Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Remarkable Clout of Sheriff Clarke

A stunning election increases his power. What does it mean for Milwaukee?

By - Aug 19th, 2014 10:35 am

A year ago, I wrote a column suggesting Sheriff David Clarke’s cranky behavior had made his reelection less likely. And a week before the election I suggested the blitz of ads against him effectively attacked his questionable style. Boy, was I wrong. 

Sheriff David Clarke in the 2014 Westown St. Patrick's Parade. Photo by Garrick Jannene.

Sheriff David Clarke in the 2014 Westown St. Patrick’s Parade. Photo by Garrick Jannene.

Clarke won by a 52 to 48 percent vote, actually a smaller margin than he had in the 2010 Democratic primary, but the turnout for this race was stunning. More than 113,000 county residents cast ballots, about twice as many as voted in the first matchup between Clarke and opponent Chris Moews in the 2010 Democratic primary.

In five suburbs in Milwaukee County — River Hills (which was filled with Clarke signs), Hales Corners, Franklin, Greendale and Whitefish Bay — there was a 200 percent jump in the number of people voting for sheriff, compared with the 2010 primary.

What drove this remarkable turnout? Clarke, of course, ran as a tough-on-crime sheriff and Moews took the bait, declaring that “Clarke is not tough on crime; he’s loud on crime. We need a real sheriff, not a fake cowboy.” And whoever was creating those third party advocacy ads by the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee also fell into this trap, attacking Clarke for his radio ads suggesting residents rely on their own guns rather than calling 911.

The irony is that these five suburbs have almost no violent crime. And on those rare occasions when an incident of violent crime occurs, the Sheriff and his deputies are of no use. In a typical year, as I’ve reported, Clarke’s entire department handles less than one-fifth of one percent of all major crimes in the county. In a fully incorporated county like Milwaukee, the various local police departments handle all the crime.

Yet somehow this campaign became all about crime and gun control, with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spending $150,000 to attack Clarke, and with the National Rifle Association defending Clarke. In a way, the campaign became one that was all about rhetoric, a battle over Clarke’s law and order homilies. It is the legislature that writes the laws on gun control, and Clarke’s opinions have had scant impact — he is one of innumerable sheriffs and police chiefs in the state — on how those laws have been fashioned.

As for those voters most likely to be affected by violent crime, city residents (where the Milwaukee police handle fully 75 percent of the county’s crime), their verdict was mixed. Clarke barely won the city, with just 50.4 percent of the Milwaukee vote, down from 57 percent in  2010. That’s a big drop, though it may partly reflect a high turnout in the race for the 19th Assembly District, whose mostly liberal residents are likely to oppose Clarke.

But offsetting that was the vote in predominantly African-American wards in Milwaukee. As Journal Sentinel reporter David Umhoefer concluded, Clarke won by a margin of more than 3,600 votes, just 1,000 less than Clarke’s entire countywide victory margin.”

Why? While it doesn’t hurt that Clarke is black, his views on most issues don’t go over well with African American voters. But an anonymously funded group called Citizens for Urban Justice, probably with Republican ties, (Republican Craig Peterson of Zigman, Joseph, Stephenson Inc made the ad buy) ran some slippery ads. They featured Monique Taylor, who introduced herself as a mother and community activist and recited the names of men who have died at the hands of Milwaukee police. “Now a lieutenant in that same police department wants to be our sheriff,” Taylor warned.

It’s a powerful pitch for a community outraged by the violent treatment of black suspects in custody, but of course there is no evidence connecting Moews to even one of these cases. The ads may have been the key factor in the race; for all the talk about the suburban turnout, much of Clarke’s margin came from his edge with black voters.

As for the ads by the Greater Wisconsin Committee, they did blast Clarke’s management of his department, when they weren’t going after his views on guns. But the tone of the ads, which mercilessly lampooned Clarke, were perhaps too gleeful. The sheer volume of the mailers and TV and radio ads also conveyed the feeling of anonymous forces (or outsiders like Bloomberg) trying to hijack the race and overthrow a local official. The ads overwhelmed Moews’ relatively low-key and serious approach, completely changing the tone of the campaign. They also greatly elevated interest in the race, helping conservative talk radio hosts Mark Belling and Charlie Sykes in their successful effort urging Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary and support Clarke.

