MADISON – The legal team trying to get the Green Party’s presidential ticket on the state’s ballot has close ties to Republicans and also represents Wisconsin’s counties —a group that doesn’t want the Green Party to prevail because it will force them to reprint ballots and miss deadlines.
The situation is causing some county officials to ask how lawyers they help fund can perform work that is not in their interest.
“Representing one client shouldn’t have an adverse effect on representing another client,” said Milwaukee County Supervisor Joseph Czarnezki. “I think this is a conflict.”
“It would cost counties throughout the state a small fortune to reprint all these ballots, and that’s not fair to the taxpayers.”
This month, Green Party presidential nominee Howie Hawkins asked the state Supreme Court to place him on the ballot after the Wisconsin Elections Commission declined to do so. The court on Thursday in a 4-3 order told election officials not to mail absentee ballots while it decides what to do.
The case is being closely watched because the Green Party’s presence on the ballot could affect the outcome of the presidential race in a state that Donald Trump narrowly won in 2016.
Hawkins is represented by Andrew Phillips and Matthew Thome of the Milwaukee-based law firm von Briesen & Roper. They also represent the Wisconsin Counties Association.
In a document filed in court last week, counties from across the state expressed grave concerns about the increased cost and delays adding the Green Party to the ballot would cause. State law requires election clerks to mail absentee ballots to those who have requested them by Thursday.
Czarnezki and Dane County Board Chairwoman Analiese Eicher said their counties should consider dropping their membership with the counties association in light of the Green Party case. Milwaukee and Dane counties each pay the association about $42,000 a year — more than other counties because they are the most populous.
“We shouldn’t have to be reprinting ballots because the attorney for the Wisconsin Counties Association is working with the Green Party and the Republican Party to potentially cost us thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars in reprinting ballots,” Eicher said.
Phillips and others from von Briesen did not respond Monday to questions from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Mark O’Connell, the executive director of the counties association, didn’t return emails and a phone call.
Eicher, who previously ran the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, also expressed frustration with Phillips and Thome for filing a brief this spring that sided with Republican lawmakers to help ensure the April election for state Supreme Court and local offices was held as scheduled. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had tried unsuccessfully to delay the election because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Eicher also contended advice Phillips has provided to counties on how to handle the pandemic is more in line with rural, Republican-aligned counties than urban, Democratic-aligned counties.
“It’s frustrating for (Dane County supervisors) to be part of an organization that we pay dues to that doesn’t seem to take seriously the work we have to do as counties when they’re meddling in state politics,” Eicher said.
But Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann said Phillips and his team don’t have a conflict in handling the case.
“These attorneys have a record of representing both sides of the political aisle,” he said in a statement.
Getting the right candidates on the ballot is what’s important, regardless of the cost, Schoemann said.
“Furthermore, to attack the Wisconsin Counties Association is unwarranted,” his statement said. “If counties are ordered to reprint, it is because Democrat Wisconsin Election Commission members did not follow the law.”
Elections officials kept Green Party off ballot
The Green Party was kept off the ballot when Republicans and Democrats on the Elections Commission split on what to do. The three Republicans wanted to allow the party onto the ballot, but the three Democrats didn’t because Hawkins’ running mate, Milwaukee native Angela Walker, had listed two addresses on her campaign paperwork.
Unstated during their deliberations was how the Green Party could affect the presidential contest. Democrats fear — and Republicans hope — that the Green Party would deprive Democrat Joe Biden of some votes.
In 2016, Green Party candidate Jill Stein received about 31,000 votes. That’s more than the nearly 23,000 vote margin for Trump in Wisconsin that year.
The Green Party’s legal team has links to Republicans.
Phillips was hired last year by Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee to help them sort out a long-running dispute with Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul over how to handle court settlements.
Also on the Green Party’s legal team is Jacob Curtis, who has worked for Republican former Gov. Scott Walker, Republican state Sen. Duey Stroebel of Saukville and the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. Curtis did not respond to questions Monday about why he is now working to help a party that is to the left of the Democrats.
Hawkins last week told the Washington Post, “You get help where you can find it.”
His campaign manager, Andrea Mérida Cuéllar, said the campaign never heard back from firms that were aligned with Democrats.
“We hired them because they are literally the only ones who would answer the phone,” she said by email of the Green Party’s legal team.
The court’s action on the case so far has fallen along partisan lines. The four justices backed by Republicans issued the order to halt the mailing of absentee ballots for the time being. The three justices backed by Democrats dissented.
Separately, a Brown County judge on Friday ruled rapper Kanye West could not get on Wisconsin’s ballot because his team missed a filing deadline by seconds or minutes. West, who has gotten help from Republicans, plans to take the issue to the Wisconsin Supreme Court soon, according to WisPolitics.com.
“The Republicans and the Trump campaign are actively trying to get these third-party candidates on the ballot in the hopes that it’s going to hurt Joe Biden,” said Michael Maistelman, a Milwaukee attorney who has long represented Democrats.
He said the last-minute legal fight would sow voter confusion, which he said was part of an effort by Trump to create chaos.
“Across the board they’re trying to chip away so they get within that percentage that they win,” he said.
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.