Scott Walker's dopey defenders: Beltway hacks think racist emails are a snooze

If DC establishment is bored by his scandal, do they think his aides' campaign convictions – and racism -- are OK?

Published February 21, 2014 7:10PM (EST)

  (AP/Andy Manis)
(AP/Andy Manis)

I have never understood why Scott Walker got off politically unscathed after six aides and associates were convicted in a criminal investigation of campaign law violations committed during his 2010 campaign for governor. Not one, but six, including three top aides. Meanwhile, Walker’s office is ensnared in another, ongoing investigation into his 2012 recall campaign. What does all of this say about the judgment of the man at the top?

A day and a half after the release of 27,000 emails obtained in the first completed investigation, the verdict of the national media is in: This Walker scandal is boring, which in Beltway-speak commands that all serious journalists just move along.

This Politico story – “The Scott Walker scandal snoozer” -- is laughably typical. With “no crotch shots. No mistress in Argentina. And no political vendettas featuring a bridge,” Elizabeth Titus writes, the Walker emails are “more likely to draw yawns than outrage.” One subhead actually declares: “It’s not that sexy.”

Let’s remember Walker already fired campaign aide Taylor Palmisano, just two months ago, for racist tweets. The first read: “This bus is my worst fucking nightmare Nobody speaks English & these ppl don’t know how 2 control their kids #only3morehours #illegalaliens.” The second: “I will choke that illegal mex cleaning in the library. Stop banging fucking chairs around and turn off your Walkman.” He had already fired two other staffers for racism on social media.

But even a Washington Post piece that took the scandal seriously, breaking down “The six things we learned about Scott Walker today,” left an extremely important “thing” off the list: Scott Walker employed ignorant racists, including his chief of staff and deputy chief of staff.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes asked the question last night: In what kind of organization does the chief of staff send virulently racist email to his deputy plus a wider undisclosed recipient list (which for all we know included Walker)?

Hayes showed all the email unearthed so far: the photo of a malevolent, cigarette-smoking Obama with an acorn on his head, captioned “ACORN cap with the nut still attached.” Worse was one from Walker chief of staff Tom Nardelli, which detailed a “nightmare” of someone learning they’re black, Jewish, gay, disabled and HIV-positive, but still hoping they’re not a Democrat. Finally, there was (to my mind) the ugliest, comparing welfare recipients to dogs. The “joke” involves a woman who tries to sign up her dogs to get welfare.

"At first the lady said, 'Dogs are not eligible to draw welfare'. So I expla ned [sic] to her that my Dogs are mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can't speak English and have no frigging clue who the r Daddys are. They expect me to feed them, provide them with housing and medical care, and feel guilty," the email said, adding: "My Dogs get their first checks Friday."

Deputy chief of staff Kelly Rindfleisch replied: "That is hilarious. And so true."

Hilarious. And so true. That’s definitely the response you want out of the county exec’s deputy chief of staff. Right? (Rindfleisch is the Walker staffer convicted of doing campaign work on government time, and sentenced to six months in prison and three years probation. Her appeal led to the release of the 27,000 emails this week.)

Oh, and the Progressive just found another doozy: Walker scheduler Dorothy Moore ranting against a directive to call illegal immigrants "undocumented." Walker himself replied: "Don't hold back."

These racist emails matter. Scott Walker is the product of suburban Milwaukee backlash politics, which buoyed Republicans in what had become for a while a Democratic stronghold – think Gaylord Nelson and William Proxmire -- and also helped make the Milwaukee metropolitan area the single most segregated place in the country. White flight to the suburbs and exurbs explains why, and so does the failure to develop any kind of regional transit system connecting the inner city and those suburbs – and Scott Walker helped block the light rail proposals of Milwaukee’s mayor and other city leaders as Milwaukee County executive.

As University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Marc Levine told Salon’s Daniel Denvir in 2011: “Most of our history is very similar to Chicago, Cleveland or even Baltimore. Every place has had the zoning ordinances, then restrictive covenants, the practices of realtors. The standard history. What makes Milwaukee a little bit different than these other places, which explains why we’re consistently in the top five and often No. 1, in segregation? We have the lowest rate of African-American suburbanization of any of these larger cities.”

Of the 30 biggest metropolitan areas, Levine’s research found, Milwaukee also had the largest vote gap between city and suburb in 2008. City residents supported Obama by more than 30 points over suburbanites.

That’s the context in which Nardelli and Kindfleisch chuckled over comparing welfare recipients to dogs, and shared nightmares about waking up black, Jewish and gay. These are the people Scott Walker chose as top aides as he rose up in Wisconsin GOP backlash politics. National reporters shouldn’t be so callow as to turn away because they didn’t find any Walker crotch shots among the emails. 

I obviously gave the national media too much credit yesterday, positing that the email trove would kindle interest in the larger campaign-law scandals ensnaring Walker’s office. I was wrong. However, they did reignite the Wisconsin media.

The folks at the liberal American Bridge group summed up the home state headlines for Walker, and they’re not good. There’s also a video roundup of harsh local television coverage.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which endorsed Walker, summed it up this way on Friday:

Throughout the secret investigation, as the Journal Sentinel reported, Walker maintained that he had zero tolerance for government employees doing campaign work while on the taxpayer clock. But the records detail almost daily interactions between his top county and campaign staffers...The longer he dodges questions, the more he undercuts his reputation as a straight-shooter. There are questions that need answering that only the governor can answer. The people of Wisconsin deserve those answers.

Just as it took dogged local New Jersey reporters to keep the focus on Chris Christie's Bridgegate, apparently Wisconsin media will have this story mostly to themselves a little while longer.

But my larger point holds: This is dashing Walker’s 2016 dreams. He can’t be the clean alternative to Chris Christie in the battle for big establishment donors. You could make the case that he’s more tarnished than Christie, since he’s had six aides convicted, and the new email dump makes clear he knew they were mixing campaign work with public business. Then there’s the ongoing John Doe investigation into his 2011 recall campaign, and whether his office illegally coordinated with big right-wing outside funders.

I’m not sure why the media can’t admit that the GOP race is a shambles. Sure, they invested in that “deep bench” fiction, propping up obviously flawed and inadequate candidates as tough 2016 contenders against Democrats. As one by one they’ve fallen, they find a new one to succor. Otherwise they’d have to admit the GOP is a party in shambles. But until they find a Walker crotch shot among the emails, they’re apparently going to give him a pass for the racism of his top aides. That’s a shame.

By Joan Walsh