by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner
As Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz took the stage at her election victory party Tuesday night, the three current members of the liberal minority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court watched from off stage, arm-in-arm, as they took in the moment they became a majority.
Protasiewicz, a liberal, handily beat conservative former Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly on Tuesday for a vacant seat on the court. Her win marks a massive change in Wisconsin’s political landscape that is likely to upend the state’s heavily gerrymandered political maps as well as its recently reinstated 19th-century criminal ban on abortions.
The technically nonpartisan race for the seat set to be vacated by retiring Justice Patience Roggensack broke national fundraising and spending records as the two major political parties, out-of-state billionaires and thousands of individual donors gave money in an effort to determine the ideological swing of the court.
In a state known for its remarkably close elections, Protasiewicz pulled away from Kelly in the early going, racking up a massive lead in the largely Democratic Dane and Milwaukee Counties while keeping it close in the traditionally Republican suburban counties surrounding Milwaukee that have been turning bluer in recent elections.
Protasiewicz ran a campaign that explicitly told voters her “personal values” that women should have the right to an abortion and that the state’s political maps are “rigged” — saying those beliefs wouldn’t weigh on how she hears cases on those issues. She also painted Kelly as an extremist whose history of siding with his own campaign donors when they brought cases before him, his work with the Republican party and his endorsement from anti-abortion groups made him unfit for the court.
On Tuesday night, Protasiewicz said Wisconsinites had voted for “a better and brighter future where our rights and freedoms are protected.”
“These results mean two very important and special things,” she said in her victory speech. “First, it means Wisconsin voters have made their voices heard, they’ve chosen to reject partisan extremism in this state, and second it means our democracy will always prevail.”
Kelly, who throughout the campaign complained about Protasiewicz’s directness about her values and said that he, unlike her, would be an impartial judge, delivered a bitter concession speech in which he declared that Protasiewicz wasn’t a “worthy opponent” and that her campaign was “beneath contempt.” Nearly three years after he lost to current liberal Justice Jill Karofsky by 10 points in his failed re-election campaign, he said, in closing, “I wish Wisconsin the best of luck, cuz I think it’s gonna need it.”
During the race, Kelly’s campaign ran an ad that was a shot-for-shot remake of the Willie Horton ad, which ran during the 1988 presidential race and is widely derided as the most racist in political history. Many of his ads and the ads of the outside groups supporting him targeted sentencing decisions that Protasiewicz had made as she served on the Milwaukee County bench. Outside political groups supporting his candidacy took the unusual step of pulling an ad off the air after the victim of the sexual assault they highlighted spoke out, saying the group had harassed her and the ad was inaccurate.
“Now I say this not because we did not prevail. I do not say this because of the rancid slanders that were launched against me, although that was bad enough, but that is not my concern,” Kelly said in his concession speech. “My concern is to damage done to the institution of the court. My opponent is a serial liar. She’s disregarded judicial ethics. She’s demeaned the judiciary with her behavior. This is the future that we have to look forward to in Wisconsin.”
In Milwaukee, Democrats gathered to look into that future and liked what they saw.
Outside the ballroom at the Saint Kate Arts Hotel, Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) ran up to Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) — who recently announced he will be leaving the Legislature to run for Milwaukee City Attorney.
“You sure you want to leave now?” she yelled at him.
Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison), said the new liberal court’s coming decisions — and the return of competitive elections to Wisconsin, the result she anticipates from the court’s likely consideration of the state’s gerrymandered political maps, will be a huge benefit for the whole state.
“Obviously in the coming term we’re going to see huge cases on voting rights, abortion, consumer protection, the environment, democracy, and people are going to see those impacts right away,” she told the Wisconsin Examiner. “And when we have fair maps, that gives us a ticket to compete. Wisconsinites could have the kind of government we had for most of my childhood. That elections could go either way, if you run hard you can win but you’re going to have to persuade
the voters and not just capture them in a gerrymandered map.”
Ben Wikler, the chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin who has overseen a liberal takeover of the state’s executive and now judicial branches, called the result a “tectonic shift,” pointing to the potential new legislative maps and the series of Supreme Court decisions he said will make most Wisconsinites happy rather than “feeling a pit of dread in their stomachs.”
“Democrats, all we’ve dreamed of and fought for is an even playing field, where if you win a majority of the votes you can win a majority of seats in Congress and the Legislature and potentially have the majority set the laws,” he told the Examiner. “Now there’s a path to that becoming a reality. It’s something most Americans take for granted and it’s been almost beyond imagining in the tipping point state of the nation.”
On stage, as Protasiewicz wrapped up her speech, she invited Justices Karofsky, Ann Walsh Bradley and Rebecca Dallet to the stage and the four of them raised their arms together, as the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s new majority.
This story was written by Henry Redman, a reporter at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.
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