Rebecca Kleefisch and her gay uncle were once as close as sister and brother. Her bizarre condemnation of same-sex marriage during her campaign for lieutenant governor drove a wedge between the two. They haven’t spoken since.
This feature story appears in the November 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine, which will be available on newsstands Nov. 2. Click here to subscribe.
Chris Pfauser lives with his husband, Rob Gow, in the southwest Michigan resort town of New Buffalo. Their modest home sits on an idyllic piece of land across the street from Lake Michigan. They knocked out walls and turned the ranch home into an open-concept beach house that they’ve named Retriever Point.
Pfauser and Gow purchased Retriever Point as a weekend cottage in 2002 while they were living in Evanston, Ill. They decided to move to New Buffalo full-time in 2008 so they could become more involved in the community. Their home, which is in the Lake Michigan Riviera Community, abuts a lush 125-acre marsh, which is visible from their living room, dining room and bedroom windows.
Today, the couple walks their black and yellow labs, Dash and Katie, almost daily along a 1-mile stretch of private beach they co-own with their fellow subdivision residents.
But sometimes Pfauser, 51, is drawn to the other side of Lake Michigan, where he was born and raised. The high-spirited, passionate, gay-rights activist grew up in Elm Grove and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His older sister, Marijo Reed, lives in Oconomowoc. She was the only girl of four siblings, and the first person Pfauser came out to when he was in college.
Reed is also the mother of Rebecca Kleefisch, the 40-year-old lieutenant governor of Wisconsin. The oldest of two children, Kleefisch was close to her Uncle Chris when she was young. Only 11 years separated them, and Pfauser says that, at times, he was more like a brother to Rebecca than an uncle. But their relationship became strained, he adds, when Rebecca married Joel Kleefisch, who is now a Republican state representative from Oconomowoc.
A beauty queen when she was a teenager, Rebecca started dating Joel while they were both working as journalists at WISN-12. Joel played keyboards in a funk band and often donned a rainbow Afro wig while performing. His band was playing a gig at a whirly ball bar in Chicago near Pfauser and Gow’s house, so the couple joined Rebecca to watch the show and meet Joel.
The couple thought Joel was fun and liked him immediately. “Boy were we wrong on that,” Gow, 55, says today.
Rebecca and Joel married in 1999. Rebecca Kleefisch left television news in 2004, shortly after the birth of her first daughter. A camouflage-wearing conservative Republican, Joel Kleefisch was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 2004, and has successfully won re-election since, representing Oconomowoc and its surrounding areas.
In 2006, he co-sponsored the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in Wisconsin, which passed by a 59-41 margin.
“That was the turning point for me,” Pfauser says. “I told Marijo [his sister] I was fine with differences of opinion but I would not accept laws against it. When Joel co-sponsored that bill and it passed, I stopped visiting and we started drifting apart.”
The relationship worsened four years later when Rebecca, a candidate for lieutenant governor, condemned gay marriage during a national interview with a Christian radio station. “At what point are we going to OK marrying inanimate objects,” she said. “Can I marry this table, or this, you know, clock? Can we marry dogs?”
Kleefisch apologized publicly for her remarks. But, according to Gow and Pfauser, she never offered either of them an apology.
Wisconsin’s ban was overturned by a federal appeals court in September 2014, and the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed same-sex marriage as the law of the land in June. But deep-rooted beliefs to the contrary still have many people fighting for equality in the office and within their own families.
The issue continues to tear apart the once-close family. The lieutenant governor and her uncle have not spoken in nearly five years.
Pfauser and Gow met during an AIDS benefit at a nightclub in Chicago that Pfauser helped organize in October 1992. Gow had not yet come out to his family. After meeting Pfauser, he decided it was time.
“I remember my father took me out on the patio and said, ‘Your mother and I love you very much, we really like Chris, and we want you to know we admire your relationship. In fact, it reminds us an awful lot of ours,’” Gow says. “He said the most beautiful thing a father could say to a gay son.”
There are two identical billboards in New Buffalo with a picture of Pfauser and Gow on them. Both men are tanned and good-looking. Each wears a white button-down dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. They are kneeling beside their dogs in long wild grass a few hundred feet from the Lake Michigan shoreline.
