Primary races to watch in Wisconsin

This year, Wisconsin Democrats aren’t only facing the possibility of a primary in the race for governor between business executive Mary Burke, who’s announced her candidacy, and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, who’s reported to be leaning toward running. The state also will see races for key seats in progressive strongholds such as Milwaukee and Madison, as well as for statewide office and for Congress.

Milwaukee’s tea party, cowboy sheriff rides again

One of the major Democratic primaries in 2014 isn’t even among Democrats — it’s in Milwaukee County, where Milwaukee Police Lt. Chris Moews (rhymes with “haze”) is making a second attempt to unseat Sheriff David Clarke, who runs as a Democrat even though he’s a great favorite of tea party Republicans. Clarke’s held the office since 2002.

Clarke, who’s as famous for his erratic and imperious behavior as for his cowboy drag, is closely associated with Gov. Scott Walker and Milwaukee’s Republican hate-talk radio. His tenure has been characterized by repeated embarrassments, controversies and scandals that have cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in lawsuits and settlements.

In the wake of the Newtown school shootings, Clarke used public money to produce a radio ad calling for vigilantes to arm themselves and help his deputies to protect children. The commercial aired to worldwide ridicule.

Earlier, Clarke’s office came under fire in the wake of the Oak Creek Sikh Temple shooting in August 2012, when six people were fatally shot by a white supremacist, who also died in the incident. Clarke’s whereabouts that day have not been made public, but it’s believed that he was in California as part of a 13-week training class. Law enforcement sources told WiG that the confused response by the sheriff’s department delayed an entry team, while victims lay wounded. A swifter response may have saved their lives, sources said.

Clarke also has publicly sparred with Democratic Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, accusing him of “penis envy.” And he’s mocked the serious injuries that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett suffered defending a woman at State Fair Park against domestic abuse. 

Clarke did not respond to several efforts made to contact him.

Moews says it’s time to put away the “theatrics and grandstanding” and focus on public safety.

“I understand that as sheriff my first duty is competent management of public resources to ensure the public’s safety,” Moews said.

Top cop spot

With current Attorney General and equality opponent J.B. Van Hollen retiring, and with the gubernatorial race sure to drive turnout, Democrats are hopeful about their chances to pick up the job as Wisconsin’s top law enforcement officer.

So far, two Democrats have thrown their hats into the ring — longtime Milwaukee Rep. Jon Richards and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne. Both oppose Republican efforts to limit voting rights and a woman’s right to choose.

Richards is a lawyer who has represented the 19th Assembly District since 1998. He’s been an outspoken proponent for firearms background checks, as well as for the federal Affordable Care Act and marriage equality.

Richards said he would oppose Walker’s efforts to dismantle the state’s domestic partnership registry law, established under Democrat Jim Doyle. Van Hollen has refused to defend the law, saying he believes it’s unconstitutional.

“I have a long track record standing up for the values that make Wisconsin great,” Richards said.

Ozanne is well known statewide for the lawsuit he brought against Walker’s union-busting Act 10 — a lawsuit that he ultimately lost in the bitterly divided and right-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court.

He was an official with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections under Doyle and tried hundreds of cases as an assistant district attorney in Dane County.

“As a prosecutor for 13 years as the district attorney in the state’s second largest county, and during my tenure helping lead Wisconsin’s prison system, I’ve spent my career fighting to keep families and communities safe,” said Ozanne, who also supports marriage equality.

19th Assembly District

Four candidates have announced campaigns to replace Richards in Milwaukee’s heavily Democratic 19th Assembly District.

Announced candidates include Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors Chair Marina Dimitrijevic, labor lawyer Sarah Geenen, activist Jonathan Brostoff and defense lawyer Dan Adams.

Dimitrijevic is likely the frontrunner. The bulk of the district’s progressive leaders and groups have lined up behind her candidacy, including Barrett and U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore.

The South Side native has been a Milwaukee County supervisor for almost 10 years and says it’s her experience and record of results that separates her from the field.

“Our Milwaukee neighborhoods need a proven champion to be a vocal fighter against the divisive, extreme agenda in Madison put forth by the party currently in control,” she said.

Dimitrijevic said she’d work to reverse the anti-equality amendment to the Wisconsin constitution and would make education her priority.

Brostoff, a native of Milwaukee’s East Side, is courting some of the same progressive leaders sought by Dimitrijevic. A former staffer for Senate Minority Leader Chris LarsoN, Brostoff has helped to train, organize and recruit a new generation of progressives in Milwaukee County.

Brostoff said his organizing experience is his greatest strength, along with his commitment to “work tirelessly to win majorities back in the state Senate and Assembly.”

His legislative priorities include full funding of education, returning women’s choice to Wisconsin and establishing a non-partisan redistricting process.

Geenen is a newcomer to Milwaukee politics, and she sees that as an asset.

“I have real-world practical experience that I can offer,” she said. “I’m not a career politician — I’m a working mom.”

Adams, a former Milwaukee County assistant district attorney, is another newcomer to Milwaukee politics. He said he’d advocate a new approach to politics that includes “changing the political discourse toward building a knowledge-based economy, where we encourage scalable startup and small businesses to build the economy and investments in education.”

Horseplay with boys

In Madison’s heavily Democratic 78th Assembly District, incumbent Brett Hulsey faces a strong challenge after an embarrassing 2012 incident when he took photographs of and flipped a 9-year-old boy off an inner tube on a lake.

After pleading no contest to the ensuing disorderly conduct charge, which was referred to as “horseplay” in the police report, Hulsey claimed the charges were engineered as a conspiracy against him by Madison Mayor Paul Soglin.

Hulsey, who often challenges party leadership and has threatened to leave the Democratic caucus, has faced other controversies since he was first elected in 2010. He’s admitted to using campaign funds to buy a 1987 Volkswagen Cabriolet. He freaked out his Capitol staff during an incident in which he brought in a box cutter to work for self-defense.

Responding to questions about his behavior, Hulsey pointed to his strong liberal advocacy. “Who else offered a $2.1 billion amendment to get Wisconsin working again, restore Walker cuts to UW, public schools, tech colleges and Act 10?” he asked. “I fought for what was right and needed when others cut and ran.”

Seeking to replace him are two Madison Common Council members, including Lisa Subeck, a longtime women’s health advocate, and businessman Mark Clear.

Before her election to the council, Subeck was executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin. She’s served as executive director of United Wisconsin since 2012.

Subeck sought to differentiate herself by hinting at Hulsey’s weirdness.

“I think we are in a district that is very progressive and is looking for somebody who can provide leadership that is not only progressive, but is effective,” she said.

Clear, meanwhile, sounded a pro-growth message and touted his business record. He demurred when asked about Hulsey’s horseplay.

Graeme Zielinski is a journalist and former communications director of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

NOTE: WiG corrected an earlier mistake that said Brett Hulsey represents the 77th Assembly. The error was made by the editor not by writer Graeme Zielinski. 

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