There are reasons when local races don’t erupt into extremist gridlock. Usually unreported. Journalists are more consumed by outbreaks of actual gridlock. But sometimes the best political stories are about why combat doesn’t happen.
One that didn’t happen involves the April Branch 24 election for Milwaukee County Circuit Court, where highly qualified Janet Protasiewicz is now running unopposed by the wealthy forces that spent big against her in spring of 2013.
Yet for weeks, Madison insiders were abuzz with how the conservatives in the Capitol were pushing Gov. Scott Walker to appoint his own incumbent for the seat after the November retirement of feisty maverick Charles F. Kahn Jr. The Walker administration even accepted applications and held vetting sessions to find a foe to the announced Protasiewicz.
Technically nonpartisan, judicial races from the Supremes on down have drawn toxic high campaign money and vehement ideological claims for a decade, often backfiring on governors in both parties. Both Doyle and Walker have lost this game because the public likes to elect their own judges and only then give them virtual lifetime tenure.
But appointed judges carry the taint of any governor’s politics. Experienced lawyers are flattered by the offers from the governor’s people to apply but increasingly wary of the political fallout, several told me. Right now an image of leaning toward Walker may be what the conservatives want and what Walker once bought into, but this time he was balking over Branch 24.
It was the Walker taint in 2012 that helped propel peppy bilingual Carolina Stark – also a better campaigner – to oust Walker appointed incumbent Nelson Phillips III and take the Branch 17 judgeship. When a year later Walker appointed Rebecca Bradley as incumbent to another vacant seat, Branch 45, he didn’t trust his personal clout for her incumbency alone could help her survive against a far more court-experienced field (including hard-charging Protasiewicz). So he doubled down. It took a full blast of talk radio and $167,000 in TV ad buys by Club for Growth to help Bradley win in April 2013. Walker was an eager player because then he wanted the right-wing financiers to know whose side his bread was buttered on.
But this time Protasiewicz is back – a 25 year veteran of the DA’s office, a workhorse of the courts, courteous and tough as nails, supported by court experts across the political spectrum. Yet some Club for Growth powers in Madison continued to press Walker to appoint someone to oppose her despite no political reason or ammunition. Even Phillips was interviewed by the governor’s minions. So was another assistant DA, plus two more candidates. When I spoke with them, none would talk about being offered the job, but then again pointedly, none accepted.
For weeks, while Walker must have felt like the cat being played with by the right-wing mice, Protasiewicz felt like the mouse being played with by the gubernatorial cat. She was in, but was anyone else? She was highly qualified -- but would she have to face the big spenders Walker has encouraged before, particularly with Judge Bradley, former head of the Milwaukee chapter of the Federalist Society who used big money and political attitudes to retain her seat?
Walker was balking not out of conscience but weighing the timing, according to Madison insiders. Nothing looks more intrusive than the governor leaning on the local judicial scales, though this is just where heavily biased unreportable money loves to lean. He has been running around the country proclaiming he is about economic not social issues – and definitely not mucking with local control or politics. (Though of course that has been his signature.)
Now he cannot look like a double-dealer in national eyes and also needs every conservative dollar he can muster for his own race. Should he waste gunpowder on Protasiewicz?
Weeks went by. The start of the Dec. 2 five-week countdown to raise 1,000 signatures for an opponent came and went. Yet Walker stalled and then finally announced, in a remarkable switch in tone December 13, that he “would let the people decide.” He never revealed he had previously called for applicants and actually had four to choose from.
His belated response assures that Milwaukee County will now have only the most qualified and popular candidate, Protasiewicz, to decide for.
But the decision has more to do with fear of stirring the electorate pot negatively before his own November election – because honestly, when has the governor avoided stepping into Milwaukee politics?
The race that never was winds up telling us a lot about the governor’s race that will be.