Ten years ago today liberal Milwaukee attorney Walt Kelly got his ass kicked. In a challenge to incumbent Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox, Kelly lost every county in the state, a record not even matched by Ed Garvey against Tommy Thompson. As Charlie Sykes reminded us back in 2000, despite breaking new political ground in a judicial race by indicating his position on future issues before the court, despite spending an unprecedented $470,000, Kelly lost 62% to 38%, a landslide.
In other words, there was probably nothing that could’ve made Kelly a winner on that election day. He was a complete loser.
All that tends to be lost in the discussion about that election because of a controversial anonymous postcard that reminded some people to vote. The little green postcards would be the subject of litigation for three years. As President of the organization that mailed the postcards, the Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation (WCVP), I can say the postcards (pictured above) were the result of some brainstorming to drive up voter turnout among conservatives. A letter, and then a second letter, was written to State Elections Board Attorney George Dunst to clarify the rules. The result, as long as the communication did not expressly advocate the election of a candidate,
1) We could communicate with whomever we want, whatever list we wanted.
2) We did not need to file with the state of Wisconsin.
3) We did not need to put a disclosure on the mailing.
So we raised the money and shortly before April 1, 1997, the postcards were mailed out and an automated phone call (a relatively new campaign tool) went out to identified Republicans.
It had the virtue of never having been tried before.
Walt Kelly did not take his loss well. He filed a complaint with the State Elections Board. Unlike, say Mark Green and JB Van Hollen, Democrats tend to pursue these things like Ahab searching for the whale. At the end of the three-year process and exhaustive investigation, it turns out our executive director had frequent conversations with his friend who happened to be the campaign manager for Wilcox, and the language on the postcard was similar to the language of a Wilcox television ad (which to this day I have never seen).
This and the mounting costs of defending ourselves led to settlements of record fines by the Wilcox campaign and by WCVP with the state elections board. Matt Weiss, the WCVP treasurer whose only role was to open the checking account, was never under investigation and cooperated with the investigators.
“The board has not yet reached a settlement with two parties to the case — the coalition, which is a corporation, and coalition co-founder Wigderson. Unless a settlement is reached, those cases will go to trial in November.”
I never admitted wrongdoing. I never paid a fine. When I finally settled, I agreed to a brief spell away from participation in political campaigns, long since expired. You want irony? I asked for clarification, and Dunst indicated in a letter that my suspension from politics did not preclude me from getting involved in another non-partisan Get Out The Vote Effort. The corporation itself was allowed to lapse and the “remaining assets” (less than $200) were given to the state elections board. I hope they bought themselves a nice lunch.
One of the last conversations between my lawyer and Kevin Kennedy, the executive director of the SEB, (from memory as it was related to me second-hand):
KK: “Everyone else is settling. You don’t want to be last.”
Lawyer: “Why not?”
KK: “You know, your client has a real chip on his shoulder.”
Lawyer: “That’s because nobody can show him what he did wrong.”
To this day, I believe what we did was perfectly legal. Even if there had been “collusion” (never proved) our effort was a non-partisan get out the vote effort that didn’t expressly endorse a candidate.
And nothing we did or didn’t do would have changed the result: Walt Kelly was a complete loser.