The case for Rebecca Bradley’s conversion is weak

Louis Weisberg

The wages of Rebecca Bradley’s “sins” have caught up with her in a big way. But will they lead to the death of her career — and will they further corrode the reputation of her political handler, Gov. Scott Walker?

Wisconsinites will get part of the answer on April 5, when Bradley, currently serving as an interim Supreme Court justice, faces her infinitely more qualified challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg at the polls for a full 10-year term on the bench.

Foremost among Bradley’s “sins” are the viscerally hateful anti-gay columns she penned as a student at Marquette University about gays, people with AIDS, Democrats, feminists and every other group singled out by the extreme right during the “culture wars” of the early 1990s.

She claims to have changed her views about gays in the ensuing 20-plus years. Supporting that claim, Bradley sought out WiG’s endorsement for her first and only judicial election. During our interview with her, she seemed at ease, quite likeable and sincere in her support for LGBT rights.

But on every other far-right issue, Bradley has remained immovable, which suggests that her support for LGBT individuals comes with unspoken qualifiers. In light of our interview, for instance, we were surprised to learn recently that she sits on the governing board of the St. Thomas Moore Lawyers Society. That organization pushes for “religious rights” of the kind that involve trampling on other people’s rights in the name of religion, such as allowing people who own public accommodations to deny services to gays and lesbians if they feel to do so would violate their beliefs.

The only evidence Bradley has offered of her more inclusive adult sensibilities seems either self-serving or scandalous. She appeared at a Fair Wisconsin fundraiser, which proves she’s willing to rub elbows with LGBT people to further her electoral career. She says she’d perform a same-sex wedding, if asked; but after four years on the bench she’s never been asked, which indicates she doesn’t know many gay and lesbian people very well, at least not the marrying kind.

Ironically, the most convincing evidence that Bradley’s strict Roman Catholic code of sexual morality has evolved comes from her personal life: She was divorced after eight years of marriage, had an extramarital affair and had what sounds like a “friend with benefits” relationship with her former boss after they stopped dating “exclusively.” She’s been accused of breaching ethical legal standards by representing that boss in a custody battle with his ex-wife, despite the objection of the ex-wife and her lawyer. Her description of that episode suggests a measure of petty vindictiveness between the two women — a scenario that’s troubling because she took the personal soap opera into a court of law.

Otherwise, Bradley has maintained her fundamentalist Catholic view on choice — and even contraception. In 2002, she equated abortion with murder and compared it to slavery and the Holocaust. In 2006, she penned a column defending a pharmacist’s right to deny contraception as an act of religious conscience. Defying scientific consensus, she described certain contraceptives as abortifacients, meaning they cause miscarriages. That’s a view that elevates Catholic doctrine above science.

Friends and allies

The most telling indicator of Bradley’s current state of mind is the company she keeps, and that should trouble voters for a variety of reasons. Her life is peopled with the same kinds of organizations and individuals with whom she was linked in the early 1990s.

Bradley has not earned her judicial career through her stellar educational background, legal writings, major cases or her legal career — which in part has consisted of defending doctors from malpractice claims and corporations from liability suits. She’s won the kind of honors that glossy magazines sell to advertisers, and she received the 2010 Women in Law Award from the Wisconsin Law Journal. But she did not have a Supreme Court-level legal profile outside of religious- and corporate-right circles.

Since 2012 Bradley has been hand-groomed for the bench by Walker, who’s appointed her to every judicial position she’s held during the ensuing four-year period. It’s easy to imagine that Walker was mentoring Bradley expressly for the state’s highest court.

If that’s true, it must have felt like a windfall for Walker when Supreme Court Justice Patrick Crooks dropped dead just months after Walker had elevated Bradley to an appeals court position. The tragedy gave Walker the chance to anoint his disciple as an interim justice on the high court.

Now, just a few months later, she can run as an incumbent for Crooks’ expired 10-year term.

