In his bid for an open Dane County circuit court judge seat this April, assistant U.S. attorney Stephen Ehlke convinced just about everyone - including his successful opponent, Julie Genovese - that he was qualified for the job. Thus many people thought Gov. Jim Doyle would pick him for one of three Dane County judge vacancies caused by midterm resignations.
But it was not to be. Though Ehlke made a screening panel's initial cut from 28 to 14 applicants, Doyle ended up picking three others: former prosecutor Amy Smith, personal injury lawyer Nick McNamara and administrative law judge Peter Anderson.
By an amazing coincidence, Smith, McNamara and Anderson just happen to be the three applicants from among the 28 who gave the most money to Doyle's gubernatorial campaigns, according to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's searchable database.
In recent years, Smith has given the guv $1,525, McNamara $1,100 and Anderson $900. The next-highest donor from among the finalists was Monica Burkert-Brist, an assistant attorney general, who has given Doyle $745 - but nothing since 2001.
Of the 14 applicants eliminated in the first round, only two greased the skids for Doyle's campaigns, including administrative law judge Robert Pultz, who gave $800. (Another first-cut reject, assistant public defender Guy Mason Taylor, really blew it by giving $2,400 to Doyle's 2006 challenger, Mark Green.)
In contrast, eight of the 14 finalists, including the winners, gave money to Doyle. Among the minority who gave nothing were four strong contenders: Ehlke and assistant Dane County district attorneys Karie Cattanach, Robert Kaiser and Timothy Verhoff.
Ehlke is "disappointed" he was passed up but isn't speculating as to why. He says his campaign treasurer had thought his failure to give was a good thing, because it eliminated the appearance of a conflict.
But such concerns seem not to weigh heavily on Doyle. According to The Capital Times, he picked Smith, his top contributor, despite getting a signed letter from state public defender John Tradewell that questioned her fitness and said she "would stop at nothing to gain an advantage." Other letter writers praised Smith; it's always hard to know on what basis decisions are made.
On Friday, Dane County Judge Stuart Schwartz announced plans to retire, effective Oct. 2. It will be interesting to see who gets to fill that vacancy, and how much he or she has given the guv.