In The News
Ugly blast from our innuendo past an omen for more than Butler
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
By a margin half the size of a Miller Park crowd, incumbent Louis Butler lost his Wisconsin Supreme Court seat to a Great Gildersleeve, a windbag of three-phrase buffoonery (for those who remember radio days), a McCarthy who won’t know how to vote on constitutional issues until he picks up his cell to ask Wisconsin Manufacturing & Commerce.
Now it was little surprise that State Sen. Lena Taylor, suffering a massive disadvantage in name recognition and money, could not defeat incumbent Scott Walker for Milwaukee County executive. (What was unexpected by both camps was the runaway margin of her loss, since all factors indicated that Walker’s destructive tenure warranted far more than Taylor’s 41%.)
No, the genuine shocker and extended sadness was statewide in a razor-thin loss by Butler that few on either side had predicted and many still can’t believe could so stupidly have happened.
Perhaps the cause was the lingering euphoria from Feb. 19 when remarkable primary turnout signaled change and progress.
Old timers know that progress doesn’t happen unless you keep working, voting and picking up more voters. But Feb. 19 brought in unseasoned newcomers and voters previously turned off by the process. They thought they had sent a clear message and everything would be groovy from now on.
On April 1 they stayed home. The expected 20% light turnout of eligible voters actually dropped to a feeble 18%. Even union members did not turn out as actively as normal. Many must have woken up Wednesday morning kicking themselves that a dissembler from nowhere had edged a justice of intelligence and consensus building.
Of course, some conservatives woke up cheering and jeering, so misled were they about Butler’s actual record and so warped had they become by a deceitful blitz of ads.
You might just want to call these voters dumb as an ox and move on. But as a gruff city editor once told me: “Never call your readers morons. Just treat them like morons.” Which at the very least was what the news media allowed the right wing strategists to get away with.
Late on election night, when it because clear Butler could not overcome the statewide margin of 20,000 votes, a number of elected officials who had won – including moderates– were shaking their heads in dismay, particularly over the extent of deception that put McCarthy in office.
“If I were Obama, I’d be studying this race to see how you can be demonized out of nothing,” commented Common Council President Willie Hines, who won his District 15 city race in a walk. “This was shameful.”
“Hillary too,” said another winning candidate. “Don’t think for a moment the same thing can’t be done using gender rather than race.”
The sense of hope from Feb. 19 had evaporated, to be replaced by the reality that much must still be done to win minds and maybe even a heart or two.
The election, said another official, exposed the thin veneer of civilization in Wisconsin.
This candidate, who is white, was aghast that the worst view of Butler was accepted in the obviously concocted ads – all this exposing the clearly racist nature of the attack, the knee-jerk assumption that a black man would encourage criminality and sexual deviance.
A lawyer and elected official scoffed, “Did we expect anything different from the families that led white flight out of the city 30 years ago?” Won’t the children change things, someone asked? But another candidate recalled the experience of attending UW in Madison, how isolated and foreign African Americans still feel when they encounter the teens from rural Wisconsin. “They simply haven’t been exposed,” he said, “so they accept mythology.”
When it’s not overtly about race, some said, it is about expectations based on color and gender. Backers of McCarthy tried in vain to suggest his victory wasn’t that shameful but even they knew that reactive stereotyping drove the campaign. This Lady Justice didn’t just peek out from under her blindfold; she ripped off her white hood.
Lawyers were united in how deeply McCarthy had violated the codes of judicial ethics and the principles of fairness – and then how he added fuel by saying he was “very proud” of the contest he had run.
A few right wingers tried to argue that there was an issue of judicial philosophy here (something more than “Butler smart, the other guy dumb”). But even law and order judges were pointing out how McCarthy said flatly that a prosecutor, even one with so poor a record, was more important to the judicial system than a public defender. The ads on his behalf suggested that anyone accused is a criminal and that only victims, not criminals, deserve justice. It was not just lousy syllogisms and red-meat rhetoric; it turns the US Constitution on its head. And it resulted in the election of a real judicial activist -- on the side of big money.
Members of the legal community, not just leftist Democrats, indicated the issue isn’t over by any means.
The perpetrators already face a political rebellion to change the rules on judicial races. There are also moves to firm up the legislation on corporate liability that McCarthy ‘s money bags hoped to influence by having a justice in their hip pocket.
This race alone will occupy the courts, just as Annette Ziegler’s win last year did, after she disguised her bias in favor of big business. Of course, McCarthy would happily pay fines and take a slap on the wrist as she did -- as long as he can remain on the bench. But not so fast. The first slap is an eloquent brief by Citizen Action of Wisconsin that details the blunt violations of the official code of ethics.
And there are other issues hanging.
One is an investigation of collusion between McCarthy’s camp (which seemed to release its ads in lip-synch with third party ads, which would be against the law). Another allegation, which could rise to a felony, is the use of state office to solicit political contributions, illegal even if the candidate reimburses for phone calls after the fact.
But Butler supporters railing against Waukesha County and northern regions should also look again at Milwaukee County. With better progressive turnout, Butler could have won right here.
The conservative communities did what was expected, however removed it may seem from reality. (Milwaukee magazine editor Bruce Murphy pointed out that urban AND rural areas suffering high crime rates actually voted more for Butler, suggesting it is those perfectly safe who check under the beds and voted for McCarthy.)
Butler took Milwaukee County by 58% but that still means that 42% supported McCarthy. Rural and urban, the negative ads worked, and the further they wandered from any truth – without the media standing up in horror -- the more people thought there must be something to them.
Think of the union member enthusiastically voting for Lena Taylor and even for Jan Balistrieri (a losing candidate for supervisor) but telling the pollster “he wouldn’t vote for Butler because he wanted to protect his grandchildren.”
Wisconsin, and America, have gone through such bouts of bad thinking and clouded emotionalism before, and probably will again. Supporters of the ousted justice have to control their genuine outrage and anger. They can take a tip from the one person who retained integrity during a shattering disappointment: Butler himself.
Rather than rail against the heavens, and without disguising how badly he believes his opponent misbehaved and the voters were misled, he said simply and publicly that he accepted “the will of the people.”
The readers who actually paid attention to the election may notice that the guy taking Butler’s seat isn’t named McCarthy. In terms of his tactics and moral weakness, it seems an appropriate license.