SIX OUT OF SEVEN: Wisconsin Supreme Court has highest percentage of high court female justices in the country

Historic all-woman bench possible if elections next week and next year break that way

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Record Campaign Cash Raised in Southwestern Wisconsin State Senate Race

Big name spenders include DeVos, Steyer, Koch, Jobs in rural district


A $53,000 salary. Nearly $1.5 million raised to win the seat.

One of the fiercest battles for control of the state Senate last year was fought in the 17th District, which covers much of the southwestern corner of the state and includes Reedsburg, Platteville and Monroe.

In his successful attempt to retain his seat, state Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) set a Wisconsin State Legislature record this election cycle, raising more than $900,000. That’s the largest haul of campaign contributions brought in by a general election candidate this century, and likely in the history of the legislature*, according to an investigation by The Badger Project.

His Democrat challenger, Kriss Marion, a 51-year-old organic farmer and county board member from Blanchardville, was no slouch either. She raised nearly $600,000 in her losing bid. Combined, the nearly $1.5 million raised by the two candidates also sets a state legislature record for most direct contributions to a general election race this century, and also likely in the history of the state legislature*.

The pair raised, and mostly spent, that record-setting amount to land a part-time state senator job that pays $52,999 a year.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said former state Sen. Dale Schultz, who represented the district from 1991 until 2015.


The 17th State Senate District is a long, vertical strip of the state’s Driftless Area that runs north from the Mississippi River and Illinois border about 125 miles before stopping just short of Wisconsin Rapids.

The district touches nine counties and includes Schultz’s farm near Richland Center, Marion’s farm near Blanchardville, and the farm where Marklein, now 64, grew up in Spring Green.

The 17th State Senate District, in green.
The 17th State Senate District, in green.

Marklein, a member of the legislature since 2011 and the Senate since 2015, is retired from his career as a certified public accountant for the accounting and consulting firm Baker Tilly. In Madison, Marklein sits on the powerful Joint Committee on Finance and chairs the Committee on Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions. The married father and grandfather has proven to be an effective fundraiser, bringing in nearly $500,000 in his successful first campaign for state Senate in 2014, according to campaign finance data.

Marion was making her first run for state legislature, but is no novice to life in the spotlight. The former newspaper reporter and married mother of four often appears in local media as an advocate for female farmers, clean water and the region. She heightened her public profile significantly while part of a trio that successfully challenged a state law banning bake sales.

On first glance, the rural district doesn’t seem to be a place where political donors would pour in cash. Schultz, a Republican, said he remembered raising about $10,000 for his first campaign for Assembly in 1982. His own personal record came in the 2006 campaign, when he raised more than $300,000 while serving as majority leader of the state Senate.

In 2013, then-state Rep. Marklein announced he would run against him in the 2014 Republican primary election for his seat. Schultz retired and declined to endorse Marklein.

Marklein went on to beat a Democrat challenger in the general election that year, taking 55 percent and winning by more than 6,400 votes.

Against Marion in 2018, his margin narrowed slightly as he took 54 percent and won by about 5,700 votes.

State Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green)
State Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green)

After receiving requests for an interview for this story, Marklein replied with a six-sentence email statement.

“The 2018 elections are over,” he wrote in the first section of his email. “I prefer to focus on policy and service rather than divisive criticism and politics. My focus is on serving the people I represent and working hard for Wisconsin.”

Schultz, a 65-year-old moderate Republican who supported Democrat Tony Evers for governor but said he did not get involved in this race, credited Marion with running an “incredible grassroots campaign” with lots of people and energy.

In a phone interview, Marion said she “was really well-suited to the area.”

“I think I was a good candidate and I was well liked by Democrats. And I raised a ton of money,” she said. “And to only move (the vote) a percentage point is kind of shocking.”


Since Republicans drew the district maps in 2010, they have mostly held a majority in the 33-member state Senate, including an 18-15 majority in 2018.

Democrats had hoped to surf a blue wave of liberal voter energy this year to take both the 17th District and the entire Senate, said Joe Heim, a professor emeritus of political science at UW-La Crosse.

