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Why Brett Hulsey won't shut up
Madison Democrat denies he's grandstanding, as colleagues allege
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'I did what had to be done': Hulsey at Gov. Walker's Feb. 27 press conference.
'I did what had to be done': Hulsey at Gov. Walker's Feb. 27 press conference.
Credit:Bill Lueders

Brett Hulsey knew exactly what he needed to do. The moment he saw a Facebook post last Thursday on how Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had just told a congressional committee his proposed budget is "truly progressive," the Democratic state Assembly rep contacted his aide, Ben Tobias, to say, "We've got to get a statement out."

A couple hours later, that statement landed in media email inboxes throughout the state.

"Only in Walker's extreme right-wing world would slashing money for children and schools, cutting dollars for medicine for fixed-income seniors, de-funding recycling programs, and slashing local funds for police and fire service be progressive."

Hulsey went on to lampoon Walker's claim that his budget constitutes "a modest proposal," noting that this "is how Jonathan Swift satirically framed eating children to solve the Irish potato famine of the 18th century."

It was classic Hulsey: Pointed, astringent, immediate to the verge of being impulsive. Hulsey says the need for a rapid response was one of the lessons he learned in 1992, while working in Arkansas on Bill Clinton's presidential election campaign. (Once, he recalls, he and others foiled an opposition campaign ad meant to highlight Arkansas poverty by dogging a camera crew and hoisting "Clinton for President" signs into every attempted shot.)

Hulsey, 51, has been a state representative for just over 100 days, as long as Walker has been governor. He's emerged as one of the Legislature's most visible Democrats, drawing statewide and national attention. (His "Jonathan Swift" release, for instance, snared him an appearance last Friday on Stephanie Miller's nationally syndicated radio show.)

Whether by press releases that rename Walker's budget repair bill a "budget despair bill" or when he became the news by talking down an angry knot of protesters that had surrounded GOP state Sen. Glenn Grothman, Hulsey has maintained a high profile - too high, in the estimation of some of his colleagues.

"It's like he's this superstar," clucks one Democratic lawmaker. "He's seen as a media hound."

One joke making the rounds is that the most dangerous place in the Capitol to be is between Brett Hulsey and a camera. But the concerns run deeper than that.

Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), the Assembly minority leader, confirms he's gotten multiple complaints from his caucus about Hulsey, some suggesting he be stripped of committee appointments.

"Through the years, it's not unusual for members to feel that it is a mistake for new members to be out front on too many issues because often there may be a history they do not appreciate or [some] hidden implications of a policy," reflects Barca in an email response. "At times a number of us have discussed that Rep. Hulsey must have a twin because no one person can be in as many places at once as it seems he sometimes is."

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) says Hulsey has "real potential" to follow predecessor Rep. Spencer Black's footsteps as an effective advocate for environmental and progressive causes. But Hulsey, like other freshmen, needs to learn "the rules and responsibilities and obligations" of being a lawmaker.

Hulsey seems unpersuaded by this advice, saying his 30 years of experience as an organizer and long ties with the Legislature distinguish him from other newcomers.

"People have told me it's the job of the freshman to sit down and be quiet," says Hulsey, who disagrees. "My job is to protect my constituents by standing up and fighting as hard as I can."

The key criticism is that Hulsey assumes the role of spokesman without being mindful of his party's overall strategy and goals.

"We generally have a plan in terms of our message to the media," says state Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison). "Sometimes people feel Brett's on his own plan and not on the team."

Rep. Kelda Roys (D-Madison), who during last fall's campaign bristled at Hulsey's claim that she endorsed him, which she denied, thinks he's tried to build working relationships with his colleagues, albeit not with overwhelming success.

"Brett has a lot of ideas, and he is very good at getting media attention," says Roys. "But he should develop a little more sensitivity to how his behavior impacts his colleagues."

Democrats are especially irked by Hulsey's performance at Gov. Walker's Feb. 23 press conference, held in the thick of Capitol protests, just after Walker's embarrassing exchange with a prankster he thought was a billionaire supporter.

During the question-and-answer portion, Hulsey stood with his hand in the air. When Walker left without having called on him, Hulsey strode up to the podium and began holding a press conference of his own. The governor's staff shut off the microphone and opened the door so the din from thousands of protesters filling the building drowned Hulsey out.

