Michels blasts report detailing harassment, discrimination allegations at his company

Political science professor breaks down potential impact of news on tight race

MADISON, Wis. — Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels on Tuesday blasted a report from a Milwaukee TV station that detailed multiple allegations of sexual harassment and racial discrimination at his construction company, while Gov. Tony Evers said the news further brings Michels’ leadership abilities into question.

The reporting from CBS 58 on Monday stems from five lawsuits ranging from 1998 to 2020, all of which were settled with the plaintiffs. The suits allege female employees were pressured to have sex with male coworkers and faced other verbal and, at times, physical abuse.

Michels’ campaign quickly moved to tamp down the reporting, saying in a statement that “(t)hese unproven allegations do not reflect the training and culture at Michels Corporation.”

The Republican businessman, who has made his leadership at Michels Corporation a centerpiece of his campaign, went on to call the report “a coordinated attack by Evers and his allies in the media.”

Michels’ full statement reads as follows:

“These unproven allegations do not reflect the training and culture at Michels Corporation. Harassment in the workplace should not be condoned, nor tolerated, nor was it under Michels Corporation leadership.

“Michels Corporation has a sterling reputation as one of Wisconsin’s great family-owned businesses with women in positions of leadership. Several generations of the same families — men and women — work their entire careers there.

“This is a coordinated attack by Evers and his allies in the media.

“Shame on Governor Evers and others who are trying to destroy the reputation of a great Wisconsin company for political purposes. These smears defame a great company, all in the name of politics. There’s no place for that garbage here.

“This election is a referendum on Tony Evers’ failed leadership. These smears are a desperate and disgusting attempt to distract voters from Tony Evers’ many failures.”

Evers’ campaign quickly seized on the report, launching a new 30-second ad Tuesday, saying “culture comes from the top” and calling Michels “too radical” and “too divisive” to lead the state.

Evers’ statement reads:

“Culture starts at the top, which is why these allegations of harassment and discrimination at the Michels Corporation are extremely disturbing. Wisconsinites have serious questions about what kind of leader Tim Michels would be. Sexual harassment and racial discrimination should never be tolerated, and voters deserve a straight answer from Tim Michels about what went on under his leadership. Michels’ divisive rhetoric, radical beliefs, and refusal to lead show he’s the wrong choice for governor.”

The news leaves an open question as to just how much voters will pay attention to negative stories like that when they arise. UW-La Crosse professor Anthony Chergosky told News 3 Now it may be hard for Michels to shift the narrative from negative coverage because he is a challenger, with not much of a background for voters on which to base their opinions.

“When businesspeople run for political office, the dealings of their business become fair game in the campaign because the campaign is all about learning what this candidate is going to be like if they’re elected,” Chergosky said.

That can be an asset for the candidate, especially if Michels is positioning himself as an outsider to Madison. If his business background becomes a liability, and that is all voters know him for, that could be an obstacle for Michels.

“New information can still have an impact,” Chergosky said, “and it could matter among those marginal voters, those swing voters who make the difference in close elections here in Wisconsin.”

“This is a really critical point in the campaign when people are forming their opinions of Tim Michels,” he added.

Chergosky pointed to Michels’ favorability numbers, which were in the 30s — both positive and negative — in the latest Marquette poll. A more well-known candidate like Tony Evers has positive and negative numbers in the 40s.

That means for Michels Chergosky says, there is a lot of room for his net favorability to go either up or down.