Dark Money Conservatives Have Their Eye on Wisconsin’s Top Court. We Can Stop Them.

Former Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes on why the upcoming Wisconsin State Supreme Court election is one of the most important elections of his life—and why we should all take notice.

Mandela Barnes

Daniel Kelly (left) and Janet Protasiewicz are battling to become the next justice on Wisconsin's Supreme Court, an election that has deep implications for the state and the nation. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP and courtesy of Janet Protasiewicz website)

In a purple state like Wisconsin, every election can seem like the most important election. This April 4, however, the outcome can truly change the direction of the entire state — and could potentially have consequences for the rest of the country.

The Wisconsin State Supreme Court election will define what rights and freedoms we have as Wisconsinites for a generation, and it’s up to us to ensure that we elect a judge who values those freedoms and protects those rights. On one side is Janet Protasiewicz, backed by Democrats, who earned 446,174 votes in the February 21 primary. On the other is Daniel Kelly, backed by Republicans, who earned 232,619 votes.

The right to vote. The right to free and fair elections. The right to make our own decisions about our families, our bodies and our faith. The right to organize, to bargain and to send our kids to good schools on safe streets. The right to breathe clean air and have access to clean drinking water. During my lifetime, these very rights and freedoms have never seen attacks as blatant as they are today, and all of these rights are on the line this April.

The Dobbs decision has had a horrific impact on our state. When the decision was passed, healthcare professionals and women across our state froze. All abortion procedures were stopped and canceled from that moment on. Tragic stories ring through our state, like the woman who bled for 10 days because doctors did not have legal insight as to how they could now handle partial miscarriages. An 1849 abortion ban—written by a legislature of all white men, before women even had access to the ballot box — dictates the current day-to-day of women in our state. Of course this election is about more than just abortion, but with the Wisconsin State Supreme Court expected to hear a case on the ban, it is hard to not express just how much this law has damaged the women in our state. 

Mandela Barnes with LeVar Burton during a campaign event in 2022 in Madison, Wisconsin when he was a candidate for U.S. senate. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Our current Supreme Court has a 4-3 conservative majority — a majority conservatives have held for nearly 15 years. These conservative judges have protected radical gerrymandering of our legislative maps, disenfranchised tens of thousands of Wisconsin voters, upheld former Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union laws, defended those who pollute our air and water, and made it nearly impossible to overturn Wisconsin’s 1849 criminal ban on abortion. With one right-wing justice retiring, this is the only opportunity for Democrats to flip the court until 2026

Meanwhile, election-deniers and conservative dark money groups are doing everything in their power to protect this seat. 

I first met Protasiewicz during her 2013 campaign for Circuit Court judge. As a newly elected state representative, I helped her campaign by attending church and community events with her. I got to know her as a friend and dedicated public servant committed to integrity. 

Erin Ryan and Judge Janet Protasiewicz in live taping of "Pod Save America" on March 18, 2023 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jeff Schear/Getty Images for WisDems)

Unsurprisingly, the Republican machine has settled on Kelly, a staunch Donald Trump ally, to carry their banner and reclaim his seat on the bench — a seat he was appointed to by Walker and lost four years later, to Judge Jill Karofsky, by more than 10 points.

Kelly has been endorsed by the most extreme anti-abortion groups in our state, and he has praised former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent in Obergefell, the landmark decision recognizing marriage equality.

This election will be incredibly close, and you and your neighbors could truly tip the balance. Together, we can forge a new path for Wisconsin. One based on fairness. One based on the rule of law. One based on the core principles of freedom and fairness that have guided our state for generations. 

With the 2024 election on the horizon, this race also has national implications. If we put another election-denying politician on our court, we cannot guarantee Wisconsin will remain a battleground state. We cannot guarantee our poll results and the decisions that come out of our courts will match up.

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We may be couched comfortably in the middle of the coasts, but we are no strangers to leading the way.

As many of you know, Wisconsin was the first state to declare the Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional. We were the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment. We were the first state to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. And Wisconsin paved the way for working people to collectively bargain.

Now, we have the chance to live our state’s forward” motto yet again.

As cliché as it may be for me to say, I believe better is possible. I believe in a future for Wisconsin where hard work is rewarded, where women can make their own healthcare decisions, where we work to expand our democracy. This April 4 gives us an opportunity to usher in a new era of progress here in Wisconsin. Please get out and vote. Wisconsin — and the country — needs you.

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Mandela Barnes served as Wisconsin’s 45th lieutenant governor and was the state’s second-ever Black statewide elected official. Barnes previously served in the Wisconsin legislature, worked as an organizer and was recently the Democratic candidate in Wisconsin for U.S. Senate. He founded The Long Run PAC, which has donated and fundraised for Janet Protasiewicz’s campaign, and has personally appeared with Protasiewicz on the campaign trail. Follow him @theOtherMandela or his new initiative @longrunpac.

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