Democrats, Green Bay mayor accuse conservative website of false report on city election, say Republicans 'scapegoating'

Doug Schneider and Molly Beck

Republican lawmakers from outside Green Bay called for the city's mayor to resign, citing a post on a conservative website that said Mayor Eric Genrich had allowed a man with a liberal history to serve as "de facto elections chief."

Local Democrats serving in the state Assembly fired back, saying the claims are "misinformation" from a partisan news outlet, and that Republicans are lying about how the city handled the election in November.

Lawmakers on the Assembly's Republican-led Committee on Campaigns and Elections plan a hearing on the matter at 10 a.m. Wednesday, said Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menominee Falls, who heads the committee.

At issue: whether Genrich and his then-chief of staff, Celestine Jeffreys, granted improper access to a consultant with previous ties to a Democratic candidate to an area of the KI Convention Center where absentee ballots were stored before ballot-counting began on election night.

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Genrich, in a written statement Tuesday, said the Wisconsin Spotlight article "made egregious and false allegations." He said ballots were kept at City Hall until 6 a.m. Election Day, when they were driven to the KI Center in city vehicles driven by city workers, and were never in the custody of consultants working on the election.

Two Republicans — Sen. Roger Roth of Appleton and Sen. Kathy Bernier, a former Chippewa County clerk and leader of the Senate’s elections committee — cited the article in claiming Genrich gave partisan consultants oversight of the election and access to ballots, though Bernier said she doesn't believe that this changed the election's outcome.

“He has shown himself unfit as an executive and should himself resign immediately from the position of Mayor of Green Bay,” Bernier said in a statement. “While this does not necessarily delegitimize the results from Nov. 3, it does stink to high heaven.”

Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich tells media during a midday press conference at City Hall that Election Day has been going smoothly on Nov. 3, 2020.

Two Assembly members from northeastern Wisconsin characterized the criticism of Genrich as nonsense.

Reps. Kristina Shelton, D-Green Bay, and Lee Snodgrass, D-Appleton, using words like "fake" and "dangerous," accused Republicans of telling partisan lies in an effort to further the narrative that the integrity of the election was compromised.

“Senator Roth is scapegoating Green Bay in a futile attempt to cast doubt on a fair and legitimate election,” Shelton said in a statement. “I am disappointed that my colleagues in the Republican caucus would be so blatantly dishonest.”

A statement from the Brown County Democratic Party noted that Green Bay's election process had already withstood scrutiny including a failed lawsuit.

“All people deserve the right to vote freely, fairly and safely, and the City of Green Bay delivered on that promise in the fall election,” party Chairwoman Renee Gasch said. “Republicans need to stop regurgitating dangerous conspiracies about the integrity of our elections and start focusing on governing our state through the pandemic.”

An item in the Wisconsin Spotlight, a Republican-leaning website, claimed "former Democratic operative" Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein had access to the location where ballots were kept. Spitzer-Rubenstein was state leader for election security for the National Vote at Home Institute from August through November, and earlier spent seven months in 2012 "running email campaigns" for two Democratic congressional campaigns and Bermuda’s Progressive Labour Party, his LinkedIn resume says.

Wisconsin Spotlight claimed he had access to absentee ballots days before the election. The website said Green Bay's then-city clerk, Kris Teske, "grew increasingly frustrated with the takeover of her department by the Democrat mayor’s staff and outside groups." After the election, Teske resigned and Jeffreys was appointed to succeed her.

The Green Bay Press-Gazette's own investigation of Teske's resignation found that she had complained multiple times about the mayor's office taking control of elections planning and leaving her out of key decisions. Other city officials disputed Teske's version of events.

Genrich said Tuesday that the city played by the rules.

"Elections observers were allowed at KI, and a livestream of Central Count was made  available as a supplemental option to increase the ability for the public to observe," his statement said. "The Central Count chief inspector was in charge at KI at all times, and was overseeing all activities. The chief inspector was present from the moment the doors were opened until the count was concluded."

Bernier, Sen. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, called on Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul — both Democrats — to investigate.

The office Genrich now holds is nonpartisan. Previously, he ran as a Democrat when he was elected to three terms representing much of Green Bay in the state Assembly.

Wisconsin Spotlight cites hundreds of pages of emails and other documents it obtained in its claim that grant money from private left-leaning groups, funded largely by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, resulted in Democrat activists "infiltrating the November presidential election" in Wisconsin’s five largest cities, including Green Bay.

Democratic candidate Joe Biden won the popular vote in Green Bay, and Wisconsin as a whole. In 2016, Republican Donald Trump edged Democrat Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin.

Contact Doug Schneider at (920) 431-8333, or DSchneid@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PGDougSchneider.