BY: Follow @lachlan
A Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin recently hired a former political operative for a prominent labor union who was ticketed for protesting a Republican fundraiser where she reportedly harassed attendees.
Mary Burke, who is hoping to unseat Republican Gov. Scott Walker, confirmed on Wednesday that her campaign had hired Paula Zellner. She will oversee grassroots organizing efforts.
The move drew fire from Wisconsin Republicans, who pointed to her history as a contentious left-wing activist as a troubling sign that the campaign is embracing some of the state’s more confrontational voices.
Attendees at a 2012 Republican fundraiser in Racine, Wis., described Zellner as “the main instigator” of a protest that “traumatized” a number of attendees, who were mocked and berated as they entered the home of Racine businessman and prominent Republican supporter Fred Young.
“Several of the attendees reported to [Young] that they had been accosted by the picketers outside his residence; some of whom were elderly and visibly traumatized by the confrontation,” wrote Racine police officer Richard Toeller in an incident report.
One bystander took photos of the protest and shared them with police when they arrived on the scene.
“She showed me the photos and indicated that Zellner was the main instigator,” Toeller recalled. “She said Zellner was abrasive.”
One of the event’s attendees, a 75 year old woman whom Toeller described as “frail,” was “trembling and near tears as a result of her treatment by the tormentors.”
She arrived at the event with her husband, Toeller wrote. “As soon as she exited her vehicle she was surrounded by a group, one of who kept trying to grab her and force her to have a photograph taken with the group; she said they were mocking her.”
Police cited Zellner for an ordinance violation.
“Why would Mary Burke hire a woman with such a troublesome background as Paula Zellner?” asked Republican political operative Brian Fraley in a Thursday post on the website Right Wisconsin.
Fraley raised numerous possibilities, among them that Burke may be trying to head off criticism from left-wing activists and union members of Trek Bicycles, the company founded by her father where she served as a top executive.
“Zellner is a union hack of the highest order,” Fraley wrote. “Perhaps Burke is hoping that by bringing Zellner on the team, she quiets those rumblings.”
The Racine protest was organized by Wisconsin Jobs Now!, which has been described as a union front group. She has also worked directly for a Wisconsin division of the Service Employees International Union.
Walker has come under fire over the past week for controversial statements by two of his staffers. The Zellner hire could shift attention to Burke’s hiring decisions.
Zellner was previously subject to controversy when she was accused of violating federal election laws in her role as the campaign manager for Democrat Jamie Wall’s unsuccessful 2012 U.S. House run.
Other Burke staffers also have controversial histories. Tanya Bjork, a political advisor to Burke, was convicted of two misdemeanors in 2005 for her role in what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel described as “the largest political scandal in state history.”
Bjork pleaded no contest to charges that she illegally solicited campaign contributions in the state capitol.