Opinion | View from the Right: Wisconsin GOP, take Rep. Sortwell behind the barn

The Republican party split between Trumpism and getting things done is exemplified in two local elected officials. It’s time to make a choice.

By Eric Drzewiecki

A 2015 State of the State Address at the Wisconsin Capitol. Headshot illustrated by Jake Phelps. Staff Photo edit

Growing up in Pulaski, I am no stranger to farm life.

My father taught me valuable lessons about the hard work that goes into farming, and often used animals as illustrations to teach lessons. One such illustration that is still with me is the difference between a show horse and a workhorse.

Historically, a show horse’s life is focused on appearances and entertainment. It thrives on drawing attention to itself and is valued based on creating the biggest scene. Contrarily, a workhorse’s life is marked by the daily grind. It pulls the plow or helps bring the family to town. In old Wisconsin, you needed workhorses a lot more than show horses, especially when winter arrived.

Often, we take our political directions from those who represent our party at the highest levels. In the GOP, there is a divide between Trumpian Republicans – the show horses – and the post-Trump wing of the party – the workhorses – that actually get important things done. These divides trickle down to local politics, where the divides are even more impactful.

The Wisconsin GOP has to choose – and choose quickly – if they want to be show horses or workhorses. There are few better examples of this locally than State Senator Robert Cowles (R – Green Bay) and State Representative Shae Sortwell (R – Two Rivers).

Cowles has provided a detailed and thoughtful summary of the Legislative Audit Bureau’s review of the 2020 election, resulting in several areas of improvement to help future Wisconsin elections. He has worked on bills to expand access to public notices and broadband, improve response and processing speed for backlogged sexual assault kits, and numerous bills that increase government efficiency, such as improvements to the electronic recycling program and four bills this year (AB300, AB302, SB488 and SB489) that all target inefficiencies related to water utilities. His social media presence is devoted to informing the citizenry and providing constituent assistance.

On the other hand, Sortwell’s social media presence provides a very different flavor. In the past year, Sortwell has compared mask mandates to the holocaust, devoted several social media engagements to a Christmas tree feud, encouraged supporters to “take back their country” and has regularly compared efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 virus to socialism or fascism.

He has also recently worked on an effort to legalize hunting Sandhill Cranes, touting them as “ribeye of the sky.” As I write this column, Sortwell’s official government social media account does not allow replies (which is an illegal but often unenforced behavior.) The block on replies appears to be in sync with another distraction. Shortly before writing this column, a newly released Green Bay Press-Gazette investigation found that Sortwell had been investigated for child abuse, and that police had recommended felony charges against Sortwell, Deputy District Attorney Dana J. Johnson had not charged him or his wife.

A local official who goes the route of the workhorse gets things done for constituents and serves a vital function in our community. Conversely, when local officials choose Sortwell’s show horse path, they become engaged in quixotic battles against imagined enemies and accomplish precious little for their communities.

The show itself is just an opiate, a distraction from lack of accomplishment. The distraction will wear off sooner or later, and the GOP must choose the side of accomplishment —not entertainment—if it is to remain a viable choice for Northeast Wisconsin voters. The long-enjoyed advantage of previously drawn maps will diminish in the near future. More competitive districts will bring new challenges for the incumbent Republicans. And those voters won’t be enthralled by memes and entertaining hyperbole.

If the GOP is to provide a viable alternative to Progressivism in Wisconsin, it must choose the path forged by Cowles. But it is not merely enough to choose the path of the workhorse. When the entertainment provided by the show horse has become too toxic, it no longer serves any value. Sortwell’s distraction was already toxic before these new revelations and now threatens to turn local conservatism into a circus show. For that reason, it is not enough for the Wisconsin GOP to embrace Cowles’ example. It needs to also move on from Sortwell, quickly.

Winter has come to Wisconsin’s doorstep. And as the story goes, a show horse that doesn’t work only has one use to a hungry family in winter.

Eric Drzewiecki is a lifelong resident of Brown County. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and currently serves on the Astor Neighborhood Association Board, the Green Bay Board of Review, and is a youth leader at a local Green Bay church. He can be reached by email: [email protected]

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