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Money Talks? Outside Money and the Wisconsin Spring Election

Photo: According to the non-partisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, outside interests spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to influence voting in Wisconsin's spring election. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: According to the non-partisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, outside interests spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to influence voting in Wisconsin's spring election. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
April 13, 2015

MADISON, Wis. - Although outside political money had a big impact on the referendum to change the way the Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice is selected, it did not have much impact on the state Supreme Court race. That's according to Matt Rothschild, executive director of the nonpartisan money-tracking organization Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. He says relatively speaking, not that much outside money was spent on the race, which saw incumbent Justice Ann Walsh Bradley defeat challenger James Daley.

"It's an anomaly," says Rothschild. "I hate to be cynical about it but I think if the outside groups, especially the outside conservative groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and Wisconsin Club for Growth thought that they would have gotten a pliable conservative on there, and defeat Justice Walsh Bradley, they would have done it."

Rothschild's opinion is that challenger James Daley, a Rock County Judge, was not conservative enough for conservative big-money donors. Rothschild says plenty of outside money was spent in convincing the voters to approve the referendum that changes the way the Supreme Court Cheif Justice is selected.

Rothschild says in the past, outside groups have spent a lot of money electing conservative state Supreme Court Justices and this most recent election is not the start of a new trend.

"Next time if they have a candidate who's more to their liking and they think that candidate has a better chance I think they'll empty their pockets as usual," he says.

Concerning the constitutional amendment to change the way the state Supreme Court Justice is selected, Rothschild says an electioneering group called Vote Yes For Wisconsin got $600,000 from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce to spend on ads urging voters to approve the referendum, which did pass by a wide margin.

Backers said the amendment just meant the highest court should be able to pick its own Chief Justice, rather than the title going to the member of the court with the most seniority. But Rothschild says it was really a vendetta.

"They would have at least grandmothered Shirley Abrahamson in and not kicked her off her Supreme Court Chief Justice Chair and they would have waited until her term was up to effectuate that change," he says. "They could have written that into the referendum if they wanted to, but clearly they have a vendetta against Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and they've won that vendetta right now."

Abrahamson has filed a lawsuit saying the change shouldn't apply until the end of her current term in four years.

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI