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Evers says he'll aim for civility in wake of contentious Walker years

MADISON — Democrat Tony Evers, who will be sworn into office as Wisconsin governor today, promises that he will seek civility and work together with Republicans, saying voters showed their displeasure with partisan politics when they rejected Gov. Scott Walker.

Evers becomes Wisconsin’s 46th governor at a ceremony that will see Democrats sworn into every statewide constitutional office. Republicans will maintain their majorities in the Senate and Assembly, setting up the potential for gridlock not seen in the state in more than a decade.

Walker and Republicans had complete control the past eight years; before that, Democrats had full control for two years.

Evers, in an interview with The AP, said his inauguration message will focus on hope for the future and bridging the partisan divide. The state schools superintendent since 2009, Evers said he recognizes that he’s not liberal enough for some Democrats itching for revenge after eight years with Walker as governor. But Evers said he knows that to Republicans in charge of the Legislature, he is seen as “the most liberal governor that’s ever walked the face of the earth, or the face of Wisconsin.”

“I am who I am,” said Evers, a 67-year-old cancer survivor who revels in his plainness. “I care about kids, I care about doing the right thing for the people of Wisconsin. And so I know that frustrates people that they can’t pigeonhole me. But I think that’s a strength, not a weakness. I’m not going to change from that.”

He promises to stand up for what he believes in, including his campaign promises to increase education funding by 10 percent, expand health care access and reach a compromise for a long-term solution to road funding.

He also wants an income tax cut for the middle class, criminal justice reform to cut the prison population in half and increases to the minimum wage.

While some forecast gridlock, Evers sees an opportunity for both sides to work together to reach compromises.

“My DNA is such and my educator background is that you try to find common ground and people know that I’m willing to do that,” he said. “But if it’s like, ‘No, you’re the governor and we’re a bunch of Republicans’ and stick it to me, that just doesn’t work. People of Wisconsin don’t want that.”

Walker said he left a letter with advice for Evers at the governor’s mansion.

“It’s all positive,” Walker said. He said the letter summarizes advice he got eight years ago from former governors along with “personal advice.”

Walker said he encourages Evers to aggressively travel the state.

“It’s a great way to stay in touch with what’s going on in the state,” Walker said. “You hear about things, you pick up things that you don’t necessarily hear in the Capitol.”

Evers narrowly defeated Walker by just over 1 point. The white-haired former teacher who worked all across Wisconsin before being elected state schools chief in 2009 embraces a personality often described as non-charismatic.

Evers met his future wife, Kathy, when they were both in kindergarten, something he jokes about remembering better than she does. Their first date was for the high school junior prom and they’ve been together since. Now, after 46 years of marriage, they’re moving just a couple miles down the road from their downtown Madison condominium to the governor’s mansion on the shores of Lake Mendota.

Evers overcame esophageal cancer 10 years ago, resulting in the removal of his esophagus and part of his stomach. He can’t eat full meals because of it and sleeps at a 45-degree angle.

He likes to play the card game euchre, and even joked with Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos that he would wager passage of the state budget over a game. He loves Egg McMuffins and likes to say things like “holy mackerel” and “jeepers,” while longing for a time when politicians worked together rather than trading invective for partisan gain.

In summing up his inaugural message, Evers said he will focus on “civility, finding common ground, giving people hope for the future. The idea that we have to we have to work together, put people before politics.

“Old fashioned stuff,” he said, “but that’s me.”


Police confront two men, one white, one black: Only one is shot (copy)

MILWAUKEE — In the course of 15 months and in the space of one city block, Milwaukee police twice encountered two suspects they believed were armed.

One was black; one was white.

One was in fact unarmed; one had a gun.

One was shot; one was not.

That the black man was the one who was shot — though he had no weapon — might come as little surprise at a time when police shootings involving black men seem commonplace nationally.

Milwaukee has been an epicenter. In 2014, Dontre Hamilton, a mentally ill man, was shot 14 times by police. In August 2016, 23-year-old Sylville Smith was killed by an officer . After the first, the city equipped police with bodycams; after the second, there were riots.

The shooting of 19-year-old Jerry Smith Jr. in 2017 did not set off similar convulsions. And the blood-free resolution of the standoff involving 20-year-old Brandon Baker this past November drew little notice. But taken together, they prompt a difficult and unanswerable question:

If their races were reversed — if Smith were white, and Baker were black — would Baker have been the one who was left bleeding and writhing in pain?

___

In the darkness on Nov. 6, Election Day, Baker took to the roof of his apartment building and started firing guns. His neighbors, alarmed, called police.

Until then, his criminal record consisted of minor traffic violations, pot possession, and carrying a concealed weapon in September.

