Trump campaign returns to Wisconsin with Mike Pence visit focused on school choice, religious faith

Vice President Mike Pence, left, greets Calvin A. Lee, of the American Federation for Children, while accompanied by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos before a school choice roundtable discussion Tuesday, June 23, 2020 at the Waukesha STEM Academy, 130 Walton Ave. in Waukesha, Wis.

WAUKESHA – The presidential race finally arrived in the Wisconsin battleground Tuesday as Vice President Mike Pence sought to improve enthusiasm for the president in a reliable Republican stronghold. 

Pence kicked off President Donald Trump’s campaign against former Vice President Joe Biden with a pair of appearances in Waukesha County to focus on issues important to the Wisconsin GOP: school choice, religious faith and security.

The Trump surrogates drew a sharp contrast between the president and Biden, presenting the race to voters as a choice between wallowing in struggles borne by a pandemic and unrest after the death of George Floyd, and moving on from them. 

“Weeks ago when rioting and looting was overwhelming many of our major cities, Joe Biden sent out a press release. President Donald Trump sent in the National Guard,” Pence said at a rally at the Ingleside Hotel in Waukesha.

“He secured our nation’s capital and called on every governor in America to do the same. And we quelled the violence,” Pence said, arguing Trump was the president to combat crime and violence — issues Wisconsin Republicans have focused on in the Milwaukee suburbs for decades.

But Democrats and some Republicans have criticized the president’s reaction to protesters, including using military police to stand guard by national monuments in Washington D.C. and using the officers to disperse peaceful demonstrations with chemical agents. 

The vice president came to Waukesha County on Tuesday to court evangelical voters in an effort to boost the president’s support in an area of the state that has historically been deeply red but hasn’t shown the same enthusiasm for Trump. 

The president is visiting another part of the state important to his re-election chances on Thursday. Trump will stop at Fincantieri Marinette Marine to discuss expansion plans at the shipyard and will tape a Fox News town hall in Green Bay to be televised Thursday night.

Pence and  Kellyanne Conway on Tuesday first held a roundtable discussion on charter and private voucher schools at Waukesha STEM Academy with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who was influential in the launch of the nation’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee in 1990. 

And Pence was upbeat as he told the crowd at an afternoon rally: “It is great to be back in the Badger State as we celebrate faith in America.”

The Trump campaign’s in-person events this week are being held at a time when the virus has slowed considerably in Wisconsin but has not disappeared. On Monday, the number of cases in the state had surpassed 25,000 since March with about 250 new positive tests reported over the last 24 hours.

To underscore the risk the virus still poses as the 2020 campaign resumes and businesses reopen amid the pandemic, tickets to Pence’s Pewaukee event required attendees to agree not to sue the Trump campaign if they contract the virus. 

Pence, who did not wear a mask to either event, told the afternoon rally that Trump’s actions in setting up a coronavirus taskforce and blocking travel from China “bought our nation invaluable time to stand up national response on a virtual wartime footing.”

Pence said there is now COVID-19 testing of more than 500,000 Americans every day and didn’t mention the president’s announcement last week that he wanted to slow testing to reduce the number of reported cases of the virus.

“No American that required a ventilator was ever denied a ventilator in the United States,” Pence claimed. 

“The great American comeback has begun and President Trump is leading the way,” he said.

Pence said Biden and former President Barack Obama “presided over the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression,” signaling to the crowd that his predecessor was not the person to dig out of the economic fallout of the pandemic. 

The stops were made just a few weeks after unrest exploded in Wisconsin following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer. 

Trump has been criticized for his reaction to protesters of police behavior that has led to the deaths of unarmed Black men — demonstrations that have coincided with violent riots in some cities including Milwaukee and Madison.

Pence said Trump “stands for law and order and liberty justice for all Americans.”

“We quelled the violence,” he said. “In the days that followed we’ve been sitting down with law enforcement, listening to leaders in the African-American community. The administration is looking to improve public safety and the lives of our African-American neighbors.”

“We’re listening and we’re leading but we’re not going to defund the police,” Pence said, referring to a proposal by some Americans who want police departments to be responsible for fewer interactions with their communities to prevent situations like Floyd’s death — an idea that opponents say would leave communities even less protected. 

About 75 people picket outside where Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to attend a school choice roundtable discussion Tuesday, June 23, 2020 at the Waukesha STEM Academy.

Earlier Tuesday at the Waukesha School District charter school, Pence said Wisconsin “has been in the forefront” of the choice movement and called Trump a “great champion” of choice.

