Wisconsin Court Race Turns Into A Political Dogfight

fromWPR

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

The Wisconsin Labor Battle

  • Protesters yell outside the chamber as members of the Wisconsin state Assembly debate the state's budget bill on Thursday. Thousands of demonstrators took over the Capitol after the Wisconsin state Senate voted to curb collective bargaining rights for public union workers in a surprise vote with no Democrats present. The measure passed the Assembly 53-42.
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    Protesters yell outside the chamber as members of the Wisconsin state Assembly debate the state's budget bill on Thursday. Thousands of demonstrators took over the Capitol after the Wisconsin state Senate voted to curb collective bargaining rights for public union workers in a surprise vote with no Democrats present. The measure passed the Assembly 53-42.
    Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (left) holds hands with a Republican lawmaker during a prayer at the start of the Assembly session.
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    Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (left) holds hands with a Republican lawmaker during a prayer at the start of the Assembly session.
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  • A protester sleeps in front of the doors to the Wisconsin state Assembly chamber, hoping to block access before the session reconvened later in the morning.
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    A protester sleeps in front of the doors to the Wisconsin state Assembly chamber, hoping to block access before the session reconvened later in the morning.
    Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • Chairs sit empty during a session of the state Senate at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Wednesday, where resolutions passed unanimously to impose $100-a-day fines on the 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state for each day that they do not show up for Senate sessions.
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    Chairs sit empty during a session of the state Senate at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Wednesday, where resolutions passed unanimously to impose $100-a-day fines on the 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state for each day that they do not show up for Senate sessions.
    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Protesters fill the Wisconsin state Capitol after Republican state senators voted to curb collective bargaining rights for public union workers.
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    Protesters fill the Wisconsin state Capitol after Republican state senators voted to curb collective bargaining rights for public union workers.
    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker holds a letter from Democratic state Sen. Mark Miller, one of the 14 senators who fled the state more than two weeks ago, during a press conference Monday.
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    Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker holds a letter from Democratic state Sen. Mark Miller, one of the 14 senators who fled the state more than two weeks ago, during a press conference Monday.
    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Labor and union supporters protest alongside supporters of Gov. Walker outside the state Capitol.
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    Labor and union supporters protest alongside supporters of Gov. Walker outside the state Capitol.
    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Although Walker's bill targets public worker unions, protesters from all across the state and varying professions turned out for daily demonstrations at the Capitol.
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    Although Walker's bill targets public worker unions, protesters from all across the state and varying professions turned out for daily demonstrations at the Capitol.
    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Union members return to protest inside the Capitol on March 4. They were forced to vacate the building after occupying it for more than two weeks.
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    Union members return to protest inside the Capitol on March 4. They were forced to vacate the building after occupying it for more than two weeks.
    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Protesters hold hands and chant in the Capitol rotunda on March 3 during around-the-clock demonstrations.
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    Protesters hold hands and chant in the Capitol rotunda on March 3 during around-the-clock demonstrations.
    Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • Wisconsin State representative Fred Clark meets with constituents at his desk outside the capitol building March 2, 2011 in Madison. Clark and several other Democrat members of the assembly moved their offices outside as the building has been essentially locked down to prevent protesters from spending the night inside.
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    Wisconsin State representative Fred Clark meets with constituents at his desk outside the capitol building March 2, 2011 in Madison. Clark and several other Democrat members of the assembly moved their offices outside as the building has been essentially locked down to prevent protesters from spending the night inside.
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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

An Ad Tying David Prosser To The Governor

YouTube

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.

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