The 17th District had previously backed Barack Obama for president, but voted for Donald Trump in 2016, Heim noted, an encouraging sign for the GOP that it could be held.

“With a lot of cash,” Heim said.

Before Marion even announced her campaign in February 2018, the incumbent Marklein had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state. That gave him a strong head start and the ability to buy TV and radio advertising, especially in the closing weeks and days of the campaign.

Logging thousands of miles across the long district in her red, former fire department pickup truck during the campaign, Marion said she constantly heard radio ads purchased by Marklein’s campaign or on his behalf by outside groups.

Kriss Marion
Kriss Marion, a Democrat from Blanchardville

“My name came up negatively every minute when you’re driving,” Marion said. “You’re changing from station to station and it’s just relentless.”

Marion drew some attention from the national press late in the campaign, appearing in New York Times pieces about Wisconsin state politics and polluted groundwater. That exposure, she said, and other late media pieces helped boost her fundraising as she hurtled toward the finish line. But most radio and TV time had been sold at that point, she said, blunting her messaging and hurting her ability to answer her opponent’s ads.

Looking at Marklein’s donors, he received the maximum donation of $2,000 from many businesses and groups, including Charter Communications, the Potawatomi Native American Tribe, the Marathon Petroleum Corporation and Wal-Mart.


His fundraising record of more than $900,000 in the 2018 general election campaign was actually topped by state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). She raised more than $1 million in her successful 2011 recall election, according to campaign finance data. But fewer restrictions and limits exist in state law for those rare elections, making it easier to raise money.

Marion’s donors included several unions representing teachers, electrical workers, engineers and carpenters. Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs, gave her the maximum, and she also got two $2,000 checks from Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor, the billionaire couple and prominent liberal donors.


With the balance of the Senate on the line and a potential blue wave motivating both sides, the political parties also spent heavily on the race.

Marklein and Marion received nearly identical amounts from their parties, about $240,000 each.

That means more than 40 percent of Marion’s total campaign cash flowed from her political party’s fundraising committees, the Wisconsin Democratic Party and the State Senate Democratic Committee of Wisconsin.

More than 25 percent of Marklein’s total haul came from his political party’s fundraising committees – the Wisconsin Republican Party and the Committee To Elect A Republican Senate of Wisconsin.

Then there were independent expenditures – money not donated to the candidates, but spent on their behalf.

The American Federation for Children, a conservative group funded by the billionaire family of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, spent more than $500,000 through its political action committee on negative TV ads about Marion, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state.

Several left-leaning groups, including the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, combined to spend roughly the same amount promoting Marion through TV, internet and mailer ads.

Left-leaning groups also spent nearly $300,000 opposing Marklein through things like TV ads and mailers.

The Koch brothers’ political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity spent about $26,000 on mailers and digital ads promoting Marklein.


It’s no secret that money in politics continues to grow.

Those large deposits of party cash to Marklein and Marion in this race were made possible by a recent law change in Wisconsin. In 2015, the Republican-controlled legislature doubled the limits on contributions from individuals, lifted a ban on corporate contributions to political parties and legislative campaign committees, and removed limits on how much a political party could donate to a candidate, among other things.

Also, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, which prohibited spending limits by independent groups, was a landmark decision that led to a flood of campaign spending nationally, including in Wisconsin.

In 2002, the total amount of direct campaign contributions to all candidates for the Wisconsin state Senate was about $2.9 million. Compare that to the nearly $1.5 million Marklein and Marion raised for a single state Senate seat 16 years later, and you see which way the needle is moving.

Donations to candidates for the Wisconsin state Senate and Assembly have risen steadily in the last 18 years, to nearly $19 million for all candidates in last year’s campaign from about $10 million in 2000.

Former state Sen. Dale Schultz, a Republican who previously represented the 17th State Senate District
Former state Sen. Dale Schultz, a Republican who previously represented the 17th State Senate District

That doesn’t even include the staggering increase in cash from outside groups spent on behalf of candidates, often to run TV or radio advertising bashing an opponent. Those groups, including the Democratic Governors Association, the Republican Governors Association and Americans for Prosperity, poured a record $61 million into the 2018 election here, according to the nonprofit watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign finance in the state. That’s up from $36 million in the 2014 midterm here and $19 million in 2010.

