Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Can Chisholm Be Beaten?

The DA pleads for help as dark money from outside the county blasts him.

By - Aug 8th, 2016 01:10 pm
John Chisholm and Eric O’Keefe.

John Chisholm and Eric O’Keefe.

Late last week Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm sent out a Facebook message asking for volunteers to distribute campaign literature or make phone calls on behalf of his campaign. “We can’t outspend my opponent’s wealthy right-wing backers, but we will outwork and outvote them!” he declared.

Democratic insiders in Milwaukee are scared that dark money coming from Republicans outside the county could result in Chisholm being upset by Verona Swanigan, an attorney with no experience as a prosecutor.

Chisholm’s supporters were predicting independent groups targeting Chisholm would spend $500,000 to $1 million. Swanigan’s shaky campaign may have dampened the ardor of some conservatives. Talk radio host Charlie Sykes has dumped on her qualifications (“she’s just not qualified”) while saying he would support her anyway as a “protest vote” against Chisholm.

Verona Swanigan. Photo from Swanigan campaign website.

Verona Swanigan. Photo from Swanigan campaign website.

Yet there is still a lot of anti-Chisholm money being spent. Democratic consultant Sachin Chheda estimates that independent groups with unidentified donors have spent “at least $250,000 on TV, digital, radio and billboard ads” (including one featuring Sheriff David Clarke) against Chisholm. Off-the-record sources told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice the total is “likely to be between $300,000 and $400,000.”

The gist of the ads is that crime is rampant in Milwaukee and it’s all because Chisholm is too busy targeting his “political enemies” to combat crime. Chisholm led a John Doe investigation of Scott Walker’s campaign for governor and its possibly illegal coordination with independent conservative groups like Eric O’Keefe’s Club for Growth. Since then O’Keefe has sued Chisholm repeatedly, and O’Keefe and others have planted information with the media falsely claiming the investigators conducted illegal paramilitary raids on suspects. O’Keefe and others also tried to organize an effort to recall Chisholm from office. This dark money campaign, orchestrated by Republican PR man Craig Peterson, and done through the non-profit Milwaukeeans for Self-Governance group, is the latest chapter of O’Keefe’s war against Chisholm.

While the group needn’t disclose donors, Swanigan’s campaign report gives an idea of some of her contributors, including $5,000 from O’Keefe and $1,000 from Terry Considine, a Colorado resident and founding member of Club for Growth, and big donations from past contributors to Gov. Walker, including $5,000 to Swanigan’s campaign from Richard Uihlein of Waukegan Illinois, $6,000 from David Humpheys of Joplin, Missouri, and $1,000 from Thomas Smith of Boca Raton, Florida. These five individuals contributed $18,000 of the $24,000 the campaign raised, with another $5,000 coming from Phil Harvey of Washington, D.C. the libertarian and president of Adam & Eve, a North Carolina–based company that sells sex toys, adult films and condoms.

Why Harvey? O’Keefe is known for his ability to raise money from conservatives nationally, and nearly every one of the many political groups he’s created have also gotten funding from the Koch brothers, as Jane Mayer reported in her book, Dark Money. In short, the Kochs may be contributing to the anti-Chisholm campaign as well.

In response, the liberal Greater Wisconsin Political Fund is spending money on pro-Chisholm ads. This group is organized as a 527 group, a tax-exempt group created to influence campaigns that need not disclose its donors until months after the election. (One suspicion is that wealthy Democrat Chris Abele is a major funder.) But it doesn’t seem to be spending nearly as much as Peterson’s group, which is organized as a 501(c)(4), a non-profit that doesn’t ever have to reveal its donors, but must not use “express advocacy” words in its ads like “vote for” or “elect.” But the ads through implication make it clear that Swanigan is a much better choice than Chisholm.

The misleading claims in these ads, however, suggest Swanigan is not an easy candidate to sell. They have claimed that Swanigan is an experienced prosecutor, though she herself denies this and the truth is that she was once an intern in a DA’s office. They claim she has never lost a trial though she declines to disclose how many trials she has handled. A Journal Sentinel story noted she handled only one felony case that went to trial.

An analysis of circuit records by Wisconsin Justice Initiative found that Chisholm has handled 14 times more criminal cases than Swanigan.

Swanigan went bankrupt in 2013, leaving behind $450,000 in unpaid debts, as the Journal Sentinel reported. She handled nearly 300 evictions for one of Milwaukee’s more notorious landlords, has represented the Silk Exotic strip club, and on other occasions bowed out of cases, claiming physical and mental impairments.

