Support Reveals Nonpartisan Farce of High Court Race

Contest is Republican versus Democrat for pay-to-play constituents

March 13, 2007

Madison - Much of the big-money support behind Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Linda Clifford and Annette Ziegler comes from diehard supporters of Republican and Democratic candidates in spite of the race’s time-honored non-partisan façade, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis shows.

A review of the campaign contributors and outside special interest groups backing the candidates shows Clifford getting support from traditional backers of Democratic candidates and Ziegler drawing traditional Republican support. The review covered special interest contributions accepted by the candidates through February 5 – the most recent campaign finance reports available.

Lawyers, who usually contribute more to Democrats than Republicans, were Clifford’s largest special interest contributor at $109,630, excluding contributions to the campaign from the candidate and her husband who are both lawyers.

Labor unions, another traditional Democratic backer, were a distant second at $37,135 in individual and political action committee contributions from the Wisconsin chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, Madison Teachers Incorporated, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 24, the Wisconsin Laborers District Council and the State AFL-CIO, among others.

Groups that traditionally back Republican candidates were low among Clifford’s special interest contributors. She accepted only $900 from insurers, $500 from tourism interests, $461 from the telecommunications industry and $100 from realtors.

Those groups and other business interests who traditionally contribute more to Republicans than Democrats contributed substantially more to Ziegler. Manufacturers led in contributions to Ziegler at $45,875 followed by the realtors who kicked in $27,350 excluding family contributions, $17,000 from banking and finance interests excluding family contributions and $14,700 from business interests.

Contributions to Ziegler from individuals who have given all or most of their past donations to Republicans include:

  • $10,000 each from Robert and Patricia Kern of the Kern Family Foundation in Waukesha. The Kerns have contributed all but $1,000 of $60,490 since 1997 to Republican candidates;
  • $1,000 each from Terry and Mary Kohler of Windway Capital in Sheboygan. The Kohlers are long time supporters of Republican candidates and conservative causes, contributing all but $1,100 of $140,795 since 1993 to Republican candidates for state offices;
  • $2,500 from auto dealer Russ Darrow Jr. of West Bend, a 2004 Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. Darrow has contributed all but $3,450 of $46,575 since 1993 to Republican candidates;
  • $1,300 from David, John and Mark Cullen of the road building firm JP Cullen & Sons in Janesville. The Cullens have contributed all but $12,150 of $143,057 since 1993 to Republican candidates;
  • $500 from conservative Bradley Foundation chief Michael Grebe of Milwaukee. Grebe was a close adviser to former GOP Governor Tommy Thompson and a state and national Republican Party leader who has contributed all of his $44,500 since 1993 to Republican candidates;
  • $350 from George Steil Sr. who was Thompson’s longtime personal attorney. Steil, of Janesville, has contributed all but $500 of $18,662 since 1993 to Republican candidates;
  • $250 from Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, a former Republican Assembly speaker who has contributed all of his $3,150 since 1993 to Republican candidates, and $150 from Wausau financial consultant and former GOP congressional candidate Kevin Hermening, who has contributed all of his $5,350 since 1996 to Republican candidates;
  • $1,000 from Milwaukee businessman Fred Luber who has contributed all but $1,050 of $54,208 since 1993 to Republican candidates, and $100 from Madison developer Fred Mohs who has contributed all but $300 of $31,840 since 1993 to Republican candidates.

Contributions to Clifford from individuals who have given all or most of their donations to Democrats include:

  • $3,000 from Bank of Kaukauna executive John Brogan who has contributed all of his $50,725 since 1993 to Democratic candidates;
  • $2,000 from Kenosha attorney Bradden Backer who has contributed all but $100 of $6,600 since 1995 to Democratic candidates;
  • $2,500 from Milwaukee attorney J. Michael End who has contributed all but $600 of $19,950 since 1993 to Democratic candidates;
  • $2,250 from Wausau attorney Christine Bremer-Muggli who has contributed all but $500 of $12,900 since 1993 to Democratic candidates;
  • $4,000 from present and former Democratic officeholders including U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, former Governor Tony Earl, Dane County executive and former attorney general candidate Kathleen Falk; former state Democratic Party chief and congressional candidate Matthew Flynn, Representative Gary Sherman and former Representatives Gary Goyke and Tom Hebl;
  • $2,000 from Eau Claire attorney Thomas Guelzow who has contributed all but $600 of $29,887 since 1993 to Democratic candidates;
  • $650 from present and former Democratic appointees, legislative staff and campaign operatives including former Health and Social Services Secretary Linda Reivitz in the Earl Administration, longtime legislative staffers Bill McClenahan and Carol Reineking, former Democratic National Committee campaign strategist Teresa Vilmain and State Elections Board member Robert Kasieta.

