Friday, April 19, 2024
Friday, April 19, 2024

Milwaukee Press Club 'Excellence in Wisconsin Journalism' 2020 & 2021 Award Winners

The Joseph Project: GOP Candidate Creates Hope in Milwaukee’s Inner City


We met Orlando Owens on a gray weekday in a humble red-brick storefront church along W. Center Street in Milwaukee called Greater Praise Church of God in Christ. It’s not far from one of the nation’s most challenged zip codes, 53206. That zip code’s unemployment rate hovers around 50 percent, and 34 percent of males in prime working years were not in the labor force at all one recent year. Across the street from the church and its parking lot full of job shuttles, some buildings are boarded up with green plywood. It’s not uncommon for shootings to erupt nearby; seven people were shot in a funeral home just down the road the day before.

We’d been hearing good things about this jobs program for some time. One Milwaukee community activist, Tory Lowe, told us he checked it out and determined it was legitimately helping people; he praised Owens as a man of action. We decided to see for ourselves. In a sea of depressing news about things that are falling apart, this is something that’s working.

Owens has what can only be called presence. He’s an energetic man with a pastor’s booming voice and say-it-like-it-is style, and the men assembled before him in the church appeared ready to listen. Owens, who is the southeastern Wisconsin regional director for U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, addresses the new job seekers as a father might; his empathy is grounded in realism and tough-talking truths. He’s also running for state Assembly in this historically Democratic district as a Republican, but that’s another story. It’s Jason Fields’ old district, and a Republican hasn’t competed here in 40 years. The Joseph Project is a team effort among Owens, Pastor Jerome Smith, and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s Wisconsin state outreach director, Scott Bolstad. They developed the jobs program together. It doesn’t take any government money but relies on donors, business partners, and volunteers.

Joseph project
Orlando owens talks to the men. Credit: jim piwowarczyk

One job seeker was living at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission when he heard about the Joseph Project in chapel. Another was released from federal prison for bank robberies only a few weeks ago but wants to forge a career in landscaping. A third is a sex offender, which he matter-of-factly reveals because he’s not sure how to tell employers about it during the job interviews he’s determined to get. All of the men share this in common: They’re here because they say they’re ready to work. But to work you need to find a job. The Joseph Project is a faith-based initiative in Milwaukee’s inner city that helps them get one. If ever there was a place for genuine second chances, this is it.

Owens faces the group of suit-wearing men, mostly Black and Latino, some young, some middle-aged. They are scattered around pews in front of him, listening intently. Through the Joseph Project, they are given business suits, resume and financial training, subjected to mock interviews, and then they’re linked with good-paying jobs and, if they get them, they’re literally driven there. The shuttles, including one called Big Bertha, sit outside the church. Downstairs, executives with R & R Insurance and First Midwest Bank wait to give the men a realistic taste of a job interview.

Joseph project
One of the job shuttles. Credit: jim piwowarczyk.

Owens says the men, who are recruited through social media advertising, churches, and other methods, are asked to list the highest amount they’ve ever worked for, and they reveal amounts like $9.50 or $10 an hour. “These are grown men with families. How are we going to think they are going to make it on that?” he says. The project focuses on “getting people to where the jobs are” that pay better. He thinks the men will become role models back home in their neighborhoods, known as people who “go to work every day.” The goal isn’t to transplant them elsewhere; it’s to keep them where they are and make them magnets for change. But the city jobs just aren’t there, although the workers are; meanwhile, companies in places like Sheboygan Falls desperately need workers.

Joseph project

“Everything we do has a purpose,” Owens tells the men. “God didn’t need perfect people. You all have something to bring to the table.” He tells them to have the confidence of “MJ in the ‘90s or LeBron in the 2000s. What people want to hear is, ‘Do you own up to what happened?’”

Joseph project
A man undergoes a mock interview. Credit: jim piwowarcyzk

“You don’t go into an interview and say, ‘Please give me a shot,” Owens advises the men, sternly. “That doesn’t sound confident. You have something to offer these companies also.”

As for their criminal histories and gaps in employment due to incarceration, Owens advises, “Hit it, quit it, and get out of it. You have to bring it up. Own up to it. Say, ‘I’ve paid my debt to society, but I’ve learned from that’…Everybody loves a comeback story.”

