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2018-01-28-Mahlon Mitchell-01302018115935 (copy)

Mahlon Mitchell is a Democratic candidate for governor.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mahlon Mitchell's got jokes — but his opponents aren't laughing.

Mitchell was the first of five Democratic candidates to speak on Wednesday at a transportation policy discussion organized by the DRIVE Coalition — a group of representatives from the agriculture, manufacturing and tourism industries pushing for transportation funding solutions — in Madison.

He opened with a joke, set up with the explanation that between his wife's schedule as a flight attendant and his schedule as a firefighter, the two don't see each other very frequently.

"We were on the road the other night, and she sent me a text. Let me share it with you. So, my wife’s a romantic, sort of. I’m not, so we’re clear," Mitchell said. "She said, 'If you are sleeping, send me your dreams. If you are laughing, send me your smile. If you’re eating, send me a bite. If you’re drinking, send me a sip. If you are crying, send me your tears. I love you.' Sweet, right? And I said, 'I’m taking a shit. What do I do?'"

Nodding to the reporters in the back of the room, Mitchell quipped, "That’s off the record, too."

The joke elicited a few chuckles, and the "off the record" comment yielded more robust laughter. 

But a handful of Mitchell's opponents who spoke after him — several of whom have heard him tell the same joke at other forums — weren't amused, and some were surprised he chose to deploy it in a room full of officials representing the state's most prominent industries. 

"Oh no. Did he tell that joke? Not to this group!" said Milwaukee attorney Matt Flynn, who said he'd heard it a few weeks ago at an event with Marquette University students. 

Flynn said he didn't think the joke was appropriate in either setting. 

"Again?" said former state Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, when she learned he'd opened his remarks with the joke. 

Mitchell laughed off questions about the icebreaker.

"It lightens the mood up, you know? Matt Flynn’s not gonna tell a joke, is he? You can’t use the word shit nowadays?" Mitchell asked.

Flynn did not tell a joke during his presentation to the group, but he said he sometimes jokes about the former Green Bay Packers quarterback with whom he shares a name: "he's about four inches taller than I am, and he has a lot more money." 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers said he tries to avoid icebreakers in general, because he usually has a limited amount of time to talk to a given group of people. He said it's up to Mitchell to determine whether the joke was appropriate for a gubernatorial candidate, but said he personally wouldn't have made it.

Evers had a potty-mouth of his own on Wednesday, saying at a rally that cuts to the University of Wisconsin System are "bullshit." 

"When I am given the opportunity to speak I try to focus my time on sharing my vision for the state and more importantly, hearing from others what their hopes are," Roys said. "I always have such limited time wherever I am and I know people’s time is valuable, so I want to maximize our opportunity for conversation."

State Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, said he'd never heard the joke and was "very surprised" to hear about it.

"It’s inappropriate for a governor, in my opinion. Very inappropriate. Goodness, I’ve not heard that. Have you heard that?" he asked, turning toward a campaign aide.

The aide hadn't heard it, but a quick Google search will show that Mitchell is far from the first person to make the joke. Most variations end with the husband responding, "I'm on the toilet. Please advise." 

Some on Twitter rolled their eyes at the dust-up.

"Clutch those pearls tighter dana," one person tweeted

Sarah Pearson, co-founder of the Wisconsin Women's March, tweeted that Flynn should be more concerned with his role defending the Archdiocese of Milwaukee against victims of sexual abuse by priests. Flynn also addressed that issue on Wednesday. 

And conservative radio host Dan O'Donnell tweeted in defense of Mitchell: "That is a quality joke."

The only question, then, is whether the joke landed in the room of industry leaders on Wednesday. 

"I don't think the joke worked in that setting," said lobbyist Bill McCoshen, who organized the event. 

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.