Family business could cause problems for Michels if elected

Nolan Swenson, Co-Sports Editor

Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels said he will divest his company if he wins the Nov. 8 election, but he failed to answer how he would avoid a conflict of interest with his business.

Michels is the co-owner of the Michels Corp., an infrastructure company with headquarters in Brownsville, Wisconsin. According to a press release from the Democratic Governors Association, the controversy arises due to Michel’s influence at granting contracts to his company if he is to win the governor’s election, particularly since his corporation has already received more than $1 billion from state road contracts.

There are ways to manage this conflict of interest, such as placing the company in the hands of a third party in order to ensure neutrality. At the Oct. 14 gubernatorial debate, Michels said he plans to divest his company, but he did not give any details.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that experts said it will be difficult to do since under Wisconsin law, governors must sign road construction contracts over $1,000. However, state law also bars elected officials from taking actions that benefit them financially.

With Wisconsin’s Code of Ethics for Public Officials, if Michels does not take action to distance himself from his business, actions benefiting his business could violate the state rules.

Two excerpts from the State of Wisconsin Ethics Commission’s website define general actions that would indicate a conflict of interest. 

 “A local public official may not take official action substantially affecting a matter in which the official, the official’s family, or associated organization has a substantial financial interest,” the website states. It also states, “a local public official may not use office or position to produce a substantial benefit for an official, immediate family member or associated organization.”

This means that if Michels fails to take action to separate himself and his family from the business, any time he affiliates with the Michels Corp., it could be heavily, and justly, questioned by state officials.

The effects of this, however, may be minimal, according to UW Oshkosh political science professor James Krueger, whose area of expertise is public opinion and political behavior.

“I suspect that a choice to not insulate Michels’s business interests from his role in state office would not have much of an impact on this election,” he said.

His reasoning for saying so is due to the current political gridlock with few shifts between supporters, as well as how it it is not a big partisan issue such as abortion or inflation.

“Most voters are focused on the issues that are receiving attention nationally and are being magnified by candidates up and down the ballot,” he said. “Voters who identify with a major party are also likely to seek exculpatory information about their candidate or additional negative information about the other candidate. It would only be in the case of voters without a partisan identity that this issue could shift attitudes.”

He also pointed out previous conflict of interest issues in prior administrations, namely former President Donald Trump, and how it failed to change voters’ stance in a major way.  One of these instances is Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns.

For example, then-candidate Trump refused to release his tax returns and declined to create a blind trust for managing the affairs of the Trump Organization while on the campaign trail in 2016,” he said. “Both of these were considered normal practices for presidential candidates prior to that time. Of course, he went on to win in 2016, which suggests a minor impact at best for these issues on that particular election.”

Krueger closed by suggesting that major repercussions may not first come from the public, but the law.

“Depending on what happens if Michels were to become governor, it is possible that ethics complaints would be filed and the perception of a scandal would have a significant impact on a 2026 re-election bid,” Krueger said.