The late great journalist Jack Newfield, in his memoir Somebody's Gotta Tell It, advises that some of the best stories about boxing or politics come from hanging out with the losers after the big event. And so, on Tuesday night, I headed to Madison's to watch state Supreme Court candidate Linda Clifford go down in defeat.
It was as fated as a fight between Joe Foreman and Pee-wee Herman -- not because Clifford is a lightweight but because of the sheer volume of sucker punches thrown by her rival, Annette Ziegler, and her big-business backers, notably Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. Clifford was portrayed as a werewolf and, worse, a "Madison immigration lawyer," a deliberate distortion meant to exploit hatred of illegal aliens.
But Clifford failed to establish momentum, or match Ziegler's vast sums. Early in the night, on WTDY, John Nichols and Paul Soglin agreed Clifford had run "the worst campaign that's ever been run."
Clifford's party was a dismal affair. The snack spread sat mostly untouched and the crowd's loyalties seemed torn between the screens showing election returns and the one behind the bar carrying the Brewer game. (The Brewers won.)
Several people offered laments. "I don't care if it's the trial lawyers or WMC, but when so much money is spent on a Supreme Court race, something is wrong," one lawyer told me. Another attendee, attorney Fred Wade, wondered if the fuss over Ziegler's ethical lapses in ignoring clear conflicts worked in her favor, by building name recognition in a low-turnout race. I've heard worse theories.
Just after 10 p.m., Clifford arrived. "It is what it is," she told the gathering. "I'm disappointed in the result [and] in the fact that judicial elections are now so dominated by money." She'll continue to fight for judicial independence and the need for high ethics: "The issues are bigger than me, bigger than this race."
Afterward, Clifford was engulfed by a knot of reporters, with outstretched microphones and hand-held recorders. "How do you feel about tonight?" one TV reporter asked. "Life goes on," was part of her reply.
Then it was my turn. "Doesn't it tick you off?" I asked Clifford of the race. "Yes," she admitted. "I thought the negativity from my opponent was demeaning and juvenile. It appealed to the worst instincts among the voters."
Clifford agreed that Ziegler's tough-on-crime rhetoric played into misperceptions of what justices do (mainly civil law, for one thing). And the low turnout, she said diplomatically, "may have included voters who may not have been familiar with the role of the Supreme Court."
That was enough for my story, so I went home to write. Somebody's gotta tell it, I thought to myself.