For a list of the candidates’ large individual and political action committee contributions visit our Supreme Court page and click on their names.

In addition to many of their contributors, the candidates also have campaign managers with partisan resumes. Ziegler’s campaign manager, Mark Graul, was Wisconsin campaign director for President Bush’s 2004 reelection effort and Republican candidate for governor Mark Green’s failed 2006 campaign. Clifford’s campaign manager, Nicholl Caruso, is former political director of Progressive Majority Wisconsin, a group that backs democratic candidates.

Both candidates and their families contributed substantial amounts to both campaigns. Ziegler’s campaign raised $416,539 through February 5. Fifty-seven percent, or $235,500, came from the candidate, her husband and other members of Ziegler’s family which owns several companies involved in real estate, investment banking and other financial services. Earlier, WDC found one of her relatives exceeded the $10,000 limit on contributions to a statewide candidate in an election cycle. The excessive contribution put the candidate and the contributor in violation of state campaign finance laws.

Clifford’s campaign raised $418,832, including $167,465, or 40 percent, from the candidate and her husband and family.

Outside special interests doled out more than $400,000 on the race in February through secret electioneering activities called phony issue advertising. Fundraising and spending on phony issue ads are kept secret by special interests because of a loophole in campaign finance law. The law requires such reporting only when special interest ads and other electioneering activities explicitly tell people who to vote for or against even though the message in phony issue ads is clear as to how these groups want listeners to vote because of the way the ads strongly support or vilify a candidate.

The Wisconsin Club for Growth, an arm of the national pro-GOP organization, dropped an estimated $400,000 on a 60-second statewide television ad that tried to use humor to emphasize Ziegler was the only candidate in the race with experience as a prosecutor and a judge.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state largest business organization which spent an estimated $2.5 million to support Republican JB Van Hollen’s successful 2006 bid for attorney general, spent undisclosed amounts on automated telephone calls and a postcard mailing in February that favored Ziegler.

WMC also started airing television commercials in the Green Bay area in early March that billed Ziegler, a Washington County circuit judge, as a tough judge who protects society and sentenced one sexual predator to 60 years in prison. WMC planned to spend between $250,000 and $400,000 on television advertisements throughout the state on Ziegler’s behalf starting mid-March, according to media reports.

WMC is following the cue of other pro-business groups nationwide and getting more involved in attorney general and judicial races to support candidates it believes would treat the business community leniently in lawsuits, complaints and other legal matters.

One Wisconsin Now Action, a liberal group that backs democratic candidates, accused Ziegler in a series of press releases of judicial misconduct for not telling the parties in nearly four dozen cases she ruled on involving West Bend Savings Bank that her husband was on the bank’s board and that she has received $3 million in loans from the bank. The group also has criticized Ziegler for handling at least 164 cases in which one of the parties was a corporation in which she owned thousands of dollars in stock without telling the parties she was a stockholder, or withdrawing from the cases.

Media reports confirmed there were at least four bank cases and 34 cases involving companies in which she owned stock where there was no indication Ziegler disclosed her connection with the bank or the companies, or withdrew from the cases.

Planned Parenthood, an abortion advocacy group, and Fair Wisconsin, a group that campaigned against a proposed constitutional amendment approved last fall to ban gay marriage, said they may engage in outside electioneering activities called independent expenditures on behalf of Clifford. Independent expenditures are advertisements, mailings and other activities where the sponsors explicitly tell people who to vote for. Unlike phony issue ads, fundraising and spending on independent expenditures must be made public.

The Democratic Judicial Campaign Committee, a Washington DC-based fundraising group started last year, is urging Democrats nationwide to contribute to Clifford’s campaign and may spend money itself to help Clifford. The group says its focus is to counteract the influence of powerful business groups in judicial races throughout the country.