Published April 6, 2023 at 7:30 p.m. CDT.
By Steve Schuster
Republican Rep. Dan Knodl’s 11th-hour victory in Wisconsin’s 8th Senate District over Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin has resulted in a supermajority by Wisconsin Republicans — meaning the GOP will soon control the Wisconsin Senate.
Knodl narrowly won the race by 1,296 votes in what Democrats say is a heavily gerrymandered district that includes the North Shore communities of Milwaukee County, as well as rural Washington County, including Richfield. The race was so close the Associated Press did not call the winner until Wednesday morning.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder told the Wisconsin Law Journal during an interview last weekend that Wisconsin’s 8th Senate District is extremely gerrymandered by then-Gov. Scott Walker back in 2011. Holder said, it’s a “tough district,” to win for Democrats because of the gerrymandering. The result? Twelve years after Walker’s redrawing of political districts, Wisconsin Republicans now control 22 of the Senate’s 33 seats.
As previously reported by the Wisconsin Law Journal, during an interview with right-leaning Wisconsin Right Now, Knodl said if he is wins the election he believes the Wisconsin Constitution would give Republicans the power to use the Senate as a trial court to “convict” and “impeach” Democrats throughout the state.
Knodl said if elected he would consider removal of Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz through impeachment proceedings. The Republican-controlled Legislature unsuccessfully previously attempted to remove Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm from office.
Republican Sen. Duey Stroebel told the New York Times it’s “certainly not impossible” to impeach Protasiewicz, although unlikely.
Republican Sen. Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu told WISN-TV “we’re not going to use impeachments to overturn elections or anything like that. To impeach someone they would need to do something very serious, so no, we are not looking to start the impeachment process as a regular occurring event in Wisconsin.”
Eric Toney, who is the District Attorney for Fond Du Lac County and also President of the Wisconsin District Attorney’s Association, told the Wisconsin Law Journal Thursday that he has not heard of any rumblings within the Wisconsin Assembly about impeaching Protasiewicz for differences in political opinions, nor would he support that personally.
“What we are seeing here is nothing more than political rhetoric. Impeachment should only be used for corrupt conduct, crimes and misdemeanors,” Toney said.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm echoed very similar words during an earlier interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal.
Impeachment should be taken seriously and used only “for corrupt conduct or commission of a crime or misdemeanor,” Chisholm said.
Toney said it’s important for Wisconsinites to remain focused on important issues impacting the Badger State.
“What I think we saw from the election results is that voters are focused on issues and solutions,” Toney said.
There are a lot of opportunities to work across party lines, said Patrick Guarasci, Protasiewicz campaign’s General Consultant.
“We have a lot that we can work together on, that’s what (Protasiewicz) should do,” Guarasci said.
Guarasci said he suspects there are a number of Republicans who would like to work with Democrats to serve the best interest of all Wisconsinites. However, “fringe” extremists in the Republican party have ruined it for the more moderate and traditional Republicans to the point of losing multiple elections for the entire GOP.
“The GOP should listen to the voters and the will of the people. Voters have resoundingly said they not only want Janet Protasiewicz on the Supreme Court, but (voters) also resoundingly rejected far right wing agendas that for some reason some Republicans can’t let go of, but know they need to … ” Guarasci said.
Still, Knodl says the thought of impeachment is well within his radar and soon to be within his party’s power.
“Wisconsin Constitution Article 7 … to complete an impeachment it starts in the House, in this case the Assembly, with a simple majority so that would be the moving body initially to bring forward impeachment proceedings and the Senate would act as the trial court but needs a 2/3 majority to convict or to actually impeach, so this seat would be that … 22nd Republican senator to have the 2/3 majority so that is … authority that comes to us only with those numbers in place,” Knodl said.
“Dan Knodl has made clear that his first order of business, if elected as the District’s next state senator, will be to use his position to launch impeachment proceedings against an unspecified number of local and state elected officials — essentially a politically-driven witch hunt,” Habush Sinykin said during an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal last week.
“What this will surely do is throw Wisconsin into a state of legal chaos and even more partisan dysfunction. As I have heard from voters across the District, Knodl’s impeachment aspirations are the exact opposite of what Wisconsin citizens are seeking, which is legislators’ attention to the pressing concerns facing our state — women’s health care access, the need for tax relief and the wellbeing and safety of our communities,” Habush Sinykin added.
Chisholm said impeachment for political differences are undemocratic.
“Anyone who believes in the democratic process should be concerned by (Knodl’s impeachment plans),” Chisholm said.
“I think (Extremist Republicans) would be insane to impeach Janet Protasiewicz … If they try, they will fail and it will cause a lot of damage,” Guarasci said.
