Madison Politiscope: Combative Dem spokesman Graeme Zielinski pushes the envelope

2012-06-11T16:45:00Z Madison Politiscope: Combative Dem spokesman Graeme Zielinski pushes the envelopeJACK CRAVER | The Capital Times |

I had just checked in to the Wisconsin Democratic Convention at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in Appleton last weekend when I saw the party's communications director, Graeme Zielinski, order hotel security to eject an intern from the Wisconsin Reporter, a state news website. 

The Wisconsin Reporter, which was founded at the beginning of 2011, is a division of StateHouseNews, a project undertaken by a conservative group, the Franklin Center for Government, to report on state politics -- particularly government spending -- from a "free market and taxpayer point of view." It describes itself as responding to the decline in local news coverage over the past decade.

The Franklin Center, which does not disclose its donors, coordinates many events with Americans for Prosperity and other right-wing groups. 

Although its opinion commentary is predictably conservative, its slant in reporting is noticeable but not heavy-handed. Its reporters typically seek perspectives from Democrats and liberals as well as Republicans and conservatives.

Zielinski, who has kicked out one of Wisconsin Reporter's scribes from at least one other Democratic event, insisted the organization did not do real reporting, that it had previously mangled Democrats' quotes, and that it was "bought and paid for by the same people that bought and paid for Scott Walker." 

"We don't want them here," Zielinski told a hotel security guard as the bewildered reporter, Ryan Ekvall, stood by with a video recorder. 

"Please don't film me," Zielinski told him. 

"I just want a record of what's being said, I don't know what you're going to say about it later," Ekvall responded.  

"Come over here and I'll talk to you," replied Zielinski, leading Ekvall out the doors of the hotel. 

"Now stay out there," he said seconds later, as soon as Ekvall was standing outside. 

Ekvall later posted a video of the confrontation online.

The security guard, apparently believing I was with the same group, then asked me to leave as well. Zielinski told him that I could stay, since I was a credentialed member of the press. 

"This is our event, we're free to credential and invite who we want," he reasoned, after telling me Wisconsin Reporter had a "long history" of distorting the words of Democratic candidates and sneaking into Democratic events.

Zielinski later responded to the Wisconsin Reporter's story about the incident on Twitter.

"I dare you losers to let me into your "news" meetings, and then we can talk, you ridiculous tools," he wrote.

It was only the most recent of the frequent outbursts that define Zielinski's public persona. His Twitter feed is filled with fiery insults, usually directed at Republicans or the media. 

He lobs his strongest missiles at Milwaukee right-wing radio host Charlie Sykes, whom he often refers to on Twitter as "liar Charlie Sykes" or "adulterer Charlie Sykes."

Similarly, he insists on calling GOP operative Brian Schimming "Vicki," a reference to Schimming's frequent role as a co-host of Vicki McKenna's show on WIBA-AM/1310 radio. In a recent interview on "The Joy Cardin Show" on Wisconsin Public Radio, a confused Cardin had to interrupt Zielinski to clarify why he kept referring to Schimming as such.

A similar incident took place on Wisconsin Public Television's "Here and Now" show a few months ago. After Zielinski told host Frederica Freyberg that he was shocked that "people with drawls from Confederate states" were assisting in challenging recall petitions, he repeatedly told fellow guest Amy Kremer, a national tea party leader and Texas native, to "get out of Wisconsin," while she was answering questions from Freyberg.

But it is not just GOP partisans or their talk radio acolytes that draw Zielinski's ire.

After his former employer, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, endorsed Walker in the recall election, he alleged on Twitter that the paper used to "tank stories favorable to [Democrats]" when he worked there. The paper, which has been responsible for many of the most embarrassing revelations about Walker's role in the ongoing John Doe investigation, has endorsed many Democrats for office, including former Gov. Jim Doyle and former Sen. Russ Feingold. 

"I was working there when you were in kindergarten," he responded, when I made this point on Twitter. "It's GOP top-down." (Zielinski also once worked at The Capital Times, as a college intern in 1993.)

Similarly, he has long-claimed that UW-Madison professor Charles Franklin, who conducts the Marquette University Law School poll as a visiting professor, is a Republican "hack" whose polls showing Gov. Scott Walker winning the recall election by five to seven points in recent weeks were "as reliable as a three-dollar bill." As it turned out, Franklin's poll results matched Walker's 7 percent win.

When I asked months ago for justification of his allegations against Franklin, Zielinski told me that several of Franklin's students had informed the party that Franklin boasted about consulting for GOP groups.

"If he denies this, we don't believe him," Zielinski concluded in an email. 

Indeed, Franklin says he has never worked for any party or partisan organization. 

Zielinski has also used Twitter to make enemies out of fellow Democrats and liberals.

He pounced in response to a comment made by local progressive writer Emily Mills at a panel discussing the recall, in which she attributed the 2011 Capitol protests' power in part to "the sense that it wasn't being directed by a party or any one group." 

"Big difference between showhorses and workhorses in [the recall]," he wrote. "Lot of goldbrickers dining out, but hey, good for them.

Melissa Ryan, a Democratic campaign veteran who directed social media for former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold's most recent campaign, shot back.

"Love seeing Graeme continue the tradition of slamming women for speaking on panels he isn't even at," she wrote.

Zielinski upped the ante: "Oh, give it a rest you gasbag. You're a war profiteer, but I give you credit for getting paid," he wrote, in apparent reference to Ryan's work for unions during the Capitol protests.

"At the end of the day you're just a bully. And not even a competent bully," responded Ryan.

Ryan did not wish to elaborate about the exchange when I contacted her, but she stood by her comments.

"The tweets speak for themselves, and I chose my words carefully," she said.

State Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, makes clear that she would prefer a more conciliatory approach to media relations.

"I think we should be proud to share with the world our Democratic values," she said. "I want the media to be able to report that."

Apart from my brief conversation with him at the convention, Zielinski has not responded to my requests for comment on this story. The state party -- in keeping with its usual policy -- would not put me in touch with party Chairman Mike Tate, instead directing me to talk with either Zielinski or one of his assistants.

Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Melissa Ryan was responding to Graeme Zielinski's tweet about "goldbrickers," not the one in which he called activist Harry Waisbren's comment about the DPW "ridiculous blather."

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