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Ron Johnson’s Latest Fiction: He’s a Man of the People

The Wisconsin senator’s populist campaign goes against his record, including his princely favors for billionaire friends.
September 8, 2022
Ron Johnson’s Latest Fiction: He’s a Man of the People
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

In his quest for a third Senate term, Ron Johnson is portraying himself as a defender of the little guy, tirelessly opposing Democratic efforts to destroy the country. One campaign ad boasts that the Wisconsin Republican “voted against Biden’s massive deficit spending that sparked inflation, and he passed tax cuts to help Wisconsin families survive the economic turmoil caused by Democrats.”

And it’s true: Johnson, who is facing Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes in the Nov. 8 election, has voted against all sorts of spending—especially on programs that benefit ordinary people. He’s said Democrats push programs like these in order to “make more Americans dependent on government.”

Johnson voted against President Joe Biden’s plan to hike inflation, cleverly titled the Inflation Reduction Act. The bill, which passed without a single Republican vote, will lower Americans’ health care costs by allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. And it will extend tax credits for Obamacare, helping millions of people afford health care. Who wants that? Not Ron Johnson.

The act will also reduce Americans’ energy costs by offering tax credits and rebates for renewable energy sources. Johnson, who has called climate change “bullshit,” does not want this either.

Curiously, as Erik Gunn of the Wisconsin Examiner reported last week, Johnson’s own businesses have received considerable government assistance over the years. This includes industrial revenue bonds that saved “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in interest, a federal grant for a new rail spur to a new company factory, and even a Wisconsin Department of Corrections program that let Johnson’s companies use prison laborers, their health care costs paid by the state.

The difference is that, when Johnson benefits from government spending, it’s a wise use of public funds. When other people benefit, it’s wasteful and wrong.

That’s why, in May, Johnson was among a small group of senators who blocked legislation to help restaurants facing permanent closure due to the pandemic. This was shortly after he revealed, in another interview, that he’s “not that fond of restaurants.” They’re not fond of him. When a group of small-business advocates known as the Main Street Alliance went to Johnson’s office in Washington, D.C., to lobby him on this restaurant package, he did not meet with them.

To further shore up his man-of-the-people bona fides, Johnson in August helped narrowly defeat an amendment that would have capped the cost of insulin at $35 per month. What do the 50 Democrats and seven Republican senators who voted in favor think this is, Denmark?

Johnson also voted against a gun safety bill that was passed with bipartisan support in response to recent mass shootings, calling it “a classic example of Washington dysfunction.” The moderate Wisconsin State Journal drew national notice with its editorial in response, saying Johnson “seems to think his only shot at winning reelection this fall—having broken his promise not to run again—is to fire up the thinning Trump base by opposing just about everything.”

Au contraire. There are many things that Ron Johnson supports.

In the current Congress, Johnson is a cosponsor of bills to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities, designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, and prohibit federal agencies and recipients of federal funds “from advancing certain ideas, such as that one race is inherently superior or inferior to another race.”

And while Johnson voted against a bipartisan bill to give a boost to U.S. makers of semiconductor chips, calling it “corporate welfare,” he has gone to the mat for other businesses—like, for instance, those that peddle addictive drugs that kill people.

In 2018, according to recent reporting by Jack Kelly in the Capital Times, a Madison paper, Johnson was asked by Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri to subpoena the Israeli-based Teva Pharmaceuticals, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of generic drugs. She accused the company of “stonewalling” an investigation into its role in the opioid epidemic.

At the time, Johnson was chair of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and McCaskill was its ranking Democrat. Johnson refused, claiming that Teva “appears to have spent significant time and resources seeking to address the issues you raised.” Afterward, Kelly notes, “McCaskill’s investigation seemed to stall.”

Within the next year and a half, Teva made two donations totalling $3,500 to Johnson’s campaign and an affiliated PAC. In July, Teva agreed to a settlement requiring it to pay up to $4.25 billion to state, local, and tribal programs to ease the opioid crisis. (The settlement does not entail any admission of wrongdoing on the company’s part.)

Johnson’s spokesperson, Alexa Henning, called Kelly’s inquiry into the matter “another politically motivated hit job by the corporate media and cheered on by their allies in the Democrat party.”

Johnson and his team regard every unwelcome inquiry into his actions and inactions as a member of the U.S. Senate as a partisan attack.

Nowhere has Johnson more clearly distinguished himself nationally than in responding to COVID-19. Early on, he opposed shutdowns because “maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population” would die from the coronavirus, or 11.2 million Americans, a figure that might have been achievable were it not for the shutdowns.

Johnson is the lead sponsor of legislation to give the U.S. Senate veto power over agreements with the World Health Organization regarding “pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response.” And he’s a cosponsor of a bill to bar the “unfair treatment” of cadets and midshipmen who refuse to get vaccinated. He simply does not trust the Biden administration to set policy for the pandemic, after it yanked the reins from Donald Trump, who was doing such a perfect job of it.

