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The race for Wisconsin Supreme Court kicks into gear at WisPolitics forum
Breaking down remarks from candidates Jennifer Dorow, Daniel Kelly, Everett Mitchell and Janet Protasiewicz, with a particularly close eye on the redistricting responses.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
The primary for the Spring Election in Wisconsin is just six weeks away. On Feb. 21, we’ll be casting our votes for a number of very important races.
Chief among those is the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court. Last week, candidates filed their paperwork to get on the ballot and this week, the campaign kicked off in earnest with the four candidates sharing the stage for the first time in a public forum hosted by WisPolitics in Madison on Monday.
The candidates include two conservatives and two liberals. The two on the right are Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly. On the left, there’s Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz and Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell.
Before the event, Protasiewicz made some news with the report that she had raised more than $900,000, setting an off-year fundraising record for a Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate. And after the event, Dorow made some news, landing an endorsement from Justice Patience Roggensack, the conservative former chief justice who is retiring and whose seat these candidates are running for in this election.
With the campaign starting to kick into high gear, this forum came at a perfect time. The candidates were asked a range of questions from moderators Emilee Fannon of CBS 58 and JR Ross of WisPolitics, from redistricting to recusal rules to abortion and gun rights.
While it was a fascinating series of inquiries and responses, as is so often the case in public forums in political campaigns, candidates didn’t always answer questions directly, often leaning on stump-speech style lines and campaign messaging. Because of the nature of this race, that was even more the case in this forum, as candidates could easily evade questioning by emphasizing the fairness and impartiality of a judicial role such as this one. Candidates across the board often talked about how they’d apply the law and constitution to each individual case fairly without letting politics dictate or influence any decision. Uh, sure.
Nevertheless, there was much to be learned from this forum. Here at The Recombobulation Area, we were especially interested in what these candidates had to say about redistricting and gerrymandering in Wisconsin. These maps are at the core of what’s wrong with politics in Wisconsin, and the election for this state Supreme Court seat offers the best opportunity to challenge those maps and restore democracy in this state. This is, unequivocally, the top issue in this race.
So it is notable that Judge Protasiewicz gave the best, most declarative answer on this topic. She said:
“Let’s be clear here: The maps are rigged. Absolutely positively rigged. They do not reflect the people in the state. They do not reflect accurate representation, either in the State Assembly or the State Senate. They are rigged, period. I don’t think it would sell to any reasonable person that the maps are fair.”
Mitchell, too, had a compelling response to the question, focusing on how the “least change” approach adopted by the current court, is rooted in the type of decision-making that has kept those who were not a part of the political process – like African Americans and native populations, he said as examples – on the sidelines.
Kelly, the former justice who was appointed by Scott Walker but never elected by the voters, criticized how other candidates talked about “values” in their answers, saying “When someone tells you what their values are in a legal question, they’re telling you how they’re going to decide the case.” Like many of Kelly’s responses, this one came across as a vaguely condescending lecture that did not really provide an answer to the question being asked.
He had more to say on the issue than his conservative counterpart, Jennifer Dorow. On the redistricting question, she said “There is talk about future challenges, so I will not put myself in a position to prejudge anything.”
This wasn’t the only time during the forum when Dorow avoided answering a question. Many of her responses were especially light on substance.
Of all the candidates, her performance in this forum was perhaps the one to watch. Coming off of the high-profile case on the Waukesha Christmas parade massacre, where she presided over the conviction of Darrell Brooks, the name recognition – and worldwide adulation – she gained was going to be unlike any other candidate, which is undeniably a key factor in an off-year Spring Election like this one.
She mostly avoided making any waves on any issue with any of her answers in this forum. She played it extremely safe and stuck to her notes. It was a rare opportunity to hear what she would have to say about so many key issues in this election, but she really did not jump into the fray at all. If anything, her performance dimmed her rising star and made her seem like a less formidable candidate in a general election.
Some have suggested Kelly drop out and for the right to coalesce around Dorow. That hasn’t ever seemed all that likely, and seems even less likely after this forum. The race between Dorow and Kelly for who will emerge as the right’s candidate is going to be a top storyline until primary day. On the left, after a string of union endorsements last week along with her strong fundraising numbers, Protasiewicz seems to have the momentum over Mitchell.
We’ll be watching this race closely as it continues to unfold. We’ve said it over and over again, but you cannot overstate the importance of this race. This will be the best chance to flip this court to a liberal majority in a long time and for a long time. There hasn’t been anything resembling a liberal majority on the court since the mid-’00s, and even then, it was with Justice Patrick Crooks as a more independent swing vote. These elections are for 10-year terms, after all.
The court is currently a 4-3 conservative majority, with right-leaning justice Brian Hagedorn, who was elected by a 0.5% margin in the spring of 2019, proving to be the swing vote on many key cases. After this year, the next election for a State Supreme Court seat will be in 2025 when the term ends for liberal justice Ann Walsh Bradley, and conservative Rebecca Bradley’s term is up in 2026. There will be no better chance than this year to flip the majority. If it doesn’t happen now, the opportunity disappears for the foreseeable future.
To see more of our live coverage from the forum, head over to Twitter. For more in-depth coverage of some of the other issues raised, we’ll recommend stories at WPR, WisPolitics and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. You can watch the full forum on WisconsinEye.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.