So Clarke’s hot air won the day. We’ve reelected a cowboy, when what’s really needed is a good manager. The sheriff doesn’t investigate crimes, his job mostly involves managing facilities like the county jail and House of Corrections. And now Clarke will be all the more emboldened to run up overtime costs and ignore the budget passed by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and the county board.

On crime and every other issue, the central problem facing Milwaukee is one of limited resources. The City of Milwaukee now devotes 100 percent of its property tax levy to public safety (police and fire), a percentage that has been rising steadily for 15 years as state shared revenue to Milwaukee has declined.  Milwaukee County devotes 22 percent of its budget to the Sheriff’s Department. So any efforts to keep taxes down must take these huge budgets into consideration.

At the city level, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn has been an excellent manager, slashing overtime costs that had been a continuing problem under prior police chiefs. And Abele, Mayor Tom Barrett and the 18 suburban police departments have all been willing to discuss ways to eliminate overlap and economize on how police are used. Only Clarke has been unwilling to consider such measures, even as he runs up overtime costs on his budget.

All of which would have provided some interesting and instructive issues to discuss, but this campaign was mostly about who gets to wear a cowboy hat. Clarke won.

Short Take

Monique Taylor has also been involved with a group of black community activists who have discussed launching a recall effort against Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, and have strategized with conservative advocacy groups who oppose the John Doe probe of Scott Walker. This alliance of strange bedfellows has already put a scare into Chisholm, and clearly struck a crucial blow to help reelect Clarke.

Sheriff David Clarke Photos

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

32 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Remarkable Clout of Sheriff Clarke”

  1. PMD says:

    It doesn’t seem as if Moews got his name out there enough while presenting a clear and compelling case as to why people should vote for him over Clarke. Considering Clarke’s standing as an incumbent with wide name recognition and the closeness of the margin, couldn’t a stronger candidate (or a stronger campaign) have defeated him? And why all the late ad buys supporting Moews? The candidates have been known for a long time now.

  2. Big Al says:

    Bruce, you talk about how Clarke consistently blows his budget, but Politifact shows he has only gone over budget 3 out of 11 years:

    What am I missing here?

  3. Rory Bellows says:

    Do you have any evidence to back this up:

    “his views on most issues don’t go over well with African American voters”

    It’s contrary to the Umhoefer numbers in the preceding paragraph and doesn’t seem credible to suggest black voters all got duped by advertising.

  4. bruce Murphy says:

    Al, he’s run up overtime lately because Abele has been limiting his budget increases, while under Walker he often got significant budget increases:

  5. Andy says:

    As a moderate, I was actively looking for reasons to vote for Moews. I very much dislike Clarke’s attitude and how he conducts himself in office. All I needed was a reason to vote for Moews. Unfortunately he gave little information to potential voters regarding his stance on just about any topic. His lone perceived message was that he’d play nice with others. While I liked that idea, I was concerned about what he would do regarding the lakefront patrols, running the jail, and how he’d address the budget situation.

    Shortly before the election, the attack ads came out. They did not just attack Clarke for his antics, they started attacking him for his stance on topics for which I agree with him. Many Clarke supporters agree with him that 911 won’t always be able to protect you and that we need to be more strict in prosecuting criminals. I believe these are topics that both suburbanites and residents in the inner-city can generally agree on. By attacking these positions, it gave me the sense the Moews had other views. Whether the Sheriff can directly affect these or not is nullified by the fact that Clarke seems, to most people, to be the only voice in the city/county that is vocalizing these points.

    Moews may actually agree with Clarke’s position on those topics, but I had no way of knowing… and the attack ads lead me to believe that was not the case. Thus once again, I had no other choice but to support Clarke. I have a feeling many others had similar lines of thought.

  6. I agree with Andy. I still think you need someone to vote for rather than against. Maybe it was closer than we think if you consider Moews to be a weak candidate.

  7. PMD says:

    I agree with you on just about everything Andy. Very fair points. I do have to quibble with people who say that Clarke is the only one speaking out against the violence in Milwaukee (and I think telling people to not call 911 and just arm yourself and fire away is a tad reckless and stupid for a law enforcement officer; we don’t need a bunch of vigilantes in the city). Barrett and Flynn are constantly talking about it, Flynn again in today’s paper regarding more shootings yesterday. And he has called for harsher punishments for felons with guns, etc. I do appreciate Clarke, much as I dislike him, being very vocal about the drunk driving problem. That’s a serious problem and I’m glad he talks about it.

