AMBER ARNOLD – State Journal
By Molly Beck, Wisconsin State Journal
January 25, 2016, Madison, Wisconsin
Kewaskum’s Jesse Kremer has sparsely decorated his Capitol office with two American flags, photos of his 2003 tour in Iraq and books like Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ” and President George W. Bush’s autobiography.
Save for a few fish swimming around a small tank near his desk, the Republican freshman Assembly member’s office is as straightforward as his style in the Legislature: an unapologetic social conservative with a deep Christian faith.
Kremer has already earned a reputation for being, in his words, “too honest” as he pursues legislation that can be “frankly, red meat for conservatives.”
“He’s really been behind some of the most extreme and controversial bills of the session,” said fellow freshman Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, who sits on the Assembly’s committee on public benefit reform with Kremer. “Just in terms of sheer number of bills, and doing it as a freshman, he has jumped right in and tackled a range of controversial issues.”
Longtime lobbyist and Republican strategist Brandon Scholz, who works for The Capitol Group, said Kremer represents a state Legislature that is trending younger in recent years and leadership’s relatively new approach of allowing freshmen lawmakers a more prominent role.
“It is a much younger and less institutional Legislature than it has been,” said Scholz. “I also think it is reflective of an attitude — not held by everybody — but certainly held by some of those like Jesse Kremer, who don’t care if they buck the system and don’t care if they get re-elected because they are there on principle.”
Since taking office, Kremer has authored legislation that banned abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, would place gender restrictions on school bathrooms and locker rooms, allow concealed carry permit-holders to carry weapons on public school grounds and college campuses, put photo IDs on food stamp recipients’ debit cards and prohibit city officials from blocking police officers from asking people about their immigration status.
Spreitzer calls that an “extreme agenda” that is “certainly headline-grabbing, but unfortunately, doing it by attacking marginalized groups.”
But Kremer describes his work as representing his constituents — who live in a mostly conservative district north of Milwaukee.
“There are no surprises with me,” he said. “There’s nothing that people could not see coming, because I said exactly who I am and I’ve done exactly what I said.”
Kremer was born to two Lutheran school teachers and has enrolled his three daughters — Keturah, 12, Miriam, 10, and Michaiah, 6 — in a Lutheran school in West Bend.
“I don’t bring it up real often that they go there because I support parochials, privates, choice, public — I don’t care as long as kids get a good education,” he said. “I tell people who send their kids to public schools that I send my kids there because I know they are getting the beliefs that I want them to have.”
Keturah was born two months after Kremer returned from his U.S. Army deployment during the 2003 invasion of Iraq — and about two years after Kremer married his wife, Janet, whom he met at church.
“I just called her out of the blue one day and asked if she wanted to go on a date, and go flying to Madison,” said Kremer, who also has worked as a commercial pilot. “I think she liked it.”
Kremer owns a Web design business, manufactures high school diplomas, owns a couple of rental properties and is a volunteer firefighter and EMT for the Kewaskum Fire Department.
He points to his variety of work experience and his religious convictions as part of the formula for the kind of legislation he pushes.
“I’ve got a lot of real-world, grounded situations to draw from. I’ve been on unemployment, I’ve been in unions, I’ve been in private unions, I’ve been in government unions,” he said. “If I ever lose that sense of reality then it’s time for me to go home. … I think there are a lot of people in this building who try to protect a career, on both sides of the aisle.”
Kremer said he doesn’t plan to be a lawmaker forever, accounting for why he’s considered “outspoken” about bills that he considers the right thing to do — regardless of how it plays politically. Kremer pointed to a bill he recently introduced that would allow churches to have real Christmas trees — now advised against by some fire departments, including his own.
“That might hurt me,” he said. “I feel uncomfortable going to calls now because I did that bill. I feel uncomfortable approaching the chief and talking to the chief. And these are friends of mine.”
Kremer acknowledged that some of his bills may not be successful.
Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, who sits next to Kremer on the Assembly floor, said his colleague could be compared in some ways to U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, a former Washington County Assembly Republican also known for being outspoken and a “strong conservative.”
“His passion is really what you see in Jesse,” said Born. “There’s no secret to what’s important to him and it fits well for him because it’s the same type of stuff his district cares about. He fits his district and the district fits him.”
Still, a number of Kremer’s most-controversial bills have failed to gain traction, even among his own caucus. Most recently, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, quickly dismissed a bill that would allow concealed carry on public school grounds. And Kremer’s bill setting gender restrictions on school bathrooms received a hearing but no vote has been scheduled.
But Vos said in a statement that Kremer “is a strong conservative voice in our caucus. He’s a problem solver and works tirelessly on behalf of his district.”
Kremer acknowledged the hurdles his choice of bills — and his candor with media — create. But Kremer also said he doesn’t have a problem calling out “unprofessionalism” — most recently on Twitter apologizing for fellow Washington County Rep. Bob Gannon, R-Slinger, when Gannon raised his middle finger to a Democratic colleague during a floor debate.
“I think it’s hard as a freshman for you to earn people’s trust and like some of these bills. I’ve had a hard time getting people to come to me and tell me what they’re concerned about because they’re afraid I’m going to go call them out and have people knocking on their doors, and that’s not me,” he said.
“I’ve been accused of being too honest,” Kremer said. Fellow Republicans will say, “ ‘Shut up. You’re too honest.’ That’s just who I am, I’m sorry.”
Proud of abortion bill
Kremer said the legislation he’s most proud of is a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The toughest vote he’s taken yet was voting to finance the building of a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks NBA team.
“I am still not sure I did the right thing,” he said. “My philosophy is, yes of course those guys can pay for the arena … but if they leave, we lose everything.”
Spreitzer said he agrees with Born that much of the legislation Kremer puts forward are laws he genuinely hopes become law “but I do think some of them are headline-grabbing.”
He pointed to a bill Kremer wrote that would block the state from providing money for a Milwaukee streetcar project, which has been a target of conservatives.
“Obviously that’s a hot topic, certainly there’s a lot of pressure in conservative circles to attack the Milwaukee streetcar, so there’s a bill to do that,” he said.
While Kremer has authored a number of other bills that have not grabbed media attention, some Republicans have said he should be “working on other things,” because of the bills he has put forward that have created controversy.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Kremer said. “At least people know what I’m doing and that I am working.”
Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.