In The News
From courts to schools, primary sets quite a table for April 3
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
It was a primary with some human disappointments but few surprises February 20, paving the way for far bigger turnout and tension in the April 3 spring election.
Spending an estimated $400,000 to a half million dollars from third-party supporters and her own campaign, Annette Ziegler came in first by a longshot in the Wisconsin primary for Supreme Court.
Confident of getting through the primary, Linda Clifford husbanded her own war chest for the April showdown, knowing that, while she matches Ziegler in campaign funds, special interest groups could make this the most expensive judicial race in Wisconsin history.
Joseph Sommers, the Madison defense lawyer angered by a potential legal censure, carved an everyman underdog image and spent his small purse on radio ads. He made a slightly better showing than many observers expected (16%), but he never came near Clifford, who in the primary media blitz never came near Ziegler.
This was not a surprise. Consider Milwaukee. Ziegler was heavily present in media and robo-calls, playing the one-note that she is the only sitting judge in the race (appointed to the Washington County circuit court by Gov. Thompson) and relying on heavy backing from traditional Republican sources.
Clifford made selective auto-calls in Milwaukee and now, with the distraction of Sommers past, will pursue one on one debates and a heavier ad presence.
Her supporters anticipate the final race will focus on just what sort of a judge, in ethical balance and sense of justice, Ziegler really has been.
Other backers, including the state AFL-CIO and the Milwaukee County Labor Council, believe education will be a key, getting voters to understand just what sort of issues the Supreme Court deals with. It is rarely criminal law but areas in which Clifford, a Madison attorney, has clear roots and appellate experience -- legislative analysis, consumer and environmental laws, balance among conflicting ideologies. In the past 10 years, bargaining rights, contractual benefits, teacher salary caps and other issues of importance to workers have gone to the high court.
Ziegler’s margin was a psychological victory, badly weakened by a miserable state turnout (some 285,000 votes cast in this contest out of a potential 4 million plus).
In Milwaukee, as in the state, the turnout was also lower than predicted, nowhere near the 10% of eligible voters many had hoped for.
That actually gave hope to some candidates that a dedicated body of voters would carry them to the final two against all odds. It basically didn’t happen, but a few results raised eyebrows.
Heavy spending and previous backing made Bruce Thompson something of a shoo-into to be one of the finalists for the at-large seat on the Milwaukee Public Schools board, but emerging strongly from the pack was Bama Brown-Grice, a newcomer who is likely to pick up supporters from the other three candidates on the ballot. (Curiously enough, though Jim Koneazny had withdrawn because of health, he still drew 13% of the vote.)
Even more intriguing was that the challenger of four years ago topped the incumbent (and current MPS board chairman) in District 8. Terry Falk, a retired schoolteacher, outran Joe Dannecker 44% to 37% while Tricia Young, another newcomer, scored a respectable 19% -- and her supporters are likely to turn to Falk.
In District 3, a seat abandoned by incumbent Ken Johnson, the top finishers were Michael Bond, a UWM professor, and Stephanie Findlay, a small business operator with strong Democratic Party roots. Coming in third was Leon Todd, a former school board member and perennial candidate. Barely registering with voters was Markus Watts.
The best stories of the Milwaukee primary resided in the race to replace the retiring Jim Gramling as municipal court judge. The winners were Jennifer Havas with 4,460 votes and Phil Chavez with 4,012, heralding a close contest between the only woman and the only Latino in the race.
They were among five respected lawyers whose names were on the ballot and a sixth, Jeffrey Norman, whose name was kept off because of failure to promptly file a required state form. When the form truancy was noted, both members of the state and city election commissions expressed sorrow to the Labor Press but said the law was absolute.
That did not prevent a seesaw battle to get Norman’s name back on the ballot, nor did it prevent him from launching a ferocious write-in campaign with radio ads and stickers for voters with his name on it.
It would have been a miracle for Norman to make the top two in this crowded field, but his efforts produced nearly 3,000 votes. That was a notable result, but it just matched the number of names he submitted in his nomination papers and only moved him into fifth place, behind Robert Rondini and Bill Baldon in the vote tally.
Aside from Clifford for the Supreme Court, and incumbent Bill Pocan over his challenger in the only contested Milwaukee Circuit Court race (Branch 26), the labor council’s Committee on Political Education (COPE) held off on primary endorsements though interviewing most of the candidates. Now that the primary smoke has cleared, it will reconvene shortly to examine all the April 3 races.
Suburban results were also of interest. In Greenfield, after a string of failures, referenda passed to build a new school auditorium and to extensively renovate the high school.
In Cudahy, Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan McCue handily topped the vote and will face incumbent mayor John Hohenfeldt. Should McCue win April 3, he has indicated he will resign his Milwaukee County Board seat, bringing yet another special election.