One of the men in the program who wants that comeback story to happen is Joshua Mitchell, 26, who is originally from Chicago. He got out of federal prison for bank robbery three weeks ago. He has skills in landscaping and hopes to work in that area, perhaps starting his own company someday. He feels the Joseph Project volunteers are “honestly willing to help us. It’s shocking to me. I haven’t had anyone willing to help me before.” If it wasn’t for the Joseph Project, he would “still be filling out applications at temp agencies.” Now he has a chance for a career. He won’t feel judged here. It benefits no one in society if people who’ve served their time can’t transition into positive members of the community.

Cedric williams. Credit: jessica mcbride

Another man in the program is Cedric Williams, 58, of Milwaukee. He was living at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission when he learned about the Joseph Project. “It’s opened doors for me and given me a better understanding of myself and what my goals are,” he says of the project. “It’s opening doors I wouldn’t see open on my own.” He ended up at the Rescue Mission after casting aside the drug dealers he was hanging out with; he’s been employed before but substance abuse made that fall by the wayside the last five years. “I don’t want to be in jail,” he says now.

Bolstad said the program “removes all of the obstacles” to employment. “We give them transportation, provide clothes.” One man rode to work in a Joseph Project shuttle for four years. Another has now been able to purchase a house. One of the project’s biggest employers is Denali Ingredients, a New Berlin company that makes Moose Tracks. Johnsonville LLC in Sheboygan Falls is another. Milwaukee is just one of four locations; there are others in Wausau, Green Bay, and Sheboygan Falls. Each has different challenges. In Wausau, it’s substance abuse; in Green Bay, homelessness; in Milwaukee, a variety of issues; and Sheboygan Falls is too new to say.

Orlando owens
Bolstad and owens. Credit: jessica mcbride

According to Bolstad, the program, which started in 2015, has helped about 800 people with more than 500 of those gainfully employed in life-sustaining jobs ($15 an hour in some cases) with full benefits. Employers say the retention rate, about 70%, is better than it is for employees who walked in the door on their own. The program also works with people in the House of Correction on work-release privileges. Bolstad said that Owens hatched the idea when he was in a meeting in Sheboygan Falls with business leaders who wanted the Senator to give them money because they didn’t have enough workers, and he indicated the workers were in Milwaukee. The idea was to connect them.

“Orlando is kind of the hammer around here,” says Bolstad. “He has a sixth sense about people. He is someone who cares about the people. We need new ideas to break this depression that hangs over the city.”

Joseph project
A mock interview. Credit: jim piwowarczyk

Owens believes the system “can break people down.” Now he tells the men to be the “narrators of your own stories.”

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(The Center Square) – One of the biggest critics of Wisconsin’s election administrator says no one should be threatening her and says threats don’t help fix election integrity issues.

State Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls, on Tuesday offered her thoughts after the Wisconsin Elections Commission confirmed elections administrator Meagan Wolfe is receiving extra security protection.

"Threatening Administrator Meagan Wolfe, or any election official, is unacceptable and counterproductive. Venting frustrations on individuals like Wolfe, clerks, or poll workers is not only illegal but also harmful to rebuilding trust in our elections,” Brandtjen said. “Threats only undermine our republic and empower the courts and media. It's essential to address any concerns about election processes through legal channels. Threats have no place in our democracy.”

Brandtjen has been one of Wisconsin’s loudest critics of Wolfe. She led hearings as far back as 2021 into Wolfe’s role in the 2020 election. Brandtjen also led the push to get Wolfe removed from the Elections Commission.

“Wolfe’s term has indeed expired, and according to Wisconsin Statutes 15.61(1)(b)1, she should be removed, but Republicans are too worried about the press or too compromised to follow existing law.” Brandtjen said.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission on Monday clarified that Wolfe is receiving extra security but refused to offer any details.

“The Wisconsin Elections Commission has had productive conversations about safety and security with state leadership, including the governor’s office, which is tasked with approving security measures for state government officials,” WEC spokesperson Riley Vetterkind said in a statement. “Those conversations have resulted in additional security measures being approved for Administrator Wolfe and the WEC when the need arises.”

