Brown County Circuit Court candidate faces anti-transgender attacks along the campaign trail
Campaigning as an openly trans candidate stokes backlash from far-right interest groups across the Northeast region of Wisconsin
This story was produced in partnership with Our Lives Magazine, Wisconsin’s source for LGBTQ news, people, community, and culture since 2007.
Attorney Rachel Maes is challenging incumbent judge Kendall Kelley for a spot on Brown County’s Branch 4 Circuit Court bench. Along the way, a Northeast Wisconsin “patriot” group used anti-trans tactics to talk about the openly trans challenger.
In emails obtained by The NEWcomer, NEW Patriots, an off-shoot of the Wisconsin Conservative Coalition, provided their endorsements for candidates in the upcoming April general election.
The patriot group deadnames, a practice in which people refer to a transgender person by their pre-transition name assigned at birth, candidate Maes in emails sent on Mar. 9 and 21.
The group goes on to endorse Kelley who has served in the position since 2002 and has since been reelected in 2003, 2009, and 2015.
Maes currently serves as an assistant attorney for the City of Green Bay.
Wisconsin Conservative Coalition describes itself as a “non-partisan association of Northeast Wisconsin groups that support Conservative values.”
The two groups have a limited online presence but NEW Patriots have been promoting in-person events featuring Representative Janel Brandtjen (R - Menomonee Falls) and State Senator André Jacque (R - DePere) to pontificate on false claims of a stolen November election.
There are no publicly listed members of the organization on their social media pages or website. A 2017 letter from the organization to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opposing their involvement in the development of a marine sanctuary along the eastern coast of Lake Michigan lists Ronald Zahn as the Wisconsin Conservative Coalition chair and a member of the NEW Patriots. The letter also lists Greeleaf tree-farmer Linda Clemedtson-Sieker as a member of the NEW Patriots.
Zahn and the organization did not respond to repeated questions regarding the identities of the group members.
Candidate Maes said the patriot group did not reach out to her campaign for information of discussion.
“It is unfortunate that groups hiding behind a mantle of patriotism resort to personal attacks to motivate other members of their social club, rather than the merits of the candidates,” said Maes.
Maes said that rather than focusing an endorsement or campaigning on personal attacks, voters and organizations should be having conversations around legal justice and education. Without conversation, the political chasm grows deeper, and echo chambers get louder.
“Sharing that information among their club email list serves no purpose besides othering me and outing me,” said Maes.
Maes said that she is trying to find ways to advance conversations about justice and legal education, but Judge Kelley has made the process difficult.
“My opponent refused to sit down with me and the League of Women Voters for a judicial candidate forum,” said Maes.
The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin (LWV-WI), a nonpartisan political organization, encourages active participation in government and organizing forums around election issues, public policy in 20 leagues around the state. The LWV-WI does not endorse political parties or candidates.
Voter Education Manager Eileen Newcomer confirmed Kelley’s declining to submit answers for the league’s VOTE411 Voter Guide. As of March 24, Kelley has not responded to questions from the LWV-WI.
Judge Kelley did not respond when asked if he was aware of and/or contacted by NEW Patriots and/or Wisconsin Conservative Coalition for their endorsement.
Hate-fueled rhetoric marches on
Anti-trans sentiment at the political level has increased across the state as Wisconsin legislators have introduced bills to restrict or harm the wellbeing of LBGTQ citizens.
State Representative Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc) was the lead author in the legislation disingenuously named “Protecting Women in Sports Act.” This bill would restrict transgender students in public K-12 schools from participate in organized sports and mirrors legislation being circulated in the dozens of states in the U.S.
Legislators also introduced a bill blocking a state Department of Safety and Professional Standards measure to prohibit conversion therapy, a historically harmful practice that aims to change sexual orientation. The Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules introduced the bill and is co-chaired by State Representative Joan Ballweg (R - Markesan) and State Senator Stephen Nass (R - Whitewater).
Since it was introduced, Democrats voted in unison to send the bill back to the committee. A representative from Nass’s office told The Associated Press the bill is not measuring the merits of conversion therapy, but DSPS doesn’t have the current authority to ban the practice because the Legislature hasn’t prohibited it in the statute.
Vered Meltzer is an Appleton alderperson, serving residents North of Lawrence University and along the west side of the Fox River. Meltzer has been on the city council since 2014 and is Wisconsin’s first openly trans elected official. Meltzer said his experience running for office was welcoming, something most trans political candidates and officials aren’t used to experiencing.
“I think I had a really privileged experience,” said Meltzer.
Meltzer said despite the affirmation he felt, trans candidates and elected officials are going to experience attacks against them and the broader community needs to be educated to prevent these happenings.
“Even though a candidate can have a totally positive experience in Appleton, there is still so much work to do,” said Meltzer.
Not everything has been cheery, as Meltzer said a smear article was spread around the time Appleton was in talks of banning conversion therapy. The article deadnamed Meltzer.
The seeping of divisive national politics into local positions is a trend Meltzer has noticed in the past seven years of his time serving. Meltzer said when he was running for office, he would often tell people the race was not about him, but about the local issues.
“The important thing (were) trees, roads, and legalizing chickens and all the local issues people are so passionate about,” said Meltzer.
Meltzer said the recent surge in anti-trans legislation can be combated if out-of-touch legislators hear from enough community voices and their own constituents.
“I think that’s the best tool in our box to basically persuade the legislators that their agenda of harmful bills is not actually serving any of their constituents in any positive way,” said Meltzer.
Since elected in 2014, Meltzer has seen an increase in openly queer or gender-nonconforming elected officials in the Appleton-area. He said when he hears of candidates being attacked for being their authentic selves it reminds him of the long way to go for trans candidates as well as the doors being opened by those who are actively campaigning as a member of the LGBTQ community.
“We are here to support (Maes’s) right to bring herself to the table authentically,” said Meltzer.
Appleton currently has an anti-trans candidate for Common Council campaigning against incumbent Katie Van Zeeland, who represents a southeast portion of the city.
Mark Gabriel, a former Calumet County supervisor, is campaigning on a slew of anti-trans beliefs centered around his faith. Gabriel told Appleton Post-Crescent in a March forum he supports conversion therapy tactics. “It shouldn’t be wrong for a licensed counselor to help a gender-confused child accept and be happy about how God made them,” said Gabriel when asked what makes him a better candidate in the race.
Gabriel is also a member of the Constitution Party of Wisconsin State Committee, where he serves as a representative for district eight. The candidate for Appleton common council wrote an open letter to Governor Tony Evers in July of 2020 in which he referred to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as the “China Flu,” rhetoric that has fueled Anti-Asian sentiment across the country in the past year, and said the governor is lying about the pandemic as he propagated conspiracy theories about a hoax virus.
“I call it a plandemic that you think will help you politically and the cause of your socialist and Marxist goals for our state,” said Gabriel to Evers in the July 2020 letter.
The upcoming general election will be held on Tuesday, April 6.
Editor’s note at 10:40 pm, March 27, 2021: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Ronald Zahn’s profession and the correct authority responsible for hosting in-person events with The NEW Patriots. This story has been updated to reflect these changes.
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