More money in politics means democracy doesn’t work as well, Schultz said.

“Instead of representing their constituents, (politicians) are representing the people who give them money,” he said. “And the people who give them money expect a return on investment.”


Wisconsin Democrats say they want to scale back the 2015 Republican changes to campaign finance reform and elect representatives who will “fight for policies to reform the campaign finance system that Wisconsin Republicans broke,” said Courtney Beyer, communications director for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin did not respond to several requests for comment on the issue.

Any changes before 2020 are unlikely though, as Republicans will hold both houses of the Legislature until at least then.

Marion is looking forward even farther, to the 2022 election, when the 17th Senate District is back up for reelection.

“I would love to remove Marklein, so I’m still thinking that direction,” she said of running again. “He’s getting more power, running more of the committees.”

She accused the senator of being hypocritical, saying he ran a campaign against Madison “insiders,” while noting “it doesn’t get more insider than being on (the) joint finance (committee).”

Marklein responded to those criticisms in the second and final portion of his email statement to The Badger Project.

“I have been appointed to influential positions in the Senate, which is good for those I serve,” he wrote. “I have a strong voice and tremendous opportunities to make a difference. My focus is on affecting good policy that makes strong fiscal sense for the people of the 17th Senate District.”

That district will look different in 2022. The maps must be redrawn after the 2020 census, which could mean a less favorable electoral landscape for Republicans. With a Democrat in the governor’s mansion, the GOP lacks the full control it had over drawing the lines in 2010.

Yet if Marklein continues his hefty fundraising and remains popular in the district, any challenger will face an uphill battle to dethrone him. Even a well-funded and media-savvy one like Marion.

Her success in generating voter enthusiasm likely will be her best chance.

“There is no substitute for getting off the couch and getting engaged,” Schultz said. “That’s what being a citizen is all about and you can’t outsource that. If you really want to make change, you have to be engaged.”

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*EDITOR’S NOTE: The Badger Project cannot say definitively that these campaign finance totals are all-time highs, because the Wisconsin Ethics Commission – which oversees campaign finance and has existed since 2015 – has records dating back to 2008, said Daniel A. Carlton, Jr., the Commission’s administrator. It’s unclear where previous campaign finance records are stored, he said. The National Institute on Money in Politics, a Montana-based nonprofit which tracks campaign finance data in all 50 states and was used in The Badger Project’s investigation, has gathered comprehensive data going back to 2000. Those facts, combined with the 2015 campaign finance change which loosened or removed donation limits and the comparatively modest campaign fundraising before 2000, led The Badger Project to conclude these are very likely the highest amounts raised by one candidate as well as two competing candidates in the history of the legislature.

Toll the FIBs?

To repair our shoddy roads, why not tax Illinois tourists on the way in?

Here’s why not.


If you’re a Wisconsin resident, you know all about the honking migration that happens every summer. Not the Flying Vs of Canada Geese flapping through our state to return home, but the fleets of SUVs bearing Illinois license plates that come to camp in our parks, splash in our lakes and drive like the FIBs that they are.

Why doesn’t the state of Wisconsin put a toll booth RIGHT on the border and soak those southerners for a buck each time they cross the line? Let THEM pay for our crumbling roads. They use them enough.

For one, a border toll might be unconstitutional. The Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. Before our nation created and adopted the Constitution, the states were fighting trade wars with each other.

Chad Oldfather, professor and associate dean at Marquette University Law School

Many Wisconsinites probably would like to do the same and charge a FIB tax, nailing every vehicle without a Wisconsin license plate with a toll. But that is “almost certain to be unconstitutional,” Chad Oldfather, a constitutional law professor and associate dean at the Marquette University Law School, wrote to The Badger Project in an email.

“States cannot pass laws that expressly discriminate against out-of-state commerce unless they’ve got a really good reason for doing so and can show that there’s no other way to act on that reason,” he said.