Brandtjen on Tuesday blamed Wisconsin Republicans, and once again blamed Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, for Wolfe’s continued time on the Elections Commission.

“It's disappointing that Sen. Dan Knodl and Rep. Scott Krug, chairs of the election committees, have not exercised their investigative and subpoena powers. This inaction has allowed the neglect of essential laws, such as providing ballots to individuals declared incompetent, lack of checks in military ballot requests, an insecure online system, and improper guidance on voting for homeless individuals without proper documentation,” she said. “The Legislature, particularly Speaker Vos' control, is responsible for the frustration caused by election irregularities due to their inaction.”

Wisconsin’s local election managers have reported an uptick in threats and angry rhetoric since the 2020 election, and some local election offices have taken extra precautions. But there haven’t been any cases in Wisconsin where someone has acted on an election threat.

Wisconsin’s Largest Business Group Sues Over Evers’ 400-year School Funding Veto

(The Center Square) – There is now a legal challenge to Gov. Tony Evers’ 400-year school funding veto.

The WMC Litigation Center on Monday asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take up their challenge to the governor’s summer veto that increased per-pupil funding for the next four centuries.

“At issue is Gov. Evers’ use of the so-called ‘Vanna White’ or ‘pick-a-letter’ veto,” the group said in a statement. “The governor creatively eliminated specific numbers in a portion of the budget bill that was meant to increase the property tax levy limit for school districts in the 2023-24 and 2024-25 fiscal years. By striking individual digits, the levy limit would instead be increased from the years 2023 to 2425 – or four centuries into the future.”

The WMC Litigation Center is an affiliate of Wisconsin Manufactures & Commerce (WMC), the combined state chamber and manufacturers’ association.

Litigation Center Executive Director Scott Rosenow said while Wisconsin’s governor has an incredibly powerful veto pen, there are limits.

“No Wisconsin governor has the authority to strike individual letters or digits to form a new word or number, except when reducing appropriations,” Rosenow said. “This action is not only unconstitutional on its face, but it is undemocratic because this specific partial veto allows school districts to raise property taxes for the next 400 years without voter approval.”

Wisconsin lawmakers and voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1990 that put limits on the governor’s veto power.

Rosenow and the WMC Litigation Center say the governor’s veto goes beyond those limits.

The legal challenge also raises the constitutional issue that all state spending has to originate with, and be approved by, the legislature.

“In no uncertain terms, 402 years is not less than or part of the two-year duration approved by the Legislature – it is far more,” concluded Rosenow. “The governor overstepped his authority with this partial veto, at the expense of taxpayers, and we believe oversight by the Court is necessary.”

The WMC Litigation Center is asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take the case as quickly as possible.

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Jury selection is set to begin Monday in the first-ever criminal trial of a former U.S. president.

Former President Donald Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts related to charges he paid hush money to adult film actress Stormy Daniels through a lawyer and covered it up as a legal expense before being elected president.

Trump has attempted to delay the start of the New York state trial several times, including three longshot tactics judges rejected this week.

What charges does Trump face in the New York hush money case?

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has charged Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records related to money paid to Daniels and another woman, former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Bragg has alleged Trump broke New York law when he falsified with the intent to commit or conceal another crime.

Prosecutors allege Trump falsified internal records kept by his company, hiding the true nature of payments that involve Daniels ($130,000), McDougal ($150,000), and Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen ($420,000). Prosecutors allege the money was logged as legal expenses, not reimbursements. Both Cohen and Daniels are expected to testify.

Cohen is expected to be a key witness in the trial. Daniels has said she expects to testify.

Former Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., Bragg's predecessor, did not bring the case to trial.

What happens on Monday?

Prosecutors, defense attorneys and Donald Trump are expected to be present when the trial before Judge Juan Merchan gets started Monday. The first step will be picking a jury, a process that could take a week or more depending on how things progress. The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys will select 12 jurors and six alternates from a pool of potentially hundreds of people. Each juror will answer 42 questions designed to determine if they can be impartial in the high-profile trial of a polarizing former president. The jurors will remain anonymous because of security concerns.

Once a jury is seated, it's on to opening statements where prosecutors and defense attorneys will get to address the jury about what they plan to show during the trial.

