In The News
Tough races, mixed results in April 3 2007 election
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Three of labor’s endorsed candidates won victories April 3. Most notable for local voters was the comfortabler ousting of Milwakee School Board President Joe Dannecker by retired veteran MPS teacher Terrance Falk in District 8.
Most disappointing, however, was that big money did overcome revelations about weak past performance in two crucial races. Statewide, despite clear evidence of her ethical lapses on the Washington County bench, Annette Ziegler maintained a masterful lead, about 58%, over Madison attorney Linda Clifford.
Citywide, a former school board president with twice as much money to spend maintained a 6% win over Bama Brown-Grice. Bruce Thompson, whose relationship to a national network of private school advocates has been recounted in earlier stories, recorded 20,432 votes to Brown-Grice’s 18,199.
Two court candidates endorsed by labor also won – Bill Pocan, appointed by Gov. Doyle to Milwaukee Circuit Court Branch 26, held off a challenge from an assistant district attorney, Chris Liegel. The surprise in this race was that the results were so close.
Reversing the results of a crowded primary, Phil Chavez beat out Jennifer Havas for Milwaukee Municipal Court Branch 3. In both these judicial races, the margin of victory was about 1,000 votes. But one was countywide, which is very tight, and the other was citywide, where 1,000 votes is more comfortable.
In the far smaller District 8, Falk also took Dannecker out by a 1,000 vote plus margin out of about 8,000 cast.
Other school races were tighter.
In District 3, Jeff Spence retained his seat on the school board by only 321 voters out of 2,139 cast over Wendell Harris Sr. In District 2, with only 4,540 voters, Michael Bonds beat Stephanie Findley by 364 votes.
The Supreme Court race wound up the most expensive such race in Wisconsin history, and probably one of the most distasteful, certainly to the chagrin of Clifford, who found her valid criticism of Ziegler’s record and Rambo posturing made some traction, but not nearly enough.
The tone of the race, interestingly, was set up by a primary in which Clifford hardly advertised at all while Ziegler started the pretense that worked – that only a judge could be a justice, though half the justices of the past weren’t, and that she was tough on crime and that Clifford was too liberal (meaning too often a champion of the little guy).
History may record that the spoiler in this race, forcing the campaign to such a rapidfire tone of personal attack, was Joseph Sommers, the Madison defense lawyer angered by a potential legal censure who forced a primary race in which he had no chance. But the existence of a primary led Ziegler to spend big early and for Clifford to respond not with her own values but largely to the image Ziegler had established.
Both candidates raised sizeable funds for their direct campaigns. But aware that Ziegler had almost unlimited outside support from right wing conservatives and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Clifford held back her money in the primary while Ziegler spent big to record an amazing 67% vote.
A race that was intended as one of philosophies disintegrated as independent news voices, followed by newspapers, exposed Ziegler’s blind support of big business that she was invested in.
It was smart as well as accurate for Clifford to go after Ziegler’s ethical conflicts, exposing an indifference to where she made her money as she sought a seat on the high court that deals often exactly with the issue of big money.
Clifford’s campaign knew it was an important but difficult nuance to establish that Supreme Court justices don’t sentence felons and that Zieger was exaggerating how tough she was on sex predators. But how they went after that in a short time frame was not as smart. The race descended into sex predator counter-ads. Clifford may in reality be a far more moderate candidate than she was painted, and certainly the more proven ethical candidate, but she was successfully demonized at a time when she had a lot of ground to make up.
Her loss, not even close, has likely put a cheerleader for big business on the court to replace a respected conservative. In some minds that retains the balance, but in political terms it may embolden the big spenders to more law and order simplilfications – and obscure the reality that some sort of financial control must be imposed on judicial races.
Experts speculate that when all the figures are totaled some $6 million will have been spent on this race, two-thirds for Ziegler. That means her side will have spent about $8.40 for every vote she got. Well may the public wonder: who actually benefits from that?
Thompson in the citywide race spent about $3 for every vote he got, while for Brown-Grice there was only a dollar and change, and that, plus some low turnout in areas of the city, affected the outcome. But Bama, as everyone calls her, emerged with a vibrant and politically potent reputation. Thompson may well spend his four years on the board looking over his shouder.
Harris came so close to unseating Spence that this race will be playing over and over again in the minds of both candidates. But honestly, there were a couple of races involving labor-endorsed candidates that no one seems that upset about either winning or losing.
One was a victory. Chavez got most union nods because of his personality in interviews and previous experience as a judge, but you would be hard put to find anyone saying negatives about Havas, who also had lots of local support.
And while labor worked hard for Findley in District 3, largely because Bonds indicated strong support for the voucher school concept, even his opponents expect him to be his own voice on the board, big on accountability and open to a range of ideas and a focus on curriculum.
Another board member who faced no opposition, Tim Petersons in District 1, has also indicated independence from any current faction. The curious result is that Bonds and Petersons may actually hold the balance of voting power when the new board is seated – and how they work with other members could prove a key to MPS’ future.
In other races, results may have taken away one special election for Milwaukee and added another.
Michael McGree easily fought off a recall effort to remain the District 6 alderman on the Milwaukee Common Council for a full term (ending next year). He recorded 64% of the 3,919 votes cast, needing only 51% to avoid a runoff. Far behind his 2,518 voters were Una Van Duvall with 539 votes and recall organizer Vianna Jordan with 496.
They and five other challengers never attacked McGee’s goals but his behavior. It turns out the voters were more offended by their attack than by McGee’s acknowledged personal problems.
In the race for Cudahy mayor, Ryan McCue gained 60% of the vote against incumbent John Hohenfeldt,and that sets up an interesting dilemma. McCue is on the Milwaukee County Board and has indicated he will now resign, which will lead to another special election.