Wednesday, February 17, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth
Kloppenburg likely to pick up Donald voters
in advance to April 5 election.

The margins rather than the results conveyed the big stories in Wisconsin’s February 16 runoff election.  (It’s technically a primary but since it reduced to two the candidates facing off in the real primary April 5,  rather than settling any contest, “runoff” strikes me as more descriptive.)

With low turnout predicted of 10% turning twice as large, the anger was palpable at how the Republicans and the quasi-Democrats who catered to their power had been running Wisconsin.

Thus the votes for the  two more progressive and experienced challengers for Wisconsin Supreme Court rivaled the number of votes  received by Gov. Scott Walker’s machinery plus  the whopping $415,000 in shadow third party advertising  money for Rebecca Bradley. No one expected this kind of grassroots showing in the face of that blitzkrieg.

Bradley’s  vote total at 52% indeed  led Fourth Appeals Court Chief Judge Joanne Kloppenburg’s 78,000 votes but failed to dominate at the 60% her campaign insiders predicted -- despite frantic last-minute calls for extra ballots and volunteers in Waukesha County, bastion of right-wing voting.

When you add in, as probable for Kloppenburg,  the nearly 40,000  supporters of Milwaukee Circuit Court  Joe Donald, the numbers rival Bradley’s total – and the anger is just developing.

It’s hard to predict April 5 turnout based on the Feb. 16 preliminary contest. But in this case as in several other races it indicated that progressive forces were in clear shot of taking back power in a number of contests – which is likely to scare the better heeled entrenched, whose only recourse is  greater spending and advertising (they seem to have run out of ideas). 

Nowhere was this clearer than in the technically nonpartisan race for Milwaukee County executive (though both sides are selling themselves as Democrats and only one can really be telling the truth). It ended as expected  in that the  two Chrises were on top and advancing out of four candidates – incumbent Chris Abele and challenger Chris Larson (and if you think the fact that both have the same first names isn’t important, you should have seen the number of fouled ballots caused at the polls).
Chris Larson gets more votes than Abele.

But again the margin was a shock to the GOP in Madison. They had  been cozying up to Abele in a number of bills specifically aimed at increasing his power.  All that late-night voting may have been for naught. Though outspent 20 to 1 by the billionaire heir, Larson actually topped Abele by 700 votes (48,258 for Larson to 47,550 for Abele).

When you add in the votes for Pirate Party candidate Joe Klein, whose 4,685 supporters are likely to head Larson’s way on policy (and even splitting the 6,541 votes for Steve Hogan, the 69 year old retiree from Franklin who supports referenda for a parks sales tax) Feb. 16 threw a scare into Abele precisely as other aspects of his dictatorial style and failure to anticipate citizen needs are coming to a head. 

It’s about to emerge as front page news how he  turned down and even vetoed funding for preventive maintenance at the Domes, just as the Milwaukee landmark is closed because of panic over falling debris. Early reports indicate the whole dilemma could have been prevented by maintenance and few accept Abele’s suggestion that the real issue is whether the county wants to pay $85 million to fully repair or some unknown millions to replace the Domes. That’s a huge jump from the preventive efforts suggested just a few years ago.

The other facts emerging are that Abele shouldn’t be seeking sole credit for saving the Bucks or forcing a building boom Downtown. This may be a case of who fooled whom and who blinked first, and the blinker does not seem to be the new hedge fund owners of the Bucks, Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, who bought the Bucks from Herb Kohl by pledging to keep the team in town. They also hold controlling interest in the Head of  Herd, which got a sweetheart deal from Abele to build around the new Arena ($1 for 10 acres of county land plus, it now turns out, taxpayer help with paying for remediation of further parcels).

Businesses contacted  Downtown are of mixed mind about all this. They like the idea of keeping a pro basketball team around and maybe getting new customers in the plan for new housing, retail and entertainment.  But  will what is added be overstuffing the golden goose?

Some recall  how home-grown entrepreneurship was a slow and steady secret for development on Water St., Riverwest and the Third Ward. To hear them talk, they believe the new Bucks  owners clearly were intending to stay but used their purchase of the team and Abele’s eagerness to wangle a golden fleece. 

Larson points out that Abele either doesn’t know what he’s doing or knows too darn well. He  got more power from the legislature in Madison that he now says he doesn’t intend to use (such as freedom of action with 43 unzoned parks and the zoo and airport he could under the bill dispense on his own without board say-so, not to mention putting an oar in the K-12 education system). The whole issue raises the question of why ask the legislature for more authority to privatize than you say you ever intend to use.

Not satisfied with getting all county taxpayers to pay $80 million over 20 years to build the Arena (half of the structure cost is coming from taxpayers, $250 million, and most of that from Milwaukee), Abele said in recent interviews he now wants to return to his original funding idea that was weakened by Larson and others. It would use the state to collect bad debt owed the county. A number of county experts including some hired by Abele say the $80 million is simply not there even though the state has power to garnish wages. It’s a scheme savaged for placing undue burden on the poor and disenfranchised while Abele defends it as protecting property owners.

Abele has turned to a costly trail of mailers and TV ads to counter the attacks from Larson, who without much money drew more votes Feb. 16.  Larson is currently a state senator and a former supervisor who clearly knows how to play politics and is riding a lot of progressive and working society wrath against Abele.

Nothing else can explain his great showing. Marina Dimitrijevic, a county supervisor and state head of the new Working Families Party (it supports progressive candidates like Larson but is picky about its choices) called Larson topping Abele in the votes “an earthquake.” For most political observers, that is hardly an overstatement.
Incumbent mayor Barrett looks in good shape.

