Despite historically long odds, two candidates are challenging an incumbent judge in Milwaukee County instead of running for two open circuit court seats.
Milwaukee County Judge David Hansher said the last time a sitting judge lost an election in Milwaukee was 1996 when Robert Crawford defeated Judge Russell Stamper.
Christopher Lipscomb, attorney and municipal court judge in Glendale, and Carolina Stark, administrative law judge for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, hope to end that 16-year-long streak in February when they take a shot at unseating Branch 17 Judge Nelson Phillips III.
Gov. Scott Walker appointed Phillips, who took the bench in November, to succeed Judge Francis Wasielewski, who retired Aug. 1.
Stark could not immediately be reached for comment.
Lipscomb acknowledged sitting judges are difficult to unseat, but said he believes the fact that Phillips has only been on the bench a short time diminishes his strength as an incumbent.
“He has only had a couple of months to get his name out,” Lipscomb said.
But with two more judges in Milwaukee retiring next year, there are multiple opportunities for candidates to avoid facing an incumbent.
Lipscomb said he considered running for the open seats in either Branch 23 or Branch 28, but since he only recently decided to run, Lipscomb said he didn’t want to jump into races where candidates had been campaigning for months.
The lone candidate for the Branch 28 seat is Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Mark Sanders, who formally filed his paperwork with the Government Accountability Board in June.
“It was an evaluation,” Lipscomb said. “I think my qualifications stacked up best with the Branch 17 race. With Mark, I think it was just hard to come into the race at this point.”
Sanders said he’s been campaigning for about 10 months.
“I am fully loaded and prepared to run a contested race,” he said. “I’m not taking anything for granted.”
The Branch 23 race features two lawyers, Hannah Dugan and Lindsey Grady, who have been campaigning since at least early fall.
But Lipscomb, who twice ran unsuccessfully for circuit court judge, in 2009 and 2011, said he wanted to take his chances against Phillips, in part because of his near win this spring. Lipscomb narrowly lost (48-51 percent) the April race for the Branch 18 seat to Incumbent Judge Pedro Colon, who Walker appointed to the bench in September 2010.
Phillips said he has prepared all along for challengers, but declined to comment on any advantage of being the incumbent. He also declined to speculate on why challengers would rather oppose him, instead of seek an open seat.
“I consider both of my opponents to be formidable,” Phillips said. “I am prepared to run a strong campaign to the election.”
Hansher acknowledged that it’s not unusual for challengers to oppose judges appointed on the cusp of a judicial election, especially if there are political elements involved.
In Waukesha County, Kathleen Stilling, a 2010 Doyle circuit court appointee, lost her re-election bid this spring to prosecutor Lloyd Carter.
Still, Hansher said, challengers to an incumbent don’t have history on their side.
“I don’t think it’s a perfect storm this year,” Hansher said. “But the delayed appointment by a controversial governor, it’s certainly not the standard race.”