“He loves this state, he loves this issue,” Pence said of the president.

But the visit was met with a protest that included Waukesha teachers who said they opposed district Superintendent Todd Gray’s decision to host such an event without notifying staff. 

“We have a secretary of education who has no experience with public education, and they’re in a public school having a (discussion) about choice schools,” said Carrie Kummrow, co-president of the Education Association of Waukesha. “We were told it was not a political event, but a social event.”

Monica Whaley, a parent and special education teacher in the district, said people are “outraged that the district would do something like this when this administration has cut funds for and disparaged public schools.”

“It just smacks of hypocrisy,” she said.

One longstanding division between Democrats and Republicans in Wisconsin is over expanding alternatives to traditional public schools.

Democrats and public school teachers largely see the private school vouchers and charter schools as a way to deplete funding for public schools. Republicans say the programs give options to parents of children who don’t have the financial means to move to any neighborhood.

The issue has gotten more divisive in Wisconsin over the last decade as GOP lawmakers have increased the household income limits for the programs, allowing middle-class families to participate, and lifted enrollment limits. 

On Tuesday, Pence lauded the retiring district superintendent who hosted the event and said the Trump administration is working on a new program to make more than $5 billion available through “Education Freedom Scholarships.”

The proposed initiative is in the spirit of programs offered by the district Gray oversees, which includes a mix of charter and virtual schools and the freedom to choose to enroll your student in any school.  

Under the proposal Pence has repeatedly promoted, the scholarships would be created through a $5 billion annual federal tax credit for businesses and individuals who voluntarily donate to scholarship granting organizations.

Teachers say they believe Waukesha was tapped for the visit — and that the district was amenable — because Gray’s son of works for the White House.

A protester shared what she said was part of an email exchange between the teachers union, board members and Gray in which Gray, who is retiring at the end of the month, attempted to quell assertions that his son was working for the president’s re-election campaign and that the school was being co-opted as a campaign stop.

In the email, Gray describes his son as a deputy assistant to the president and director of policy for Pence. 

“In fact, he cannot campaign in his role. Furthermore, he does not direct where the VP attends, nor does he schedule his events,” it says.

DeVos said in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic the last few months “have been challenging to educators across the country.”

People gather among chairs spaced for social distancing before Vice President Mike Pence attends a school choice roundtable discussion Tuesday, June 23, 2020 at the Waukesha STEM Academy, 130 Walton Ave. in Waukesha, Wis. MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

She said parents “are very eager for a return to some kind of normalcy whatever that means to each student and their family.”

Over these past few months, DeVos said there has been a lot of learning about “what education might look like going forward,” while also providing “an unprecedented opportunity to continue to rethink what a K-12 experience should look like for every child.”

Trump on Thursday is expected to discuss a $5.5 billion Navy contract awarded to the shipyard to build the service’s first new frigate and options for up to nine more, which could result in the creation of more than 1,000 jobs.

The Biden campaign will also hold a virtual event Friday focused on Milwaukee. The event will be led by the former vice president’s wife Jill Biden and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, of California, who is being seriously vetted as a potential vice presidential pick for the Democrats.

Pence’s visit seeks to improve support in the deeply red Milwaukee suburbs, where he won in 2016 but by the smaller margin than 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Trump’s support in the suburban counties appears to be even softer now, according to recent polling by the Marquette University Law School. 

SUBSCRIBER EXCLUSIVE:Trump and Pence visits underscore the GOP’s need to shore up the base in Wisconsin

This week’s events accompany the release of the latest Marquette University poll, which in May showed a static presidential race, with Biden leading Trump by 46% to 43%.

The poll also showed Trump’s approval of handling the outbreak had declined — 44% approval to 51% disapproval in May, compared to March when it stood at 51% approval and 46% disapproval.

The Pence rally at the Ingleside Hotel also attracted protesters Tuesday, displaying signs and flags supporting Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ pride. 

Two Democratic candidates for State Assembly joined the protests: Jessica Katzenmeyer, running for the 15th district seat, and Waukesha Ald. Aaron Perry, running for the 97th district seat.

They said they hope their down-ticket candidacies will boost turnout in the November presidential election.

“We are the ones that decide who wins the White House — Wisconsin,” Perry said. “In fact,” he said, “Waukesha County, where Jessica and I are both from,” will play a major role.

Craig Gilbert and Genevieve Redsten of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.