During Crooks’ tenure, the Wisconsin Supreme Court leaned conservative by a 5–2 margin. But while Crooks ruled with his right-wing judicial colleagues 80 percent of the time, Bradley likely can be counted on as reliably as Walker’s other slavish supporters on the bench. She certainly feels as if she can count on him: She registered the domain name justicebradley.com before she’d even applied for the interim position — possibly before Crooks’ body was interned.

Bradley’s fierce partisanship and lack of political independence should concern voters. The Republican Party is virtually handling her campaign, which is being heavily funded by special-interest corporate groups. It’s safe to say that she’s deeply in the pocket of those corporations, which are bent on rolling back clean air and water regulations, getting rid of unions and allowing for endless political spending. She’s also served as president of the Milwaukee Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society, a group whose mission could have been lifted from Charles and David Koch’s greediest dreams.

The combination of Bradley’s over-the-top anti-gay writings and her fierce loyalty to the Republican Party and its moneyed special interests have prompted protests against her during the final weeks of the campaign.

We Are Wisconsin has either staged or planned demonstrations outside of every Supreme Court candidate debate. Protesters have carried signs printed with some of Bradley’s most offensive writings. But group member Saul Owen said it’s the totality of Bradley’s record — the unseemly partisanship, the big-money support and the political opportunism as well as the hate rhetoric — that has local leaders and advocates alarmed, not only by Bradley’s candidacy but about the degradation of justice in Wisconsin that it embodies.

Wisconsin Justice Rebecca Bradley. — PHOTO: Courtesy
Wisconsin Justice Rebecca Bradley. — PHOTO: Courtesy

“She can’t be trusted to hold everyone equally under the eyes of the law,” Newton said.

We Are Wisconsin has called upon Bradley to pull out of the race, charging that her campaign has tainted even further the Supreme Court’s already heavily strained credibility.

We Are Wisconsin plans to hold its next demonstration on Friday, March 18, outside a debate hosted by Wisconsin Public Television.

Closed loop

Bradley and Kloppenburg were virtually tied in the most recent poll, which was taken in February. That was before the indefatigable Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, uncovered and shared Bradley’s explosive hate writings from the Marquette Tribune. It also was before a misleading but effective anti-Kloppenburg television ad hit the airwaves, along with other contorted and inflammatory advertising.

The ads were paid for by an astroturf group misleadingly named Wisconsin Alliance for Reform. The group formed last October to run ads attacking former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. The group’s Web domain reportedly was purchased by Lorri Pickens, whose husband has connections to Bemis, a company owned by the family that Ron Johnson married into. The company remains one of Johnson’s company’s best customers.
For a long time, Pickens has been associated, either directly or indirectly, with right-wing corporate PACs such as the Koch-brothers-backed Wisconsin Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity. She has also worked with Julaine Appling’s anti-gay Wisconsin Family Action, and she managed Vote Yes for Marriage, the group that supported the 2006 state constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage and later sought to overturn the state’s domestic partnership registry. (WFA is not making an endorsement in the Supreme Court race.)

That connection alone argues against Bradley’s self-proclaimed new worldview. And, on close inspection, her professional life has been lived in a closed loop with some of the same right-wing evangelicals and corporate-owned political hacks with whom she bonded during her years as a shock columnist at the Marquette Tribune, writing about how women play a role in their own rape.

Walker claims he had no knowledge of Rebecca Bradley’s writings when he appointed her as an interim justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Bradley didn’t disclose the college columns in her applications for judicial appointments. Where the forms asked for academic and extracurricular activities, she listed her time as a Marquette University student senator and as editor of the student newspaper at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School.

But Walker’s disavowal is hard for anyone informed about his history with Bradley to believe.

Both were student Republicans whose time at Marquette overlapped, and both wrote conservative commentaries for the Marquette Tribune. Today, the two travel in the same corporate-right Republican circles, and they’re practically neighbors. Their Wauwatosa homes sit around the corner from each other, less than half a mile apart.

