Florence County Leads State’s Conservative Charge With Action Against Marijuana, Gun Control

Dec 2, 2019

Mark Kerznar's Saloon No. 2, a tavern in the Florence County crossroads of Spread Eagle.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

The name of the shop caught Mark Kerznar’s attention.

“It’s called Glazed and Confused,” he said.  “I’m sitting there, I’m going, ‘It’s called what?’”

The sign outside Glazed and Confused, a donut-and-marijuana store just across the Brule River from Florence County. It features a donut with red eyes flashing a peace symbol. Marijuana is legal in Michigan.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

The sign, including a logo of a donut with red eyes flashing a peace sign, put it over the top.

“In talking to the Sheriff, he figured we were going to see, pardon my French, we were going to see a real s***storm heading our way.  We’re a border county,” Kerznar said.

The shop, a former supper club less than a half-mile across the Florence County line into Michigan, opened earlier this year.  It dispensed both donuts and marijuana, which was newly legal in Michigan.

“You can literally stand on the border of Wisconsin and see this thing,” Kerznar said.

Kerznar was worried about marijuana in his home county, Florence County, which shares a border with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Florence County shares its northern border with Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Earlier this year, Kerznar became the driving force behind two politically conservative resolutions in the county, which in 2016 supported President Trump at a higher rate than any other. 

One resolution opposed marijuana legalization in Wisconsin.

Another made the county the first Second Amendment Sanctuary county in Wisconsin, giving its sheriff the green light to ignore gun control laws he finds unconstitutional.

Both passed the county board unanimously with support from Sheriff Dan Miller, who Kerznar calls a “rock star.”

“Our county board, for the most part, they’re pretty conservative, I think all of them.  I think they’re all born and raised here.  They all have family here.  They all have grandkids,” Miller said.

A sign on the door of Mark Kerznar's Saloon No. 2 makes it clear marijuana is not welcome inside.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Supporters of the first resolution, opposing marijuana legalization in Wisconsin, also included the county health department.

There, nurse Ann Price worried about access to addiction services in the small rural county.

“How does this, how does this potential legalization impact our children, our future, if that becomes legal?” she said.  “I don’t think it’s best.”

Florence County School Superintendent Ben Niehaus said he’s seen an uptick in drug-related violations at his school, especially in the last three or four years.

“It is becoming a major issue and burden on our schools and in our capacity to be focused on what we should be focused on.  That’s education,” Niehaus said.

The district supported the local marijuana legislation, as did the economic development office, which worries more drugs don’t make for a reliable workforce.  A separate ordinance bans marijuana retail shops in Florence County if the drug is legalized in Wisconsin.  A sign on its door said Glazed and Confused was closed, but planned to reopen as a medical marijuana center.

Downtown Florence.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Florence County’s conservative bent only intensified in November, when it the Second Amendment Sanctuary label became official.

Again, Kerznar led the charge.

“We have the Second Amendment of the Constitution,” he said.  “In my eyes, those are God-given rights.”

Part of the resolution states the county “affirms its support of the Sheriff to exercise sound discretion to not enforce against any citizen an unconstitutional firearms law.”

That language largely targeted a proposed state red-flag law in which judges could order guns temporarily taken from people to ensure safety.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers pushed for the law in response to gun violence, but state Republicans blocked him.

Sheriff Miller, a gun owner and National Rifle Association member, is proud to represent the first county in the state labeled a Second Amendment Sanctuary.

Florence County Sheriff Dan Miller.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

He said he’s prepared to defy court orders instructing him to take peoples’ guns.

“At that time, could the judge throw me in jail for disobeying his court order?  I believe so,” he said.

Asked whether incarceration was worth it, Miller replied, “It would be.  I would stand for that.  I think the people of this county back me.  The county board backs me.”

Wendy Gehlhoff, the county’s economic development director, is in lockstep with Kerznar and Miller on the issue.

“Some people might call us redneck,” she said.  “I guess I wouldn’t, but those are our values and those are our traditions.”

Florence County Economic Development Director Wendy Gehlhoff.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

The county’s conservative policies match its conservative politics.

In 2016, President Trump did better here than any other county in Wisconsin.

“We are, like I said, a very conservative county.  I think 72 percent of our county voted for Trump in the last presidential election, so we definitely think pretty conservative up here and keep some of those traditions alive,” Gehlhoff said.

Second Amendment Sanctuaries are becoming more common in conservative areas of the country.  Some western states, and counties in Illinois, Florida, Virginia, and Tennessee, now have that label.

Kerznar wants it to spread across Wisconsin.

“I’ve gotten more comments and ideas around [the Second Amendment] than any other since I’ve been a sheriff,” said Oneida County Sheriff Grady Hartman.  “We’ll keep fighting for that.”

Hartman calls red-flag laws “bad,” and says he supports the concept of a Second Amendment Sanctuary.

He feels many gun control proposals are examples of overreach by liberal politicians in Madison and Washington who don’t understand large swaths of Wisconsin.

“This is rural up north here,” Hartman said.  “We just have different circumstances.”

Miller, the Florence County Sheriff, agrees.

“We have a great state.  We really do,” he said.  “But I think everybody needs to know what they think in Madison and what we think here might not be the same thing, and vice versa.”

At his bar, Saloon No. 2 in the Florence County crossroads of Spread Eagle, Kerzar talks about his next project.

He’s helping organize a machine gun shoot to raise money for a police dog.

“It’s a blast.  Let’s face it.  Fully automatic weapons are cool,” he said.

Kerznar knows some people don’t agree with Florence County’s conservative stances on things like guns and marijuana.

His message to them?

Don’t bother coming here.

“When these people are thinking about changing and coming up here and taking our way of life and turning it on its head, if we can preserve this and keep it like this for generations to come, then I think we’re doing the right thing,” he said.