Swanigan skipped out of the only debate scheduled between her and Chisholm, and also was a no-show at a mutual appearance of the candidates scheduled by the Community Brainstorming Conference, long a requirement for any candidate expecting to gain black votes in Milwaukee. She has declined to respond to questions from Urban Milwaukee and the Journal Sentinel.

Swanigan has joined groups protesting Chisholm’s decisions not to issue criminal charges in the deaths of Dontre Hamilton (at the hands of a police officer) and Corey Stingley (caused by customers at a West Allis store where Stingley was accused of shoplifting). She has claimed she can improve the management of the DA’s office, but the details behind this are vague and she’s never defended them in a public forum.

Chisholm is highly regarded by the legal community and credited with making many changes in the DA’s office, including initiatives in community prosecution, witness protection, sex trafficking prosecution and specialized courts for drug treatment. Such programs, he told the Journals Sentinel, reduce recidivism and save taxpayer money. They have also gained him national attention from groups like the Vera Institute and the New Yorker.

A big part of the anti-Chisholm effort is to get Republicans to cross over and vote in the Democratic primary. There are a couple problems with that effort. For starters, Republican congressman Paul Ryan is involved in a hotly contested primary election and his district includes the Milwaukee County communities of Oak Creek, Franklin, Hales Corners and Greendale where his supporters won’t want to opt out of the GOP primary. Secondly, two different people making phone calls urging you to vote for Swanigan said to vote in the “Republican primary” rather the Democratic primary, I’ve been told. That sounds like they are paid flunkies who don’t know what is going on in the race.

Still, anything can happen in a low-interest August election. Which is why Democrats are frantically urging folks to vote for Chisholm.

Short Take

Several other elections in Tuesday’s primary involve veteran Democratic legislators in Milwaukee with bad or good reputations worth noting. In the 16th Assembly District, Leon Young finally faces some strong opposition, led by Edgar Lin. Young was voted one of ten worst legislators every time Milwaukee Magazine did this story, in 1997, 2003 and 2009. Comments from capitol insiders on Young included “a total waste of space,” “a complete joke,” and “he needs to get a different job.”

Incumbent Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor faces opposition from Rep. Mandela Barnes. She was chosen as one of the worst legislators in the 2009 Milwaukee Magazine feature. “All bluster with no substance,” said one commentator. “Absolutely no depth of understanding,” said another. “Bombastic and egotistical,” was another description.

Finally, former legislator Jason Fields is running for the seat he once held. Fields, who is pro-school choice, was defeated by Barnes (who made that an issue) in 2012, but the seat is now open and Fields is running against political organizer Darrol Gibson. In the 2009 Milwaukee Magazine feature, respondents chose Fields as a “rising star” and offered these comments: “works both sides of the aisle… moves as comfortably in the C suite as in the central city,” and “helps Democrats understand business issues.”

23 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Can Chisholm Be Beaten?”

  1. Vincent Hanna says:

    This race is so strange. Clarke is running ads in support of a candidate who backs BLM and says there should have been charges in Corey Stingley’s death. Everyone knows how he feels about BLM and I can’t imagine he believes charges should have been filed against the men who killed Stingley. What does Swanigan think about getting so much money and support from individuals who probably share no political beliefs with her?

  2. Steven Blackwood says:

    Here’s a possibility. AS wins and then steps aside, citing some unspecified health issue, and Scott Walker gets to select her replacement.

  3. Rich says:

    @Steve (#2), you’re not the only one with this line of thinking:

  4. Vincent Hanna says:

    What does she gain by doing that? She must get something out of it. A job in the new DA’s office?

  5. dudemeister says:

    Boy, it sure is tough to be a moderate, pro-establishment conservative these days – once a part of the old “Moral Majority.” The Republican-backed candidate here represented a strip-club, supports charging police, and has a substantial financial backer who runs a sex toy business. I guess the only “morality” the Republican leadership supports these days is preventing gays from marrying, abortions from happening, and transgendered folks from using the toilet.

    I can’t, in good conscience, support that anymore.

    Also, why wasn’t there a picture of Swanigan in the article? Just curious.

  6. Dave Reid says:

    As far as the photos, should be one… I’ll fix. Fixed

  7. Milwaukee Native says:

    “Talk radio host Charlie Sykes has dumped on her qualifications (“she’s just not qualified”) while saying he would support her anyway as a ‘protest vote’ against Chisholm.”

