The Legend of Leah Vukmir
Once considered a horrible legislator, she’s now one of the Capitol’s “heaviest hitters.”
If you’re looking for negative information on state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield), you don’t have to look far. As a recent story in Milwaukee Magazine by Matt Hrodey reports, fellow Republicans “sometimes called Vukmir ‘Nurse Ratchet,’ after the martinet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or the ‘Wicked Witch of the East,‘“ apparently based based on her district’s geographic location in the eastern part of the state.
The Shepherd Express did a 2009 story entitled “Why Republicans Dislike Leah Vukmir,” complete with a cruel caricature that managed to make the attractive legislator look like a gorgon.
“Vukmir should be a star but is an absolute dud,” one Republican told Eisen. “By withholding her vote and claiming the ‘more conservative than thou’ pose, Vukmir forced her caucus to cut deals with the Democrats and give up more ground. ‘She just has no strategic sense,’ he despairs, adding that Vukmir is despised by most fellow Republicans.”
“It’s all about Leah,” a Republican staffer confided to the magazine. “Given the choice of reaching a compromise or having an issue to campaign on, she will choose the latter.”
Democrats, of course, were even more critical. One insider called Vukmir “shrill, uncompromising, ideological and personally unpleasant.”
Her style was suggested by a Wikipedia bio that notes Vukmir was booed at a public hearing in 2009 “after accusing fellow legislators Jon Erpenbach and Mark Pocan of using dying cancer patients to further a secret agenda of legalization” of marijuana.
Yet this worst of the legislators has today risen to power as assistant Senate majority leader and member of the Legislature’s all-important Joint Finance Committee. She exemplifies the current Republican leadership in Madison, where an unwillingness to compromise gets rewarded. As Hrodey quotes a former GOP staffer, Vukmir “‘has a very tight group of people,’ so tight that it forces out more moderate conservatives.”
Vukmir won with 53 percent of the vote but after the Republicans gerrymandered districts to create safer districts, she moved from her longtime home in Wauwatosa into Brookfield. She won the 2014 “Iron Lady” award from RightWisconsin, Charlie Sykes’ conservative website, which essentially was a celebration of her unwillingness to compromise.
Vukmir rose to prominence as a frequent pundit on the TV shows of both Sykes and Mark Belling (Belling’s show went off the air years ago), but has rarely cooperated with any actual reporters. (I appeared with her on those shows on more than one occasion.) “Vukmir has also developed a reputation for walling herself off from debate and anyone who disagrees with her,” Hrodey writes. “Perhaps more than any other legislator, she’s known for avoiding the Capitol press corps and communicates primarily through statements and interviews with friendly conservative outlets such as the MacIver Institute or Sykes’ show. Multiple calls and emails requesting comment for this story were ignored.”
In June 2013, the liberal Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) sued Vukmir, contending she had violated Wisconsin’s open records law by not turning over records related to her involvement with the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative group bankrolled by corporations that creates and promotes model legislation to benefit these companies. Vukmir has served as the group’s national chairwoman, the top position on the board, and has promoted bills backed by ALEC. Vukmir apparently operated under “a requirement… (to) inform ALEC of any public records requests it receives regarding ALEC,” as the Journal Sentinel reported. Vukmir stonewalled the open records request and then responded to the CMD suit by claiming she could not be sued while in office.
If successful, that argument, “would let all lawmakers ignore the open records law,” as a JS story noted. Per usual, Vukmir declined to speak to the reporters.
ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling assailed the open records request as a “yearlong witch hunt based on unfounded accusations.”
As the Wisconsin State Journal reported, a process server hired to notify Vukmir of the lawsuit says “a Vukmir aide assailed him with abusive language, chased him and pushed him to the ground outside the Capitol, according to court documents filed Wednesday.” According to the story:
Vukmir’s aide, Jason Rostan, “started to call me a low-life jerk and (expletives)” in Vukmir’s Capitol office, Bruce Lowrey, co-owner of C. Lowrey Process Service, said in the affidavit. “When I got outside Jason was running after me and he pushed me and knocked me down and threw the paperwork at me and continued to call me all kinds of (vulgar) names.”
Lowrey said he and an employee had tried twice previously to serve Vukmir.
Lowrey’s wife and business partner, Chris Lowrey, said the next day she went to Vukmir’s office to complain.
“One of the guys got rude and snotty and I told him to stop right there,” she told the State Journal. “I told them, ‘You guys are the ones who make the law, and you have to follow it. Be professional.’ ”
In her affidavit she describes Rostan holding his hands behind him while she reached around and touched the papers to his hands — to make the service legal — before leaving the papers on a desk.
“That office hopefully learned a lesson,” Chris Lowrey said. “I’m a Republican, and I was disgusted with their behavior.”
Vukmir settled the suit in 2014 and agreed to pay $12,500 in lawyer’s fees and $2,500 in punitive damages — money the taxpayers supplied — and turn over e-mails from her personal account she had withheld.
Vukmir led the effort to eliminate the nationally acclaimed non-partisan Government Accountability Board with one controlled by legislative leaders. To accomplish this, she made a series of false claims about the GAB, while avoiding reporters on this issue.
Vukmir, in short, has become one of the state’s most powerful politicians. She is part of a hard right group of eight or nine Republican state senators who are likely to dictate much of Gov. Walker’s 2017-19 state budget, as Steven Walters has written. And she is rumored to be considering a challenge to state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) for the job of Senate Majority Leader. All those moderate Republicans who mocked and reviled her must now be eating crow.