Like Trump, Johnson is a big backer of unproven and sometimes dangerous alternative treatments for COVID-19. To him, they make much more sense than trusting a vaccine that’s repeatedly been proven safe and effective.

In late August, a congressional subcommittee released a report on various efforts to subvert the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s response to the pandemic. It details how Johnson was enlisted by Trump adviser Steven Hatfill to push then–White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to pressure the FDA to reauthorize the use of hydroxychloroquine. The agency had approved emergency use of the drug touted by Trump in March 2020, but rescinded it three months later due to “ongoing serious cardiac events and other potential serious side effects.”

On Aug. 16 of that year, Hatfill sent Johnson an email marked “Urgent,” passing on a document that alleged “long-standing FDA maleficence.” Minutes later, Hatfill prodded former Trump adviser Steve Bannon to pass the same document along to Johnson. Bannon told Hatfill that he was “On it.”

Two days later, Johnson and two other Republican senators, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas, sent a letter to the commissioner of the FDA demanding to know why hydroxychloroquine was no longer being allowed to endanger people’s lives. Johnson also met with Meadows and urged him to lean on the FDA to reapprove the drug. Meadows, Johnson reported back to Hatfill, said he would ask then Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar “to issue whatever approval HHS can issue.”

In November 2020, Johnson held a Senate hearing to promote hydroxychloroquine, darkly opining that decisions about the drug had been made by “close-minded bureaucrats, potentially driven by conflicting interests and agendas.”

A year later, Johnson was touting another miracle cure for the pandemic that has thus far claimed 6.5 million lives worldwide. “Standard gargle, mouthwash, has been proven to kill the coronavirus,” he declared at a town hall event. “If you get it, you may reduce viral replication. Why not try all these things?”

Why not, indeed?

Johnson has said the January 6th Capitol riot “didn’t seem like an armed insurrection to me.” While the non-rioting non-insurrectionists were pummeling police, Johnson tried to deliver fake documents naming Trump the winner of Wisconsin’s vote into the hands of Vice President Mike Pence, whose office refused them.

In March, Johnson hired Pam Travis, one of the ten Wisconsin Republicans who took part in this scheme to steal the election by committing fraud, as a full-time member of his campaign staff. Asked about the hire, Johnson campaign spokesperson Ben Voelkel said: “It is really sad that Mandela Barnes supporters are going as low as to levy a baseless attack against a private citizen.”

In purported contrast to such “baseless” attacks, Johnson and his supporters are portraying Barnes as a tax cheat. That’s because, in 2018, Barnes paid no income taxes—because he didn’t earn enough money to owe any—and was five months late in paying property taxes on a condo he owned, which he did with interest. No laws were bent or broken.

Meanwhile, Johnson has used loopholes to avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes. In 2017, when his net worth was estimated at $27 million, Johnson paid just $2,105 in state income tax, about the same as a married couple filing jointly with a taxable income of $40,000.

In fact, Johnson refused to back Trump’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act until it added a tax break from which he profited personally. “Now, did my business benefit? Sure. Did some of my donor businesses? Sure,” Johnson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “When you give tax relief to everybody, everybody benefits.”

But an investigation by ProPublica found that “Johnson’s last-minute maneuver benefited two families more than almost any others in the country.” The two families are Dick and Liz Uihlein of shipping supplier Uline, and Diane Hendricks, a major roofing wholesale distributor. “The expanded tax break Johnson muscled through netted them $215 million in deductions in 2018 alone, drastically reducing the income they owed taxes on. At that rate, the cut could deliver more than half a billion in tax savings for Hendricks and the Uihleins over its eight-year life.”

Together, the Uihleins and Hendricks gave about $20 million to groups backing Johnson in his 2016 re-election campaign. They are now major funders of Wisconsin Truth, a super PAC working to help re-elect Johnson: Elizabeth Uihlein and Diane Hendricks “have bankrolled more than 90 percent of the $10.3 million raised for Johnson by the PAC so far this year.”

The race between Johnson and Barnes is a toss-up, with some polls giving Barnes a slight edge.

Since Johnson took office in 2011, his personal wealth has more than doubled, to an estimated $48 million. He has expressed his disappointment that it was not more.

“My wealth doubled because I sold my business that went from book value to market value,” Johnson recently told a conservative radio host. “I should have quadrupled my wealth, like most people in their 401(k)’s did because that’s what the stock market did while I’ve been a U.S. senator.”

For Johnson, being a man of the people is not an easy thing.

In recent months, Johnson has been advocating that Social Security and Medicare be discretionary programs, rather than mandatory ones. That means Congress would have to fund them on a year-to-year basis, subject to the whims of whoever happens to be in power.

And in case this forces some seniors into poverty, Johnson has a solution for that, too: urge them to work past retirement age by offering the inducement of not charging them payroll taxes. “We’d get more seniors off of the sidelines, those that are capable of working,” he told a talk-show host in July.

With Ron Johnson on their side, Wisconsin residents can look forward to working for others practically until their dying day.

Nov. 8 will be a chance for them to show their appreciation.

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders, former editor and now editor-at-large of The Progressive, is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin.