By Doug Hissom Special to Published Nov 19, 2008 at 11:16 AM

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Just when you thought it was safe to turn on the TV and avoid political commercials, it's time for the spring elections -- with a state Supreme Court race and several county judicial races -- to get underway.

The Supreme Court race pretty much started this week when Jefferson County Circuit Judge Randy R. Koschnick fulfilled expectations that he would announce his campaign to attempt to unseat Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Given the recent contest for the high court seat of Louis Butler, which Butler lost to a relatively unknown former prosecutor and judge Mike Gableman, this one should pull out all the stops in the bible of dirty campaigning, as well.

Koschnick will run with the full support of right-wing conservative groups such as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, All Children Matter and the Coalition for America's Families -- pleasant sounding groups with sharp-tongued agendas.

Gableman embraced that crowd in his run earlier this year in a race that saw record spending for a court seat. Gableman was later found to have violated state election and judicial codes by running a patently false TV ad about Butler.

Koschnick is a former public defender who was elected a circuit judge in 1999 and re-elected in 2005. Abrahamson was first appointed to the court in 1976. She became chief justice 12 years ago and will seek a new 10-year term in the April ballot.

Perhaps anticipating the muddy groundswell of smears about to come her way, Abrahamson used her annual State of the Judiciary address to again ask the state Legislature to approve public financing of judicial campaigns, since the nasty ads usually come from outside groups fueled with money from unknown sources. It's not a new idea by any stretch.

"The people of our state must be assured that our courts work for them and them alone," Abrahamson said in her speech. "We do not work for special interests, associations, advocacy groups or political parties of any kind, pro- or anti- anything."

Democrats who controlled the Senate the last two years passed a public financing plan during the the last session, but the Republican majority in the Assembly killed the measure. Democrats control both houses now.

Abrahamson also used her address to take a swipe at the standard code words used by the right in their fight against more liberal judges like Abrahamson, such as "elitist," "activist" and "legislating from the bench."

"Threats to our independent, non-partisan judiciary must not and will not be tolerated in this state," she added. "Wisconsin judges have both an institutional and personal interest in the election of judges and the tenor of campaigns. We must ensure that judicial campaigns are worth of the electorate."

On the Milwaukee court scene, Assistant District Attorney for Milwaukee County Daniel Gabler announced that he will run for the seat vacated by Judge Michael Brennan, who wants to go into private practice. Brennan was often listed among potential Supreme Court candidates and was recently on the short list for a federal bench job.

It should be no surprise that Gabler's mantra is "fair but firm," since that's the going pitch these days.

Another Milwaukee County bench opened up for spring polling fun when John Franke announced he was leaving for private practice, too.

Losing Power from the Power: Milwaukee Democratic lawmakers took it on the chin from their colleagues after being unable to get elected to any leadership posts in either the Assembly -- which they just took over -- and the Senate. The top dogs decide the progress of bills, who gets to sit on what committee and even what bills will get introduced.

The biggest hit taken was by state Rep. Jon Richards, who represents the East Side and Bay View. He lost a bid to be speaker of the Assembly. Richards at one time was thought to have his sights set on the statehouse and a run for governor. The long-time assistant minority leader for the Dems, Richards did yeoman's work in helping get Democrats elected in the hinterlands of the state, spending substantial time even traveling in their districts. That's the thanks he gets.

Democrats have been the minority party in the Assembly for the past 14 years, causing many veteran Dems to leave because there was essentially nothing to do but twiddle their thumbs while Republicans ruled the roost.

Milwaukee lawmakers Sen. Lena Taylor and state Reps. Pedro Colon and Tamra Grigsby were selected to the 16-member Joint Finance Committee, which decides everything regarding the budget.

Sick Suit on the Way: To no one's surprise, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce has chosen to go ahead with a lawsuit to stop the city from implementing a new ordinance that would require employers to give up to nine days of paid sick time for full time employees. The city must implement the measure after voters overwhelmingly approved the idea in a binding referendum Nov. 4.

"While we respect the good intentions advocates of this ordinance may have, the hard fact is that passage of this one-size-fits-all government has already had a chilling effect on business attitudes toward Milwaukee, " said MMAC president Tim Sheehy, adding that the city could face "dire economic consequences" as a result of the ordinance.

MMAC argues that the ordinance is legally flawed since it exceeds the legislative authority of the Common Council and the mayor. Its first action will be to ask for a restraining order to keep it from being enacted while the court case proceeds. The Common Council is required to write up the rule, but it has no vote on the matter.

Milwaukee City Attorney Grant Langley met with a Common Council committee regarding the new rule and the possible ramifications of it on Tuesday.

Doug Hissom Special to
Doug Hissom has covered local and state politics for 20 years. Over the course of that time he was publisher, editor, news editor, managing editor and senior writer at the Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. He also covered education and environmental issues extensively. He ran the UWM Post in the mid-1980s, winning a Society of Professional Journalists award as best non-daily college newspaper.

An avid outdoors person he regularly takes extended paddling trips in the wilderness, preferring the hinterlands of northern Canada and Alaska. After a bet with a bunch of sailors, he paddled across Lake Michigan in a canoe.

He lives in Bay View.