  8. bruf says:

    I don’t think this post explains the reversal in voting patterns between 2010 and 2014 in the northern and southern suburbs. The role of Chris Kliesmet in Clarke’s campaign needs explaining. Does he represent the police and fire unions which were exempted by the Republicans from Act 10?

  9. Big Al says:

    Thanks Bruce.

    I think Thomas is dead-on: you have to give voters someone to vote for, not against. Why do you think we had GW Bush for 2 terms? Kerry’s not the most inspiring candidate. Or why do you think Walker survived the recall? Barrett could never articulate what he would have done differently to balance the budget; the race was all about voting against Walker.

    I think Burke should take some pointers – state clearly why you’re the best candidate and what you’ll do; don’t focus only on what Walker did wrong.

  10. Mike Bark says:

    Like Andy I was looking for a reason to vote for Moews and really couldn’t find one. Clarke strikes me as a blowhard and even though he’s right on some issues I think he’s a narcissist who likes seeing his name out there.

    Really, the issue the Dems have had in unseating Walker are the same. They run candidates who don’t have any idea on what they’d do differently than Walker other than vague platitudes about playing nice.

    Also, the ads against Clarke were tone deaf. I would bet most people would agree with Clarke on stuff like protecting yourself and the second amendment. Maybe not in the liberal echo chamber, but elsewhere.

    I can’t imagine the Voces endorsement helped at all.

  11. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    The Abele ads against David were the worst racist smear ads I have ever seen. The Left would have been apoplectic if Clarke had been a lefty. No, Clarke isn’t only person speaking out against the descent of Milwaukee into the sewer, we have, Donovan has, and many other regular people but not the Lefty leaders. As long as crime and lousy schools do not affect their kids they do not care if a bunch of black kids kill each other. We really need one positive leader who has the guts to go against the establishment and fight crime, fix MPS, fix the city Hall, worst run in country and get some jobs here. The latest tete a tete with Palermos, SEIU, the nutty stands of the County board will last for a decade, chasing small business out of Milwaukee and they will not start here. The city is going to pot cause of poor leaders and poor policies.

  12. Jim Nelsen says:

    I agree on all points. But I have to ask how there are 19 suburban police chiefs when there are only 18 suburbs in the county. Who is the 19th?

  13. tim haering says:

    Is Clarke the new Harold Breier, Tom Ament or John NOrquist? Bruce, he needs an irreverent nickname, like “Hizzoner.” Tag him. On unrelated notes: I have only recently begun listening to interviews with Mary Burke. Her voice suggests she is a smoker, do you know? And does Miriam Falk’s defection to DOJ have anything to do with Chisholm’s pursuit of Doe Dos?

  14. Orv Seymer says:


    I appreciate the fact that you are willing to admit that you were wrong on this race.

    I live in one of the southern suburbs mentioned that had a very high turnout and I voted at about 10:30 AM on election day and I was the 228th voter. My wife voted at about 5:00 PM and she was over 800. At that point I fiigured Clarke had a good chance of winning because these were almost Presidential turnout numbers.

    I would argue that the TV ads run by the left backfired on them as they portrayed Clarke as somone that conservative suburbanites look up to and admire.

    It matters little that the Sheriff’s office has minimal impact on crime, what is important is that he is talking about crime and how to reduce it, and more importantly, how law abiding citizens can protect themselves. That is important because for many years, crime was concentrated in several small local area’s of Milwaukee and everyone knew where those pockets were.

    In recent years, the crime has begun to spread to what used to be very good area’s of Milwaukee and some of the inner ring suburbs of the county and people are seeing the “Creeping effect” into their neighborhoods.

    This has many of those residents very concerned and that is why they voted for Clarke in record numbers.

  15. Bruce Murphy says:

    Jim Nelson, thanks for catching that, we made the correction.

  16. PMD says:

    Clarke is not the only person talking about crime and how to reduce it. You think it’s wise for a law enforcement official to encourage residents to not call 911 and instead arm themselves and fire away? Is it responsible for a sheriff to be encouraging vigilantism? Or do you just call that telling law abiding citizens how to defend themselves?

