Sunday, July 17, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth

Milwaukee County DA John Chisholm 
In a normal election year, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm’s opponent in the August 9 Democratic primary wouldn’t be worth a fleck of reporting space, not even the dot on a lowercase  i, so unprepared and ill-suited is she.

But this is not a normal year. Trump has taken care of that, as have other big money operators.  So have the state GOP machine engineers with their own brand of overreach – including packing the Wisconsin Supreme Court with their paid sycophants.

That court – accepting “evidence” that the facts refute -- halted the John Doe investigation into illegal financial coordination between Scott Walker’s campaign and the Wisconsin Club for Growth. 

More than that, frightened Republicans in the legislative majority have passed a John Doe amendment to make sure they never face such scrutiny again. They have declared that  the John Doe statute (once much admired as better than grand juries by requiring secrecy and a judge to oversee prosecutorial action) can no longer be used to pursue politicians or other (often related) “white collar”  crimes.

Chisholm is lead name among the state DAs who led that case, and three have now appealed to the US Supreme Court since so much of the “stop” John Doe decision seems to fly in the face of SCOTUS precedents.

Chatterbox Eric O’Keefe (who worked for Walker’s re-election and leads Wisconsin Club for Growth) has been the busy one-sided leaker of virtually all the public fantasies about this case, suggesting John Doe injured the privacy rights of the obscenely rich, and he still seems upset so many citizens have figured out what he was really up to, without being bribed into thinking ugly thoughts.

Now O’Keefe is trying to bury Chisholm, expending money and fury (both of which he seems to have in abundance) to deflect any resurrection of the corruption probe.

That means handing his pocketbook to local public relations friend Craig Peterson of Zigman Joseph & Associates who loathes the streetcar and Tom Barrett as much as Chisholm, a weird trifecta.

That means backing Verona Swanigan in how she dresses and campaigns, even getting conservative radio talk host Vicky McKenna to introduce her to North Shore Republican women as a cloud cuckooland knight to the rescue.  (Whoever wins the Aug. 9 primary is in effect the next DA, under Chisholm a hugely effective office of more than a hundred assisting prosecutors, from whom both conservative and liberal judges are often picked.)

[Updated author's note Aug. 6: As news reports warned, that dark right-wing money is saturating TV and radio  in the final days before the Aug. 9 election for  Swanigan, leading to some hard-hitting counter ads that the Chisholm campaign has protested and doesn't support.  There is also a wrinkle in state law that would let Gov. Scott Walker appoint the next DA if Swanigan's continuing medical situation forces her out -- and the public was made aware of that.]

Verona is black and has tried to tie herself belatedly to the movement against police killings of black men, which many feel sympathy for.  So the O’Keefe forces are trying to apply a double vise to Chisholm – right-wing money to fund her race and right wing money to capitalize on the fringes of Black Lives Matter.  

If I were the inner city community, I would be outraged to expect the black voters to fall for this canard. If I were a North Shore Republican, I would ask why Peterson wants me to cross over and vote in the Democratic primary.  This blandishment is not taking place among Republicans within Congressional District 1 on the south side.  That House seat has a hot primary race between challenger Paul Nehlen and Paul (I’m With Racist) Ryan. (I can’t resist inserting the NY Daily News headline into his name.)

Stop reading here if you don’t like Black Lives Matter in either name or intent – the issue as well as the term is a moment of cross-pollination and decision for white liberals.  There is much truth in African Americans’ belief that they are fighting a white supremacist system and have been for 400 years – and that law enforcement has not moved enough to rectify the meaning of justice.  The danger comes in blaming the DA for entrenched procedures, and not recognizing that it takes a strong DA to take upon himself the burdens of following the law no matter what emotions are telling you to think.

A further problem – the clear bias of DAs in other jurisdictions, particularly the South and among those hogtied to police sentiments.

As Chisholm has commented to friends, if one case came along he could win to wipe away centuries of racial injustice, he would be there. How many DAs do you know who have that desire? Or know what will work in court?

The lesson may now be unfolding in Baltimore. In response to personal and community fury, the prosecutor there charged seven police offices in the death in custody of Freddie Gray.  An African American judge you would expect to be sympathetic has tossed out every case so far, as a matter of law.  Passion seems to have led to overcharging.

