Wednesday, August 6, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

Sara Geenen's fans take to the TV channels  to
support her District 19 candidacy.
We are about to find out if TV ads flooding the Milwaukee market via cable and local channels can change the margins August 12 in a single Assembly district along the lakefront. 

For Milwaukeeans surprised that there was enough liberal-leaning big money for hard-hitting TV ads using David Clarke’s own excessive words to attack his behavior as sheriff, this will create a bigger pop – a candidate in a sliver of the Milwaukee TV market using TV to change minds in a politically astute Assembly district. 

With Clarke, who loves to posture braggadocious in media interviews, there was plenty of fodder to destroy him with his own words and actions.  While Clarke has preened that the NRA would rescue him with money to match this media blitz against him, all that has happened is a second more devastating ad from the Greater Wisconsin Committee using his own words to expose him, such as telling citizens to only call 911 to drag the bleeding body out of the house before it messes up the carpet.

But how does an Assembly candidate running from behind launch a TV attack without attacking her opponents?  Sara Geenen, a personable  liberal herself whom everyone hopes will stick around politics even if she loses this race, has  a independent expenditure camp of supporters that knew just how to produce sophisticated TV. Their main ad looks like she is running against Scott Walker! And that is waking viewers up.

Playing to the high-tone politically involved image of the district, the ads are booked on national news channels.  (If PBS took ads, one wag told me, they would be a blizzard there.)

It’s almost unheard of to see a saturation TV ad campaign in an Assembly race -- even veteran politico and Assembly member Fred Kessler couldn’t remember a similar case when asked.

“I was floored when I saw it,” said Geenen herself, but delighted that it kept to her platform and approach.

She was assumed to be running behind two other noted progressives in District 19 and is seeking to change that expectation. They are Milwaukee County board chair Marina Dimitrijevic and active political figure Jonathan Brostoff.

Any polling in this race is private, but word on the street even before TV had her nipping at the heels of County Executive Chris Abele’s well-funded candidate in third place, Dan Adams. Adams’ style has been a disappointment given the friendlier, more issue-focused reputation he brought into the race. Instead of intelligent discussion, he has gone hard in support of school choice and vouchers and attacking other Democrats for not knowing how to talk to Republicans.

County board chair Dimitrijevic 
In my own July 22 column making a choice in this race, I picked Marina over Jonathan, a view I more strongly support today. But even then I pointed out that Geenen with more seasoning was a keeper in local politics.  What I didn’t know then was that she would have the funding to match the rivals and experienced hands in political messaging to challenge her opponents.

Few Assembly candidates have the money or gumption to take to TV a week ahead of the finale in a tight contest.  Geenen can because of strong USW financial backing – as much as $41,000 according to reports. The Steelworkers’  enthusiasm stems not only from the top office her father holds in the union but also their knowledge of her labor  work with the Previant law firm – and the still fresh desire to expose the horribles of Walker’s elimination of collective bargaining and paycheck dues collection for their public worker brethren. 

Geenen’s team has taken to CNN, MSNBC and apparently local TV to force attention to her vision and echo exactly her style.   In the TV ad she is not running against any of the others. You would swear from the tone that she is running against Walker, so prevalent is the attack on his policies.  

Now that is quite clever if you don't think about it too much – and not thinking too much is a requirement of good TV advertising.

The whole idea of the Democrats is that come November Walker should be history and Mary Burke – already ahead in the polls – will knock him out of the governor’s mansion. That is something Geenen fondly wishes.  But the key to TV ads is not to get too complicated and lost in the weeds of issues. So no one watching considers she might not have Walker to pick on by November. Such ads choose an ideal monster, a bogeyman that voters understand you oppose as they do and use the bogeyman to establish your policies and confirm your willingness to fight. And right now in District 19 that hobgoblin is Walker in terms of failed education and economic policies that are the heart of Geenen’s platform – indeed the platforms of Dimitrijevic and Brostoff.  Only they haven’t used his face on TV.

So Geenen’s ad pinpoints specifically what most Democrats support. The ad doesn’t put  Act 10  front and center but the consequences of Walker’s reign front and center in more humanistic terms, especially evocative in a  primary where Walker is not even opposed on the Republican side of the ballot.

The ad reflects the politically hip union supporting Geenen. It is clearly not meant as an anti-Burke ad but the idea of going to Madison to fight against the policies of Walker and his followers.   Because even getting rid of Scott doesn’t get rid of the damage.

Geenen’s problem, of course, is that these views have been forcefully articulated by Dimitrijevic and Brostoff in forums. This is a fresh way of selling the sizzle not the steak, something else TV is good at. 

This single district Assembly battle represents an extraordinary amount of money when you consider Adams backing by Abele and his mainly out of state supporters; then throw in  the Marina-Jonathan grassroots donations from within the district and state; lard in the union PACs mostly backing Marina and the fund coordination for Brostoff. Then add the USW money for Geenen. Suddenly the cash you’d expect in much bigger contests is being lavished here, alongside some strange whispers and sniping on the street about “the other” – whichever “other” could hurt your candidate.  

The Geenen forces taking a chance on TV have put regionwide attention on District 19, where there is an almost palpable public distaste for Walker’s damage to the city and state. Whether Geenen wins or not, a lot of voters are saying, “Right On!” 

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news.From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with its still operative archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for


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