By Brian Sikma
Janesville City Councilman Yuri Rashkin announced earlier this week that he will be running as a Democrat to challenge Rep. Joe Knilans (R) in the 44th Assembly district. According to the Janesville Gazette, Rashkin created controversy earlier this year when he walked out of a Janesville community event where Governor Scott Walker was speaking.
Rashkin said that he is running to stand up for Wisconsin workers, teachers and unions. He strongly opposes the reforms that Governor Walker and the legislature have begun to put in place. “Vilifying teachers and public employees while passing legislation that seeks to destroy collective bargaining and public education hurts our local businesses and leaves Wisconsin at the mercy of out-of-state interests.”
On his campaign website, www.yurirashkin.com, Rashkin frequently writes about local government issues and his own political perspectives. The website now features a press release and video clip promoting Rashkin’s candidacy for the Assembly; but in the website’s header Rashkin encourages people to contact him via his official government e-mail address.
Political experts that Media Trackers spoke with said that Rashkin’s website would not be a problem if it remained exclusively a means for Rashkin to communicate with constituents. However, by introducing the campaign element into the website, Rashkin’s promotion and use of his government e-mail address could be a violation of state election rules. In his announcement press release, Rashkin listed the website as his official campaign website.
The flip side of the issue is that the website – if it is a campaign website – contains none of the mandatory disclaimers required of campaigns on their material. Failing to formally disclose that the website is “Paid for by” and then listing the committee’s name would be a violation of the state’s campaign finance laws if the website is a campaign platform.
Reid Magney, spokesman for the Government Accountability Board, commented on the GAB’s position on government officials mixing political work in with official resources. According to Magney, there is no specific law addressing how officials should use government e-mails, but “the rule says that state resources or local resources should be used for state or local purposes.” Officials are free to communicate with constituents about issues that relate to their service to the public, but they are not free to use government resources for a political purpose.
During the recall elections this summer the Republican Party of Wisconsin discovered that teachers union official and teacher Shelley Moore used her government paid for e-mail address for political work while preparing for a bid for state Senate. That charged earned a lot of attention, but there is no word on whether or not official penalties will result from the incident.
Rashkin’s actions should merit an investigation by the GAB. Blurring and blending the difference between official work on behalf of constituents and partisan work on behalf of a political campaign has historically had severe consequences in Wisconsin.