The billboards are advertisements for Gow’s real estate business. But they also illustrate how involved the couple is in the small community. Gow considers himself a philanthropist, and is involved in the arts and land conservation. Pfauser is involved in political groups, including the Victory Fund – a political action committee that is dedicated to increasing the number of open LGBT candidates in local, state and federal offices.
“When you know the struggles of so many people, and you finally see public opinion start to turn, and you see there is a legal road to it, it’s just incredibly gratifying,” Pfauser says. “It makes all the years of work rewarding.”
Although the two married in July 2013, they continue to celebrate the anniversary of the day they met, Oct. 20, 1992.
Gow’s favorite thing about being married is the blending of families. Not close to his own nieces and nephews, Gow was elated when he first met Pfauser’s family, particularly Rebecca and her sister, Sarah Wilbanks, who is two years younger than Kleefisch. “I remember telling my family how great the girls were,” Gow says.
Embraced by conservative women, conservative talk radio and the Tea Party, she handily won the five-way primary for lieutenant governor with more than 48 percent of the vote in 2010.
[quote align=’left’]When asked to consider Rebecca Kleefisch as Wisconsin’s next governor, “Uncle Chris” pauses. [/quote]In just five years, Kleefisch has gone from a self-described proud Christian wife and mother who clipped coupons and supported her husband’s career, to a lieutenant governor who has won three elections.
Kleefisch has several potential paths to a run for the governorship. Although Gov. Scott Walker ended his campaign for the presidency in September, his name has been mentioned as a possible appointee to a federal post – like his Republican predecessor, Tommy Thompson – should a Republican win the White House in 2016. That would elevate Kleefisch to the governor’s office, where she would finish out Walker’s term and, presumably, run for governor on her own in 2018. Or, if Walker remains in the state and decides not to seek a third term, odds are she would mount a gubernatorial campaign.
Rebecca and Joel Kleefisch declined to be interviewed for this story.
Given her limited experience in government, and her history as a TV journalist and beauty queen, some have compared Kleefisch to former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. “To be candid,” her uncle says, “I think Becky found their meal ticket with the Christian conservative rhetoric.”
Mordecai Lee, professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says comparisons between Kleefisch and Palin should be avoided because Palin has been unwilling to master public policy or government.
“I suspect Rebecca Kleefisch is much more diligent than Sarah Palin,” says Lee, a former Democratic legislator. “Her performance has indicated she is very disciplined – she never says what Walker would not want her to say. She never risks an open mic or a gaggle with the press. We don’t really know what her personal views on policy are.”
Kleefisch’s ultra-conservative base won her the office of lieutenant governor and could set her apart as a gubernatorial candidate, if that is the path she chooses to stay on, says Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“This is a very important decision for her,” he says. “She would have a small set of really enthusiastic supporters, but getting to 50 percent is going to be hard, and she might offend some people in the middle. Scott Walker is about as polarizing as you can be, but he can still win a [Wisconsin] election.”
During the 2000 Bush-Cheney presidential campaign, Pfauser says, he watched with a mix of sympathy and horror as Mary Cheney stood submissively behind her father, Dick Cheney, and was quiet about her sexual orientation, despite public knowledge that she was a lesbian. At the time, Pfauser told Gow he would never be a “Mary Cheney,” which is why he has been so vocal as the Kleefisches advance their anti-gay marriage agenda.
When asked to consider Rebecca Kleefisch as Wisconsin’s next governor, “Uncle Chris” pauses.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is, I would be incredibly sad for Wisconsin,” he says. “If it was the Becky I grew up with, that I know cared about other people and was more of a true Christian than I believe she is now, then I would be supportive.
“But our relationship is obviously not that important to them,” adds Pfauser. “Five years later, I’ve resolved to be OK with that.”
Corrinne Hess has been a regular contributor to Milwaukee Magazine. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story mistakenly indicated Rebecca Kleefisch received votes in a straw poll for lieutenant governor at a 2009 state Republican Party convention. This has been removed from the story. We regret the error.