Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan apologized to reporters Tuesday night for misleading them about his relationship with a payday loan industry lobbyist, saying he wants to move past it and get back to the work of the Legislature.
Sheridan, D-Janesville, met with reporters for the first time since he acknowledged the relationship several days after he initially denied rumors he was dating Shanna Wycoff. He told reporters he is no longer dating her, though he declined to discuss details.
"I'm sorry if you thought I was trying to mislead you," Sheridan said. "That was not my intent. But I understand that was the perception."
Sheridan has been embroiled in a controversy about the relationship for the last several weeks with some questioning whether it had influenced his views on restrictions for the payday lending industry. Sheridan had previously co-authored legislation to cap interest rates the industry can charge at 36 percent, but he backtracked from that stance last fall, saying it was too restrictive. He voted Tuesday night to table an amendment to the payday bill that would have implemented such a cap, but voted for the legislation on final passage.
The relationship has also prompted a series of stories about Sheridan's use of his campaign funds, his travel to out-of-state conferences that Wycoff also attended and the fact that he is currently not living in his district. State law allows lawmakers to temporarily live outside their districts so long as they plan to return.
The former UAW representative for Janesville's GM plant said he was careful to abide by state rules regarding using state or campaign funds throughout the relationship.
"I worked in a factory for 31 years, and this is kind of a new frontier for me," Sheridan said. "I know three weeks ago there were questions about my relationship, and quite frankly it's very difficult to talk about those things. I wasn't trying to be misleading. It's just very difficult to talk about those things."
Sheridan said that the episode had been very painful for his family and said he has some "personal issues" he needs to take care of.
"I want to close this chapter and move on," Sheridan said.
Sheridan said he was proud of the effort put into getting a compromise payday lending bill to the floor, singling out Dem Reps. Donna Seidel, Jason Fields, Gordon Hintz, Jeff Smith, Andy Jorgensen and Josh Zepnick for praise.
Sheridan said his leadership style is to delegate and that he never had any influence over the direction of the legislation.
"I want to make sure we give credit where credit is due. This working group really pulled together and came up with some really good legislation," he said. "To me it's about empowering people and then get the heck out of the way."
Sheridan said he is "humbled" by the support of his caucus through this episode.
"At times people were questioning 'Why do they stand by this guy?'" he said. "I think it's because they know I'm genuine and trying to do the right things. Obviously I'm human, and I make mistakes."
When the relationship first became public and speculation swirled about a challenge to his leadership, Sheridan and some Assembly Dems blamed lobbyists for the payday loan industry for spreading the rumors to try to block the legislation. Tonight, he backed away from those charges.
"I'm just proud of the legislation we passed. There's a lot of emotion around this, and I just want to move forward and get back to what we're supposed to be doing and that's find ways to create jobs the state," he said. "I'm not going to spend much energy on who did what and who did it when."
Sheridan said he plans to be on the campaign trail as Assembly Democrats head out this year to keep the majority.
"My attention is that I'll be all over the state. That's what I did a year and a half ago before we took the majority. I worked all over the state, and I intend to do that again."
Sheridan, who has been living outside his district as he goes through a divorce from his wife, said he plans to move back as soon as possible.
"Part of it is working out my financial situation and the possibility of putting a home up for sale," he said.
Sheridan also called on Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker to pass the bill.
"We want to make sure that we pass the toughest legislation we can," he said. "I can't predict what the Senate's going to do. But I hope you all have an opportunity to make sure they're doing their job over there."