During an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal last week, Chisholm also said, “You should certainly pause before you’re going to use an authority (to impeach) that hasn’t been used in nearly 170 years.”
Chishom was referring to the impeachment of Levi Hubbell in the 1850s. He remained a circuit court judge but was impeached and acquitted by the Wisconsin State Legislature on charges of corruption. He later became a U.S. attorney.
Chisholm said impeachment of a circuit court judge should only be used in special cases and even if that occurred, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would tap the replacement.
Chisholm said that Knodl’s consideration of impeachment, “doesn’t conform with any understanding of how democracy should work.”
“This should concern everyone. (Knodl’s consideration of impeachment) is even worse when directed at a candidate for supreme court when she is a sitting circuit court judge,” Chisholm said.
“Then what would stop Evers from removing Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington County district attorneys for solely political purposes? As soon as you start down this path, you are opening this can of worms up,” Chisholm added.
An elected official serving in Congress, statewide office, judicial office or county office may be recalled for any reason. However, a local elected official may only be recalled for a reason related to his or her official responsibilities, according to a Wisconsin Legislative Council memorandum.
Impeachment requires both houses and is somewhat similar to the federal process. In Wisconsin, the Assembly impeaches and the Senate has the trial. But should the Wisconsin Senate act as a trial court?
Losing Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Dan Kelly has repeatedly said the role of a jurist in a courtroom is not to make laws and is very separate and distinct from the role of a legislator who should only be drafting bills.
“I want to remind the people of Wisconsin these different institutions serve entirely different and distinct functions,” Kelly said during a Milwaukee Press Club luncheon March 14.
Others agreed that the Legislature should not be mixed up with the role of the courts.
“This is just another attempt by Wisconsin Republicans to restrict voting rights,” said Johns Hopkins University Political Science Professor Matthew Crenson during an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal on Friday.
Crenson said, “The very idea that (Knodl) would have mass impeachments reflects what’s going on with the nation at-large, traditionally this has never happened and usually the supreme court should be above politics too.”
A spokesperson with Wisconsin Sen. Chris Larson’s office told the Wisconsin Law Journal during an interview last week that Sen. Larson’s office has researched the consequences of Republican’s having a two-thirds majority control of the Senate.
“Each body of the Legislature has the ability to expel any of its members with a 2/3 majority vote. The Senate in particular currently has no rules governing how they arrive at the decision to expel, it’s a purely political process,” the spokesperson said.
Regarding Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, “I had called for (Chisholm’s) resignation many, many months ago, and he’s not going to resign, the voters have not felt enough pain yet to bounce him out of office,” Knodl said.
According to the Milwaukee County Elections Commission, Chisholm received 336,608 votes in the 2020 election. His opponent received only 8,092 votes.
Losing Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michaels had called for the removal of Chisholm on day one of office, despite an overwhelming majority of voters showing their support for Chisholm as evidenced by the 2020 election results.
When Knodl was asked about the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporting that he would impeach Protasiewicz if she is elected to the Supreme Court, he said that’s false because he doesn’t know what Protasiewicz has done yet on the Supreme Court since she hasn’t been elected.
“That’s moot,” Knodl said, noting that he would consider impeaching Protasiewicz as Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge.
“I was referring to her current position as a Circuit Court judge, that she has been derelicting her duties and I think that impeachment could be considered,” Knodl said.
So why is Knodl even talking about impeaching Protasiewicz?
“You have a senate district gerrymandered to the hilt … and you have Dan (Knodl) behaving like a very nervous man,” Chisholm said.
Crenson called Knodl’s impeachment plan counterproductive for Republicans.
“(Knodl) may be digging himself a hole by taking such extreme positions and threatening office holders who are elected by Democrats.” Crenson said.
“This will trigger a much wider turnout by Democrats at the polls,” Crenson added.
And it did.
Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz defeated Kelly by double digits Tuesday night.
Knodel graduated from Menomonee Falls East High School, but did not graduate from college. However, according to his website, he ran a successful ice cream and concessions food truck while in high school. Knodel was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 2008 and made headlines for his efforts to delay, if not overturn, the 2020 presidential election. On Jan 5, 2021, Knodl and 14 other Republican Wisconsin lawmakers joined 74 other Republicans from other battleground states in a signed letter to then-Vice President Mike Pence asking him to delay certification of the 2020 United States presidential election. In the letter, they claimed “The 2020 election witnessed an unprecedented and admitted defiance of state law and procedural irregularities raising questions about the validity of hundreds of thousands of ballots.”
Knodl declined an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal, as well as other non-partisan media outlets in Wisconsin.