For example, Wisconsin could potentially ban firewood from other states based on concerns it might bring with it a devastating pest like the ash borer, Oldfather said.

But Wisconsin could not honestly say there was no other way to pay for our roads other than to toll out-of-staters. We could put tolls well-within our border, raise the gas tax, etc.

“Any sort of tolling regime that relies entirely or even disproportionately on tolls at or near the state’s borders is highly likely to be unconstitutional,” Oldfather said, “because it will be a regime that imposes its burdens primarily on interstate as opposed to in-state commerce.”

Also, a toll on the two interstates which cross from Illinois into Wisconsin might just divert traffic from those routes onto the many other roads which cross the border, said Lingqian Hu, a professor and chair at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Lingqian Hu, professor and chair at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning

And Hu noted it would cost a lot of cash to set up the tolling system. That kind of investment doesn’t make much long-term sense for the state. The I-PASS technology that scans a device as you pass through a reader on the highway will likely be replaced by a device that counts all your mileage via GPS, according to former Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb. He argued for an increased gas tax over tolls in an informative 2018 piece from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

To further his point, Gottlieb also notes in the piece that the cost to collect taxes on gas is about 1% of total revenue received, while the cost of building and operating a tolling system costs about 23% of total revenue received.

In 2017, the paper reported that then-Gov. Walker was open to the idea of putting a toll booth on the Illinois border. Of course, Scotty knew he was facing a tough reelection in 2018, and needed to be seen as doing something about the poor condition of Wisconsin roads, but didn’t want to annoy voters with a new tax.

It didn’t go anywhere, but it was, in a way, smart politics. An October 2018 poll from the Marquette Law School found that 59 percent of Wisconsin residents say it is more important to keep gas taxes and vehicle registration fees where they are now than raise taxes for road improvements, discouraging vote-hungry politicians from doing so.

This despite the fact that among all 50 states, Wisconsin’s road quality ranked 44th in the country, according to a 2018 U.S. News ranking.

Ultimately, increasing the gas tax probably makes more sense than setting up a tolling infrastructure, even if they were constitutionally-spread throughout the state of Wisconsin.

Unable to launch a trade war against their neighbors to the south, Sconnies will have to get their kicks in through the state’s sports teams’ general dominance over those in the Land of Lincoln.

Restoring the Balance of Power

 After Wisconsin Democrats won all the statewide offices on the ballot in November, Republicans who remained in control of the legislature removed some powers from the incoming governor and attorney general. Here’s the latest cartoon on the situation from The Badger Project’s Alec Diab.
After Wisconsin Democrats won all the statewide offices on the ballot in November, Republicans who remained in control of the legislature removed some powers from the incoming governor and attorney general. Here’s the latest cartoon on the situation from The Badger Project’s Alec Diab.

Number of seats up for election: 116. Number of incumbents who lost: 1*.

State Sen. Caleb Frostman (D-Sturgeon Bay)


ust one.

That’s how many incumbents, from 116 seats up for reelection, lost in the Wisconsin State Legislature earlier this month.

And even that hardly counts. That lone incumbent, Democrat state Sen. Caleb Frostman of Sturgeon Bay (who has a great name for a politician from the Great White North), will only hold the seat in the traditionally-Republican state Senate 1st District, the thumb of Wisconsin, for about six months after winning it in a special election in June.

Of those 116 seats up for reelection (some of the 116 incumbents did not run again), 37 didn’t even face a challenger in the general election. A legislator makes $50,000-a-year and is considered part-time.

Not exactly competitive elections.

Despite winning all five statewide races – U.S. senator, governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer – Democrats lost a seat in the state Senate, growing the Republican majority to 19-13. Republicans appear to have lost a seat in their huge Assembly majority, dropping that split to 63-36.

The gerrymandered maps also help Democrat incumbents stay in power. Of the 11 Democrats representing Milwaukee in the Assembly, only three faced a general election opponent, whom they all easily crushed. In Madison, none of the five Assembly Democrats faced a general election opponent.