He’d created his Twitter account a few days prior and started writing about running for governor, promising money for underfunded schools, pledging to legalize marijuana. He would pardon all felons so they could regain their right to bear arms.

Just after 5 a.m., two police officers sent to the scene encountered Baker on Michigan Avenue, in front of the entrance to the building.

He refused to drop the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle he was holding. He admitted that he had fired the shots earlier, and said he had posted a video of it on Twitter. He told the officers he was running for governor, that he was going to the polls to “air it out,” that he was going to start a militia. He had a right to bear arms, he said.

As they talked, other officers approached him quietly from behind, and tackled him.

“I’m not moving, don’t shoot me!” Baker screamed in the video he was broadcasting, which WISN-TV obtained before its removal from Twitter.

Not a shot was fired.

In addition to the rifle he was holding, Baker had three loaded handguns — one in his backpack, another in his waistband, and a third in his jacket, prosecutors said. In his apartment, they said officers found 232 grams of THC, the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana; 14 stamps saturated with LSD; and 73 jars of what were believed to be psilocybin mushrooms.

Baker faces numerous charges, including recklessly endangering safety and “maintaining a drug trafficking place.” His public defender, who did not respond to requests to comment, has ordered a second doctor’s evaluation to determine whether he’s competent to stand trial.

___

On Aug. 31, 2017, officers Melvin Finkley and Adam Stahl were on patrol when they received a call about a man with a gun in the predominantly black neighborhood west of downtown Milwaukee. Finkley is black; Stahl is white.

It was around 1 p.m. when they got to the parking garage at North 29th Street and West Wisconsin Avenue. Jerry Smith was on the roof.

That afternoon, he and a friend had gone to a house in the neighborhood to confront someone with whom Smith had a problem. Police later said Smith and his friend were looking for a fight, and after a brawl ensued with several others, Smith left to get a gun. When an officer approached him to ask about the fight, he ran away and took to the roof.

A handful of officers below were yelling commands, telling him to put his hands up because they had him surrounded.

Two officers stood on the stairs leading up to the garage’s roof. When Finkley and Stahl approached, Finkley asked: “He got the gun in his hand?”

“He doesn’t have a gun in his hand, but he was hiding behind the AC unit,” an officer responded.

The tip that Smith had a gun came from the people he’d been fighting.

Finkley and Stahl climbed to the roof with their guns trained on Smith and joined the chorus of officers yelling commands. Smith briefly extended his arms just above his waist to show his empty hands, palms out, then began crouching slowly to the ground. That’s when the two officers fired three shots, with one bullet grazing Smith’s head and the others striking his abdomen.

“I’m going to die!” Smith wailed in agony, on the ground. “I didn’t do nothing.”

The encounter lasted about 10 seconds. No gun was found.

___

Smith survived, but his right leg is partially paralyzed and he needs a cane to walk. He wasn’t charged with a crime and has a pending federal lawsuit against the police, alleging officers acted “with deliberate indifference.”

“I had my hands up. It’s on them,” Smith said at a recent news conference.

“Everybody scared of the police, every black man that’s from around” the neighborhood where the shooting occurred, he said.

But the Milwaukee district attorney’s office reviewed Smith’s shooting and concluded the officers’ actions were justified because they “reasonably believed” Smith was armed, based on information from dispatch, and they thought he might reach for a gun behind the air conditioning unit.

Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales said people need to consider “the totality of the circumstances” when an officer is involved in a shooting. He said officers are under stress and taking in a lot of information — from what they are told while responding to a call to their own observations — and they have to make sense of it all in seconds.

“I’ve been involved in these things. And I can tell you, in the incidents I’ve been involved in more than once, when it happened, my body just did it. ... There are things that are instinctual after you do it over and over again,” Morales said, at a Dec. 6 meeting of the Milwaukee Common Council.

This shooting was recorded in its entirety by Stahl’s body camera. Experts who viewed the video at the request of The Associated Press were not in agreement on what it revealed, though they acknowledged that there was little in it that justified the shooting.

Jeff Noble, an officer for 30 years who’s now a law enforcement consultant, said he saw no “immediate threat” posed by Smith but echoed Morales’ wariness of criticizing the officers’ reactions, if only because the camera did not capture everything the officers saw: “I have the luxury of sitting here in my office watching this and playing it back multiple times.”

Kevin Cokley, a psychology professor and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin, was unequivocal: “This was not a justified shooting.”

Smith didn’t exactly follow the officers’ commands to keep his hands up, Cokley said, but he also didn’t make a move toward his pocket or waistband and police already had a tactical advantage with their guns pointed at him.

Cokley, who has written op-eds about police shootings of unarmed black men, said, “Reactions based on fear within the context of policing are often driven by implicit bias. Black males are viewed as more dangerous, even in instances when they pose no danger.”

