A transformative moment in St. Louis County, and Wisconsin elections around the corner


In This Edition of the Political Report

The newsletter we sent out inadvertently contained some of last week’s copy. Here is the corrected version!

The Aug. 7 defeat of St. Louis County’s incumbent prosecutor, four years after Michael Brown’s shooting, is transformative for criminal justice in Missouri. But new elections are already around the corner: Sheriff races in Wisconsin—my spotlight for today—offer a stark reminder of a sheriff’s role in immigration policies and jail conditions.

  • Aug. 7 primaries: Wesley Bell ousts St. Louis County prosecutor, and more

  • Vermont: Punitive practices at issue in race for Bennington County state’s attorney

  • Wisconsin: Milwaukee votes for sheriff after David Clarke’s lengthy tenure

  • Wisconsin: Waukesha County sheriff unopposed, a year after 287(g) deal with ICE

  • Wisconsin: State’s only two ICE detention facilities draw protests, but immigration fault lines hardly translated to Kenosha and Dodge sheriff’s races

I’ll detail results of the Aug. 14 elections in the next edition. In the meantime, you can use this database to track results for the four races I profile below and of the Hennepin County, Minnesota Sheriff race I profiled three weeks ago. Keep in touch—I welcome your tips and feedback!

Aug. 7 primaries: Wesley Bell ousts St. Louis County prosecutor, and more

St. Louis County will have a new prosecuting attorney: Bob McCulloch, who has been in office since 1991, lost to Ferguson City Council Member Wesley Bell in the Democratic primary. This was his first challenge since he failed to indict the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014.

The New York Times frames Bell’s victory as part of the “broader movement to elect a new breed of prosecutor” who “run on promises to make the criminal justice system more fair to the poor, rather than typical tough-on-crime pledges.” Bell indeed ran on a platform of major criminal justice reforms, as I detailed last week. These include ending cash bail, never seeking the death penalty, supporting safe injection sites, and entrusting police misconduct investigations to an independent prosecutor. Bell also “helped establish new police accountability and court reforms in Ferguson,” Amanda Sakuma reports in a new Appeal article on Bell’s record.

There were three other elections on Aug. 7 that I profiled in past newsletters:  

  • In Platte County, Missouri, prosecuting attorney Eric Zahnd is headed toward a fifth term despite receiving a rare reprimand for prosecutorial misconduct. He easily defeated a state representative who had gone strangely absent from the campaign trail.

  • U.S. Representative Lacy Clay secured the Democratic nomination in Missouri’s First Congressional District, defeating Cori Bush, a pastor active in the 2014 Ferguson protests and subsequent organizing.

  • In Washington State’s 26th Senate District, Republican Marty McClendon and Democrat Emily Randall have moved on to face off in November’s “Top 2” runoff. Randall was targeted in July over her support for second chances.

Vermont: Punitive practices at issue in race for Bennington County State’s Attorney

“Bennington Locks Up More People Than Any Other Vermont County,” Seven Days reported in 2016. Led by State’s Attorney Erica Marthage since 2006, county prosecutors have consistently “thrown the book” at defendants, this investigation documents. Marthage’s office charged a man with murder for selling drugs that resulted in a fatal overdose, and prosecuted an incarcerated woman for helping other incarcerated people file legal briefs; the Vermont Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the latter charges. In 2013, prosecutors obtained a 10-year sentence against an African American man for first-time drug possession; when the state Supreme Court overturned this sentence, they dragged out his release. “The mantra here is punish, punish, punish,” a defense attorney told Seven Days.

Marthage is seeking a fourth term this year. In the Aug. 14 Democratic primary, she faces attorney Arnie Gottlieb. The winner will be unopposed in November’s general election.

