The #MeToo Frontier is Green Bay, Wisconsin

Calling Wisconsin a battleground is almost cliche in politics. Win Wisconsin, win the nation. The battle within the battleground is the 8th Congressional District, which touches the north-western shore of Lake Michigan and the endless dairy farms and pine forests locals just call Up North. It is city and country, shining blue and crimson red. It is paper mills and union jobs and literary festivals and football. It is America. And America still hasn’t decided what to do about women.

In Green Bay, the 8th’s biggest city, change is coming. Last year, the city elected its first liberal mayor in decades. This April, the city council lost its conservative majority. The annual Pride festival draws upwards of 10,000 attendees. But this new life sits atop strata of conservatism and white supremacy, reinforced by generations holding on to the values of a much smaller town. And as both Biden and Trump prepare to throw millions into the Green Bay media market, a smaller race is revealing the Democratic Party’s own fractured soul.

In October 2019, Green Bay’s freshman State Assembly representative, Staush Gruzsynksi, went for after work drinks with his colleagues from the State Capitol. There, he propositioned an Assembly staffer. Even after she rebuffed him, he pressured her to come with him to his hotel room. After the staffer heroically lodged a complaint, the Assembly’s HR department fully investigated. They then did something HR departments rarely do: unequivocally side with the victim. Gruszynski released a statement admitting wrongdoing. There is no ambiguity; while holding public office Rep. Staush Gruszynski pressured an employee for sex.

When the story broke on December 19, I was on maternity leave from my job as a field organizer for a nonprofit. My newborn was asleep on my shoulder when I texted my boss “Brace for a special election. Gruszynski will be gone by the end of the day.” The disgust I felt was personal. I had canvassed for Staush. I had soup his wife had brought me in my freezer. My baby was wearing his baby’s hand-me-down clothes. He’d gone from being a man I respected to just another of my friend’s shitty partners I could no longer trust.

The Assembly Minority Leader asked him to resign. The chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and the Young Democrats of Wisconsin echoed this request and asked him not to run again in the fall of 2020. Gruszynski refused. He is seeking re-election when in any other line of work he would have been fired.

My most pressing fear was that by staying on, Gruszynski was handing the seat to the GOP. With their deep pockets and amoral leadership, Wisconsin Republicans could flip the seat if they worked hard enough. Who would be inspired by an admitted sexual harasser to go out and canvass?

Joining with other organizers, I got to work. Our search for an alternative candidate began as damage control. We had to find someone who people could rally around so the GOP didn’t see the 90th district as a target. And it had to be a woman, or no one would be excited. Surely, Gruszynski would see that he has a viable challenger and gracefully withdraw from the race. The GOP would be defeated, a sexual harasser would lose his job, and the Assembly would have another woman. Win, win, win.

The woman to step up was Kristina Shelton, a rising star on Green Bay’s school board. She’d won her first election with a campaign that explicitly named the problems faced by the city’s black and brown students. Over lunch, as she swayed my newborn with the experienced rock of a mother of two, she laid out her vision. Here is a lawmaker who could bring our city forward.

But Gruszynski didn’t withdraw. Together, the Gruszynskis got to work building their team of local Democrat heavy-hitters. His public supporters include a staffer for U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, the second vice-chair of the county party, and two candidates for Congress — all of them women.

As Shelton’s campaign went public, we saw that the establishment of Brown County would not go down without a fight. Outside our press conference at the public library, Gruszynski’s friend Tom Sieber, himself a local elected official, stood in the lobby intimidating supporters and journalists. He accused Kristina of “going after Staush’s livelihood,” as though he is more entitled to a salary than her. Later, he sent threatening messages to a young organizer, saying “you’ll never work in politics again.” The chair of the Democratic Party of Brown County urged neutrality and civility, lest we sow division inside the party.

Over and over again, we heard “Staush is such a nice guy, he deserves a second chance,” and “I’m not taking a side”. The allegations that he admitted to were dismissed as rumor and scandal. The victim of Gruzsynski’s harassment — whose own career could very well be damaged by his actions — is now forced to watch him run a professional, viable campaign that could have them working together for another two years.

For white men in America, the bar for virtue is extremely low and politicians like Gruszynski rely on that fact. Staush hasn’t championed progressive legislation. He hasn’t defined himself as “one to watch.” Even two years ago when he ran unopposed, he didn’t take any risks with the platform he put forward. And that, with his apple cheeks and wide smile, is enough to make him the darling of the district. To exclude him is to potentially exclude all the liberals who consider themselves good. To hold Staush accountable would mean that men are no longer entitled to their jobs.

For white women, this is particularly threatening. We have long been looked to as “God’s police” with the power to divine wrong from right. By aligning themselves with Gruszynski over Shelton, white women are protecting their status within the status quo. If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that we can’t rely on suburban white women.

But despite them, I believe Kristina Shelton will win. The electorate in Green Bay, as in the country, is not just white. They are not just blue or red. They are not just the people that stand for women or pretend to. The electorate, fundamentally, are the people who show up to make their communities better.

For Green Bay, the August 11 primary will be a referendum on whether white men should be held accountable for their actions. Maybe then, we can tell if #MeToo and the era of accountability has really taken hold in America. Win Wisconsin, win the nation.

Support Kristina Shelton for Assembly with a $25 donation.
The author serves in an unpaid role on Shelton’s campaign committee.
The victim has consented to this article being published.

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A writer and feminist organizer based in Green Bay, Wisconsin. She is the co-founder of Divorcist.com

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Eliza Cussen

Eliza Cussen

A writer and feminist organizer based in Green Bay, Wisconsin. She is the co-founder of Divorcist.com

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