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‘Clean’ versus ‘honest’


What is the difference between a clean campaign and an honest campaign?

That is the seemingly arbitrary issue currently being sorted out by Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Linda M. Clifford and Judge Annette K. Ziegler.

Since advancing through the Feb. 20 primary election, the two have swapped several campaign conduct resolutions, which have called for regulation of negative advertising from outside interests.

But according to University of Wisconsin political science Pro-fessor Charles Franklin, that is one of the aspects the candidates have little control over, especially in a non-partisan election.

“One of the traps of a clean campaign pledge is that once an outside group has actively advertised, there is very little a candidate can do to control them,” said Franklin. “The Supreme Court candidates are in a unique situation, because they can’t talk about the issues, so invariably, special interest groups will pump money into promoting one candidate or the other.”

Prior to the primary election, Clifford chided Ziegler for her reluctance to disavow negative comments contained in a letter released early in the campaign.

The state’s largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufac-turers & Commerce, a supporter of Ziegler, also labeled Clifford as an advocate of “judicial activism.”

Ziegler hoped to wipe the slate clean with her initial “clean campaign pledge” issued the day after the primary. The proposal called for the candidates to “refrain from negative attacks on each other” and “request that independent organizations refrain from running negative attack ads aimed at defeating either one of the candidates.”

Clifford called the pledge “disingenuous” in light of what had already transpired, and days later responded with her version — an “honest campaign pledge.” In it, she asked that factual support be posted on an opponent’s Web site within 24 hours of a campaign or third party advertisement. If not, she requested that the content be repudiated.

“The real issue that needs to be addressed is the potential for campaigns and third party groups to produce ads or literature with claims that are untrue,” said Clifford. “False accusations have no place in elections, especially Supreme Court elections.”

Franklin agreed, but noted that the candidates really cannot regulate what outside groups advertise, nor may they always want to.

“There is some hypocrisy because a candidate can come out and say, I didn’t say that, but by then, it’s already on television or on the radio or in print,” said Franklin. “They can disavow outside ads on their Web site or wherever, but more people are likely going to see the ad than read the disavowment.”


Franklin did not insinuate that any publicity is good publicity, especially for two people vying for a seat on the state’s highest court. Rather, whichever candidate can effectively manage ads produced outside the campaign, will likely have the best chance to succeed.

Thus far, Ziegler is the only candidate to have television and radio ads.

“I’d be happy to provide any necessary documentation to back up any claim my campaign makes; however, I have no interest in defending the actions of any independent groups — especially ones that seem to exist only to run negative ad campaigns,” said Ziegler in her letter to Clifford.

That reluctance prompted Clifford to sign her “honest” pledge and Ziegler to hold steadfast to the stipulations in hers.

“This sort of strange activity tends to show up in campaigns like these where voters are not paying much attention yet and the candidates are officially non-partisan,” said Barry C. Burden, political science professor at UW-Madison, who suggested each candidate wanted to publicly appear to be taking the high road. “Clifford was also not quite prepared for Ziegler’s aggressive tactics just before the primary.

Now that Clifford has responded with a more genuine promise of her own, hopefully the rest of the campaign will turn to other matters.”

Historically, Supreme Court candidates focus their time and money on promoting their qualifications and experience as state law prohibits them from taking stances on issues. This year should be no different, but voters can expect an injection of ads funded by interest groups.

“State law prohibits Supreme Court candidates from taking clear stands or affiliating with parties, but issue groups and parties are the ones who fund and staff campaigns,” said Burden. “This contradiction makes it difficult to run a campaign when perhaps $1 million will be required and the campaign season is short. Judicial ra
ces tend to be about perceived competence and independence, so attacking an opponent’s character is a natural step to take.”

Despite the candidates’ best public efforts to shield their constituency from negative advertisements; those may be what resonate most with voters.

“It’s a low information environment and it may be tough for voters to ferret out the details of each candidate,” said Franklin. “Most voters come in with a partisan ideology or a belief system and it’s hard to match those up in a Supreme Court race.”

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