IN 2014, NOW U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman appeared in a debate against three other Republicans vying for the seat. Ian Stepleton photo
IN 2014, NOW U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman appeared in a debate against three other Republicans vying for the seat. Ian Stepleton photo

     When Wisconsin Assembly District 41 candidates Frank Buress and incumbent Rep. Joan Ballweg faced off a few weeks ago  at Ripon College, one might have expected fireworks.

     But instead of lobbing hand grenades at each other, the two tossed softballs.

     Let’s say something nice about each other, Ballweg proposed. Buress agreed.

     Certainly, tougher talk came later when the audience responded, but warm, cuddly campaign styles of the two proved civility can trump the typical tenor of campaign rhetoric.  

     Maybe not everyone subscribes to the Ballweg-Buress campaign strategy.

     After months of effort and countless contacts, the same group that brought their debate to Ripon College couldn’t get challenger Dan Kohl and U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman to appear in Ripon at the same event.

  Why? That, it seems, depends on whom you ask.

   Henrik Schatzinger, co-director for the Center for Politics and the People at Ripon College, believes he did everything he could to offer political balance in terms of candidates speaking in Ripon.

   “We are certainly disappointed that we aren’t able to offer this debate,” he said.

   Those skeptical that an organization at a “liberal” arts college would provide a platform for conservative views need only look as far as the recent internships it helped students secure.

   They include working for Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney and Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel — both Republicans.

   “We are actually seeing more interest from people who want to sponsor these types of internships. They come from all political backgrounds and views,” Schatzinger said. “If anything, we want to be as even-handed as possible in our activities.”

   Thus, Schatzinger believes he bent over backwards to bring Grothman to Ripon. It didn’t work.

It started back in June.

   “I think we were somewhat optimistic given that I had talked to the Congressman in person and he had said they would do a limited number of debates,” Schatzinger said. “... But obviously it didn’t work out.”

   Invitations were sent out in June to candidates for the 41st Assembly District as well as Grothman’s seat in the House of Representatives.

   “We immediately received responses from both Joan Ballweg and Frank Buress,” Schatzinger said. “They were both accommodating and helpful in setting up the debate very quickly. That was very easy.”

   Kohl got back to them relatively early as well.

   Grothman’s campaign?

   Well ...

   “Initially we didn’t get a response so we were then in touch with the campaign manager since mid-September,” Schatzinger said. “Then we ... started giving dates and times and they said ‘no.’ We went back and offered more times in consultation with the Kohl campaign. They kept saying no.

   “Then I asked, ‘Is there something you could offer us in terms of a debate?’ They didn’t respond to that request.”

   After asking early and getting little response, he said, the Grothman campaign later told him that they were all booked up for debates already.

   “I also called the Congressman to see if he could verbally agree to do a debate,” Schatzinger said. “However, he said that he does not have control over his schedule and that we would need to talk to his staff.”

   Needless to say, that's not the answer Schatzinger and the Center for Politics and the People were hoping to hear.

   “Quite frankly, we are disappointed that they were waiting so long to get feedback from the Grothman campaign and then he’s all booked up, but that’s the frustration we have to live with,” he said.

   Is Grothman’s no-show simply a matter of scheduling?

   “I really want to leave this up to the readers to decide what the reasons are to decline our invitation. It may be that his schedule is truly full and he is not able to come,” Schatzinger said. “I don’t want to speculate beyond that.”

   Tim Svoboda from Grothman’s campaign, though, said he did find one time that Grothman was available.

   “The Congressman’s schedule is very full and we, unfortunately, could not find a time that worked for everybody. At the time, we had availability the week of the 22nd but Henrik said that the school was on break,” Svoboda said. “We [also] contacted the Ripon College Republicans several times to try to set up a public forum and never heard back from them.

   “Either way, he was just in Ripon last week speaking and taking questions at the Ripon Senior Citizen Center. [And] in light of not being able to set up a forum through anyone at the school, we have a tentative location in Ripon next week where the Congressman will be available to answer questions from anyone.” (See sidebar above for information on this new event.)

   Regardless, Grothman’s challenger, Dan Kohl, will be in Ripon tonight. (Wednesday) He’s speaking at 6:30 p.m. in the Kresge Little Theatre in East Hall.

   He’ll give some remarks, get questioned by publisher Tim Lyke and then take questions from the audience. It’ll be informative, but not nearly as insightful as a debate.

   Schatzinger is hoping his center can put the pressure on future candidates to attend. The Center for Politics and the People has been upping its social media presence, and believes the power of the web can urge future candidates to see Ripon College as a must-visit in the future.

   “If this continues on this track, I feel like it would be very hard for future candidates to decline invitations as we see growth at this fast pace,” he said.