Wednesday, February 3, 2016


I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal

By Dominique Paul Noth

Joe Donald, the best choice for
Wisconsin Supreme Court.
My dream is far more modest than Martin Luther King’s and even less likely of success. It is focused pedestrianly on Wisconsin’s February 16 primary (actually a runoff that brings down to two the  competitors in races April 5 where many more are vying for the nonpartisan office in question).

My dream won’t happen in the statewide contest. It is that common sense will triumph over conservative-liberal gridlock and move forward  to April 5 the only two truly independent and qualified judicial minds for the state’s highest court, ignoring the third appointed by Gov. Scott Walker to hold his coat if he gets into legal trouble. But  I’m not holding my breath for this self-evident truth. In fact, my idea given our current state of politics is ridiculous.

Here’s why common sense won’t  happen. The extremely conservative machine (the one that real conservatives think is on their side though the results clearly aren’t) along with Walker have leaned on the scales of justice with money and influence to try to make Rebecca Bradley one of those advancing to April 5 – and there are still enough unthinking diehards in their ranks to give her  a likely chance.

My idea is the contest for high court that should emerge in the Feb. 16  election would be the  actually experienced judges who offer some balance to a court that badly needs independence  – and then we could have  a real discussion without  the prepared blandness of  “I love everybody and will work with everybody” that Bradley has already trotted out at judicial forums.

But the really qualified --  Milwaukee court veteran Joe Donald and appeals judge veteran Joanne Kloppenburg -- will split the intelligent and truly passionate  vote, leaving only one of them  standing Feb. 16 to face Bradley, who has just been assured of a gigantic war chest.

She could still lose April 5, but that  will require the forces of Donald and Kloppenburg to forget their difference,  unite and drive Bradley into the dust, a two-step election thinking process that, frankly, progressive voters in the spring elections seldom seem capable of. 

Bradley has experience on the conservative cocktail party circuit but as a judge of Wisconsin’s diverse humanity and legal needs – hardly any. Even as she proclaims she will be free of bias she is the most biased of the candidates,  the most clumsily advanced,  the least experienced and least independent. This is   Rebecca Bradley we’re talking about, definitely not to be confused with Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, no relation, one of the few respected pillars left on the high court  who has been on the bench for decades and just won re-election for a 10-year term in 2015. 

Rebecca of sunny Walker farm was appointed to the high court by the governor acting alone  on the death of Justice Crooks Sept. 21 (the same day Walker withdrew from presidential politics). That means she has held three judicial positions with only one public election, and that one was tainted.

Walker had months earlier appointed her to a vacancy caused by another death on the state’s First District Court of Appeals (she was never elected to that job) and three years ago appointed her to a Milwaukee circuit court  retirement vacancy. About a year into that appointment she won the  Milwaukee County  election for the seat but only because Club for Growth (yes, the same shadowy money that has put Wisconsin uncomfortably on national front pages as a corrupt state) contributed an unprecedented $167,000 in campaign funding to carry her through against opposition that soon won judgeship in their own right. 

Major Southwest contributors to Wisconsin Club for Growth (dumbfounding how much of this  money comes from outside the state)  were reportedly ticked off to see their money go to a Milwaukee only judicial election – they thought they would be helping Walker anchor his statewide power ahead of his presidential bid.
Rivals are already having fun adding their own captions to
the shadow ads already appearing for Bradley.

But despair not Koch Bros. types!  A shadowy outside group that does not reveal its donors -- but apparently has a lot of overlap with Club for Growth and the Koch Brothers --  just announced they would pour $4150,000  immediately into known advertising to support Bradley’s Feb. 16 and April 5 run for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, confident that she will survive Feb. 16.  The group is dubbed  “Wisconsin Alliance for Reform”  and is clearly shifting money to Bradley originally aimed at defeating Russ Feingold for Senate in November. The group, while denying any coordination with the candidate, is using exactly the same “walking and talking in her robes” footage that Bradley uses in her own campaign ads!

But this is only the surface on how the Walker machine is leaning on electing Bradley, which would give them a fifth vote of seven on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in expectations that two of their most vulnerable incumbents,  Annette Zeigler and Michael Gableman, face re-election in 2017 and 2018, when Walker could still technically be in the governor’s mansion and desperate for a court that would protect him from the law.

For citizens who long for the days when courts were the site of restorative and intelligent justice --  the place for checks and balances in interpreting the state constitution and deciding rules of evidence and the like – the mere manufactured presence of Rebecca  Bradley represents an unseemly heavy digit on the scales of justice.  