JoAnne Kloppenburg
JoAnne Kloppenburg

Bradley’s most controversial writings, including the column in which she called gay people “queers” and “degenerates” who deserved to die of AIDS, were published two years after Walker dropped out of college. But they had a common acquaintance — Jim Villa, one of Walker’s longest and most trusted advisers. Villa served as Walker’s chief of staff for five years when the governor was Milwaukee County executive, and he also served as an informal adviser during Walker’s brief presidential run last year.

Villa was a target during the John Doe investigation into possible illegal political activities among Walker’s Milwaukee County staff. Investigators, who suspected Villa of misconduct in public office and solicitation of public employees to commit misconduct, applied for a search warrant of Villa’s home and office.

Villa was not charged and went on to receive a cushy appointment from Walker in 2014 as the UW System’s vice president of university relations. Villa, who was president of the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin at the time, had no discernible qualifications for the job, which came with a salary of $178,000. Critics of Walker’s civil service overhaul have cited Villa’s hiring as a blatant example of the cronyism they say will become the new norm in state hiring decisions under the revamped law.

Ross contends that it’s inconceivable Villa wouldn’t have mentioned the columns to Walker, given their inflammatory nature and the pair’s decades-long relationship.

But Villa denied that allegation to The Associated Press, saying, “Not only did I not speak to him about it, I didn’t remember those writings.”

That statement rings especially false because Villa’s gay sexual orientation, a well-known secret in GOP political circles, would make Bradley’s diatribes against “homosexuals” hard to forget — especially given their shocking level of malice: “The homosexuals and drug addicts who do essentially kill themselves and others through their own behavior deservedly receive none of my sympathy,” Bradley wrote on Feb. 28, 1992, in a statement that typifies the aggressive style of her writings at the time.

For all the public knows, it might have been Villa’s coming out to his friend Bradley that led to her changing attitude toward LGBT people. But Villa declined to return a phone message left by WiG seeking clarification.

A lose-lose situation?

There’s a reason Walker has refused to say whether he would have appointed Bradley if he’d known of her public writing in advance: If he replied in the affirmative, he’d run the risk of alienating all but the right-wing evangelists who form the hard core of Republican loyalists. On the other hand, if Walker condemned Bradley’s unseemly written tirades, then he might suffer a backlash from the same voters.

Perhaps that’s why Bradley’s apologies for her past writings and her insistence that she has changed have struck so many people as hollow. If she backtracks on the vitriol that would inspire homophobes to the polls to support her in droves, she’s undermining her own election effort.

Bradley’s attempts to temper her past writings already have some of her most bigoted supporters up in arms.

On Charlie Sykes’ online blog Right Wisconsin, one anti-gay follower wrote: “If Bradley backs down here, she loses my vote. She needs to show some spine. The majority of voters in April will be older and whiter. That demographic does not thing (sic) gays are equal to straights.

Another wrote (quoted verbatim): “If they stay within their sex preference and not frakkin cheat, that gene goes away. Benefit for marriage is for those who can reproduce within their sex preference. BY the way, she was correct back then, gays, bisexuals and drug users spread HIV and cost millions in healthcare costs. Go ride a seatless bike.”

Bradley surely does not want to be associated with that kind of ignorance, but without such supporters she might very well lose the race, despite the millions that corporate special interests will likely spend on her.

The same holds true for Walker. His political fate might now be intertwined with his Frankenstein’s monster. With approval numbers that are under water, Walker cannot afford to be associated with either the bigoted rage surrounding his surrogate’s image or a repudiation of that rage.

This time, whatever the outcome of the Supreme Court race, Walker seems to have manipulated himself into a corner. After all the failed attempts he’s made to keep his strategic moves in the dark, he still hasn’t learned that he’s being watched by people like Ross and reported on by all of the state’s responsible media.