There is also much truth that we hire police to act as instant judges on the street, where they face unimaginable pressure. Yet we also have a right to expect a higher standard from them of how they behave, given the higher favoritism they get in court considerations. Let’s not deny that police feel deep levels of fear on black streets and expect insulation in court verdicts, as many even moderate reporters and thinkers have observed

Does our society too easily permit this sense of isolation and invincibility we visit on law enforcement?  Or should they act even more ferociously? Political sides are muddled. Who do we ask to balance this? The district attorneys, for one, yet few have shown the empathy, ability and desire to maneuver these thickets as has Chisholm, who has reduced incarcerations in the black community mightily and has led many efforts to encourage a balanced sense of justice – sometimes taking the pressure on his own back rather than seeking to inflame the public’s desire for satisfaction. 

That requires a high degree of courage under fire. Knowing no side will be satisfied or supportive, he goes about his job with what judges and lawyers call bravery and distinction. I call it a vibrating inner moral tuning fork.

Nine years ago, as he has been many times since,
Chisholm spoke during Workers Memorial Day.
I have covered Chisholm throughout a decade in office and have come to see more than the prosecutor who puts drug lords and mass murderers in prison (a 95% conviction races in homicides). He has gone after criminal behavior in high places by Democrats or Republicans because he regards public office as a sacred trust particularly vulnerable to the perversion of money.  

What set Chisholm vibrating about shenanigans around Gov. Scott Walker was not the myths of vendetta O’Keefe is trying to sell voters. It was that moral tuning fork. 

That also struck me when viewing a Chisholm campaign video.  Usually these videos are mere ego self-approving, fulsomely one-sided.  But this one explores how much real difference Chisholm has made, aside from the testaments from almost every one who has worked with him.  It shows much of his core. 

Chisholm has been a leader in reform of judicial practices – alternative sentencing, meetings among perpetrator and victim, steps to separate curable addictions from criminal intent, consulted by the White House and in other national forums on criminal justice.  
Any judge will tell you such reform approaches don’t get far without a thoughtful DA.

He walks regularly amid the community rather that locking himself in the ivory tower Courthouse.  He was key to Milwaukee’s successful drug court and to using Sojourner Truth House to create a one-step center for family services in cases of domestic abuse, offender rehabilitation and family abandonment.  His tough law and order approach is equally tough on defining what is law and what is order.

He also has openly admitted these efforts aren’t perfect, though the statistics reveal remarkable success. Someday, somewhere, he notes, an offender will slip through the cracks and repeat. But he and other leaders of restorative justice and similar justice reform ideas forcefully and eloquently argue that this humane approach is working, and also saving a lot of taxpayer money. 

No wonder that a quiet, thoughtful international leader of restorative justice, former state supreme justice and county executive Janine Geske, was seen by the Swanigan team as too “biased a moderator” for a now canceled candidate debate on the issues. 

Along with lame excuses about canceling, Verona is on another apology tour of sorts. She is sorry she represented slum landlords regularly as a lawyer. She is sorry she struggled several times with bankruptcy.  She is not sorry she wrote a book of erotic poetry, though she may want to apologize for video selling it wearing a slinky dress and come-hither smirk.

What she ought to be most sorry for is simplifying the complicated issue of justice reform. It’s particularly annoying since Chisholm is one of the few DAs who has actually convicted dozens of cops and sent some to prison when the evidence warranted. 

The right-wing money attack was almost inevitable after the Walker case, though it deliberately ignores how many Democratic officials have also come under Chisholm’s gun for corruption and that his John Doe actions were completely within existing law (upheld by many courts).

But it has to pain Chisholm that right-wing money is being tied to left-wing anger (without the left knowing what the right is doing, apparently). 

Elections are worrisome even with such a clear difference in ability between the candidates. As a British economist recently noted after Brexit, “Democratic elections are always uncertain, since they tell us if emotion can be tempered by reason.”

If so, Chisholm stands alone.

Chisholm contest is countywide, but check were you live: Most city of Milwaukee’s legislative seats in Madison are up for grabs

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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