But the net effect appears to help Republicans hold the legislature in a great election year for Democrats.

Critics say the Wisconsin legislative district maps, drawn by Republicans in 2011, help Republicans, but also protect incumbents from the will of the voters by making districts less competitive.

“In a democracy, citizens are supposed to choose their legislators,” University of Wisconsin law professor Bill Whitford said in 2016 to the alumni magazine of the law school. “In Wisconsin, legislators have chosen their voters.”

Assembly Speaker Rep. Robin Vos, a Republican from Burlington, disagrees. He told the Wisconsin State Journal last week that gerrymandering in Wisconsin is a “made-up issue,” pointing to how well Democrats did in Madison and Milwaukee while losing most of the rest of the state. Vos also reportedly cursed at Ohio Gov. John Kasich last year for supporting a lawsuit asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the maps in Wisconsin.

Whitford and others filed suit against the Republican-drawn district maps, saying the state of Wisconsin is unconstitutionally gerrymandered. A federal court in Wisconsin agreed.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court threw it back to the lower court on a technicality, but the case might not matter anymore.

The election of Tony Evers to governor of Wisconsin means he will be able to veto any maps the Republican-controlled legislature produces. Then it will go to the courts for drawing. That should give the state of Wisconsin a more competitive map.

The Moderation Political Party of One


In this time of nasty partisanship, the candidate from The Moderation Party is realistic about his chances of winning a seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly next month.

“Very slim,” said Steven Shevey, a 21-year-old steamfitter from Brookfield. “If I do win, great, but the one thing I want out of this is to get someone better.”

Shevey was inspired to run under the banner of his invented political party after getting fed up with the two-party system during the 2016 presidential election.

“You had two candidates no one liked,” he said. “After that, we had two government shutdowns that cost taxpayers billions of dollars. And then seeing the direction of everything and how it’s going, you have the two parties trying to outdo themselves. As in, ‘I’m a Republican, I’m going as far right as I can because I don’t want to be next to you Democrats.’ And the Democrats do the same. We need to find the middle.”

An usually crowded field is jostling for the open seat in Assembly District 14, which covers portions of the Republican-leaning towns of Brookfield and Wauwatosa, as well as part of blue Milwaukee. Four candidates are running to replace outgoing Republican Assemblyman Dale Kooyenga: Wisconsin State Treasurer and Republican Matt Adamczyk, Democrat Robyn Vining, Libertarian Rick Braun, and the independent Shevey.

During a recent interview in downtown Madison, he described himself as a family-oriented, working-class guy who likes to go fishing and keep up on the Packers. He has a “huge Christian background” and said he goes to church with his parents every Sunday.

A graduate of Brookfield Central High School, he briefly pursued an associate’s degree in accounting from Waukesha County Technical College, but dropped out to become a steamfitter’s apprentice.

Now he’s feeling squeezed financially.   

“I’m trying to buy a house soon,” he says. “I’ve seen how the cost has skyrocketed to where you can’t really afford a house. You’re kind of forced to rent. It’s basically done a 180 from when my parents could get out of high school and get a good-paying job.”

“Nowadays, you can’t get a good-paying job unless you go to a four-year college or something like that,” he continued. “So, you’re kind of stuck at your parent’s house for a long time.”

When it comes to politics, he tends to lean to the right, but prefers middle-of-the-road over the extremes he sees today. He’s critical of both Obamacare and Trump’s tax plan, and he’s also turned off by the generally ugly tone of today’s political discourse. Shevey believes voters are ready for a younger candidate with an independent voice — someone who won’t engage in tribalism and personal attacks.

Enter his main opponent, Adamczyk. The outgoing state treasurer and likely favorite in the red 14th District fits the increasingly common mold of a brash and uncompromising politician.

