Can Chisholm Be Beaten?
The DA pleads for help as dark money from outside the county blasts him.
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.
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 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.
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.”