Joe Basel: From U of M-Morris to Louisiana Watergate

A local boy's rise to power in America's right wing

Student government President Blair Jasper marched across the auditorium with the microphone and shoved it in Basel's face. "You're going to talk now," Jasper commanded.

Basel looked around the room, and then casually approached the podium. He set down a plastic binder of prepared remarks. Crowd members hissed.

Basel began trying to explain the satiric aspect of the posters, but the crowd only booed more lustily. Then, as if to see how far he could push it, Basel started reciting gangsta-rap lyrics, using the word "nigger" enough times to make the Black Student Union walk out in protest.

"It was a mob," says Eagan Heath, who covered the event in the University Register. "It was scary."

   

JEREMY DAVIS ARRIVED ON CAMPUS on a cold morning last November to find images of dead fetuses spray-chalked on sidewalks and buildings. It seemed no coincidence that Ben Wetmore was scheduled to speak at U of M-Morris that evening, via the Basel Foundation.

Davis and Jeanette Blalock-Davis, both members of the Students for a Democratic Society, an unsanctioned campus group, rallied their troops with emails and phone calls. They weren't going to greet Wetmore as a liberator.

In the Morris auditorium later that day, Wetmore took the podium in front of about 50 protestors. As soon as Wetmore began to speak, Davis began loudly repeating back his every word in an unintelligible high pitch. Blalock-Davis and others shouted rebuttals to Wetmore's statements about abortion and sex education.

Wetmore maintained his composure, but Basel could not, and pulled the plug on the speech. Davis confronted Basel afterward and vowed to disrupt any other speaker he brought on campus.

"I think he's the most despicable person this region has ever produced," Davis says. "This is generally a cool place for people to have different political views. Joe managed to overcome that. To manage to make your politics divisive on this campus is impressive."

A picture taken after the speech has since replaced the homepage of Wetmore's once very active blog, Benwetmore.com, which temporarily shut down after the teabugging incident. The photo features two of the Morris students who protested Wetmore that evening, one holding a sign reading, "Ben Wetmore is: Anti-Transpeople, Anti-ACLU, Anti-college...."

In back of the protestors stands Wetmore, wearing a pinstriped navy suit, a yellow tie, and a self-satisfied grin.

   

JOHNNY ANGEL MET WETMORE by chance through a roommate-wanted ad on Craigslist. The lead singer of Johnny Angel and the Swingin' Demons, a popular New Orleans swing band, Angel had no idea he was moving in with a conservative activist.

In late January, Angel came home to find Wetmore and a few strangers sprawled out all over the duplex, typing away on laptops.

"They were all kind of engrossed in whatever they were doing," remembers Angel. "I thought it was funny—I mean here you are coming to New Orleans and you're in here on your laptop, not parading around the French Quarter."

One of the guests was James O'Keefe, who had published a video starring himself dressed as a pimp in the Brooklyn, New York, offices of ACORN. Filmed with a hidden camera, the video showed ACORN telling O'Keefe how to avoid getting busted, including identifying prostitutes as "performance artists" on tax forms.

Outcry over the video led to a cut in federal funding for ACORN and vaulted O'Keefe to right-wing fame. Two years ago, Wetmore and O'Keefe released videos of themselves applying for marriage licenses at three state offices in Massachusetts, telling the clerks that they were only in it for the tax breaks.

Angel had heard all about O'Keefe on the nightly news, but as O'Keefe sat there in his living room, quiet and contemplative, Angel didn't recognize him. Also there was Joe Basel, whom Angel says was the most gregarious of the bunch.

"Joe is a fun guy," he says. "You could tell he really liked to have a good time."

A man who prides himself on minding his own business, Angel didn't ask questions when his guests stayed glued to their laptops all weekend. He also didn't get suspicious when a stranger showed up in their living room dressed as a telephone repairman.

"I thought he was just a really clean-looking construction worker from up the street," says Angel.

Angel went with Wetmore and his friends to the Bombay Jazz Club that Sunday, where they drank mojitos and watched the Saints squeak past the Vikings in the NFC championship game. The group's sole Minnesotan, Basel took some razzing from the rest of the group for the loss. After the game, they went downtown to Bourbon Street for a few more drinks.

"They were all having a great time," Angel says.

The next morning, Angel left the house early. When he came home, he found the house ominously empty and untouched, as if no one had been there since the night before.

His first thought was that his guests had either gotten laid or arrested. After some thought, the latter seemed more likely.

As it happened, Angel was right. But he was surprised to find out the arrest wasn't for drunk and disorderly on Bourbon Street but rather tampering with the phone of a U.S. senator's office.

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