A candidate for state superintendent offered an opponent a taxpayer-funded $150,000 job if he dropped out of the race and sought the same for himself if he were the one to drop out, his challenger alleged Wednesday.
Candidate John Humphries said in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal that during discussions between him and opponent Lowell Holtz, Holtz proposed in writing that either he or Humphries should drop out in exchange for the guaranteed three-year job with the Department of Public Instruction should one of them defeat incumbent Tony Evers in the general election.
But Holtz said in an interview with the State Journal that the proposal — including a driver, benefits and sweeping control over several urban school districts, including Madison — was a “rough draft” of ideas assembled at the request of business leaders he declined to name of how the two conservative candidates could work together instead of running against each other. Both candidates said the proposal went nowhere.
Holtz said the proposal was intended for consideration after the primary, but Humphries said Holtz meant for it to be weighed before the race even began and contemplated scenarios under which one or the other candidate would drop out.
Each sought to make his case with dueling documents released Wednesday, although it was impossible to ascertain whether either had been altered.
Holtz and Humphries are competing in a Feb. 21 primary against Evers, and both are seeking support from conservative voters. The top two vote-getters advance to the general election in April.
In a Wednesday appearance on a conservative talk radio show on WISN-AM, where the candidates debated, Holtz called Humphries’ characterization of the discussion “liberal BS.”
“It’s true that we had breakfast together. It’s true that a number of business people asked us to get together and discuss options for working together because they thought we would have a better chance,” Holtz said on WISN. “There was no specific proposal. There were ideas that were thrown around. They were ideas.”
Holtz later told the State Journal that Humphries “is not one to let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
“Unfortunately, we are on totally opposite ends of the political spectrum,” he said. “The differences between Mr. Humphries’ approach to education and mine were too stark to be reconciled, so the conversation ended there.”
Holtz said on WISN the proposal contained “suggestions from business people that were put in writing because the business people asked for them to be put in writing.”
“It’s as simple as that,” Holtz said on WISN. “If you want to focus on the issues, focus on the issues. If you want to come up with a bunch of stuff that’s a bunch of baloney and a bunch of liberal BS, go for it. Because that’s exactly what it is.”
Humphries said he later offered Holtz a spot on his campaign but did not discuss salary levels or other details. He also declined to name the business leaders.
“I would not agree to his terms for me to drop out or to bring him into my team,” said Humphries.
with alleged offer
Humphries told the State Journal that the terms of the proposal were to give either Humphries or Holtz a three-year contract for a position within DPI that would pay $150,000 annually and offer full benefits, including a driver. He provided the newspaper a PDF, or electronic image, of a document with a handwritten date of Dec. 22, 2016, listing the terms. The document, which Humphries said was prepared by Holtz, does not specifically state the proposal is a quid pro quo for one candidate leaving the race.
Under “Lowell,” the document also calls for “Complete authority over Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha and Madison (Green Bay can be negotiated)” and clarifies that the authority includes the ability to create rules for the listed districts, “change boards when I deem it necessary,” break apart districts, and that the position’s budget would be proportional to the districts’ enrollment.
“You identify me as the superintendent in charge of those four urban districts with the authority and autonomy that goes with the office of WI State Superintendent,” the document says. “We are going to shake up Milwaukee and it is going to make noise.”
A somewhat similar list of conditions appears under “John,” although with some details left blank.
Holtz provided the State Journal with a Microsoft Word version of a document with similar language and formatting, but which contains additional text explicitly stating the proposals were for consideration after the primary election.
The Holtz document also adds that Humphries would oversee “Central Office,” including curriculum and assessments, if Holtz wins the Feb. 21 primary.
Holtz said Humphries did not provide the State Journal with the original document in question.
“He obviously did not share the full story with you and edited pieces,” said Holtz.
Humphries rejected that claim.
“The document I jotted notes on and scanned is what Holtz gave to me at the breakfast in Milton,” Humphries said. “Perhaps he edited it afterwards, but this is not the version he handed me.”
It’s unclear if either document had been edited. The Humphries document does not contain a revision history. The electronic properties in the Holtz document show it was printed on Dec. 22 at 8:21 a.m. and was edited at 1:29 p.m. on Wednesday. The document does not contain any further revision history to indicate whether it had been edited between Dec. 22 and Wednesday.
No current laws
Reid Magney, spokesman for the state ethics and elections commissions, said the ethics commission does not comment on matters that could become the subject of complaints but said the commission does not believe there is anything under state election law that would cover the allegations.
Kevin Kennedy, former director of the Government Accountability Board — the forerunner of the ethics and elections boards — and an expert on election law and campaign ethics, also said there are no state laws that prohibit such a proposal.
“It’s not an unusual political (move),” said Kennedy. “You’re usually not dealing with something this blatant but there’s not a specific prohibition. So, with a lot of things in politics, you use it in a campaign.”
Tom McCarthy, spokesman for DPI, said the alleged proposal seeks powers that don’t currently exist in state law.
“This would be an unprecedented shift in who controls our local schools,” said McCarthy.
A spokeswoman for the Evers campaign declined to comment.