Ellen Berz (right) watches the results at her election night party at the Harmony Bar.
It's rare for an appointed judge to get challenged at election time. Rarer still for there to be a primary.
So Ellen Berz scored no small victory Tuesday night in besting Circuit Court Judge Roger Allen, who was appointed to the bench in December by Gov. Scott Walker. According to preliminary election results, Berz won 44% of the vote, Allen, 31%, and Francis Sullivan, 24%. The City Clerk's Office reports that 1,276 absentee ballots remain to be counted.
"I couldn't find, digging back through the records, the last time there had been a primary for circuit court," says Mark Clear, a city alderman and Allen's campaign manager. "And I looked back 10 years, at all the elections that are online."
Political consultant Melissa Mulliken points out that judicial primaries occurred in 2003 and 2009, but both were open seats and neither included a sitting, appointed judge.
Barry Burden, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggested Allen's showing at the polls may have been affected by the fact that he was appointed by Walker.
"Scott Walker has managed to be an issue even in this local nonpartisan judicial race," he wrote in an email.
In Milwaukee, state Administrative Law Judge Carolina Maria Stark also won more votes than did Walker's appointee, incumbent Circuit Judge Nelson Phillips III.
Branding herself as the candidate with the most experience, Berz, an assistant public defender,racked up endorsements from leading politicians including Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) and gubernatorial candidate and former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.
Allen, who most recently worked as an assistant city attorney, was endorsed by Mayor Paul Soglin, former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, the Madison City Attorney's Association and the Madison Professional Police Officers' Association.
Berz credited Dane County voters with her victory.
"Dane County voters do their homework before they vote. They have seen what happens when they don't take elections seriously. So they have researched the candidates, and concluded that I am the one with the most legal experience, trial experience, and experience fighting for justice," Berz said.
But Roger Allen interpreted the election results differently.
"I think the results are very positive. They show the majority of people in Dane County are going to vote for a judge who is non-partisan," says Allen, referring to the combined votes cast for himself and Sullivan. "There were two non-partisan candidates in this race, and one partisan candidate. [Berz] said that she's running against the Walker appointee, and that was a partisan statement. She wouldn't even call me by name, and she has known me for 20 years," Allen said.
As the candidates gear up for the general election on April 3, they both plan to stick to the strategies that have gotten them this far.
"I think we've shown that the winning strategy is to be non-partisan," Allen said. "Once the public gets to know Roger Allen, they're going to vote for Roger Allen, because I stand for what the people believe in, which is fair, non-partisan judging."
Berz said she will continue to emphasize her qualifications.
"The plan is to continue getting the word out about the marked differences in qualifications and experience," she said.
Looking to the future, Clear said the general election would be very different from the primary.
"For the general election, the universe changes," Clear said. "There will be much more attention on it than in the primary. So I think both surviving candidates will raise and spend significantly more money."
In other election results, Heidi Wegleitner was the top vote-getter in the primary for the District 2 Dane County supervisor seat. She won 72.5% of the vote, while Adam Plotkin received 16%, and Brian Bedford, 11%. Carl Chenoweth won the most votes in the District 35 Dane County Supervisory seat. He received 57% of the vote, while Paul Lawrence received 37%, and Joshua Butler, 5%. The top two in each race now move on to the general election.