  17. Milwaukee Resident says:

    The part of this article related to why African-Americans supported Clarke is under informed and pretty patronizing. Sure, Clarke being black is a factor. Sure, an ad connecting Moews to police shootings may have made a modest difference. But the real reason for that level of support is that African-Americans in Milwaukee are desperate for independent and courageous leadership that is different from the typical mold that we’ve had for the last 50 years. Clarke, despite all of his flaws, provides a version of that. It is a version that is problematic for any number of reasons, but it’s the closest thing to real black leadership out here and demonstrates how desperate we are, unfortunately. Additionally, and this is where the patronizing/being under informed comes in most, a ton of African-American voters are more conservative than you think when it comes to issues of personal responsibility. We see the impact of bad individual decisionmaking and credit leaders when they’re actually willing to discuss it openly. That’s rare in Milwaukee proper and to his credit, Clarke is one of the few individuals with a platform that is willing to discuss these issues in a straight forward and fearless way. Spend some time in the black community and maybe you’ll gain some appreciation for this.

  18. Andy says:

    As of 2010, the average response time in Milwaukee for a strong arm robbery is 30 minutes. Average time for an armed robbery is 17 minutes. Sexual assaults are 32 minutes. The quickest response is when a shooting happens and that is still over 5 minutes.

    Those violent crimes are over with long before the cops ever show up. So like Clarke said, calling 911 and simply waiting for the cops isn’t your best option. The options he lays out are pretty logical. You can beg for mercy, you can just hope you survive, or you can fight back. His suggestion is to fight back. PMD, what is your suggestion?

    Like I said before, I don’t like a lot of Clarke’s antics… but my views on the right to carry a concealed weapon or keep one in the house to defend against intruders are pretty much in line with the Sheriff. In fact, the majority of the public supports such views. Attacking that stance is one of the things that hurt the anti-Clarke campaign most.

  19. PMD says:

    I never said anything against defending one self or not keeping a firearm in the home for self defense purposes. I said, and believe, that it is irresponsible for a law enforcement official to encourage people not to call 911 and instead get a gun and take matters into their own hands. Be loud about reforms to police response times (like he is about DUIs and wrong-way driving). Remind people that they have a right to defend their home. But I think he takes it too far by saying don’t even call 911, just get armed and shoot away. That’s awfully close to encouraging vigilantism, and I think that’s wrong.

  20. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Clarke never said anything such stupid thing. As a frequent victim of crime, I can tell you that to save your life and others means seconds, not 10-20 minutes. If someone is standing in from of you ready to attack, I doubt that he will wait while you dial 911, but in all of the self defense classes, that I have taken, they always say to call police asap if possible but then protect yourself. Have a phone, flashlight and gun in your bedroom, but proceed with great caution if possible. If you average out the police time in this state in Milwaukee, rural, small cities it will probably be about 10 minutes. You are long gone by then.

  21. Mitch says:

    Bruce, what’s your proof that River Hills was “filled” with Clarke yard signs? Or was that a narrative you needed to create in order to justify your opinion on why Clarke won?

  22. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Bruce, evidently your opinion is not believed, didnt you go out and count them?

  23. PMD says:

    I live in Glendale and frequently travel through River Hills and Whitefish Bay. I saw a lot of Clarke signs in both towns. Is that really something that’s hard to believe?

  24. Mitch says:

    Yes, it’s hard to believe, my job has me drive nearly every road in RH and I counted, at best, 5. Same thing with WFB, maybe 6-7. Moews had FAR more signs in WFB than Clarke. But again, Bruce needs a narrative to paint Clarke so he makes up a random “fact.”

  25. Sherman Park resident says:

    To my knowledge, I did not receive the adverts featuring Monique Taylor. I did, however, receive the offensive attack ads. It probably doesn’t help Moews in my neighborhood to have attack ads that caricature a black candidate. I received one mailer with Moews and Moore; more of those might’ve helped Moews.

    Moews would have won if there had been any meaningful Republican primaries in the county. Pretty clearly the crossover pushed Clarke through.

  26. PMD says:

    I easily saw more Clarke signs (I didn’t see one Moews sign in either town, though I did see some in Glendale), so maybe it depends on where you’re driving in RH and WFB.

