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Chris Abele

Rebuke | Voters repudiate Walker agenda

In a nationally watched election, Milwaukee County voters gave progressive Democrat Chris Abele the job held by Republican Scott Walker before he was elected governor last November.

Abele scored a lopsided 61-39 percent victory on April 5 over state Rep. Jeff Stone, R, to become the next Milwaukee County executive. Stone has voted in lockstep with Walker’s agenda and was portrayed as a clone of the governor throughout the campaign.

“This is a stunning rebuke to Scott Walker,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate.

Walker’s gubernatorial opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, introduced Abele to cheering supporters at a victory party held at the Historic Pabst Brewery, 901 W. Juneau Ave., on election night. Abele chose the site, he said, because it’s a symbol of the city’s glory days – “a reminder not just of what Milwaukee once was but what we might be again.”

In a thinly veiled jab at Walker, Barrett told supporters that Abele is “the kind of person who brings people together rather than finding ways to divide them.”

Abele also took a swipe at his predecessor. “I don’t see the mayor as a political competitor, I see him as a partner and a friend,” he said to loud applause.

Joanne KloppenburgAbele ran as a pragmatist who would put aside the political gamesmanship of Walker’s tenure and instead bring people together to work on solutions to the many challenges facing the state’s largest county.

An equality supporter, Abele was endorsed by Fair Wisconsin, WiG and many LGBT and allied leaders.

Voters in Outagamie County also seemed to repudiate Walker on April 5 by electing Barrett’s lieutenant gubernatorial running mate, former state Rep. Tom Nelson, as their executive. Nelson defeated Republican Jack Voight with 52 percent of the vote. Aided by contributions from unions and progressive groups, Nelson outspent Voight two to one on the race.

Like Abele, Nelson supports fairness for LGBT citizens.

“Fair Wisconsin is extremely pleased with the number of pro-fairness candidates who were elected to local offices throughout the state,” said the group’s executive director Katie Belanger. “These are exactly the victories we need to continue advancing equality in communities and in the state as a whole.”

The electorate, both on the right and the left, was energized over the massive protests in Madison following Walker’s elimination of most collective bargaining rights for state union workers. As a result, the spring election saw extraordinarily high turnout across the state.

At the top of the ballot was the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court justice.

Tom NelsonAs WiG headed to press, progressive-backed challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg had declared victory in the judicial race with a 204-vote lead out of nearly 1.5 million votes cast.

A recount is likely, probably to be followed by court challenges.

Right-wing incumbent Justice David Prosser, an anti-gay former GOP legislator, would normally have sailed to victory in his bid for another 10 years on the state’s highest bench. But with Walker’s controversial union bill headed inevitably to the Supreme Court, and with Prosser virtually on the record supporting that bill, progressives seized the race as an opportunity to reverse the court’s 4-3 conservative majority, throwing their support behind Kloppenburg, an assistant attorney general.

Although the two candidates took public funding, which limited their campaign spending, ads paid for by third-party groups  made theirs the most expensive Supreme Court race in state history. The biggest single spender was the progressive Greater Wisconsin Committee, which put about $1.4 million into the campaign. But that spending was eclipsed by several right-wing groups that combined to spend at least $2.2 million – and probably more.

Kloppenburg had strong credentials but no prior campaign experience. Because judicial races are non-partisan, state law prevented the Democratic Party from becoming directly involved in the race. But Democratic officials and other progressives complained privately about the disarray and amateurish handling of Kloppenburg’s campaign.

Yet, despite being outspent and inexperienced, Kloppenburg drew voters who were angry with Walker to the polls in huge numbers. Pro-Kloppenburg campaign signs urged voters to “Fight back” and they did.

Kloppenburg, who was endorsed in the February primary by Equality Wisconsin and in the April 5 election by WiG, indicated that she’s an equality supporter. But in an effort to keep ideology out of her race, she refused to fill out an endorsement questionnaire for Fair Wisconsin and declined endorsements from other progressive groups.

“We have a robust history of endorsing in Supreme Court races, and she chose not to participate in our endorsement process,” Belanger said. “There was all this momentum and we had a real opportunity here. We could have all been more helpful if she had let us be.”

Prosser, on the other hand, accepted the endorsement of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and other extremists, which helped to ramp up his turnout. But he also received a lot of negative publicity in the waning days of the race, particularly when former Democratic Gov. Patrick Lucey resigned his position as an honorary co-chair of Prosser’s campaign and threw his support behind Kloppenburg.

“I can no longer in good conscience lend my name and support to Justice Prosser’s candidacy,” Lucey wrote. “Too much has come to light that Justice Prosser has lost that most crucial of characteristics for a Supreme Court Justice – as for any judge – even-handed impartiality. Along with that failing has come a disturbing distemper and lack of civility that does not bode well for the High Court in the face of demands that are sure to be placed on it in these times of great political and legal volatility.”

Lucey was referring to a story that emerged about Prosser calling Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson a “bitch” and threatening “to destroy” her in a closed door meeting.

Although a darling of so-called “family values” groups, Prosser has never married or had children.

Only five Supreme Court justices have been unseated since 1852.

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