The high court has long disappeared as the balancing wheel for justice. The 10 year appointment of judges was supposed to neutralize political involvement.  But no one can look at the excesses of the current conservative court rulings and envision Bradley as any help at all in working for the little guy and standing up to corporate excess.

More than that, Walker is trying to pad her reputation as a judge.  After she was appointed to the high court, several decisions made by the 1st state appeals court in the few months she sat on it were dumped onto the supreme court for review, though eight were normally what legal experts call per curiam (routine).  But all upheld prosecutors in criminal proceedings, so they could be labeled “law and order” decisions in a raw effort to deepen her record on the bench. 

The Milwaukee circuit court is known for its camaraderie, so it is no surprise that during her time there she was treated kindly by the senior judges – including Joe Donald, a 20 year veteran on the bench who is the most practiced and praised candidate in the  high court race in terms of actual bench experience.  He was also key in starting Milwaukee’s successful drug court and has strong ideas about the need for impartiality (while the current high court majority has moved to protect itself from legal action against the boodles of money it has taken from corporations that appear before it).  Donald also would be key on the supreme court in addressing Wisconsin’s horrifying incarceration rates and practices (which include an unseemly number of minorities and minor drug offenses).

I’m a fan of Donald’s, who represents to me the center sophistication and breadth of practical life experience  the court desperately needs.

But I also understand a lot of the Democratic enthusiasm for Kloppenburg, who has strong legal credentials from serving as assistant attorney general under Jim Doyle and was elevated two years ago by voters in Southwestern Wisconsin to the Fourth Court of Appeals, where she was quickly appointed chief judge.

Many Democrats feel she was already robbed once of the high court in 2011 when she declared victory at the end of election day  with a 204 vote advantage over David Prosser – only to watch the Waukesha election clerk “discover” more than 14,000 votes uncounted from Brookfield, which gave incumbent Prosser an unchallengeable 7,000 vote margin. Democrats cried foul but election experts more accurately cried incompetence. Still  the feeling that Kloppenburg was cheated lingers into this election despite some recognition that she was hardly an experienced campaigner.

Many concede that Donald is a firmer presence and would represent a more balanced approach to the judiciary. Still I would have been fond of hearing after Feb. 16 what I won’t – a discussion of judicial ethics between Donald and Kloppenburg.

Chris Larson campaigning hard to
become new county executive.
There are other Milwaukee elections that casting votes Feb. 16 makes important.  Don’t be misled by how many races won’t appear on the ballot until April 5 since they don’t have multiple opponents.  

But there are actually four candidates for Milwaukee county executive that should in votes scale down to incumbent Chris Abele and the state senator and former supervisor Chris Larson, who is mounting a formidable challenge despite Abele’s huge financial advantage. 

Franklin’s Steve Hogan is also filed and Pirate Party’s Joe Klein is running a formidable Facebook campaign pleading not to be ignored, but Feb. 16 should bring the community the conflict it wants – the battle of the Chrises, exploring whether Abele playing footsie with Madison was bipartisan or power-hungry and whether Larson, with experience in both Milwaukee and Madison, will offer balance and working family attention to the executive office.

Both candidates have made tactical errors – Abele wasted an early fortune (and he has a fortune from this father’s  Boston Scientific empire) on a barrage of  TV ads around Christmas touting his achievements -- and already forgotten by most of the voters.  About the same time, Larson brought out early the big guns of endorsements, notably Rep. Gwen Moore, and then saw the media making hay out of how difficult it was for him to keep campaign aides (not unusual in shoestring campaigns but somewhat unusual when the last resigned over a nonpolitical issue of an affair with a minor). Both are embracing credentials as a Democrat though the race is nonpartisan, but clearly that’s stretching the definition of the party given how ferocious is their disagreement about how to work with others.

Abele has angered many in the community for his high-handed ways of dealing with employees and working groups (some call this dictatorial) and proclaiming he is responsible for keeping the Bucks in town (though Larson as senator worked to reduce what remains a horrible cost impact on county taxpayers that Abele was all too eager to embrace). Larson clearly represents a younger age more open to the needs of the underclasses, which Abele never rubbed shoulders with in his business circles.  Abele is embraced by the business community, but frankly employees need a responsible business community to help on the job front. These are not easy issues.

Many in the working community still credit Abele with downtown development that means construction jobs though there are many more naturally created downtown businesses who fear the consequences of such artificial input (such as Abele seeking from Madison sole approval in shedding non-parks county land for a dollar a parcel to outside developers).

Larson wants more community input on everything from mental health care to land sales and he has earned support from many community organizations, the Working Families Party, unions and others (though there are building trades people uncertain which way to bounce, not sure what to believe from each side – they just want the jobs). There are so many factors to weigh in this contest that Feb. 16 and April 5 voters are going to have to listen carefully and weigh hard – an exercise in mental nimbleness that is difficult to bring about in the spring elections.  This could be the ultimate test if voters can simply be bought with ads or really think the issues through.

