Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Will Evers’ Pardons Hurt Him In Election?

He’s bragging about setting a record. Will Republicans use it in attack ad?

By - Jan 10th, 2022 05:06 pm
Gov. Tony Evers

Gov. Tony Evers. Photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Two months after Republican Gov. Scott Walker took office, in March 2011, he issued an executive order creating his administration’s pardons board. But he never appointed anyone to it. Eight months later he suspended pardons indefinitely without a public announcement. More than 1,400 pardon requests were pending when he stopped the process without any explanation.

Walker later explained that “I have a hard time undermining the actions of a jury and of a court,” but some pointed to his ambition to run for president. You don’t need someone you pardoned to later commit a crime and create a controversy. Whatever his reasons, no governor in Wisconsin history served longer without issuing one pardon.

Democrat Tony Evers obviously sees things differently. Evers campaigned against Walker on the promise of re-starting the pardon board and six months after taking office as governor Evers issued an executive order establishing a Pardon Review Board and a review process by which convicted felons could apply for a pardon.

Since then Evers has been steadily granting pardons and issuing press releases publicizing this. The latest brags that he is up to 337 pardons and “has now granted more pardons during his first three years in office than any governor in contemporary history.”

Which has Democratic blogger and former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz very concerned. “Imagine a 30 second ad,” he writes, “in which a woman’s voice — conveying at once both fear and anger — is heard saying something like, ‘Tony Evers has pardoned more convicted felons than any governor in history. And homicides are up by 30%!… What on earth is Tony Evers thinking?’ While she’s talking you’ll see images of police tape and flashing lights over dark, menacing streets. Frightened children will be seen huddled in squad cars.”

Wisconsin is one of 30 states where the governor has the exclusive power to grant pardons, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Restoration of Rights Project and past governors of both parties all used the power. Democrat Jim Doyle issued 326 pardons over eight years; Republican Scott McCallum, 12 over two years; Republican Tommy Thompson, 202 over 14 years, Democrat Tony Earl, 196 over four years, and Republican Lee Dreyfus 112 in four years.

The record holder, though, was a Republican Gov. Julius Heil, who served from 1939 and 1943, issued 900 pardons and was nicknamed “Julius the Just.”

There typically hasn’t been a partisan split over the use of pardons, as Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an expert on clemency, told Wisconsin Public Radio. “Not in the sense that blue states do more clemency than red states,” Osler said. “If anything, it’s the other way around.” He noted that in recent years states like Oklahoma and Alabama each granted clemency to more than 800 people a year.

Evers has been very careful about the rules for his pardons. To be eligible, someone applying for a pardon must be convicted of a felony and be at least five years past the completion of their sentence, have no criminal charges pending and not be a registered sex offender. And they must demonstrate they have turned their life around by such things as receiving a degree, starting a business or volunteering in the community. As for Walker’s concern about undermining a jury or judge’s decision, while a pardon restores some legal rights — the right to vote, own a gun, serve on a jury and hold public office — it does not overturn a criminal conviction

“I believe in forgiveness and the power of redemption,” Evers has said, “and I believe the people of Wisconsin do, too.” Evers can tout the widespread impact of the pardons, which have gone to people in 61 of the state’s 72 counties, though about 42% — 143 pardons — have gone to people from Milwaukee County.

So far there has been no criticism of Evers’ pardons by Republicans.

His main challenger, former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch, did not respond to WPR’s request for comment about whether she would follow in Walker’s footsteps and suspend the pardon program again. Which suggests she has not decided. (Kevin Nicholson, who had vacillated between running for governor or U.S. Senator, is expected to enter the gubernatorial primary now that incumbent Senator Ron Johnson announced his run for reelection.)

Several Democratic consultants contacted by Urban Milwaukee doubted that Evers’ pardons would be targeted by Republican ads, but more because there are probably stronger ways to attack him as “soft on crime,” a standard GOP strategy.

Kleefisch has already claimed Evers didn’t respond to the unrest in Kenosha until lives were lost, which Politifact rated as “false.” And she has demanded that Evers fire Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, after it came out that accused felon Darrell Brooks was released on $1,000 bail just five days before a Waukesha parade that killed six and injured more than 60. While Evers declined to take such action he has announced a willingness to consider bail reform, a clear signal he is worried about that issue.

And that issue connects to another classic Republican attack, to demonize Milwaukee and blame Democrats for crime in the state’s biggest city. Compared to that, giving clemency to former offenders, even if most of them are in Milwaukee, seems too vague. Unless, of course, one of them goes on to commit a crime.

Cieslewicz, however, is convinced that while “Evers is right to issue pardons,” his timing is all wrong. “The right time to issue hundreds of pardons?” he asks. “It begins on the morning of Wednesday, November 9, 2022” — the day after the election.

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