The Gableman Controversy

Wisconsinites are having less and less say over who gets elected to the state Supreme Court. In the 2007 race between Annette Ziegler and Linda Clifford, more than half of the money spent on the race, some $3.1 million, was spent by outside interest groups that got much of the money from non-Wisconsin donors. The spending for this spring’s race between incumbent Louis Butler and challenger Mike Gableman will skew even more in the direction of outside groups because neither challenger is raising that much money. In essence, the race comes down to whether national pro-business interests or liberal interests…

Wisconsinites are having less and less say over who gets elected to the state Supreme Court. In the 2007 race between Annette Ziegler and Linda Clifford, more than half of the money spent on the race, some $3.1 million, was spent by outside interest groups that got much of the money from non-Wisconsin donors. The spending for this spring’s race between incumbent Louis Butler and challenger Mike Gableman will skew even more in the direction of outside groups because neither challenger is raising that much money. In essence, the race comes down to whether national pro-business interests or liberal interests spend more to elect their guy.


Adding irony to the situation, the most in-depth story on the race has been done by outsiders, a piece in Newsweek that examines the third party ads for both sides and concludes they are inaccurate. That story seems true, as far as it goes. But I’m inclined to think the questions raised by opponents of Gableman deserve more scrutiny.


The liberal group One Wisconsin Now has done a ton of research on how Gableman got appointed to his job as Burnett County Circuit Court Judge in August 2002. Normally, applicants are reviewed by a judicial review panel, and the governor chooses from the list of finalists. But that’s not how then-Gov. Scott McCallum did it. He chose Gableman, who hadn’t even applied for the job and wasn’t one of the finalists. Polk County District Attorney Mark Biller, one of two finalists who were passed over, complained to the media that the decision “came out of the blue” and added, “I’m very disappointed in the way this whole thing was handled.”


During the time this selection was made, Gableman helped organize a campaign fundraiser for McCallum. Gableman also made two separate donations of $1,250 each to McCallum. And Gableman took off from his job as a state administrative judge to attend the fundraiser, yet charged the state for working that day. (Gableman’s campaign has issued a statement saying Gableman had permission to attend the event from his supervisor, without addressing the question of why taxpayers were charged for Gableman doing politics on state time.)


As was true with the Ziegler-Clifford race, you have to read the Madison newspapers to learn about this issue, because the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is barely covering the race. A Wisconsin State Journal story posited one possible explanation for McCallum’s decision to handpick Gableman: He was looking for a candidate who could later win election. Gableman’s spokesperson, Darrin Schmitz, notes that Gableman would later win election as judge with 78 percent of the vote.


But the two finalists McCallum rejected were both district attorneys who could run a classic “tough on crime” campaign. Gableman was a former district attorney (in Ashland County) who had actually stepped down from the job to take the bureaucratic-sounding position of administrative law judge in Appleton. It’s hard to see how this made him a stronger candidate for election. (Adding more mystery to his switch in jobs was that Gableman took a huge pay cut, going from $80,000 as DA to $54,000 as the administrative judge. Schmitz’s answer: Gableman “has a wide-ranging resume. He wanted to serve the people of Wisconsin in another capacity.”)


Don’t ask me why almost none of this deserves coverage in the Journal Sentinel, but the net effect is to leave it to outside interests to define the candidates as they want, without much monitoring by the state’s largest newspaper. The Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce has targeted Butler as not sympathetic to business, but won’t push that idea: Instead, it has already begun ads portraying Gableman as tougher on crime than Butler. In truth, the Supremes, unlike trial judges, have only occasional opportunities to be “tough on crime.” But if pro-business donors, many from out of state, spend enough to condemn Butler as a softy, he could end up as the rare incumbent Supreme Court justice, and the first in four decades, to be defeated in Wisconsin.


Is Grant Langley in Trouble?


There’s nothing like one of those semi-anonymous city positions like treasurer or city attorney for longevity. Treasurer Wayne Whittow is 73 and has held his position since 1976, without anyone having the faintest idea what he does all day. City Attorney Grant Langley is a relative newcomer, having served only since 1984. But he is getting a real battle this April from state Rep. Pedro Colon (D-Milwaukee), and the campaign has the feel of a generational battle.


Colon is young (39) and the city’s top elected Latino official; Langley is 62, white, and about as entrenched a veteran as you can get, unless you’re Wayne Whittow. Colon has the support of U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore and numerous legislators and is likely to appeal to younger and minority voters.


But most crucially, Colon has the backing of Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. This will help Colon make that case that he will be, you guessed it, tougher on crime than Langley. This claim has been something of a surprise to Langley, who until now had thought it was up to the Milwaukee police and the district attorney to go after crime. Indeed, the claim might have surprised old Dan Hoan and others who occupied the city attorney’s office.


But no matter. Colon is offering the electorate a vision of a dynamic duo, city attorney and district attorney, working cooperatively to smite evil-doers. Even in debates, Colon had mostly flirted around the margins of crime, suggesting he could be more aggressive using nuisance complaints to shut down drug houses. But it’s surely the police that are most important in rooting out drug houses.


Given how seldom some city and county officials face a challenger, I think it’s healthy for Langley to face a formidable opponent. Colon has a very good chance of winning. But I can’t help wondering: Do we really need someone tougher on crime for every position in the state?


The Buzz:


-The decision to relocate the Bronze Fonz to just near the Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery puts the cornball statue just where it should be – off the main drag, but easy to find; visible, but not too prominent. Rock Bottom is doubtlessly thrilled: It will be a boon to their business. You can bet they’ll name one of their beers after the Fonz.


-It’s not one big happy monopoly, whatever critics might claim. JS columnist Eugene Kane was featured in an Onion story last week (it’s not online) and revealed that “we never invite Charlie Sykes to our Journal Communications mixers.”


-Milwaukee County Supervisor Joe Rice wrote a Sunday op-ed echoing County Executive Scott Walker’s stand against a sales tax increase and in favor of a raid on some state tax. That’s not tax restraint, that’s tax robbery. Good for us Milwaukeeans, to be sure, but certain to be rejected as simply a tax shift by Walker’s Republican colleagues in the state legislature.


And is Brett Favre one the most overrated players in history? See The Sports Nut

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