director for Dane County, said the operator of the lock failed to show up to work that day.

"It was unfortunate for people that wanted to go through," Marsh said. "It wasn't something that had been planned for. It was just a number of circumstances."

Aside from those on boat, Walker protesters formed outside of the Mansion gates as well.

They said the protest was to let the governor know their opposition spans further than collective bargaining and other issues—according to them, it's an opposition to "dirty politics."

"We need to keep the pressure on these guys because they think they can do anything they want," said local 695 Teamster Jim Gundersen. "It's very important because what they're doing is a national agenda."

Even with the raucaus surrounding the mansion, Nolan had only positive things to say about the fundraiser.

"We had a very successful event," she said.

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