The debate over diversity resolutions in Marathon County and Wausau exposed rifts not only between elected officials but also among members of the community, mirroring a divide that, polls show, is only getting wider.
County supervisors and city alderpersons believe they acted in the best interest of the community when the measure was approved in Wausau, while being shot down at the county level. Not all residents in the community agree.
The public took passionate positions both for and against the “Community for All” resolutions under consideration. Some supporters accused supervisors and alders of condoning discrimination and ignoring racism by voting against the measure, while those opposed called the resolution “divisive” and “against American ideals,” according to public comments and emails obtained by Wausau Pilot & Review.
Several Marathon County Board supervisors say they have been experiencing harassment for months, but threatening messages became more frequent and dire as the resolution, which underwent several revisions, neared its conclusion. Some supervisors said they received threats after the resolution was rejected on Tuesday.
Wausau Pilot & Review reached out to each of the current 37 County Board supervisors (one supervisor, Randy Fifrick, resigned earlier this month), 11 elected alderpersons of the Wausau City Council, Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg and all the members of the Diversity Affairs Commission after an elected official shared several threatening messages he received. Some representatives shared their experience, though most did not respond.
“You voting no on the resolution makes you a racist person now we will get rid of you,” reads a message from Ron Lehman that was sent to Supervisor Chris Dickinson. “You are a racist pig.”
Later, Lehman sent another message, calling Dickinson “racist,” “redneck” and “lowlife.”
“The rhetoric that was promulgated by the CFA supporters that this vote was somehow the tipping point or that voting no made those people racists or haters was unfounded and despicable,” Dickinson told Wausau Pilot& Review. “All I did was make a reasoned decision. I am not racist.”
Dickinson said he understands people react emotionally and sometimes later regret their actions.
“On each issue that comes before me I place a great deal of energy and thought into my position,” Dickinson said. “I expect those who disagree, on the board and in the community, to respect me for that.”
Some who opposed the resolution have leveled charges of racism, too.
On June 30, during a meeting of the Diversity Affairs Commission, James Juedes, who has been a vocal opponent of the resolution, called commission members “racists” who are only stoking division in the community.
Then there have been messages – both during public comments and through emails – accusing supervisors of supporting pedophilia.
“Whomever votes yes to the CFA resolution is saying that they condone and will allow pedophilia in our county,” wrote Tina Jensen on Aug. 23, a day before the County Board voted. One week earlier in a separate email, Jensen equated LGBTQ+ with pedophilia and child sexual abuse. Other community members have done so during public comments at various meetings.
The resolution that failed in Marathon County does not specifically point to the LGBTQ+community, though it does mention sexual orientation.
In other messages, Jensen demanded supervisors not share her messages with the media. But all emails sent to public officials are subject to Wisconsin open records laws.
Yee Leng Xiong, who is Hmong and chair of the DAC, shared with Wausau Pilot & Review a message he received soon after the vote on Tuesday.
“Are you and your commission now done antagonizing this county?” the message read. Xiong declined to disclose the identity of the sender.
On August 12, after the Executive Committee of Marathon County voted to advance a weakened resolution, Xiong made public on social media a letter he received that called the Hmong community “racist.”
“There will always be one or two individuals with those views,” Xiong told Wausau Pilot & Review. “And we need to engage with them.”
The county’s diversity commission has come under attack as well. Some critics have called for the group’s dissolution on accusations of bias. Mosinee resident Cory Tomczyk, during an Executive Committee meeting on Aug. 12, called commission members “fools” who are paid by taxpayers. Tomczyk, earlier this month, was widely overheard calling a 13-year-old boy who spoke in favor of the resolution a “fag,” prompting another resident, Christopher Wood, to say later that the boy should “get over it.”
Lisa Ort-Sondergard, who has supported the resolution and spoken publicly during county and city meetings, said when her mailbox was vandalized in late July, she responded by placing a rainbow whirligig near the mailbox and that night it was broken into pieces. Later, Ort-Sondergard placed a community for all sign in its spot.
In addition to accusing elected officials of being racist and supporting pedophilia, one other threat emerged: “we will unseat you.”
Supervisor Ka Lo, another Hmong American, said she received a voicemail saying, “If you vote for this, we will run someone against you,” and “you’ll be sorry.”
Tomczyk also threatened county supervisors who he accused of ignoring “important responsibilities” of county government. “We the taxpayers of Marathon County are watching. We will remember.” Other residents have made similar comments.
On the Wausau side of the equation, four of 11 council members responded to Wausau Pilot & Review. Three of the four said they had not faced such threats.
The City Council passed a much stronger version than the measure defeated at the county level, declaring the city ‘We are Wausau – A Community for All’ on Aug. 10.
Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen, who opposed the measure, said she received one negative and accusatory email message from a citizen but added that, overall, she received a lot of support for her position.
“Some of the worst comments about or directed toward my recent efforts to think this all through and find common ground have actually come from a couple of fellow city council members in recent meetings, not from citizens,” Rasmussen said.
Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg, who has been called socialist, said her threshold for abuse is pretty high, leaving her unfazed by such labeling. One unidentified caller left an expletive-ridden message on her answering machine in recent weeks.
As her “weirdest” experience during the Wausau CFA discussion, she pointed out, was when the County Board allowed speakers to give a presentation in their chamber, one of whom said that “I supported the extermination and genocide of black people.”
The mayor, too, said she received more positive feedback than negative. “…Overall, anything I would consider abusive was the result of the county’s action being covered in The New York Times,” Rosenberg said. “I heard from people across the nation who called me names, assuming I was responsible for county policy.”
Almost immediately after the Times’ peace, Rosenberg proclaimed Wausau a community for all in a news conference at City Hall in Wausau.
“In general, I know that we can do better as a community in having these conversations,” Rosenberg said.
Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Damakant Jayshi After more than a year of discussion and undergoing multiple revisions, a diversity resolution on Tuesday failed to pass when the Marathon County Board of Supervisors deadlocked on the proposal. The vote on the ‘Community for All’ proposal was evenly split, at 18-18, after more than two hours of debate that witnessed some […]
Dear editor, There are not two equal sides for and against the Marathon County resolution, “A Community For All.” You either support a more inclusive welcoming and equitable community or you don’t. In 2021, I expect community leaders, specifically the Marathon County Board of Supervisors, to know better and do what is right and lead […]
Dear editor, Many ask, why the Community for All resolution is so important. They state it does not change anything, that it is just a piece of paper. I thought I would explain to you, why we have been continuing to fight to get the resolution passed! The reason is that systemic and institutionalized oppression […]