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Race for president-elect revs up

ImageIn the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s deja vu all over again.”

A third, write-in candidate has entered the race for president-elect of the State Bar of Wisconsin, pledging to make the question of whether the bar should be a mandatory organization the centerpiece of his campaign. The move hearkens back to a similar race three years ago.

Identifying himself as a State Bar outsider, Douglas W. Kammer, of Kammer & Studinski Chartered in Portage, has jumped into the race. He is taking on the two other candidates who were tapped by the State Bar’s Nominating Committee, Thomas W. Bertz of Anderson, O’Brien, Bertz, Skrenes & Golla in Stevens Point, and Kenneth A. Knudson, of Knudson, Gee & Torniven S.C. in Superior.

It has been the bar’s practice to use a committee to search for candidates from Milwaukee in one year, Madison the next year, and elsewhere in the third year, so that the geographic concentration of lawyers in the state’s two largest cities wouldn’t prevent someone from outside them from becoming president-elect, and ultimately president, every third year.

During 2005, the last “outstate” year, Madison lawyer Steven A. Levine of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission jumped in the race as a write-in candidate, and defeated the two candidates put forth by the Nominating Committee.

Kammer says he has entered the campaign because the bar, in his opinion, has given its members “a boring race, between people cut of the same cloth.” He is running on one issue, and one issue only, he emphasizes: whether the bar should be a voluntary or mandatory organization. He prefers the former.

Kammer has a long history of opposing the intergrated bar. Notably, he was among three plaintiffs who unsuccessfully sued the state high court, the bar and its former executive director on the issue in federal court. Crosetto v. State Bar of Wisconsin, 12 F.3d 1396 (7th Cir. 1993).

Knudson, who had yet to talk to Kammer, says he does not hesitate to express dismay at Kammer’s decision to enter the race. “Frankly, I’m very concerned that this appears to be becoming a pattern, that in the year when lawyers are picked from outside of Madison or Milwaukee, a third candidate, who runs on the single platform of being opposed to a mandatory bar, gets in the race,” he says. “Common sense dictates we have a unified bar, to benefit all bar members in the state and elsewhere, and I plan to vigorously campaign on that platform.”

Meanwhile, Bertz says, “It’s my understanding, after talking to Mr. Kammer, that he is running on the single issue of being opposed to a mandatory bar, which was the seam of an earlier campaign [Levine’s] a couple of years ago. I am strongly in favor of the mandatory bar, and I would be happy to debate him about that.”

Kammer responds that, should the opportunity arise, he would probably take Bertz up on that offer.

Previously, Knudson and Bertz agreed that they would make joint appearances at events within the state’s legal community. Kammer, however, says he won’t be accompanying them, nor will he be actively campaigning.

“I’m running on the sole issue of the mandatory bar because I want this election to be a referendum on that issue. When I win, people won’t be able to say, ‘There’s no groundswell of support for the voluntary bar.’” [He nonetheless responds to Wisconsin Law Journal’s questions regarding issues raised by the other two candidates; see sidebar.]For his part, Levine says he previously committed to supporting Bertz before he knew Kammer was entering the race. “I still think Tom Bertz would make a great bar president, but on this issue, I still support a voluntary bar.

“The difference between this race, and when I ran, is I raised a whole smörgåsbord of issues, one of which was the voluntary bar, to get support from a number of groups. So, in effect, this will be a pure election on the question. … I’ve been trying to get the bar to hold a referendum on it for the last three years. The last time I brought it up, the Executive Committee would not even vote to put it on the agenda for the Board of Governors.”

What Distinguishes the Candidates

The obvious and most stark distinction between Kammer and the other two candidates is their views on the mandatory bar. In addition, Kammer has no experience with leadership positions within the State Bar, although he does point to previous, lengthy tenure on the board of directors of the Wisconsin Association for Justice, formerly the Wisconsin Academy of Trial Lawyers.

As for Bertz and Knudson, Bertz is currently a member of the Board of Governors and the Executive Committee, while Knudson recently completed two two-year terms on the Board of Governors and two years on the Executive Committee.

Of the two candidates who favor an integrated bar, Bertz says that what makes him uniquely qualified to be president-elect is his leadership experience with other bar associations. He served as president of the Western District of Wisconsin Bar Association in 2001 and 2002, and used that experience to help the architects of the Eastern District of Wisconsin Bar Association set up its organization. He additionally served as president of the Wisconsin Association of Worker’s Compensation Attorneys in 2006. Also, he has experience in the lawyer discipline system, having served on the Office of Lawyer Regulation’s Preliminary Review Committee from 2000-06.

As for Knudson, he says, “I think I bring a perspective from way up north. There hasn’t been a bar president from Superior for over 50 years. I’ll take a common-sense approach to the needs of the bar and lawyers, and I think its good to have a lawyer from north of Highway 29 take on the job from time to time.

“What [Bertz] has that I don’t, are the connections of working with two former bar presidents, in a more centrally located and bigger firm. Stevens Point, to me, is way down south (laughs).”

Knudson additionally points to his volunteerism as his strongest qualification for the office. Specifically, in 1977, he and a local high school teacher developed a mock trial program in Superior, that became the model for the bar’s mock trial program, now celebrating its 25th anniversary. He has been involved in the program throughout, in one way or another.

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