Recall Effort Targets John Chisholm
DA targeted by right wingers outraged by John Doe and liberal blacks angered by suspects killed in custody.
On Monday night there was a strategic meeting of people who may have only one thing in common: they’re all angry at Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. The meeting, I’m told, included a broad cross section of Milwaukee’s black community who mostly lean left, and many conservatives connected with business groups. Also on hand were some Hispanics and a few Tea Party activists.
The meeting was meant to very hush-hush but word of it has leaked out. Indeed, the right-leaning Wisconsin Reporter, that operates as mouthpiece for conservative groups, seems to have a direct pipeline to the recall organizers.
Calling the conclave an “unusual group of right- and left-wing activists,” the publication reported that two community organizers, Tory Lowe and Monique Taylor, have strategized with Orville Seymer, field director of Citizens for Responsible Government, best known for helping organize the recall effort against former Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament. These strange bedfellows are looking to establish a recall exploratory committee as soon as next week.
One source tells me that conservative activists have been going “through every case handled by Chisholm” looking for derogatory material they can use against him. That could include the fact that Chisholm’s wife is a teacher who allegedly made statements criticizing Act 10, the law that all but eliminated public employee unions in Wisconsin.
Chisholm has enraged Republicans for overseeing a John Doe probe that appears to be looking at alleged, illegal coordination during the 2012 recall election between Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign committee and conservative third party groups like Wisconsin Club for Growth, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Americans for Prosperity – Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Family Action.
Lowe and Taylor organized a Copwatch group in Milwaukee following the death of Derek Williams in police custody, “reaching out to other families who have lost loved ones at the hands of police and security officers,” as SocialistWorker.org has reported.
Chisholm initially refused to pursue criminal charges against the police in whose custody Williams died. He later relented and appointed Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge John Franke as special prosecutor to conduct an inquest. The inquest recommended that Franke pursue criminal charges, but Franke, after criticizing the cops involved, announced there wasn’t sufficient evidence to go to court.
Adding to anger over this case were other problems, including police officers charged with doing anal cavity searches of young black male suspects. But the incident that has triggered the recall discussions was Chisholm’s decision to not press charges against the three white male customers who grabbed and restrained 16-year-old Corey Stingley after he stole some items from VJ’s Food Mart in West Allis on Dec. 14, 2012.
The incident has ignited widespread rage in the black community, with some comparing to the nationally controversial death of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, who was later found not guilty of any charges in the incident.
But Chisholm declared that “I can’t make charges based on popular sentiment,” in announcing his decision in the case. “It’s got to be based on the law and what we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. If I apply any other standard, I’m not doing my job. I’m standing by that decision, and accept any criticism that comes along with that.”
He may get far more criticism than he bargained for. Shortly after his announcement, about 100 demonstrators protested the DA’s decision and vowed to organize and vote Chisholm out of office.
The fact that Chisholm made his decision before the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner ruled that Stingley died by “homicide” has added fuel to the fire, says Mike Wilder, co-director of the African American Roundtable. “He jumped the gun. We’re saying he needs to reconsider his opinion.”
Experts note that the medical examiner’s ruling by itself doesn’t mean a prosecutor could prove the three men who restrained Stingley were guilty. Rev. Willie E. Brisco, the president of MICAH, Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope, says he understands the reasoning behind Chisholm’s decision, and that these men might not be successfully prosecuted, “but it’s hard to tell a community that has suffered so much to accept this. To not even allow that to go to trial gives a sense of incompletion.”
As a result, he says, “there is outrage in the community. There is disappointment. And there is ‘oh, here we go again.’”
Chisholm’s predecessor as DA, E. Michael McCann, often called for inquests, but in 25 years of doing this not one resulted in a recommendation of criminal charges. Chisholm has typically avoided ordering inquests, saying he didn’t want to give families false hope that officers would be charged. The might be the right thing to do, but it’s clear at this point it’s not the politic thing to do. It has clearly pushed minority activists to embrace a recall.
For the conservative groups supporting the recall, this is a continuation of their efforts to pressure Chisholm to end his John Doe Probe of them. They have leaked information to the Wall Street Journal, which has condemned the probe as a “raid” on “free speech.”
On his talk radio show and at his Right Wisconsin website, Charlie Sykes has repeated the mantra that this is a “partisan witch hunt.”
The Wisconsin Reporter has done numerous stories questioning the probe, typically with unnamed sources condemning it. As one complained, it’s a clear case of “one party in this state using prosecutorial powers to conduct a one-sided investigation into conservatives.”
It was dubbed “The Persecution of Wisconsin Conservatives” by Frontpage Mag, whose motto is “Inside Every Liberal is a Totalitarian Screaming to Get Out.”
Eric O’Keefe, head of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, has called the probe “political payback by elected prosecutors against conservative activists for their political successes in Wisconsin.” His group has threatened a federal lawsuit against Chisholm. But a recall against a DA investigating a recall election would be the ultimate slap down.
The idea that Chisholm is simply a partisan hack is belied by the fact that two Republican DAs are also involved in the John Doe probe. As I’ve previously written, there is abundant evidence to suggest the investigation is anything but partisan.
A January 2013 Milwaukee Magazine feature on Chisholm by Erik Gunn portrayed Chisholm as someone without a partisan edge, who “worked with lawmakers in both parties on policy questions but says his priorities – tackling disparities in prosecution, reducing incarceration without compromising safety, strengthening domestic violence laws and prosecution – seemed more aligned with the Democrats,” though he firmly opposes abortion.
Sheriff David Clarke told the magazine that Chisholm was “a straight shooter” whose decisions aren’t driven by partisan motives.
If anything, Chisholm has been far too unpolitical, failing to grasp how his decisions — even if they are the right ones from a legal perspective — can be perceived very negatively. If none of those inquests called for by McCann resulted in criminal charges, they did have one tangible outcome for the DA: no one ever tried to recall him from office.
-Both Brisco and Wilder told me they were aware of the recall being organized but opposed it.
-Will the recall get funding from the Wisconsin Realtors Association? One source speculates that they might. The group has no dog in this fight, but they are very closely allied with Walker, who would love to see the John Doe probe ended.
-Conservatives have been pushing to change the state constitution to end recalls, allowing them only if an elected official is charged with a criminal or civil ethics charge. That, of course, would bar a recall of Chisholm. It will be interesting to see how many Republicans oppose such an effort.
Correction: An earlier version of this story described the Wisconsin Reporter as “Bradley Foundation-funded.” It is actually funded by the conservative Franklin Center for Government and Media Integrity, which in past years has gotten money from Bradley (including $190,500 in one year alone).