Wisconsin is holding elections Tuesday for state Supreme Court and well as for hundreds of county, city, village and town posts.
So what’s the hottest issue for state and local candidates?
You guessed it. Gov. Scott Walker’s war on workers, education, the BadgerCare and SeniorCare health programs and the rule of law.
The Supreme Court election in Wisconsin—one of a number of Midwestern states that elect jurists, in keeping with the progressive tradition that said all powerful officials should be accountable to the people—will provide the first real measure of the strength of the mass movements that have developed to challenge Walker, his agenda and his political allies.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court currently has a 4-3 conservative majority that is expected to be sympathetic to Walker’s agenda as it faces extended litigation. But one of the conservative justices is facing an unexpectedly hard re-election fight. If he loses, the balance on the court will tip toward a majority that is more likely to check and balance the governor who has emerged as the authoritarian face of the national push by conservatives to break public-sector unions.
As such, the Wisconsin race is being watched closely by the governor’s critics—who have taken to calling the state “Fitzwalkerstan,” a combination of the governor’s name and that of his legislative consigliere, Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald—and by Walker’s allies in corporate boardrooms and right-wing think tanks far from Wisconsin.
The incumbent, Justice David Prosser, is a long-time associate of Governor Walker (they served together in the legislature during a period when Prosser was the Assembly speaker and Walker was an up-and-coming conservative assemblyman). Prosser’s campaign has been backed by Republicans allied with the governor and national conservative groups who like the fact that the justice’s campaign has said he will serve as a “complement” to Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature.
That’s unprecedented. But so, too, is Prosser’s determination to politicize what is supposed to be a nonpartisan judicial position.
Prosser has departed from the state’s best judicial values and traditions to identify himself as a conservative who will make decisions based on his political ideology and his political associations—particularly his association with Governor Walker—rather than the law.
His opponent, veteran Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, has done the opposite, positioning herself as a rule-of-law contender who would serve as an independent jurist rather than an ally of the governor.
That’s made the Supreme Court race remarkably high-profile contest that could attact gubernatorial-level—perhaps even presidential-level voting—around the state. But it’s not just the Supreme Court contest that has become a test of sentiments regarding Walker’s power grab.
Consider what’s happening in city council races in the capital city of Madison.
“Lisa Subeck stands with working families,” declares the headline on a new leaflet from the District 1 aldermanic candidate.
“Over the last few weeks, I have spent countless hours at our State Capitol standing in solidarity with our teachers, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and all of the other working people who make our city and state great. I have sat through hours of testimony, and even testified myself, about the harm being done by Gov. Walker’s budget repair bill,” writes Subeck, who adds that she has been “inspired and empowered by the people who have gathered at the Capitol to make our collective voices heard.”
Five pictures on the leaflet show Subeck at the Capitol protests, holding signs that read “It’s about freedom” and “Stop the attack on Wisconsin families.”
Sam Stevenson, a candidate in Madison’s District 2, is seen holding one of those same “Stop the attack on Wisconsin families” signs at a Capitol rally.
“Defend Madison against the assault from Scott Walker,” announces the headline on Stevenson’s literature, which declares that he is “proud to be endorsed by the working people of the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL) and Teaching Assistants’ Association.” He’s also highlighting support that he’s getting from state Representative Mark Pocan, the Madison Democrat who led the fight against Walker’s bill in the Assembly.
Stevenson is challenging Ald. Bridget Maniaci, who appears on her literature holding a sign that reads, “Elected official for collective bargaining.” She also appears with state Senators Fred Risser and Mark Miller, two of the fourteen senators who blocked Walker’s bill for weeks in late February and early March.
And so it goes in county executive, mayoral, city council, village board and town board races across Wisconsin.
The April 5 election will be a referendum on Walker’s anti-labor, pro-corporate power grab, especially in contests where there are clear choices, as with the Dane County Executive contest between Walker critic Joe Parisi versus Walker backer Eileen Bruskewitz or the Milwaukee County Executive race between union-backed Chris Abele and state Representative Jeff Stone, a Republican who has voted with Walker. But in a broader sense, it’s a message election. And the smart candidates are betting that the voters will cast their ballots with a vengeance against the governor’s agenda.