Sources say this cut against the message of reasonableness Democrats have sought to project and had negative consequences for the party, in that Walker's subsequent press conferences have been open only to credentialed members of the press.

Afterward, says Barca, Hulsey was taken to task: "I did talk with Rep. Hulsey when there was perceived disruption in the governor's conference room, and he recognized at the time that was one occasion where he should have tempered his actions."

Hulsey seems notably untempered. He says Barca pulled him aside to inform him, "We don't do that here." But he feels the Democrats at this moment, when Walker was refusing to meet or talk, "needed to reestablish ourselves" and thinks his action had this effect. "I did what had to be done."

Now, he says, such tactics are no longer needed, since Walker encounters passionate critics wherever he goes.

A native of Oklahoma, Hulsey first visited Madison in 1978, when he passed through town with friends on a meandering road trip from Oklahoma to Alaska. It was love at first sight: "I remember seeing the Capitol reflecting off of Lake Monona [and thinking] 'This is cool.'"

He went on to work as a VISTA volunteer in Alaska ("I was the youngest and lowest-ranking member of the Carter administration") before completing his education and taking a job with the Sierra Club in Oklahoma. In 1988, a Sierra Club position opened in Madison, and Hulsey secured it, working as an environmental educator and advocate until 2005, when he founded an environmental consulting firm. In 1998, he was elected to the Dane County Board, a position he still holds.

Hulsey, who is married with two children, last fall beat out four other Democrats vying to replace state Rep. Spencer Black, who held the job for 24 years, and went on to face a spirited general election battle against Green Party candidate Ben Manski. Neither Black nor Manski are currently active members of the Brett Hulsey Fan Club.

"I've never encountered anything like this," says Black, who reports "a surprisingly large number of calls" from his former legislative colleagues about Hulsey. "There seems to be a sense that he's completely disregarded working as a team member."

Black, who rescinded his endorsement of Hulsey after the latter used a made-up supportive quote from Black in his campaign, says there's nothing wrong with speaking out, as he himself often did, "but you have to do it in a way that builds confidence among your colleagues." He adds that while lawmakers must sometimes part ways with others in their party, "when you all agree, you have to work together."

Manski is harsher, suggesting that Hulsey's motive for adopting the role of a spokesperson comes "not from a place of commitment" but "from an interest in advancing his own political career." Manski sees nothing courageous about a state rep from the west side of Madison speaking out against Walker and the GOP. And he gives Hulsey no points for stirring things up.

"We want someone who rubs [the business lobby] WMC the wrong way," says Manski, "not the Democratic caucus."

But some of the blowback against Hulsey seems a bit overblown. One claim, which Democrats have spread, is that Hulsey himself began shouting "Shame!" at Sen. Grothman before rescuing him from protesters doing the same. Insists Hulsey, "That never happened."

Another charge is that Hulsey intentionally let additional protesters into the Capitol on March 3, after a judge issued an order that the building be vacated. Hulsey says he entered along with others when a door opened. He later helped persuade the protesters to leave voluntarily.

"I had credibility with them because I had been there with them," he says.

Beyond that, Hulsey denies trying to hog the limelight, saying he passes some media inquiries on to colleagues and always checks in with "leadership" - Barca and his staff - before putting out press releases. In fact, he credits a Barca aide for suggesting the line about Jonathan Swift.

Hulsey serves on three legislative committees, overseeing natural resources, energy and transportation. He says this is where he's focusing his efforts, which consist almost entirely of playing defense.

Given the GOP domination of state government, "we're not going to pass any bills. Our job is to try to limit the damage of Walker and the extreme right as much as we can."

Hulsey says his district probably has "more public servants per square mile than any district in the state." These people want an Assembly rep who will stand up against Walker; Hulsey has heard from "thousands" of constituents, expressing their support.

Black, who is now teaching a class in environmental policy at the UW-Madison and doing volunteer work for the Sierra Club, says Hulsey's bad image may mean that, when Democrats do regain control, "he will not have the trust of his colleagues to get things done."

Hulsey, who professes to follow Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment - never speak ill of members of one's own party - shrugs this off. "They used to say the same thing about Spencer."

[Note: The print version of this article gave an incorrect date, 1988, for when Hulsey joined the board.]

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