 Matt Adamczyk, the Wisconsin State Treasurer who is also seeking the Assembly seat in the 14th District
Matt Adamczyk, the Wisconsin State Treasurer who is also seeking the Assembly seat in the 14th District

Secretary of State Doug La Follete, a Democrat, and Attorney General Brad Schimel, who is from his own Republican Party, have both accused him of abusive behavior toward the state employees they oversee. The three elected officials sit on the State of Wisconsin Board of Commissioners and Public Lands, whose nine-employee agency manages a billion-dollar fund and caretakes some 80,000 acres of state land.

Adamczyk had previously voted to prevent staff from discussing climate change on the job, and also tried to have the administrator fired. She eventually resigned.

Most recently, Adamczyk butted heads with Schimel and La Follette during an August meeting.

After Adamczyk questioned the credentials of agency staff and suggested they didn’t have professional backgrounds, he interrupted repeatedly as a staff member attempted to explain his work experience. That prompted Schimel to say, “just shut it for a minute,” calling him “abusive and unreasonable” to staff, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

“Matt, I gotta tell ya, I’m counting the days ‘til you’re not on this board,” Schimel told Adamczyk in the meeting. “I’ve had enough.

Adamczyk did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The contrast between Shevey and Adamczyk is representative of the statewide shift away from relatively moderate and civil politics. Wisconsin has morphed from the moderate-to-progressive Midwestern state it had been for decades, said Joe Czarnezki, a former state assemblyman, senator and Milwaukee County Clerk. A lifelong Democrat, he said personal attacks were rare when he served as an elected representative in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and across-the-aisle collaborations were much more common.

“You would argue about the issues,” he said, “and go get a beer together afterward.”

In recent years though, partisanship in state politics has become much more overt, said Larry Anderson, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater.

“I’m left with the impression that it’s not as clean as it used to be,” he said. “It’s hyperpartisan now, reflecting the divisions in the United States, and it seems like nobody is happy.”

Yet Anderson disagrees with Czarnezki, saying the process of political polarization began long ago, well before the famously divisive 2012 recall election of Gov. Scott Walker. He referred to a political saying dating back to 1895 – “politics ain’t bean-bag.”

“It’s always been nasty,” he said.

The rise of social media has played a role, Anderson said. He also cited globalization, immigration and the changing economy as the primary forces behind the decline of civil politics.

But, he emphasized, it all starts and ends with us.

“We get what we ask for,” Anderson said. “If we start asking for more decency and more cooperation, I think we get that.”

“I don’t think Scott Walker or Donald Trump have done anything other than what some people want them to do,” he continued. “On the other side, I don’t think Democrats have done anything other than fight hard and take what they can, when they can. I think that’s what we’re asking for, so if we want things to change, we have to be really clear about expecting our politicians to be more decent.”

From Czarnezki’s viewpoint, the polarization of Wisconsin’s politics is a reflection of “voters losing control of democracy.” Big money talks in a big way, he said, often influencing politicians to act against the majority’s will.

Shevey said he isn’t accepting donations, noting he doesn’t want to owe anyone on the off-chance he’s elected. He’s self-funding his campaign through his work earnings, reporting about $2,700 in contributions from himself. His opponents certainly are taking donations though. Adamczyk has raised nearly $37,000, but has been outraised by Vining, his Democratic challenger, by nearly $6,000, according to the most recent campaign finance filings on The Libertarian Braun has raised $755.

Czarnezki also noted that thousands of Wisconsin voters were essentially barred from participating in the 2016 presidential election thanks to the state’s strict voter ID law, pointing to findings from a study at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

However, Czarnezki is encouraged by the surge in young, first-time candidates running for office throughout the country. Shevey’s politically-moderate campaign and others like it may cause his Democratic and Republican counterparts to “modify their positions on issues and soften their hardline stances,” Czarnezki said.

Shevey believes voters are tired of lifelong politicians who are more interested in career preservation than serving the public. And so he views youth and relative political inexperience not as a hindrance, but an advantage.

“I think that makes the best candidates,” he said.