Gottlieb frames his candidacy as a challenge to the “tough-on-crime” philosophy that he associates with Marthage. He is running on increasing the use of alternative sentencing and diversion programs, and calls for expunging past marijuana possession convictions. On the campaign trail, Marthage has presented herself as already sharing Gottlieb’s approach, rejecting the view that she is overly punitive by highlighting the diversion and restorative programs that she promotes and her work to assist people looking to expunge their criminal records.

But Marthage’s differences with Gottlieb come into view in their answers to an ACLU policy questionnaire. She rejects the premises that “prosecutors overcharge and unfairly pressure defendants into pleas,” that the bail system ought to be reformed, and that prosecutorial decisions are tied to racial disparities. Gottlieb, meanwhile, espouses a goal of cutting the county incarceration rate by 50 percent and talks of changing practices around cash bail and of ceasing the use of overcharging as leverage in plea bargaining. He also writes that he wishes to find solutions to not reincarcerate people for technical violations of strict probation and parole terms that had “set [them] up for failure,” whereas Marthage expresses satisfaction with the status quo on this issue. Moreover, a specific disagreement concerns Gottlieb’s proposal for a drug court to process drug-related offenses in a manner focused on rehabilitation; Marthage opposes it on the grounds that funds are insufficient and that it would duplicate a local organization’s programs.

Wisconsin: Milwaukee votes for sheriff after David Clarke’s lengthy tenure

Seven people died in the Milwaukee County Jail under Sheriff David Clarke’s tenure. One man died in 2016 after being denied water for seven days, and a criminal complaint later described “an institutional practice of punitively shutting off water to unruly inmates.” Clarke was also known nationally for harsh policies toward immigrants, disparaging comments toward Black Lives Matter, and his staunch support for President Trump—this, despite the fact that he was elected as a Democrat in a blue county. But Clarke resigned in 2017, and his chief deputy Richard Schmidt became acting sheriff.

Schmidt is now running for a full term. In the Democratic primary, he faces Earnell Lucas, a former police captain who now works for Major League Baseball, and Deputy Robert Ostrowski. (The primary winner faces no Republican in November.) Lucas has received the endorsements of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee County Democratic Party, and Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights group that led protests against Clarke. But Milwaukee County Executive Schmidt, the incumbent, endorsed Schmidt and is spending on his behalf.

Schmidt has distanced himself from Clarke. He asked the National Institute of Corrections to evaluate the county jail and he says that he will improve its conditions. But his share of responsibility in the abuses perpetrated at the county jail are one of this election’s defining issues. Schmidt was the county’s inspector of detention services from 2006 to 2010, at which point Clarke made him senior commander. Schmidt is named in a lawsuit filed over a death at the jail, and Lucas and Ostrowski both flag his power under Clarke. “I don’t know how anybody can be number two in any organization and not responsible for either making decisions, making recommendations or implementing those decisions,” Lucas said. Lucas attributes the jail deaths to a lack of “respect for the workers,” inadequate training, and overworking, and casts himself as a better manager.

The debate over Schmidt’s responsibility occasioned a strange confrontation in April: Clarke himself called into a radio show that was interviewing Schmidt to say that Schmidt’s efforts to blame him for the jail’s conditions were a “political cheap shot” and that Schmidt was in charge of the jail during the deaths of people detained there. Schmidt responded that he did raise concerns that “fell on deaf ears.”

Schmidt also rebuts criticism that the immigration policies of the sheriff’s office have been too severe. “We have never as an organization, ever, targeted illegal immigrants,” he said in April.  But in 2017 Clarke applied to join ICE’s 287(g) program, which deputizes local officers to act as federal immigration agents, and Schmidt did not withdraw this application when he became acting sheriff in September. ICE ended up rejecting the application in November. Like his two challengers, Schmidt has committed to not ask people in custody their immigration status. But local activists say Schmidt is honoring ICE “detainer” requests by holding individuals for the federal agency. Critics have also faulted Schmidt over recent comments regarding victims of domestic violence.