  27. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    The campaign and opinions of David Clarke by white liberals is accurate for they want a house_N_______to Stepin Fechtit like most of the rest of the inner city legislators. Only Polly Williams has ever stepped up and defied the white left establishment in Milwaukee with CHOICE. The white Left was happy, as could be, with the fact that all those kids were lost every year as long as they stayed in line and voted for them. People are so desperate for some decent leadership, in the area, compared to slimey, little weenie Abele, whose racist smears in the ads against David were terrible. Where was the Left condemning all that money? They are happy with that racist crap. The rest of the ads only attacking David despite the fact that he has made out with reduced budgets, he fixed the HOC and the Lakefront and has a huge 70% or following in Milwaukee area and larger out state compared to do nothing Barrett and co.

  28. PMD says:

    Selective partisan outrage WCD. People condemn outside money when it’s used against them, and conveniently ignore it when it’s used to support them. Left and right guilty of this.

  29. Andy says:

    Did I miss some attack ads on Clarke that were racist?

    PMD – Agreed… both sides cry foul when the outside money is used against them but conveniently are silent when it supports them. One of the things I find most annoying in politics is when the two sides accuse each other of the same tactics they use themselves.

  30. PMD says:

    Same here Andy. And they do it constantly. “I abhor outside money!” “What about when it supports you?” “I can’t control who donates to my campaign, it’s a free country.”

  31. CK James says:

    The remarkable clout of Sheriff Clarke can, in part, be credited to an old cliché – ‘If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it’!
    The Sheriff has always been predictably relentless when it comes to engaging in calculated controversy. He’ll begin by harnessing a hot-button issue before force feeding his strong stance in a fast and furious manner, with the help of local media.

    Regardless of particular message or topic, the powers that be in news, radio and print ALWAYS drop what they are doing and refocus on giving as much publicity as possible to Clarke’s latest rant, If it’s a controversial radio PSA-type message – it will get played in it’s entirety – for the next several days.

    When Clarke is then invited for interviews in-studio to give live clarification and supposed Q and A on a topic …he, without fail, hypnotizes most journalists with his intentionally unintentional powerful presence and interpersonal communication skills. He speaks articulately, kindly and matter-of-factly with that signature bass voice. However, IF he’s called out in questioning, he’ll unleash a quick tongue lashing to journalists who immediately switch back to ‘dumb-down’ interviewing mode. I must say it’s quite interesting to witness this phenomenon happen time after time. Anchor after reporter have chosen to ‘punt’ in that scenario, waiving the white flag as opposed to becoming fodder for jokes by their colleagues and peers for the day.

    That kind of pied piper-esque command over local media works, and as the buzz multiplies, the national outlets are asking for interviews next…hoping to get a few caustic comments that’ll drive page views on their websites.

    The bottom line is that Sheriff Clarke has used these tactics in impressive fashion for a long time to be heard loud and clear, whenever he decides to make a point or purposely stir a pot to antagonize a political rival/candidate, etc.. He is also one of few top law enforcement leaders out there who maintains the perfect personality mix for his job … a natural and somewhat concocted ‘savvy-loose cannon’ demeanor.

    A number of constituents seem to identify and connect enough with his style to keep him in place. Being viewed as a law-man, loner, cowboy-to-the-rescue type of fella might not work for everyone…but it certainly has worked here for Sheriff Clarke, without much deviation. I think that was much more to do with the Sheriff’s longevity than his policy record or overall platform on issues as a whole.

    On a final note – he has a strong team of internal supporters helping his cause. There have been numerous examples of how Clarke is ‘always’ out to serve and protect. In recent years, many have seen news reports showing the Sheriff noticing a crime while driving off-duty, and immediately working to stop the problem before it gets worse, (drunk drivers, road-ragers get arrested after Clarke pulls them over etc.) The average citizen LOVES to see these stories pop up…especially when there is dash-cam or highway cam video (promptly dug-up, dubbed , and delivered to media in minutes by the Sheriff’s staff) to illustrate his heroics.

  32. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    CK James. Such brilliance, I am in awe. Fact is that 70% of the people in Milwaukee county agree with David and hate the racist smear campaign by the people financed by Abele. The Left hates any Black that will not be the House Black and step in line.
    Look how they have treated Pratt, Art Jones, Clarke and others. The ones that are still there are dutifully quiet so that they keep their spots.
    One thing that we should all hate is a political leader that takes his fathers money, hides behind secret groups and cannot get along with anyone. He cannot hide the fact that he wants to be Mayor or governor as his present position is meaningless.

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