The Blue Wave vs. The Red Wall

After years in the political wilderness, state Democrats hope a “Blue Wave” will help them retake government in November, as it has already propelled them to several wins this year. But Wisconsin Republicans refer to a “Red Wall” which will allow them to withstand the wave. The Badger Project’s cartoonist Alec offers his take. # WIpolitics # WisPolitics # WIgov #Wisconsin #BlueWave #BlueWave2018 #RedWall

Six members of State Assembly have declared personal bankruptcy


At least six members of the Wisconsin State Assembly have filed for personal bankruptcy at some point, The Badger Project has discovered in an investigation of federal court records.

The six legislators, all men, are Republicans and Democrats. The group consists of Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee), Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville), Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin), John Spiros (R-Marshfield), Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego) and Leon Young (D-Milwaukee).

Five of the assemblymen did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.

Wichgers, whose 83rd District covers Muskego, Big Bend and Waterford, told The Badger Project his bankruptcy was caused by large medical bills incurred when his wife endured two miscarriages in a short period of time, as well as another hospital visit for one of his eight children.

With their bills exceeding their monthly income by about $1,000, Wichgers said he and his wife tried to negotiate a payment plan they could afford. But the hospitals “would not budge at all,” according to their Milwaukee-based attorney, Joseph W. Seifert. Wichgers and his wife owed about $50,000 in medical debt, Seifert told The Badger Project. The Wichgers filed for bankruptcy in 2010.

Young, whose 16th District covers part of Milwaukee, reported more than $10,000 in debt to a Las Vegas hotel and casino, Mandalay Bay Resort, according to bankruptcy documents he filed in 2010. In total, he reported more than $200,000 in debt.

Spiros, whose 86th District includes part of Marshfield as well as Mosinee and Marathon City, reported more than $100,000 in consumer debt, according to his initial bankruptcy documents, which he filed in 2002.

Sanfelippo, whose 15th District covers West Allis and New Berlin in the Milwaukee suburbs, reported the most debt of the six politicians, at nearly $900,000. Much of that appears to have come from a failed business. That debt included nearly $21,000 in unpaid payroll withholding taxes owed to the state, and more than $300,000 in a tax debt for state unemployment insurance. Now 54, Sanfelippo filed for bankruptcy in 2001. He sat on the Assembly Committee on Financial Institutions in 2017 and 2018.

Fields, whose 11th District covers the north side of Milwaukee, was in between stints as a state legislator when he filed for bankruptcy in 2016. He listed $6,000 in assets, and reported some medical and student debt in the more than $270,000 he owed to creditors. Despite his financial history, Fields, 44, promotes himself as a professional investment manager. He also sat on the Assembly Committee on Financial Institutions in 2017 and 2018.

And in a situation that comes as no surprise to us at The Badger Project, Novak filed for bankruptcy in 1992 while working as an editor for The Dodgeville Chronicle newspaper (journalists don’t make much money).

Novak represents the 51st District, which includes Dodgeville, Mineral Point, and Monroe. The 53-year-old politician also serves as the mayor of Dodgeville, earning $7,000 annually for that position. Because Novak’s bankruptcy documentation is so old, it has been disposed of, according to the Federal Records Center in Chicago.

All six assemblymen filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, according to federal court records. Individuals file for bankruptcy when they can’t afford to pay their debts. The chapter 7 type allows debtors to sell some nonessential assets and put that cash towards their debts, rather than entering a payment plan. Many of the other debts are wiped clean and the debtors no longer legally owe them to their creditors.

More than 16,000 bankruptcies were filed in Wisconsin in 2016, the most recent year data is available from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. That’s about 3.7 per 1,000 adults in Wisconsin.

The number of bankruptcies filed in Wisconsin has fallen steadily since 2010, the heart of the Great Recession, when more than 29,000 filed in the state in 2010, for a rate of about 6.8 per 1,000 Wisconsin adults.

 Source: Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts Source: Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts

With at least six assemblymen filing bankruptcy at some point, that’s a rate of at least 6 percent in the 100-member Assembly. That body, along with the Wisconsin State Senate, was responsible for crafting and passing the state’s $76 billion, two-year budget last year. The Republican-controlled State Assembly and State Senate haggled 10 weeks past the July 1 deadline before passing it.