Wisconsin: Waukesha County sheriff unopposed, a year after 287(g) deal with ICE

In 2017, Sheriff Eric Severson of Waukesha County (a populous and conservative county in the Milwaukee suburbs) decided to apply for his office to join ICE’s 287(g) program. The program deputizes local law enforcement officials to act as federal immigration agents and issue “detainers” on people whom they suspect to be undocumented. ICE soon approved Severson’s application, making Waukesha the only county in Wisconsin that is part of 287(g). Severson says his office will use the program only to interrogate individuals already in its custody.

Voces de la Frontera has organized repeated protests and even a training session against Waukesha’s participation in 287(g). “Sheriff Severson is working hand-in-hand with the Trump Administration to implement mass scale policies that are traumatizing children and separating families,” said executive director Christine Neumann-Ortiz.

Severson is up for re-election this year but faces no opponent in either the GOP primary or the general election, virtually guaranteeing that he wins a second term through 2022.

Wisconsin: State’s only two ICE detention facilities draw protests, but immigration fault lines hardly translated to Kenosha and Dodge sheriff’s races

Wisconsin is home to two jails where ICE detains people: the Kenosha County Detention Center and the Dodge County Detention Facility. These jails have drawn protests, most recently a July gathering against Kenosha County’s cooperation with ICE. Immigrants detained there are often denied adequate legal representation and isolated from attorneys, ProPublica exposed in a 2017 investigation. But this system is lucrative for the two counties, which make millions of dollars a year by charging the federal government for the days that someone is detained. WisContext recently published a report on the economic incentives that such arrangements create for local law enforcement. “We are absolutely running a business, and I’m proud to say we’re running a business,” former Dodge County Sheriff Todd Nehls said during his tenure.

Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth and Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt are both seeking re-election this year, but immigration is not playing a prominent role in their races.

Kenosha County: Sheriff Beth has been supportive of his county’s relationship with ICE. Even when he voiced concern that the Trump administration could speed up deportations, he did so on the grounds that shorter detentions would hurt Kenosha County’s financial bottom-line. “It’s difficult to run a business when you don’t know what next year’s business is going to be,” he said.

Beth is unopposed in the GOP primary, but in November he will face one of two Democrats: Sgt. David Zoerner and county board member Andy Berg face off in the Aug. 14 primary. The ensuing general election could be competitive as Kenosha is a swing county.

But both Democrats suggest that they would leave Kenosha’s immigration policies largely unchanged if elected. The candidates answered a questionnaire prepared by the local group Forward Kenosha. Berg’s echoes Sheriff Beth’s stated worry for the county’s finances: “If we were to rid the KSD of ICE inmates, we would lose approx $1.5 million profit,” he writes. Berg does strike a more ambivalent tone elsewhere in the questionnaire, balancing the fear of income loss with the possibility that decreasing ICE detentions might mean a “less stressed workforce.” Zoerner does not directly address ICE detentions in his questionnaire, but he does present overall cooperation as one of the duties of his office. “I have no intention of conducting ICE raids or making arrests for ICE,” he writes, then adds “I cannot ignore my duty or responsibility to the citizens of Kenosha County, however.” In addition, both Democrats indicate support for honoring ICE detainer requests but not for joining ICE’s 287(g) program. Neither responded to my requests for comments regarding how they envision their county’s relationship with ICE.

Dodge County: Sheriff Schmidt only faces a challenger in the Aug. 14 Republican primary, Patrol Lt. Jim Ketchem. The winner will then be unopposed in November. (Dodge County, in the suburbs of Milwaukee, is staunchly Republican.) Schmidt supports maintaining his county’s relationship with ICE and wants to expand the space available to house detainees. Ketchem has criticized Schmidt over this, but primarily on the grounds of financial mismanagement: He argues that in the face of the privatization of immigration detentions, it is imprudent to assume that Dodge County will keep receiving as much revenue from ICE, and that expansion plans should therefore be reassessed.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week.