No one looks better than returning
Tom Barrett as mayor.
City of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is also facing three challengers Feb. 16 – little known James Methu,  former Ald. Joe Davis Jr. who at least resigned his seat before tackling the mayor, and Ald. Bob Donovan, who is running for both his seat AND for mayor (legal if weird for now). 

Barrett is well heeled for the campaign and despite sniping from the sidelines has steered the city through some tough waters, not as bold in tacking as some would like but hard to see anyone running against him better at the helm. One can never underestimate the redneck law and order appeal of Donovan but I suspect Davis will squeak through to face Barrett. However Davis may be  riding a black vs. white issue the African American community has outgrown and that Barrett will be understandably loathe to criticize.

Over at District 8, Donovan has Rep. Josh Zepnick among the duo opposing him, and Zepnick who has his own maverick touch leaning more to the progressive side has strong support from the growing Hispanic residents in the district. I think Feb. 16 will come out Donovan vs. Zepnick.

The busiest Common Council districts will be  2, where Davis abandoned the field;  District  7, where Ald. Willie Wade has already resigned for a position with the workforce board, and District 9, where incumbent Robert Puente is so disliked he has attracted five challengers while running himself.

Chevy Johnson gets the edge in District 2.
In District 2, there are familiar personable names such as Keith Bailey and Tracey Dent, but I suspect the top vote getter, endorsed by unions and other community groups, will be former Barrett aide Chevy Johnson, who has worked long and hard for his chance at public office, focusing mainly on youth work development. 

Khalif Rainey leads community support in District 7
In District 7, the departing Wade gave a nod to Khalif Rainey, who has acquitted himself well as county supervisor and is likely to lap a field that includes David Crowley and Michael Bonds – yes, the chair of the Milwaukee School Board whose presence in the race is a flatly mystifying signal of unhappiness.

In District 9, Puente is facing a strong field that will require a lot of loyalty shifting. Among his opponents – the newest county supervisor, Martin Weddle, who seems to be leaping quickly to seek full time pay; former union bus leader and lobbyist Penny Sikora, whom many credit with rising above a checkered past, and three others. One of those may be a surprise winner Feb. 16 given how hard she works the doors and how personable she is – Chantia Lewis, an Emerge Wisconsin graduate, military veteran and mother.

Chantia Lewis may work a surprise in District 9.
District 9, located in the extreme upper northwest portion of the county, is a difficult region to campaign and historically somewhat complacent about its representation. But this field is so busy and so active that the election could create several surprises.

Like honey attracts flies, there is also a busy field trying to knock off Ald. Milele Coggs in District 6, a vibrant chunk of the central city. But I perceive no threat to her reputation for working within the community.

There are some other curiosities on the Feb. 16 ballot affecting Common Council races. Incumbent Ald. Bob Bauman seems a shoo-in for Downtown District 4 (few have his breadth of knowledge and interest in this area) but is facing strident challenges particularly from Monique Kelly. In District 3, another alderman highly regarded for his concern with community  development, Nik Kovac, will probably brush off challenges from Ira Robins  (yes, the late  Lawrencia Bembeneck’s lawyer) and right-wing backed Shannan Hayden.

There are surprisingly few competitive county board races.  There is only one three-way I can find requiring voter decision Feb. 16  and that is for Mark Borkowski’s old seat in District 11 where a Republican operative named Dan Sebring, accused of racism when he ran against Gwen Moore, is hoping the conservative district (it is also a working families district) will yield to his tenacity of attitude. Opposing him and with early dual endorsements from neighborhood factions  are community organizer Patricia T. Najera  and former corrections officer  Yaghnam F. Yaghnam. Both may advance if the community takes umbrage to the way Sebring is trying to label them.

So Tuesday Feb. 16 (absentee voting already allowed) gets people’s feet wet on getting accustomed to the importance of regular voting despite such off-putting laws as photo ID (you don’t know much about this because the state put no money aside to educate you). But in reality  Feb. 16 only focuses direction in a few races, so you’d better motivate yourself to the polls out of recognition that voting is your only tool for real change. 

Because election power needs to get going now in Wisconsin. After Feb. 16 comes those essential races April 5  that control your community and your fate even though they lack party labels. Then in November half the state Senate is up for grabs and the contest will be competitive,  all the Assembly is fresh ground, there is  one US Senate seat (Feingold vs. Johnson), all House seats and the presidency.  Wisconsin voters have important work ahead of them.

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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