The legislators’ bankruptcies raise questions about the Assembly’s ability to balance a budget, especially in a year when the legislature took weeks past its deadline to get it passed.

But managing one’s personal finances and crafting and voting on a state budget is not an apples to apples comparison, according to James Simmons, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh.

“State budgets involve the value and priorities legislators place on policies and programs,” he wrote in an email. “Furthermore, their voting on budgets usually reflect clear partisan divisions and party line agenda rather than the individual financial acumen of the elected official.”

And legislators don’t manage the state’s day-to-day finances as the heads of state agencies do, he noted.

The two Democrats, Fields and Young, were serving as assemblymen during part or all of their bankruptcy process. State representatives and state senators make about $50,000 annually.

All four Republicans declared bankruptcy years before taking office.

It’s not uncommon to see legislators with a history of personal bankruptcy, Simmons said.

“This is not something that usually hurts them,” Simmons said. “I can’t think of any race in which bankruptcy or personal finance can be attributed to a loss.”

“When it comes to state legislators, most people who vote for them know very little about them,” he continued.

Simmons also noted the high profile case of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose companies have filed for bankruptcy protection multiple times over the years.

“If (a history of bankruptcy) isn’t going to affect a high-information race, it certainly won’t have much effect on a low-information race,” Simmons said.

Fields is the only candidate virtually assured of retaining his seat next year. The Democrat is running unopposed in both the August primary election and the November general election.

Republicans Novak, Sanfelippo and Wichgers have no primary opponents, but must defeat Democrat challengers to remain in the Assembly.

Spiros, a 57-year-old Republican, faces a challenger in the August primary. Should he prevail, he must defeat a Democrat and an Independent candidate in the general.

Young, a a 51-year-old Democrat, is leaving the Assembly after more than two decades. Party leaders stripped him of his committee assignments earlier this year. The reasons why are unclear, but Young has said they did so because he pushed for an assault weapons ban.

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No academic degree fraud found in Wisconsin Legislature …but we couldn’t check everybody


Lying about receiving a degree you never earned is pretty easy. For the most part, so is verifying it.

In a 2015 survey of employers by the company CareerBuilder, 28 percent reported having caught a job seeker lying about an academic degree on their resume.

Some politicians aren’t above exaggerating or outright lying about earning academic degrees.

A state senator in Iowa, Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, made national news last year when he was caught claiming he had earned a business degree, but in fact had completed only a training certificate from a California company that ran a Sizzler.

By contacting universities and academic institutions, we attempted to verify the educational claims made by more than 100 Wisconsin state legislators, to see if anyone in our own legislature was fiddling with the truth.

In perhaps a positive and surprising outcome for such cynical times, nearly everyone checked out.

The highest number of degrees in the legislature come, unsurprisingly, from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, with 35. At least 12 have degrees from the UW – Milwaukee, and ten have degrees from Marquette University

Most of the UW system is represented, as well as Big Ten schools like Michigan State (Rep. Mike Rohrkaste, R-Neenah – B.S., 1980 and M.S., 1982), Iowa (Rep. Patrick J. Snyder, R-Schofield – B.A., 1978), and the University of Minnesota (several).

Other big schools that educated our elected officials include the University of Southern California (Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha – M.P.A., 1992) and the University of Florida (Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake – J.D., 2004). Academic powerhouses like the University of Chicago (Rep. Daniel Riemer, D-Milwaukee – B.A., 2009) and the University of Pennsylvania (Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison – B.A., 1990) are also represented.

However, some schools have outsourced their degree verification to a third-party company, which places a hurdle in front of those trying to verify degrees with a $15 fee. In a counter productive strategy, others flat out refuse to verify degrees without consent from the person claiming to have earned it, essentially preventing liars from being outed.

The following schools refused to verify degrees and directed us to that third-party company or refused us altogether.

Carroll University, Waukesha, WI (Rep. Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, claims B.A., 2008)

Chippewa Valley Technical College, Eau Claire, WI (Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, claims degree in construction management, 1997)

State University College of New York at Buffalo (Rep. Thomas Weatherston, R-Caledonia, claims B.S., 1977)

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