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Wisconsin Court Race Turns Into A Political Dogfight

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In Wisconsin, the contentious fight over bargaining rights for public employees appears to be headed to the state Supreme Court.

A state appeals court on Thursday declined to rule on a case alleging that legislators broke Wisconsin’s open meetings law when they used a tricky maneuver to pass the bill that stripped nearly all collective bargaining rights from the state’s public workers.

The challenge puts a sharper focus on what had until recently been a sleepy campaign for the state Supreme Court. Some in Wisconsin now see that campaign as a referendum on Gov. Scott Walker.

PACs Spring Up Across The State

Until a couple of months ago, not many people in Wisconsin knew the names David Prosser and JoAnne Kloppenburg. Prosser had some recognition from his years in the state Legislature and as a justice on the state Supreme Court. But Kloppenburg’s two decades as a state prosecutor still left her as a political unknown.

That all changed overnight. When protests swept the Wisconsin Capitol in February, Kloppenburg’s campaign for Supreme Court justice got a jolt.

Activist Bill Delaney says he was already interested in this race, but calls the Capitol protests life-changing. He quit his state job soon after forming a political action committee to help Kloppenburg’s candidacy — one of several Wisconsin PACs springing up in just the past month.

“It’s like the sign with all the little fish grouped together and going after one big fish,” Delaney says. “So maybe that’s what we’ll be. We’ll be all these little PACs, and hopefully we’ll penetrate counties throughout the state and get the word out.”

The Candidates

This much attention is highly unusual for what’s an officially nonpartisan Supreme Court race. Conservatives now hold a majority on the court. If Kloppenburg beats Prosser, the incumbent, that could shift the balance.

Kloppenburg is reacting cautiously to the extra attention, never endorsing the protesters or the union cause. But in an interview this week at a Madison forum for the candidates, she said the events of the past month certainly have people paying attention to the race.

“They may have learned more about the court and about my candidacy because of it,” she said, “but they are supporting me because I am independent and impartial.”

Kloppenburg argues that’s not the case with her opponent, who as a Republican state lawmaker ascended to the role of Assembly speaker. Kloppenburg’s supporters put it more bluntly: They label Prosser a “rubber stamp” for Walker’s plans.

Speaking after the same forum, Prosser hit back, saying unions only want Kloppenburg on the court because they know how she’ll vote.

“Some people want to turn this into a referendum on the governor at a time when he’s not that popular,” Prosser said. “But what they’re really trying to do is to put a person on the court who’s going to decide cases opposed to the governor.”

Prosser says his Republican background is not a secret, and that he’s worked hard on the court to withdraw from the political process. He says his rulings on the bench speak for themselves.

A High-Intensity Election

Up until about six weeks ago, Prosser was expected to coast to victory, according to University of Wisconsin political scientist Howard Schweber. But “at this point, all of that has changed,” he says.

Schweber says the protests and the anger at Walker have fired up Kloppenburg’s base. But he expects even more intensity with the governor’s bargaining bill now in front of the Supreme Court, where Prosser could potentially rule on it before the election.

“Both sides are putting effort into mobilizing their voters,” he says, “into making this a high-intensity election in which the real issue is not Prosser himself and certainly not Kloppenburg, but rather Gov. Walker and everything that’s been going on.”

There’s another wrinkle in this court race, though. This is the first year under a new public financing law for Wisconsin Supreme Court campaigns. Each candidate got $300,000 for this election, and that makes it hard to afford TV ads. But that just means that union and corporate-funded interest groups can now pick up the slack on the airwaves.

In normal times, incumbents have a strong advantage in Supreme Court races. But as the past couple of months in Wisconsin show, these are anything but normal times. Copyright 2011 Wisconsin Public Radio. To see more, visit

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