For city of  Milwaukee mayor, incumbent Tom Barrett won handily with 46% of the four-way vote, leaving him to face Ald. Bob Donovan who got 33% of the vote. Normally, if we do what we did in other races and give Barrett’s opponents the balance of all the voting, it might seem he is in trouble, but look again.

Third place finisher was Ald. Joe Davis Jr., whose popularity in the black community means most of those votes are going to Barrett and not to the somewhat white racist (given his remarks) anti-streetcar character Donovan.  So Davis’ 19% (12,000 votes) are mainly for Barrett’s taking.
Bielinski still alive against Donovan.

In a highly unusual move, Donovan is also running to retain his aldermanic seat in District 8. Looking at that  race from the outside, I assumed Rep. Josh Zepnick would make a better showing – and even thought his drunken driving case would create sympathy among Donovan voters. I lost that bet. He finished a horrible third, leaving the April 5 contest between Donovan with 1,094 votes (a lousy turnout) and   teacher and hard-working door knocker Justin Bielinski who has earned abundant  progressive support.  If Bielinski works hard and makes the aldermanic race a challenge, Donovan may be split in two,  given Barrett’s dominant lead. He may be forced to focus hard on his own district or lose any job April 5. 

In other Milwaukee contests, the future seems a bright road for Common Council incumbents  Bob Bauman (Downtown District 4 with 58% of the vote), Nik Kovac (District 3, 77% of the vote with triple the turnout of most other such races) and Milele Coggs (68% in District 6).
Lewis squeaks ahead to face Puente.

In District 11, incumbent Robert Puente topped all five opponents but could still be in trouble. The last minute 2nd place finisher (my early pick because of her strong campaigning) was Chantia Lewis who squeaked by former county supervisor Martin Mac Weddle. That alone was a surprise to many besides Weddle who had 799 votes to Lewis’ 864. But there are some 720 other scattered votes, suggesting that a united campaign front could put Puente into some trouble in that sprawling and economically troubled upper northwest county district.

District 7 – an open seat with the departure of  Ald. Willie Wade – saw his own backed successor in the lead, former county supervisor Khalif Rainey. But 232 votes behind was Milwaukee School Board president Michael Bonds, so this may end up a  battle of name recognition.

In District 2, vacated by Davis to run for mayor, former Barrett aide and noted youth activist Chevy Johnson emerged with a commanding lead over former Davis aide Sherman Morton.

There is one county supervisor race with more than two candidates. Whether it fits or not, District 11 may emerge as the most conservative county board district. The vote leader with 3,702 votes is ardent conservative Dan Sebring, who ran and lost heavily many times against Rep. Gwen Moore for the House and once proclaimed she should face a firing squad. (But at least losing so often and so ugly gave him name recognition.) Opposing him is Patricia Najera, a community activist, member of the city planning commission and UWM doctoral candidate who has ideas to help this southwestern county region advance in development. 

Donald’s loss in the state court race was a disappointment for me and many others, since he had 20 years of bench experience on the Milwaukee circuit court and clearly the best judicial instincts and record in the race. From my first article on this contest in October I had lamented how  the presence of Bradley would prevent what I hoped for, a rousing debate on judicial conduct between the only two judges who knew the law and how to conduct themselves. Now that can’t be. 

Kloppenburg has a  lot to offer. For many Donald voters she was always  a close second choice. Where her campaign succeeded in political terms was coating her in the partisan dislike for Walker in a nonpartisan race (only fair since Bradley has wrapped herself in Walker’s protective political arms). Kloppenburg’s campaign went hard at suggesting Donald has ideological  sympathy for Bradley, who has been chosen by Walker three times for black robes  while barely surviving one election with outside money. But all Donald did as a senior judge at the circuit court during her first bench term  was extend his normal courtesy. After absorbing the Feb. 16 loss Donald made it clear he could be back – and indeed Justice Annette Zeigler could be vulnerable in 2017.

Kloppenburg also has potent history behind her. A former assistant state attorney general under Gov. Jim Doyle, she came in a close second in a 2011 supreme court race against David Prosser – in fact, at the end of the election she seemed to have won. Then Waukesha election clerk Kathy Nickolaus, whose name lives in infamy among Democratic circles, found 14,000 missing votes – and that put Prosser ahead by 7,000 votes.

Kloppenburg was readily elected by southwestern Wisconsin voters to the state’s Fourth District Court of Appeals, a sign not only of her competence but at the continued anger and sense of robbery that surrounds her in Democratic circles. That continues to stir her to success, particularly against Bradley, who is clearly a willing servant to the right wing despite her attempts to portray herself as independent.

Bradley’s subservience to the conservative cause (and the voting power of police associations)  became painfully apparent February 10  when she broke judicial norms by  actually not sitting in on case arguments  before deciding it. She  provided the winning vote in expanding police powers though she  had not participated in the whole case before either the appeals court or the supreme court, arguing that she listened to the oral hearings that took place under her predecessor, Justice Patrick  Crooks, whose death in September provided the excuse for Walker to elevate her to the top court. 
Justice Abrahamson laments Rebecca Bradley's
intrusion into case she didn't hear.

As the dissent by Justice Shirley Abrahamson pointed out, the majority’s interpretation of the case not only overturned the appeals court decision but provided a rationale  so broad as to “swallow the Fourth Amendment,” which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In the case, the police were refused entry to a locked bedroom by the owner while investigating an unrelated beating case, but entered anyway and found an illegal marijuana plant.  Justice Prosser, who worries a lot about overly broad police powers, actually joined Abrahamson and Justice Ann Bradley (no relation – in fact highly regarded as jurist, unlike Rebecca) in the dissent, so without R. Bradley’s vote – which many regard as violating judicial precedent – the lower court decision would have stood.

“This alone,” one state  judge commented to me, “should disqualify her from serving – judges don’t do such things.” 

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 original 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 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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