    Yes, “Mr. Principles” Sykes can be counted on to play every angle. After gaining national attention (on MSNBC etc) for his “Never Trump” campaign, he had Mike Pence on for a long schmooze. Just watch how he pivots to convincing his audience that Pence will make up for Trump’s scary lunacy.

    So, yes, Sykes could be among those whispering that maybe Swanigan will resign (or eventually be urged to do so) and then Walker can control this office as well.

  8. Jason says:

    If enough Democrats south of I -94 crossover to vote for Nehland. Which leads to theouster Speaker of the House Paul Ryan on the Republican ticket. Well we could see a new DA in Milwaukee county. Voter turn out under 10 % a plus.

  9. Milwaukee Native says:

    I bet not many Dems will cross over to vote for Nehlen. Dem turnout will probably be high in city of Milwaukee and in parts of the county. That could drive turnout in Assembly primaries, giving an edge for progressive first-time candidates such as Edgar Lin, Marisabel Cabrera and David Crowley.

    Jason Fields, in announcing his candidacy, admitted that he “lied, cheated and (did) some outrageously stupid things and made horrible decisions.”

    “I acknowledge the fact that I`m not perfect,” Fields said. (Fox 6). Despite his public confession, he may be vulnerable again, against political organizer Darrol Gibson who helped Mandela Barnes defeat him last time around.

  10. casey says:

    Jason- im pretty aure all of Paul Ryan’s district is south of 94

  11. Jason says:

    Went to the competitors site. JS Blah Blah, no racism there. At the top of the front page covering a third of my computer screen a Democratic poltical fund add describes Verona Swanigan as representing SLUM LORDS, DRUG DEALERS and STRIP CLUBS. Where is the out rage! Democrats play the race card on an African American women running to be one of a select few county District Attorney’s in the state, Yet, they cry when there not enough colored Judges in Wisconsin compared to other states.

  12. Vincent Hanna says:

    So Jason you are saying it has to be all or nothing? People must support every single POC running for elected office no matter what since if they are calling for more diversity? Dems don’t play the race card nearly as much as people like you claim Dems play the race card. It’s like a tic. It’s all you do.

  13. Ryan N says:

    I’d cross over to vote for Chrisholm if I didn’t need to stay on the Republican side to vote for Paul Ryan. Hoping the strongest Republican municipalities in the county outside of River Hills stay and vote for the Republican side and we get a lot of spoiled ballets with those who try and vote Swanigan too.

  14. Jason says:

    Vince, your side stresses to its audience that people of color must be represented in the justice system and all ranks of political power but by your actions say certain coloured folks need not apply.

  15. Tim says:

    Jason, did your “side” mention anything about “wanting to be judged by the content of their character”? Oh yeah, that was us… that must be why you shamelessly and ignorantly try to claim hypocrisy. I guess old dogs don’t learn new tricks…

  16. wisconsin conservative Digest says:

    Chisholm is big hero for his unconstitutional attacks on Walker and his group. They never

  17. Frank Galvan says:

    No; he can’t.

  18. Gee says:

    Ryan N, thanks for staying on your toes! to alert us that Swanigan not only is pro-strip clubs but also is anti-ballet. Heck, that even could make River Hills vote Democratic.

  19. M says:

    Jason (#11 & 14):

    Re: “Yet, they cry when there not enough colored Judges in Wisconsin compared to other states.”

    Except for the legacy use of the word in the NAACP, the term “colored” has not been in common public usage for the most part since the 1960s. Even if you don’t update your attitudes you may want to stay current with today’s terminology. It’s no different than that women are no longer called only either Miss or Mrs.

    Language changes with the times.

  20. Jason says:

    E-mail the NAACP about your grievances. Since their proud of the word coloured ask them to progress. For you so offended by the term coloured I will use black.

  21. M says:

    I have no grievance with the NAACP. I respect their self-definition that goes back many decades.

    The ability to self-define is affirming. Being defined by others, especially pejoratively. is limiting and can be unproductive.

  22. Vincent Hanna says:

    Jason you are an exceptionally cheerful and pleasant fellow. So nice of you to share your antiquated thoughts here in between yelling at the youngsters to get off your lawn and turn down their portable radios.

  23. Vincent Hanna says:

    And Chisholm wins easily. Nice try Craig Peterson. That guy sure is good at wasting people’s money.

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