Right-wing group spends $167,000 on campaign of Walker-appointed Milwaukee judge

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived his recall race last summer, but the intense polarization of his political brand has been an overshadowing force in races both preceding and following his victory.

For example, in heavily Democratic Milwaukee County, Carolina Stark pulled off a remarkable coup in April 2012, handily defeating incumbent Circuit Court Judge Nelson Phillips III, whom Walker had appointed to the position just months prior. Political insiders said Walker’s support for Phillips was a large factor in the loss.

On April 2, Walker-appointee Rebecca Bradley will again test the toxicity of Walker’s blessing among Democratic voters as she faces challenger Janet Protasiewicz at the polls for a seat on the bench of Milwaukee Circuit Court’s Branch 45. Despite a number of major contrasts between the two candidates, the results will ultimately be viewed as a reflection of Walker’s popularity in this countywide race.

As he did with Phillips, Walker appointed Bradley just months in advance of the election in order to gift his candidate with the advantage of running as an incumbent.

Already suffering from the curse of Walker’s blessing, Bradley’s campaign also is being dragged down by some other supporters. The latest is the far-right group Wisconsin Club for Growth, which recently donated $167,000 for a television blitz on Bradley’s behalf, according to Protasiewicz’s campaign manager Marshall Cohen.

Club for Growth is a third-party group not associated with the campaign that operates without disclosure requirements. Those who wrote the checks for that donation stand invisible behind the shield of Citizens United, the game-changing Supreme Court decision that ruled corporations are people under the law.

“That’s a ton of money,” Cohen said. “The question is what are they expecting in return? It worries folks in Milwaukee County when there’s someone who’s trying to spend outside money to influence an impartial judicial system.”

But even before the shadowy Club for Growth jumped in for Bradley, the company she keeps was hurting her among moderates and progressives. She’s appeared on the air with hate-radio jocks Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling, as well as with Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke. He became an object of national derision after publicly asking Milwaukee citizens to become armed vigilantes to help his financially struggling law-enforcement agency.

“It’s not surprising that I would be invited to be on (Syke’s and Belling’s) shows because of who appointed me,” Bradley said. “But I will go on any radio show that invites me and go to any newspaper that invites me. Still, my role as a judge is to be completely impartial and independent in my decision-making.”

In person, Bradley appears woefully miscast in the role of right-wing judge – youthful, bright, articulate and likeable. While acknowledging her personal views fall on the conservative end of the political spectrum – she’s the former president of the right-wing Milwaukee Federalist Society – she makes a strong argument for her belief in an independent, non-partisan judiciary.

There are factors in this race that could give Bradley an advantage over Phillips’ campaign against Stark. Stark’s upset victory last year came at the peak of anti-Walker fervor. Stark also had an exceptional personal narrative and faced a male opponent, giving her an advantage among women voters.

On the other hand, Bradley faces a far more experienced challenger in Janet Protasiewicz. Her tough, energetic style reflects 25 years of experience as a Milwaukee County assistant district attorney. While Bradley is raking in the big bucks, Protasiewicz is trying to compensate by running a tireless campaign.

“We are absolutely everywhere,” she said. “I’m all over the place all the time. And it’s been in many ways an exhilarating experience.”

Although a native Milwaukeean, her campaign has broadened Protasiewicz’s depth of knowledge about the city, she said. “I’ve found so many unique people and organizations that I didn’t even know existed before,” she enthused.

Perhaps that’s because the courtroom is Protasiewicz’s second home. She’s handled hundreds, if not more than a thousand, trials as a prosecutor, she said in describing an absorbing and demanding career that “Law & Order” fans could appreciate.

By contrast, Bradley worked for a private legal practice for 16 years prior to her judicial appointment. Before her assignment to children’s court on Dec. 6, 2012, Bradley’s courtroom experience was limited to only a couple of cases.

“This isn’t a job where you want on-the-job training,” Cohen said. “It’s not a place where you should be learning on the job. Janet knows the system, she knows the process, she knows the rules of information. That’s what someone wants in a judge, someone who knows what it’s going to be like. Not someone who’s never spent any of her career in a courtroom.”

“I’ve walked the crime scenes with police officers, and I’ve prosecuted some of the worst criminals in Milwaukee County,” Protasiewicz said. “But I also have a strong background in civil and family court cases. We need judges with that kind of broad background and experience.”

Protasiewicz’s experience has won her the endorsements of 721 judges, elected officials and community leaders. District Attorney John Chisholm, Rep. Gwen Moore and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett are all backing Protasiewicz. So is the Citizen Action of Wisconsin, AFSCME District Council 48 (Milwaukee), state Reps. Sandy Pasch, Jon Richards and Evan Goyke, along with state Sens. Lena Taylor, Chris Larson and Tim Carpenter.

Equality Wisconsin and Fair Wisconsin, the state’s LGBT civil rights groups, have both endorsed Protasiewicz.

But Bradley has the endorsement of influential gay Republicans and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, a strong equality advocate.

Unlike Bradley, Protasiewicz so far has no third-party special-interest groups spending untraceable dollars on her campaign. Every PAC that supports Protasiewicz has adhered to the $3,000 contribution limit as well as donor disclosure requirements, according to Cohen.

But despite all the contrasts between these two campaigns and personalities, the outcome on April 2 will likely come down to the candidates’ political affiliations more than anything else – and whether voters are paying attention to them.