___

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett declined to comment on Smith’s shooting because there’s pending litigation, but in a statement he cautioned against comparing the Smith and Baker cases.

“Comparing two separate incidents is inevitably problematic because circumstances police officers face and observations they make are different in every situation,” he said.

Others, though, are troubled by two encounters with very different outcomes.

Alderman Khalif Rainey, who is black, contrasted Smith’s shooting with how police apprehended Baker “without having to harm him at all.”

Rainey said he’s stopped believing he’ll never find himself in a situation like Smith’s.

“It’s real serious. At one point in time I thought, ‘Not me,’” he said. “But now it’s like, something goes wrong, you make the wrong move, you make the wrong gesture ... and now I’m shot. Now I’m paralyzed. Now I’m dead.”


Local
A warm new year so far, with more warmth on the way after a midweek cool spell

What a difference a year made. On Jan. 5, 2018, the high temperature in La Crosse was 9 degrees, up from a morning low of minus-14.

Saturday’s record-setting 54-degree high was 45 degrees warmer than last year’s high on the same date, and a single degree higher than the 53 degrees recorded in 2012.

Playing that numbers game is easy when the temperature in January peaks in a range usually reserved for April. Saturday’s low, for instance — 27 — was 18 degrees higher than normal, three degrees higher than the normal high for that date and 41 degrees warmer than last year’s low.

But the unseasonably warm weather isn’t keeping the roads entirely safe. The National Weather Service warned of freezing rain turning to snow north of Interstate 90 overnight before a rainy Monday with a high of 46.

Monday night and Tuesday should bring more precipitation — rain and snow but little accumulation — before cooler air brings afternoon temperatures in the teens on Wednesday and a normal January day on Thursday before the highs push up toward the 30-degree mark heading into the weekend.

But that relatively cool snap shouldn’t be too intimidating. After all, it was minus-34 in La Crosse 107 years ago today, in 1912 — the fifth-coldest day here since record-keeping began in 1873.


Wisconsin smoking rate hits all-time low

Tobacco control advocates’ work in recent years has been like a game of whack-a-mole. Just when progress is made in one area, another issue crops up.

Take cigarettes for example.

Fewer Wisconsin adults are smoking than ever before. The state’s overall smoking rate has dropped to 16 percent, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reports. The national rate of 14 percent.

It’s a trend that — despite Wisconsin’s smoking rates being higher than the national average — makes Dona Wininsky, of the American Lung Association in Wisconsin, hopeful.

“While that isn’t necessarily great news for Wisconsinites, what is good news is that we’re still on the downward trend. Our numbers here in Wisconsin are continuing to decline from over 30 percent, to 20 percent and lower,” Wininsky said. “We were very excited when Wisconsin hit 18 percent a few years ago.”

Despite the overall trends, low-income residents and African-Americans in the state continue to smoke at much higher rates. And many young people have begun to use flavored tobacco products or e-cigarettes.

“We see a very large uptick in e-cigarette use. While it isn’t tobacco, it contains nicotine. It also contains flavors making it attractive to youth,” Wininsky said.

Smoking among adults has been consistently high among those who earn less than $25,000 a year. Twenty-nine percent of low-income people smoke traditional cigarettes, according to DHS. That number has gone down slightly but not as quickly as smoking overall in the state. The same goes for African-Americans in Wisconsin.

But Lorraine Lathen, director of the Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention and Poverty Network, said even a small decline adds up.

“(The African-American smoking) rate had been nearly double the state average and it has actually declined a bit as well. (It) used to be at 31 percent, and it’s now at 28 percent,” Lathen, who also directs the Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network, said. “These declines are small victories that add up to larger victories.”

As for why people smoke, Lathen said many users cite stress as a reason for their habit. But marketing also plays a role.

“There are more tobacco retailers in low-income communities, two to three times more. And people are encountering tobacco advertising all the time,” she said. “So, if you’re trying to quit and you walk into a gas station or convenience store and they’re promoting their products, those are triggers (to smoke).”

A combination of grassroots efforts and innovative partnerships are trying to bring resources into communities where there are more smokers.

One example is a new federal rule implemented in July that requires smoke-free policies in all public housing.

In Milwaukee, Lathen said they talk with residents of public housing about the health benefits of quitting smoking and provide onsite cessation clinics where pharmacists also talk about medications that can help people quit.

While there has been progress in reducing cigarette smoking in Wisconsin, there continues to be challenges in figuring out the next big product that could entice new smokers.

“What are the products that young people are attracted to? What are the products that low-income and minorities are attracted to? How do we get the word out that there are health risks associated with these products?” said Lathen.