Local convention and visitors bureau VISIT Milwaukee will have a new chairman of the Board of Directors next year, but the identity of that new board chair isn’t sitting well with some Milwaukee politicians and business leaders.

Back in May, VISIT Milwaukee made the announcement that Steve Baas will take over as board chair beginning January 1, 2021. Baas has served on the board since 2018, and works as the senior vice president with the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. He will replace outgoing board chair Omar Shaikh, who is the co-owner of SURG Restaurant Group.

But in a statement released Tuesday, Alderman Michael J. Murphy calls the appointment “tone deaf,” and points to Baas’ involvement in “making up concerns about voter fraud in an effort to stir up the Republican base immediately after then-Supreme Court Justice David Prosser barely squeaked by challenger Joanne Kloppenburg” in 2011.

“Do we need to start messaging ‘widespread reports of election fraud’ so we are positively set up for the recount regardless of the final number? I obviously think we should,” Baas wrote to a group of conservative operatives a day after the April 5, 2011 election.

“Yes. Anything fishy should be highlighted,” replied former Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen. “Stories should be solicited by talk show hosts.”

The exchange was reported at the time by Daniel Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a column entitled “GOP operatives discussed ginning up ‘voter fraud’ reports.”

“As I noted at the time,” Murphy says in his 2020 statement, “the sad and cynical attempt by Mr. Baas—who was conversing at the time with, according to the article, ‘a group of conservative operatives,’ including his boss at the time, GOP Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen—to manipulate public opinion by making stuff up, without any evidence of actual voter fraud, is dark and disturbing. The entire Voter ID effort at that time on the part of the state GOP was based on nearly non-existent voter fraud and was directly causing voter suppression among people of color, seniors, and even students.”

Replying to Milwaukee Record for comment, Baas says: “VISIT should not be politicized. Its mission is to make Milwaukee a welcoming city for all people regardless of their race, religion, gender, or politics. It’s not the appropriate place for people to be re-hashing political grudges.”

Murphy isn’t alone in his displeasure. Gary Witt, CEO of the Pabst Theater Group, is also unhappy with Bass’ appointment.

“I’m really concerned because I feel like our leadership has failed us here,” Witt tells Milwaukee Record. “Murphy said it really well—in a time of significant change in correcting the injustices that have been perpetrated against African Americans, why in the world are we putting Steve Baas in charge of the Board of Directors, after we know that he was directly responsible for attempting to cause voter suppression amongst people of color? Honestly, I don’t even know if he should be working at a Kwik-E-Mart.

“VISIT Milwaukee is beholden to the restaurants, bars, coffee shops, hotels, cabs, and the entertainment devices in the City of Milwaukee,” Witt continues. “They are responsible for the marketing of the City of Milwaukee, and in my 18 years of being here, they have been horrible at it. When Omar worked hard in the background to make the change to move on to someone else, I thought it was possible that it would be breathing new life into VISIT Milwaukee. I couldn’t have been proven any more wrong by Visit Milwaukee’s first move in announcing a man who attempted to suppress voting in the African American community to be the head of their board.”

Here’s Murphy’s full statement:

Tone deaf appointment: Steve Baas to board chair of VISIT Milwaukee

Statement of Alderman Michael J. Murphy
June 9, 2020

For taxpayers and Milwaukeeans who believe in inclusiveness and the sacred nature of our right to vote, it is outrageous that Steve Baas has been appointed as the new board chairman of VISIT Milwaukee.

Mr. Baas, a longtime Republican operative who has served for years as a senior vice president with the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, has been appointed to lead the board of directors of our city’s key tourism and visitors bureau. VISIT is a critical organization charged with marketing Milwaukee to prospective event planners and those looking to hold a conference here. The majority of funding that VISIT receives is taxpayer generated.

Rewind to September 2016, when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published comments from Mr. Baas leaked from an investigation into state politics.

In a piece written by Daniel Bice (“John Doe leak offers insights”), a leaked document (email) quoted Mr. Baas discussing making up concerns about voter fraud in an effort to stir up the Republican base immediately after then-Supreme Court Justice David Prosser barely squeaked by challenger Joanne Kloppenburg in April 2011. In the April 6, 2011 email Mr. Baas states: “Do we need to start messaging ‘widespread reports of election fraud’ so we are positively set up for the recount regardless of the final number? I obviously think we should.”

As I noted at the time, the sad and cynical attempt by Mr. Baas – who was conversing at the time with, according to the article, “a group of conservative operatives,” including his boss at the time, GOP Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen – to manipulate public opinion by making stuff up, without any evidence of actual voter fraud, is dark and disturbing. The entire Voter ID effort at that time on the part of the state GOP was based on nearly non-existent voter fraud and was directly causing voter suppression among people of color, seniors, and even students.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau indicated that the price tag to put in place Voter ID at that time cost taxpayers about $6 million. What a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars.

In a time of potentially significant change and awakening in terms of correcting injustices perpetrated against African Americans and people of color for decades, why in the world are we putting Steve Baas in charge of the board of directors of our top tourism entity?!

It is outrageous and his appointment should be immediately reconsidered by the VISIT Milwaukee board of directors.

About The Author

Co-Founder and Editor

Matt Wild weighs between 140 and 145 pounds. He lives on Milwaukee's east side.

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