WASHINGTON -- Perhaps the most frightening and controversial flyer in the Wisconsin recalls is being circulated not in the high-profile gubernatorial battle, but in one of the close-fought state Senate districts.
Although they get less attention than the marquee battle between Gov. Scott Walker (R) and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D), the stakes are high in Wisconsin's state Senate recall races. Four GOP incumbents are being targeted for recall in the June 5 election. Democrats need to pick up just one of these seats in order to gain back a majority in the state Senate, so both parties are spending heavily on the races.
The battle for Senate District 21 has gotten particularly heated, with independent groups sending out a slew of mailers. Democrats view incumbent state Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) as the most vulnerable. His challenger is John Lehman, a Democrat who held the seat before Wanggard beat him in 2010.
The Republican State Leadership Committee is circulating a mailer showing a man with his hand over the mouth of a woman. His face is against hers, and she is clearly terrified by the whole situation. "You're not safe," reads the mailer. "Thanks to John Lehman."
On the back, it reads, "John Lehman supported a bill that allowed dangerous criminals out of prison before their sentences were complete. Too many people have paid dearly at the hands of violent criminals. Any reasonable person would expect those criminals to get what's coming to them. But not John Lehman." The flyer also reads, in large font, "Home invasions. Theft. Homicide."
A resident of Racine, Wis. sent the mailer to The Huffington Post. The RSLC said it delivered the mailer to about 10,000 homes.
"It's the meanest mailer I've ever seen. I've seen a lot of them over the years mailed against us, but this one is kind of over the edge," Lehman said.
He pointed to the image of a hooded figure on the back of the flyer as proof of his claim.
"The whole idea of using a black hoodie on a very black background plays on recent news, and sort of has a racist overtone to it," Lehman added, referencing the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a young unarmed African-American man in Florida who was wearing a hoodie at the time of his death.
The flyer refers to former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's 2009 measure allowing felons to be released from prison early for good behavior or to deal with health issues. The move was intended, in part, to save the state money and cut the deficit, which totaled $6.6 billion at the time.
Wisconsin was one of 13 states to either create or expand early release programs that year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Lehman and other Democrats backed Doyle's measure. But last year, Walker signed legislation, sponsored by Wanggaard, repealing it.
The policy was certainly controversial and even attracted criticism from Barrett. Still, the flyer is not entirely accurate.
Doyle's measure was aimed at shortening the sentences of non-violent felons.
"I've been in law enforcement my entire career," Doyle said in May 2009. "To me it makes sense to go into prison for a non-violent offense, and if they do well in prison, they take part in the programs, do the things they should do, they should earn some time off from the sentence. That makes common sense. That's what 46 other states and the federal government do."
Adam Temple, a spokesman for the RSLC, said that by protesting the flyer, Lehman was simply "distracting from his poor record on this issue."
"The point we're making with that mail piece ... is that Wisconsin Democrats released more than 500 inmates early," he said. "We're highlighting the fact that Lehman voted for that law, and Republicans have now repealed the law, making Wisconsin safer."
Temple said the RSLC based its mailer "on the fact that one of the first 22 inmates [released under the program] had a reckless homicide conviction, and numerous drug dealers were included in the total of 500 inmates released."
Indeed, Paula Harris, 55, a Milwaukee resident who was convicted of first-degree reckless homicide, was one of the first inmates released.
Yet the RSLC mailer's focus on "killers" and "violent criminals" is misleading, since the vast majority of individuals released early did not fit those categories.
Non-violent criminals could get out for a variety of reasons under the program, including good behavior. But violent criminals could be released only for age- or health-related issues. As the Wisconsin State Journal reported in March 2010, "It's theoretically possible, therefore, for an elderly murderer who had served only a portion of his sentence to be released by the Earned Release Review Commission, which has purview over age and health-related releases."
Lehman said he stood by his vote.
"To make the blatant statement that work on earned release is somehow connected directly with violent acts in a way that everyone should be fearful is just fear-mongering. It's just nasty," he said.
"One of the things that the average citizen tends to forget is that almost everyone in Wisconsin's prison system has a sentence from which they'll eventually be released. ... We need to have a good community corrections operation that keeps people safe," he added. "We need to balance the extremely high costs of Wisconsin's prisons -- compared to Minnesota, for example -- with the mandate to keep people safe. And that whole discussion being distilled down into a black hoodie and a violent act is just a travesty."
The RSLC's Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Leadership Campaign Committee, said the mailer was just "another example of Republican scare tactics."
"[T]hey are trying to deflect attention from the fact that Wisconsin, which already had the worst job creation of any state in the country, lost an additional 6,200 private sector jobs in April under Republican legislative leadership," said DLCC spokesman Daniel Roth. "Republicans can not answer to the fact that they have simply not delivered on their promise to improve the Wisconsin economy."
Wanggaard did not return a request for comment.
Click HERE to see a larger version of the RSLC mailer.
UPDATE: 12:45 p.m. -- The Racine branch of the NAACP is backing up Lehman's comments about the racial overtones of the mailer.
"The first thing that came to my mind is the hoodie and Trayvon Martin," said Gloria Rogers, head of the local organization. "It is trying to make people afraid of being around of young black males. What else could a black person think when they look at that?"