How do you cover a gubernatorial candidate who wants to hand out Ku Klux Klan hoods to his opponents?
That is the issue journalists in Wisconsin face when reporting on the campaign of Brett Hulsey, an Assembly member from Madison who is challenging Mary Burke in the Democratic primary to run against Gov. Scott Walker in November.
Last Thursday, Hulsey decided to hand out Klan hoods to Republicans attending the GOP state convention in Milwaukee. Come Friday, though, Hulsey admitted the stunt was nothing more than an attempt to get attention.
Hulsey has built up a record of unusual news stories over the last four years, from campaign literature listing endorsements from people who didn't endorse him and pleading no contest over an incident where he flipped over a nine-year-old's inner tube on a Lake Mendota beach.
How should Wisconsin's journalists cover an enigmatic figure like Hulsey?
Straightforward coverage of Hulsey's latest campaign is tough. Discussing Hulsey's antics makes me feel like a TMZ columnist covering a young celebrity's self-destructive downfall. If there is anything more distasteful than politics, it is watching someone turn themselves into a sideshow.
Should Hulsey's campaign stunts be covered as satire? Along with the Klan hoods, he also tried to get a group of people to get together and dress up as Confederate soldiers to highlight the efforts of a few conservative groups that added resolutions to endorse the possibility of Wisconsin's secession from the United States and the nullification of federal laws for the state GOP party platform.
I thought Hulsey's Civil War reenactor idea had some merit. It should have been easy enough to round up some Civil War reenactors -- what else would they have to do on a Friday when there isn't a faux battle to fight? Give out samples of hardtack and point out that the side that won the Civil War was the one with more railroads.
Instead, Hulsey walked around the Capitol alone in a homemade Confederate uniform carrying a sign calling Walker a racist.
Clearly, these stunts are designed to get attention, but they don’t indicate the sharp sense of satire required to really make smart political point -- that is, unless you consider Bill Maher to be a successful satirist.
Some journalists have questioned Hulsey's mental health, which can get morally murky very quickly. Journalists certainly should ask these questions, as the public has a right to know about the health of a gubernatorial candidate, but I worry it is a pretense to marginalize unusual candidates.
At a time when it feels like those of us who aren't major campaign donors have little power in our elections, it feels wrong to discount a candidate who colors outside of the standard political lines. Coverage of Hulsey's campaign could set a standard used to weigh coverage of future outsider candidates, ones that may have valuable ideas to add to the discourse.
Hulsey's campaign provides a real challenge, not to Burke or Walker, but to the journalists who must figure out how to cover this race with the right tone.