What is Trump's defense to the charges?

Trump has maintained he did nothing wrong and has accused Bragg of bringing a politically motivated case involving conduct in 2016 during a presidential election year as Trump faces incumbent Joe Biden in a rematch of the 2020 election.

Trump has spoken out against the judge, the district attorney and other involved in the case repeatedly. Trump's comments prompted a gag order from the judge who said Trump can't talk publicly about certain people involved in the case and their families.

"The White House Thugs should not be allowed to have these dangerous and unfair Biden Trials during my campaign for President. All of them, civil and criminal, could have been brought more than three years ago. It is an illegal attack on a Political Opponent. It is Communism at its worst, and Election Interference at its Best. No such thing has ever happened in our Country before," Trump wrote on his social media platform Truth Social this week. "On Monday I will be forced to sit, GAGGED, before a HIGHLY CONFLICTED & CORRUPT JUDGE, whose hatred for me has no bounds. All of these New York and D.C. 'Judges' and Prosecutors have the same MINDSET. Nobody but this Soros Prosecutor, Alvin Bragg, wanted to take this ridiculous case. All legal scholars say it is a sham. BIDEN'S DOJ IS RUNNING THE CASE. Just think of it, these animals want to put the former President of the United States (who got more votes than any sitting President!), & the PARTY'S REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE, IN JAIL, for doing absolutely nothing wrong. It is a RUSH TO THE FINISH. SO UNFAIR!"

Will Trump take the stand?

That's not clear yet. Trump said last month that he'd be willing to testify at trial if needed.

Could Trump go to jail?

It's too earlier to tell what will happen if Trump is convicted. Under New York state law, falsifying business records in the first degree is a Class E felony that carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison.

Trump's age and lack of any prior criminal convictions could work in his favor at sentencing if he's convicted. His attacks on the judge could have the opposite effect at sentencing. Before sentencing, the judge would look at sentencing guidelines, recommendations from prosecutors and any other pre-sentence reports.

In late March, Trump said that he wasn't worried about a conviction when asked if he thought a conviction could hurt his chances of returning to the White House.

"It could also make me more popular because the people know it's a scam," he said. "It's a Biden trial, there is no trial, there's a Biden trial."

Whatever happens during the trial, Trump will be protected by the U.S. Secret Service.

Even if convicted and sentenced to jail, Trump could continue his campaign to re-take the White House.

"The Constitution does not bar felons from serving as President," said Richard Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Trump could not pardon himself from any state charges, Hasen said.

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(The Center Square) – Wisconsin’s next supreme court race could be even more contentious and even more expensive than the last one.

Liberal Justice Anne Walsh Bradley on Thursday surprised the state when she announced she will not run for re-election next year.

"My decision has not come lightly. It is made after careful consideration and reflection. I know I can do the job and do it well. I know I can win re-election, should I run. But it's just time to pass the torch, bring fresh perspectives to the court," Walsh Bradley said in a statement.

She is one of Wisconsin’s longest serving justices, serving her third 10-year term on the court.

“In the 177-year history of the court, only four justices have served longer than my length of service,” she wrote.

Walsh Bradley’s decision means the next election will be open.

Former Republican attorney general, and current Waukesha County judge, Brad Schimel has already jumped into the race. There aren’t any declared Democrats yet.

Schimel on Thursday said Walsh Bradley’s decision isn’t changing anything for him.

“From the beginning of my campaign, I made it clear that I’m not just running against one person, I’m running against this Court’s leftist majority,” Schimel said. “I wish Justice Ann Walsh Bradley well in retirement after decades of public service. I look forward to continuing the fight to bring integrity and respect for the Constitution back to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin.”

Wisconsin’s last race for the supreme court, in April of 2023, set records for spending. The race between Justice Janet Protasiewicz and former Justice Dan Kelly cost more than $56 million. That makes the 2023 Wisconsin race the most expensive judicial race in American history. Many court observers and politicos in Wisconsin say the 2025 race could be just as expensive, or even more expensive.

Protasiewicz’s victory flipped the Wisconsin Supreme Court to a 4-3 liberal majority for the first time in 15 years.

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